Resolving Ethnic Conflicts in Nation-States

Introduction to IJWP, June 2010

With the rise of the sovereign nation-state, after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, came a period of great scientific and technical advancement as well as the rise of national and international wars in which millions of people have perished. The modern state, which has the capacity for efficiently providing rule of law in which large populations can live peacefully, is more often than not a tool used by powerful people to exploit masses, or an instrument of power through which to seek world dominance.

The United Nations Security Council, organized by the major powers after two devastating world wars and the development of weapons of mass destruction, has provided deterrence against powerful states entering into traditional wars against other states. However, the state, as the center of sovereign power, has been the target for control by unscrupulous individuals and groups everywhere. The result is a world in which individuals and groups are oppressed by those who control state power.

Since the 1970s ethnic conflicts, religious conflicts, ideological conflicts, class conflicts, and other intra-state conflicts have dominated the world news. The UN has been asked to send peacekeepers into states where genocide, starvation, rape, refugees, and other humanitarian crises exist. While the United Nations officially promotes a doctrine of state sovereignty, such crises push the UN to intervene in intra-state conflicts. The doctrine of state sovereignty has contributed to creation of these humanitarian crises by concentrating extraordinary, and often inappropriate, political and economic power in state governments.

All people desire to live securely in conditions of peace, yet we create institutions of governance that prevent citizens from control over their own destiny. Political power can be used to attempt to control knowledge, cultural practices, and financial institutions that more appropriately function as separate, but related, organs of society. Governments are viewed as legitimate when their legal systems treat all people equally and protect their property, and allow them to pursue their happiness freely. These freedoms and protections are more important to the average citizen than the particular machinery of government that enables this to take place.

Even systems of governance with constitutional protections against cooptation of government by one group to exploit another—like the U.S. Constitution—are constantly being attacked and hijacked for the selfish interests of persons and groups seeking to use governments for personal advantage and at the expense of others. Thus, although the U.S. still cherishes religious and cultural pluralism, power has been dramatically centralized by new classes of elites who control the government and undermine its legitimacy. Today the EU is creating a new elite bureaucratic class that is alienating many Europeans through financial redistributions over which they have no control. This is not completely unlike the Soviet Union that created a new class of elites called the nomenklatura that used the resources of government to enrich themselves at the expense of others in the name of communism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a return of ethnic rivalries over power in states of the former Soviet bloc. Such rivalries often resemble those in Africa following colonialism as the rulers of weak states twisted laws to favor their own family and ethnic groups at the expense of other groups. Our first article, by Irina Khmelko and Krista E. Wiegand, titled “Government Repression in Ethnic Conflict: Institutional Incentives and Cultural Legacies,” is a scientific study of the types of political institutions and governance that are required to reduce ethnic rivalry and conflict within states. While their conclusions might seem common sense, they are violated every day by governments large and small around the world. We should be encouraged to adopt practices of good governance that studies demonstrate are important for ethnic peace within states.

The traditional concept of a “nation-state,” in which an ethnic, cultural, or religious group imposes its specific values on the masses, is something that many people want, but it is a cause of war and genocide. A peaceful state must remain neutral on these particular cultural values, but it remains ever a temptation for the group controlling a state to impose it values on everyone. For example, the U.S. ruling on abortion in Roe v. Wade forced a cultural decision on Americans that serves as the basis of a cultural war between roughly half of the people who believe in abortion and half who do not. States are quickly delegitimated when they force people to accept cultural values that are not near universally held. Such non-universal values are better left to families, communities, or lower level governments if a state is to be viewed as stable and legitimate.

Some will argue that a state that only promotes universally accepted general values would appear to remove the idea of “nation” from “state,” for “nation” is normally associated with the values of a particular cultural group, whether it be ethnic, religious, or other. We could say that the values of a state are “national” in that they are the values promoted by the state. However, such a set of national values must be general enough and tolerant enough to allow particular values of various social and cultural groups to be held, so long as they do not interfere with another citizen’s right to similarly pursue his particular values.

Our second article, “Past Hurts and Relational Problems in the Cyprus Conflict,” by Muzaffer Ercan Y?lmaz, is about how to resolve ethnic conflicts in situations where past rivalries over the control of the state caused oppression and pain. Rather than discussing the reasons that may have caused the pain, this article is about how to put past oppressions to bed without continuing future cycles of violence that so often continue for generations in the wake of ethnic violence. How people can move beyond past hurts takes both forgiveness of past wrongs and willingness to cooperate on future goals.

Our third article, “Morocco’s Regionalization ‘Roadmap’ and the Western Sahara,” by Yossef Ben-Meir, discusses Morroco’s strategy of reducing ethnic strife by “devolution, deconcentration, and delegation.” This strategy is an attempt by the King of Morocco to provide top-down reform of the Western Sahara by providing more local control of government and training of local community members to responsibly guide their own future within the framework of the Moroccan state.

The local groups in Morocco consist of numerous tribes, some of which are more aligned with Mauritania, others with Algeria, and others who want independence. A power vacuum was formed when Spain withdrew from its colony there in 1975. As was the case when the British left Kashmir, discussed in our last issue (March 2010), surrounding nations sought to move in. In the case of the Western Sahara, the Moroccans moved in through the “Green March.” The Polisario Front, an independence movement seeking the ouster of Spanish rule transformed into opposition against Moroccan rule and received funding from Algeria. A number of refugees fled to Algeria but were not granted citizenship, yet Algeria does not allow them to return to the Western Sahara region of Morocco. Morocco hopes this devolution of political power will lead to greater normalcy and stabilization.

The battles over state power continue to revolve around who controls the state rather than what the state should do, and whether the state is performing an optimal role. This is one of the fundamental changes our global culture will need to make as we move towards a post-Westphalian world.

Morocco is attempting to go against the Western trend of centralization and concentration of power exemplified by the United States and the European Union and move in the direction of China, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Brazil in devolving over-concentrated control of the state to more regional and local control. In the case of China and Brazil, this transformation was followed by marked economic development that is now challenging the United States and the EU. China is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economic power in the next few decades.

The Peace of Westphalia gave the king of a state the power to choose its official religion and control its economy. It led to the identification of “nation” with “state” that allowed for greater possibility of modern totalitarianisms and the frustration of people who did not agree with the king’s choice of religion or plan for their economic future. People with a desire to control their own cultural and economic destiny have constantly sought to coopt state power and impose their own vision or to secede and form their own nation-state.

A peaceful post-Wesphalian system will need to decouple culture and economy from the state and emphasize the role of the state in providing a framework for basic security and a rule of law under which ethnic and national groups can freely pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Thus the emphasis on good governance should become what the legitimate functions of the state are and whether they are being performed, rather than who controls a state.


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