Even those without nostalgia for the cold war will admit that it had some moderating elements. For more than a half-century the character of the bi-polar Soviet-American confrontation protected Europe and North America from conflict. For the most part, violence and danger were relegated to regions where confrontation was not direct. The major fighting was in Asia, and never really threatened to escalate to global war. The only dangers of such escalation, apart from some heart-stopping moments around Berlin, were in Cuba, where Soviet Prime Minister Khrushchev tried to install nuclear weapons in 1962, and in the Middle East, when the United States and the Soviet Union went on nuclear alert following the 1973 Egyptian-Israeli war.

In contrast to the first half of the twentieth century, with its two devastating world wars, the cold war period was marked by a stable, if tense, equilibrium. This equilibrium had a suppressive effect on ethnic tensions in Europe. The exigencies of World War II, followed by armed peace, made it easier for Josef Stalin and his successors to subdue the restive nations of the Soviet Union and intimidate the Eastern European appendages of the Soviet empire. In Yugoslavia, where over half a million Yugoslavs had been killed by their own countrymen during the war, Marshal Tito balanced off local ethnic groups, imprisoning nationalists who violated the doctrine of “brotherhood and unity.” In neither the Soviet nor the Yugoslav case, however, did the rulers “solve” the ethnic problem; as soon as the respective regimes weakened, ethnic conflicts again arose to help destroy them.

Nor was the Western camp conspicuously successful in treating its ethnic problems during the cold war. The membership of Greece and Turkey in NATO failed to prevent their war over Cyprus. And fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland began in 1969, and intermittently continued for twenty-nine years.

In the rest of the world, contrary to common wisdom, the cold war probably had more of a provocative effect on local tensions than a pacifying one. In some cases great power competition prolonged conflicts which had begun as a result of decolonization, as in the long-running and murderous civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, and in Vietnam as well. In other cases ethnic war became a test of will between the Soviet Union and the United States, as in Afghanistan, or was stimulated for ideological reasons, as with the Reagan administration’s support of Miskito Indians in Nicaragua.

In still other cases ethnic warfare, never absent from human history, erupted and continued with little interest or influence from the great powers. Major bloodletting between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi began in the 1960s and 1970s without much outside help or interference. And the world’s most savage current civil war, in Sudan, has been raging off and on, with minimal international concern, since the 1950s.

While the bipolar rivalry of the cold war failed to limit ethnic conflict, it did freeze most of the effective international responses to it. The two superpowers tended to police their own spheres, and each wielded a UN Security Council veto to keep trespassers out. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union participated to any large extent in UN peacekeeping operations. The traditional recognition of claims to sovereignty, the last refuge of third world dictators, meant that most international interventions were in conflicts between states, not within them.

UN rules ensured that intervention, when it came, would always be late. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ministered to uprooted populations only after they had crossed a border to a safe neighboring country. There were extensive rescue operations, like that of the Vietnamese boat people after the defeat of South Vietnam in 1975, but millions around the globe who had failed to escape their countries were left without any help or protection. UN peacekeepers—untrained, without a clear mandate, and unarmed for combat—entered a conflict only after it had ended, and then only with the consent of the warring parties (as with the UN peacekeeping forces that have been stationed on the Syria-Israel border for some twenty years).

The early 1990s brought an increase in both the number and character of ethnic wars. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict has counted in the decade of the 1990s thirty-eight conflicts resulting in at least one thousand deaths in any one year. Almost all of them have been internal rather than international conflicts. At present writing there are no significant wars between states; all wars today happen to be civil wars.1 The volume of killing is high. Nearly one million people have been killed in Rwanda, a human disaster comparable to the ones in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Probably well over 100,000 have died in Bosnia, a large number by European standards—fewer than 4,000 died, for example, in the twenty-nine years of conflict in Northern Ireland.


The structural stability of states, which had seemed firm during the cold war, has weakened. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have been destroyed. Czechoslovakia has been divided. Saddam Hussein tried, unsuccessfully, to strike Kuwait from the map. The government of Somalia is barely functioning.

The rush of events gave the nations of what is loosely called “the international community”—a phrase not in much use before 1990—little time to respond. Their conservative and risk-averse approach to ethnic warfare proved dangerously irrelevant in the mountains of Iraq and Bosnia. A broader philosophy and a more dynamic strategy became urgently needed. Miraculously, they were found. Almost unnoticed, a new approach to intervention had incrementally appeared in the past two decades—the view that the international community has the right, indeed the responsibility, to concern itself with human rights within states.

With the growing acceptance of this concept in international law and politics, no tyrant guilty of human rights violations against his citizens, no ethnic civil war with its inevitable atrocities, was any longer entirely outside the scope of the world’s scrutiny or action. The strategic reflection of this slow-motion revolution came after the Gulf War in 1991, when the UN Security Council passed a resolution (688) to protect Iraq’s Kurdish population. It made possible a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, effectively depriving Saddam Hussein of sovereignty over part of his own country.

We are now in a new global situation, where ethnic warfare dwarfs most other problems, where conflict within states is as important as conflicts between them, where states are themselves crumbling or collapsing with appalling human consequences, where cold war restraints on action by UN members have been lifted, where the Security Council is no longer immobilized but is expected to act, and where the UN’s capacity for peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention limps behind the accelerating challenges. In the last decade hundreds of scholars and public officials have poured forth books and monographs on ethnic conflict and how to deal with this galaxy of new problems. Few have probed more deeply than Michael Ignatieff.


Ignatieff himself is something of an advertisement for the values of genetic, residential, and ambulatory diversity. A Canadian of Russian background, he lives in London, and has studied and taught at the University of Toronto, Harvard, Cambridge, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, and the University of California at Berkeley. In the early 1990s he traveled to Yugoslavia, Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland to explore and define what he called the “new nationalism.”

The result of these journeys was a television series and a finely written book, Blood and Belonging, which contrasted civic nationalism (the belief that a society is held together by law rather than common ethnic roots) with ethnic nationalism (the assertion that a person’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen, and that the national community defines the person, not vice versa). “Wherever I went, I found a struggle going on between those who still believe that a nation should be a home to all, and race, color, religion, and creed should be no bar to belonging, and those who want their nation to be home only to their own.”

In Blood and Belonging Ignatieff explained how ethnic nationalism works, and he warned of its dangers for individual liberties. In The Warrior’s Honor he has widened the scope of his travels (to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, and Afghanistan), his analysis, and his alarm. The book is a collection of essays, not always closely connected, which combine superior reporting with provocative and troubling insights on the violent world we have inherited from the cold war. Ignatieff concentrates on two groups. First are the ethnic irregulars—“paramilitaries, guerrillas, militias, and warlords”—for whom savage warfare is a way of life. Second are the “Westerners who make the misery of strangers their business: …aid workers, reporters, lawyers for war crimes tribunals, human rights observers.”

For Ignatieff the “warrior’s honor,” the traditional code which implied general acceptance of rules of war, is fast disappearing—a relic of an earlier time when war between states was the norm. The irregulars who typically fight ethnic wars ignore human rights, adhere to no standards of warfare, and rarely come under the discipline of states. The result is a descent into excessive violence, barbarism, and genocide.

Ignatieff succinctly describes how ethnic cleansing—a typical aspect of this kind of warfare—becomes self-reinforcing. For the victors it “eradicates the accusing truth of the past.” The victims have fled; nobody is left “to remind the winners that someone else once owned these houses, worshipped here, buried their dead in this ground.” For the victims there is a parallel transformation. They “have lost the sites that validate their version of the truth. They can no longer point to their homes, their houses of worship, their graves, for those places are gone.”


Could vanished codes of honor and restraint be revived? One answer for Ignatieff is to recreate functioning states, in order “to secure to a single authority the monopoly over the legitimate use of force.” He is of course right—if, that is, the state in question is willing to use force legitimately. But he underrates the degree to which states are themselves guilty of the very violence he deplores, and act as instruments for dictatorship as well as for the rule of law. Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic are so dangerous because they control the police and armies of their respective states. If they were merely warlords, their characters would be as evil but their power would be less.

Ignatieff is at his best in describing the nationalism that motivates ethnic warriors. He recounts a conversation in a farmhouse in eastern Croatia with a Serbian irregular, whom he asks to explain his hatred of Croats. He gets three answers. First, these are Serbian cigarettes; over there they smoke Croatian cigarettes. Second (after troubled reflection), Croats think they’re better than us; they want to be gentlemen; they think they’re fancy Europeans. Third (this time, after no pause), we’re all just Balkan shit.

These three stages of revelation (we’re completely different; they think they’re better; we’re both the same) became the occasion for some perceptive reflections by Ignatieff about identity. The Serbian soldier may have doubts about his national identity, but the racist propaganda dinned at him silences those doubts. So does the mortar fire from the Croatian side: “He lives in a community of fear, united in hatred against another community of fear.” To his enemies “he is only a Serb, not a neighbor, not a friend, not a Yugoslav, not a former teammate at the football club. And because he is only a Serb to his enemies, he has become only a Serb to himself.” Nationalism, says Ignatieff, “does not simply ‘express’ a preexistent identity: it ‘constitutes’ a new one.”

This small masterpiece of descriptive analysis explodes Samuel Huntington’s contention that the major conflicts of our time occur on the fault lines between civilizations. Huntington argues that Serbs and Croats sit astride just such a fault line; Croats are Roman Catholic, with a Western Habsburg history, whereas Serbs are Orthodox, with an Eastern Ottoman history.2 But the larger reality is that they are ethnically similar, if not precisely the same. Their dispute is internecine, not a conflict between civilizations. The reason that the Serbian foot soldier couldn’t come up with significant differences is that there aren’t any. This should not be surprising when we remember that ethnic conflicts in today’s world are overwhelmingly internal. In fact, there is strong reason to believe that, in many cases, it is their similarities rather than their differences that make people fight.

Charles Dickens, writing about the Wars of the Roses in England, observed: “When men unnaturally fight against their own countrymen, they are always observed to be more unnaturally cruel and filled with rage than they are against any other enemy.”3 Sigmund Freud noted from his clinical practice that “it is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them.”4 Freud memorably called this phenomenon “the narcissism of minor difference,” and Ignatieff sees it as the key to the ethnic warfare of our time.

Drawing on genetic research, Ignatieff points out that significant variations in the distribution of intellectual, cognitive, and moral ability do not distinguish ethnic groups; these differences are minor. Real variations appear among persons within those groups. Yet feelings of intolerance, the fuel of nationalism, are directed toward despised groups and ignore the individuality of persons within those groups. “Intolerance,” Ignatieff writes, “…is a willed refusal to focus on individual difference, and a perverse insistence that individual identity be subsumed in the group.” As an antidote, he offers a “fiction” to live by—that human similarity is primary and difference is secondary. He pleads for helping people to see themselves as individuals and then to see others as such. For him this is the function of a liberal society.


If ethnic warfare has changed in both character and importance since the disappearance of the nuclear threat, so also has the West’s perception of it. Ignatieff cites three principal reasons for this. First, the growing scope and immediacy of television news have brought us face to face with human misery, intensifying whatever feeling we may have of guilt and remorse. Second, communications and logistical advances have made it more possible for government and humanitarian organizations to do something fairly quickly about the disasters we see. And third, we have become aware of vast unused resources—grain, medicines, know-how—that can be brought into play to relieve misery. Ignatieff acutely analyzes the effects of television. More than any other medium, it breaks down the barriers that once divided our moral space into those we were responsible for (our kith and kin) and those beyond our ken. But it also “makes us voyeurs of the suffering of others, tourists amid their landscapes of anguish.”

Ignatieff is critical of how television worships and misuses power. Its gaze is “brief, intense, and promiscuous.” Thus it ignores crises until they acquire visual appeal, and abandons them when other crises arise elsewhere. With its “cruel mime of immediacy” it exposes, but fails to bridge, the chasm between suffering and responses to it. The claim of the stranger—the victim on the TV screen—remains “the furthest planet in the solar system of our moral obligations.” For Ignatieff, television news is for the most part artificial, banal, and uninformative, “a market in images of horror.”

As a corrective he somewhat optimistically proposes more documentary programs as well as a change in the definition of newsworthiness to permit coverage at the stage when war might be prevented, “before the ambulances arrive.” His point has not been wholly ignored by the press and television—Kosovo has been on the edge of violence for nearly a decade and has been the subject of more than a few knowledgeable reports. Moreover, many ethnic conflicts are difficult to foresee, and it may be asking too much to expect the press to do a better job of prediction than governments. Still, Ignatieff’s criticisms are well taken. Television “has become the principal mediation between the suffering of strangers and the consciences of those in the world’s few remaining zones of safety.” It should not be allowed to escape the moral consequences of its power.

More surprisingly, Ignatieff is also tough on humanitarian organizations and on the governments and people associated with them. Some condescension creeps into his reference to “Westerners who make the misery of strangers their business.” He questions actions and motives. In Ignatieff’s very broad indictment, we in the West tend to lack the stamina necessary for intervention, and we don’t follow through on the interventions we do undertake: we didn’t depose Saddam Hussein or take on Bosnia as an international protectorate. Our motives leading to the Dayton agreement are political and geostrategic, not moral.

Indeed, Ignatieff suggests that the reluctance of Western politicians and their constituencies to help victims may be turning into an active repugnance, a feeling that torn societies are at fault for failing to cure themselves. After first insisting on the blamelessness of victims, Western political leaders and commentators become disdainful when, as with the Kurds, they seek help from our adversaries. Perhaps, Ignatieff suggests, Western governments and some supporters of humanitarian causes are driven to some degree by narcissism—we intervene not so much to save others as to save our own image as defenders of universal decencies. In fact, the entire idea of humanitarian intervention may be flawed. In some cases, as with the international aid that came under the control of the gangs of Rwandan Hutus who dominated refugee camps in the Congo, it may prolong war and produce only ephemeral peace. For Ignatieff this is liberal internationalism at the end of its tether.

These are powerful and largely valid reproofs, and Ignatieff’s manifest belief in helping the dispossessed makes his criticisms all the stronger. But I wonder if a certain moral fatigue on his own part hasn’t made him overly pessimistic. Humanitarian activists face more challenges and ethnic dilemmas than they did during the cold war, but that is mainly because they have made their work more comprehensive and more dangerous. Until recently, the only organization that consistently propelled itself into the heart of battle was the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a courageous group largely composed of white Swiss males who do their work with a remarkable lack of self-congratulation. These shock troops of humanitarian relief have tended the war wounded under fire since their founding after the Battle of Solferino in 1859.

It was not until the Bosnian war in 1992 that the largest refugee organization, the UNHCR, made the fateful decision to put its people into an active conflict in order to assist Bosnians displaced within their own country. The High Commissioner, Sadako Ogata, a Japanese scholar and diplomat, was responsible for that decision, which transformed the fundamental character and scope of humanitarian assistance.

Mrs. Ogata’s revolution meant that the unarmed relief workers from UNHCR and the organizations which followed its lead had to be protected and assisted in their delivery missions. Such protection was the original and primary function of the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. In fact, the humanitarian element—though not the other elements—of the Western approach in Bosnia was an unacknowledged success. Few Bosnians died of hunger or exposure.

But Ignatieff’s moral dilemma intrudes: Didn’t the very success of the humanitarian operations keep the war going by saving lives that might ultimately have been lost in the fighting, and in the massacres that accompanied it? Yes, probably, but this should be seen as a criticism of the West’s failure to intervene earlier in Bosnia with military force, not of its support for humanitarian efforts. If there had been no humanitarian relief—if Mrs. Ogata had stuck to the traditional approach—the Serbs would probably have overrun Bosnia quickly, “cleansed” and killed at will, and staked out a territory far larger than what they got at Dayton.

Ignatieff denigrates many of the organized efforts to protect human rights as either cynical or ineffective. Rhetorical moralism is worthy of his scorn, but the motives of states and citizens tend to be complex. There was genuine humanitarian concern for the Kurds in Iraq and the Muslims in Bosnia, and it had an effect on international policies which also had geostrategic motives. Ignatieff finds official complaints about human rights abuses useless against such brutal paramilitary fighters as the Serb militias. He is only half right. It would, of course, be naive to expect warlords to be democrats, but they can be weakened when publicity about their violation of rights is combined with political pressure and the threat and use of force. Having been indicted as war criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic appear to have been effectively neutralized by such a combination. Saddam Hussein, at least for the present, is less threatening to his people and his neighbors because the United States has kept up moral and military pressure on him.

Ignatieff is also overly gloomy about the effect of modern weapons such as advanced aircraft and guided missiles; because they increase the distance, “both moral and geographic,” between the warrior and his prey, he sees them as assisting atrocities. But the reverse can also be true; the accuracy of NATO’s fighter-bombers and Tomahawk missiles in the 1995 attack on Serb installations helped to end the Bosnian war.

The challenges posed by ethnic conflict are undoubtedly greater now than before. The conflicts are more visible because of television. The exigencies of the cold war can no longer be used to conceal or dismiss them. And the problems posed by them are daunting in their complexity and expense. The start that has been made, principally in Iraq and Bosnia, in addressing them is seriously flawed. Much of the death and suffering that took place in Rwanda might have been avoided by concerted international action. But some governments are finally beginning to recognize that more comprehensive, intrusive, and coordinated approaches are required. When he discusses the actual strategies of rescuing people, Ignatieff himself seems to shed his momentary despair and devote himself to the proposition that initiatives can and should be taken.


Persisting ethnic conflicts require a global strategy that is comprehensive in two important ways. First, if a conflict merits international intervention at all, then that intervention should be continuously available—at the time when a conflict might be prevented; when a conflict breaks out, prevention having failed; and, finally, in the period following the fighting. Such a policy obviously requires a much longer-term commitment than the United States and others have been willing to make. The ferocity of ethnic conflicts will not yield to the tardy, episodic, and inconstant approach that the US and its allies followed, for example, in Bosnia. Talk of “exit strategies” is congenial to ethnic warriors, who need only await the exit.

Moreover, as we have learned in the Arab-Israeli dispute, are learning in Bosnia and Iraq, and may have to learn in Northern Ireland, the period following a widespread conflict poses the greatest risk to the objectives for which intervention was undertaken in the first place. This is especially true where sharp ethnic hostilities persist during a postwar settlement.

Second, a comprehensive strategy must consider using all available means of intervention and using them together—political, military, humanitarian, and economic. International action failed in both Somalia and Bosnia because it was limited at first to what was considered the least risky instrument—humanitarian aid. The need to stop the fighting or maintain a temporary truce was not addressed seriously. The use of force may not be necessary in all cases, but a purely humanitarian approach is unlikely to deter the savage warriors Ignatieff describes.

In the postwar phase, political pressures and economic aid may assume greater importance; nevertheless, to use them successfully may require the continued threat of force. Ignatieff rightly argues that withdrawal of the NATO contingent from Bosnia could well mean a renewed war. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein would not have agreed in March to intrusive weapons inspections if the threat of air strikes had not weighed on him.

These considerations of strategy lead to the broader issue of purpose. Ethnic warriors almost always claim the right of self-determination. Should the US and other nations encourage the breakup of states, or seek to prevent it? Partition as a universal solution to ethnic warfare has become a fashionable academic topic, but the real world contains few places where it will work.

Ignatieff, who is agnostic on this question, favors secession if there is a history of bad blood, if the territory claimed is defensible and has a workable economy, and if the seceding party guarantees minority rights of those remaining. Not many states emerging from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia would have met those conditions. At least the former Soviet states, unlike the former Yugoslav ones, had clear claims to independence based on their earlier involuntary incorporation into a totalitarian and Russian-controlled dictatorship.

The real arguments against partition are that it is usually violent (as the division of India was), that it would often require forcible ethnic cleansing (if Bosnia were partitioned, at least 200,000 people would be moved against their will), and that it would probably solidify regimes based on ethnic supremacy and apartheid. With few exceptions, therefore, partition ought to be treated as a last resort.

The only plausible alternative to partition—indeed, the only way to prevent ethnic conflict—is to promote ethnic tolerance. For all his wise analysis of the factors that divide people, Ignatieff doesn’t consider this a hopeless illusion. Politically, he sees the need, as has been said, to revive the sovereignty of states as a way to legitimize authority and force. He might also have mentioned that, unless the state can win respect as a protector of civic values and human rights in a divided society, the negative appeal of ethnic nationalism is likely to dominate. He sees the importance of reconciliation, but the realist in him knows how hard it is to achieve. He has little faith in truth commissions, war crimes trials, or other forms of outside “justice,” doubting they will be credible to the ethnic parties and thus able to heal.

In place of such false reconciliation, Ignatieff sees the need to break the cycles of violence that pass from generation to generation and to disprove the belief that crimes committed in the past must be avenged in the present. Each side, he writes, should somehow recognize that “sons are not guilty for their fathers’ crimes and no peace will come until they stop feeling responsible for avenging the wrongs their fathers suffered.” And each side, he says, must also face up to the deaths it has caused; “the desire for peace must vanquish the longing for revenge.” Ignatieff appeals to ethnic combatants to recover the ability to see themselves and others as persons. He appeals to outside powers to follow up the ethics of commitment with the “ethics of responsibility”—that is, with effective strategies for rescuing people stranded by conflict.

In arguing for a new way of looking at the past, Ignatieff is dealing more with psychological possibilities than with material ones. His approach might seem naive to those who see greater importance in stripping ethnic warriors of their weapons than in trying to rid them of their historical prejudices. In fact, I suspect Ignatieff may be closer to suggesting effective approaches to ethnic conflict than those who claim to have a stronger sense of realism.

We may soon see a test of the kind of psychological approach Ignatieff discusses. In addition to its constitutional provisions, the peace agreement on Northern Ireland, signed April 10, takes the past seriously—“We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families.” It links past and future, but not through revenge—“But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust.” And it is honest about differences, while recognizing their equal legitimacy—“We acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations.”

This remarkable document does not merely consist of negotiators’ rhetoric that no one will read. It is to be distributed to every voter in Northern Ireland before the referendum on the peace agreement takes place. Its arguments are close to the thesis of The Warrior’s Honor: that the evils of internecine conflict are located in the minds of individual men and women, not in their genes, their religions, their race, or their history. It is the consciousness of individuals that must be addressed and that will be the basis for hope or despair. Ignatieff’s book does not achieve a comprehensive synthesis of the different aspects of ethnic conflict. But its mastery of the psychology of warrior, victim, and aid-giver makes its author one of the most thoughtful commentators on an issue which seems certain to dominate the early decades of the coming century.

April 30, 1998

This Issue

May 28, 1998