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The Durability of Ethnicity: Intra-state and Non-state Violence
Phil W. Reynolds
There have been only 51 interstate wars and 418 internal, ethnic conflicts since 1945. The militarily weak actors in these ethnic conflicts have steadily increased their ability to achieve their political objectives. The trend continues: In 2014, there was only one state-on-state conflict and thirty-nine intrastate, largely ethnic conflicts. Additionally, in 2014, there were 61 organized, non-state groups causing at least twenty-five deaths a year. The effectiveness of sub-state groups in achieving their goals has dramatically increased. In the past two hundred years, states have gone from winning some eighty percent of internal conflicts to less than half that by the end of the twentieth century. Ties of ethnic identity primarily drive these conflicts. Still ethnic conflict lacks proper study in most military institutions because they cannot be replicated under controlled conditions, unlike the massive, digital wargames and field maneuvers conducted by countries like the U.S. and policy makers can rarely provide preventive policies as in normative international relations. The rise of the sovereign state and its privileged position as the primary unit of the international system has failed to stem these conflicts these conflicts as new space is created to facilitate the integration of marginalized groups. In this paper, I attempt to uncover what makes ethnicity and ethnic conflict so durable exploring the idea that conflict is a social act rooted in identity. The ability of language, religion and ancestry to bind people together in turn is a powerful motivator of violence. As marginalized groups tender feelings that the distribution of resources, be they economic or political, is unfair, then violence becomes a way to bypass political stalemate. Hostility and frustration produces insecurity, a feeling that the group’s special identity is under attack. In ethnic wars, the killing is personal, rooted deeply in social contexts in which victims know the killers. Following the impersonal Cold War, this was the shock of the Yugoslav ethnic wars and Rwanda massacres, with “people in rage against each other and people fleeing from the rage." Based on analysis of the values of ethnicity that provide the elastic interconnectivity that powers groups through conflicts, this paper will argue that far from fading, ethnicity and its commitment to social identities have an extraordinary durability and much conflict in the 21st century will evolve it. Liberalism’s inability to provide largesse for all means that some groups have suffered from been a lack of production of opportunity that eases their integration into a larger whole. I believe these conflicts will become more prevalent as classic hegemony recedes in the face of the increasing pressure of international opinion, which restrains states’ actions in small wars. Ethnicity plays a key role in the identity of self and the group, that allows for the total mobilization required carrying on a conflict against a materially superior opponent.
Even with the apparent data, and following the dismal performances in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has eagerly returned to the predictable world of preparing for state on state conflict. These simplified conflicts engage the popular imagination because they are easily identifiable, discrete, fought between states with leaders, bureaucracies and armies and lead to decisive battles on which rest the fate of states. Lending itself to discernible positivist theories of conflict, this normative mode of war has been called a Westphalian system of war. There is relief that China, North Korea and Russia are all clamoring for their share of attention. State wars tend to be impersonal with agents as appendage, killing functionaries of the opposing state, but ethnic conflicts are personal with fighters knowing each other. Ethnic conflicts often revolve around identify and anger at the lack of integration, group encroachment and marginalization and identity values, a very messy concoction. In the west, the idea of state security developed, not as a result of, but in conjunction with liberalism. The arguments for economic growth were meant to tame the wars of religion and the anarchy of the feudal dynasties. The enlightenment and the rapid spread of political philosophy tracts painted aggressive foreign states as the primary threat, but that narrative has always been misleading. From roughly the sixteenth century to the cold war, there had been one interstate war for every two intra-state wars. That ratio actually rose to five intra-state wars to one interstate war from 1945 to 1992.
Deconstructing the normative form of war, one finds that state-versus-state conflict grew in form and complexity along with the ability of the state to extract and organize resources. In ancient times, war was over territory or rule, and in modernity, progressed to conflict over ideologies, as in the Second World War. New international norms and pressure from the new cold war adversaries discouraged states from raiding weak neighbors and expanding. States refrained from engaging in the internecine conflicts that ground out ethnicities and created homogenous societies. Decolonization complicated integration efforts, leaving some states with few resources with which to achieve the economic growth of Europe and North America. This ensured that weak states remained weak and unable to provide the security and welfare expected in return for accepting the dominance of the state and limitations on individual liberty. Lack of resources limits domestic capabilities practically ensuring weak states will have internal conflicts. This provides an environment in which aggrieved populations have strong motivation to continue to fight. In the case of today’s ethnic conflicts, access to technologies of violence and the sensitivity of the modern liberal state to even low levels of violence means that relatively small groups can achieve significant effects. Politically weak groups are attracted to violence as a method to solve problems quickly, motivated by perceived past attacks and fueled by large populations of young and unemployed males. Lack of integration means that sub state groups are likely to focus on position improvement and work to benefit the group, particularly in states with structural inequality and plentiful resources. Geography also affects the ability of the state to enforce its writ internally, with rebel organizations surviving by locating themselves in rough mountainous or jungle terrain where avenues of approach are controlled. It may follow that rich countries are rich because of the relative ease of transforming its geography into economically productive centers, with poor countries relegated to marginal land with their subsequent, chronic inequality. Ethnicity has survived, and seems to be thriving, in the face of liberalism and globalization and the postmodern world.
The Uppsala conflict data sets are particularly important to the study of small wars. Previous conflict data sets only included wars that exceeded 1000 deaths per year.  These data sets eliminated many conflicts because of the ambiguous or difficult to define political status of the group- the very conflicts that have come to be so important in the twenty-first century. Setting the threshold of conflict at twenty-five deaths per year, scholars began to fill the lacuna as early as 1978, and in the mid-1980s Uppsala University in Sweden began collecting data on less-than-war conflicts, necessitating the production of theoretical knowledge to account for conflicts much smaller those included by Singer and Small. The UCDP database greatly expanded the number of cases in that would be included in their UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset. The yearly publication of its results have enabled rich data exploration and analysis. The data reveals that the average length of these conflicts is thirty years, the low levels of death leaving them just at the edge of public awareness. The ideological Marxist/Maoist conflicts are the longest, averaging sixty years!
Ethnic conflicts take form around the power differential of the protagonists. Kalyvas and Balcell describe three types: Asymmetric in which the state is strong and sub group weak, conventional, in which both sides possess roughly equal power and technologies and employ similar tactics, and unconventional, in which both sides employ low levels of military power. During the Cold War, asymmetric conflicts were common as much of the world decolonized and he superpower blocs jockeyed to influence new state formation. Conventional conflicts are rare even while occupying an outsized position in the popular imagination; the classic example being the U.S. Civil War and now, arguably, the Ukrainian conflicts. Unconventional civil wars have states and groups engaging each with less than overwhelming force but with precisely targeted violence mean to achieve greater-than-local effects. Some conflicts actually proceed through all three levels, with each type of warfare occurring sometimes simultaneously. The parsing of power differentials help erase the artificial divide between the ‘regular wars’ of states and ‘irregular wars’ particularly since the power differential is so heavily in favor of the state that the choice to engage in violence can seem irrational. This is largely the result in goal mismatch between the two actors. The state, possessing vast resources, lacks the strategic purpose, i.e., the existential threat, to engage in unlimited war. The ethnic group possesses few physical resources, but faced with a real or imagined threat to survival, are able to achieve total mobilization. Full commitment to the conflict is expressed in generational terms with fathers indoctrinating sons (and daughters) in the methods of warfare over historicized grievances. With fewer resources, ethnic groups engage in asymmetric conflict, with the state, with violent acts executed primarily to extract political concessions, not to impose their will on the battlefield. This is prima facie evidence of Vasquez’ proposition that it is “the distribution of capability [that] will determine what form war will take.” Irregular forces “gained their objectives in armed confrontations with industrial powers which possessed an overwhelming superiority in conventional military capability.” Groups fighting asymmetric wars under a resource imbalance are able to avoid defeat largely through the information mismatch and the local superiority they hold over state forces, i.e., groups under a resource imbalance will fight asymmetrically because they can only fight asymmetrically. Avoiding military defeat on one side inflicted a political defeat on the other when the justification for entering the conflict and rationale for consuming state power were lost. This loss of political will to continue the war, the total mobilization achieved by the weaker group, and pressure to limit the war in the stronger state creates the asymmetric strategy that leads to victory: avoiding military engagement on the strong side’s terms. The nature of irregular war and its identity entanglements make this kind of conflict greater than the sum of its parts, and in Andrew Mack’s words “the conflict as a whole which must be studied in order to understand its evolution and outcome.”
Ethnicity simplified and stripped of myth and distanced from personal narrative is a coalition. Ethnic coalitions are the simplest coalitions to form because the participants share the same values and norms. Ethnic groups “are both actual and constructed” as “both self-identification and the perceptions and attitudes of others.” Key to the understanding of ethnicity is the practice of overt cultural activities and self-perpetuation through inter-marriage and birth and the identification as such by neighboring groups. Religion occupies a special place as it assumes a position of “sacred value” and ties individuals together in public “cultural forms.” Ethnicity is a socially constructed reality in which groups are motivated based on meanings they prescribe to themselves and provides the motivation to engage in violent conflict. This ‘intangible’ aspect of conflicts provides the basis of the method that weak groups use. This conceptual theory of conflict accounts for the decision to fight in view of the distribution of power being overwhelming in favor of states. One must consider the “intersubjective understandings and expectations [and] the distribution of knowledge that constitute their conceptions of self and the other.” This knowledge about self is the product of constant individual and group interactions and boundary crossings and is deeply rooted in the concepts of identity and security, so much so that other social institutions must make way for individuals’ conception of self and group identity. Withstanding global integration and the modern erasure of boundaries highlights an extraordinary level of commitment to this form of self-identification. Far from the teleological argument that ethnicity fades in the face of modernity, people cling to what sets them apart from others. These ethnic groups design their actions in terms of their interests what Wendt called the “cognitive and deliberative basis of desire.” The requirement of an ‘other’ reveals the abstract nature of ethnicity. Persons who identify themselves via ethnicity believes in their identity by virtue of calling him or herself such, and acting in ways that validate that identity, even though they may blur their own norms and boundaries and share similarities with other groups. Positive identification with the welfare of the group is very strong, so much so that other individuals in the group are seen as a cognitive extension of the self, rather than independent agents. This is the basis for feelings of solidarity, community, and loyalty and thus for collective definitions of interests.
The very existence of an identifiable group means social identification has achieved ‘communal hegemonism.’  The introduction of outsiders into group safe spaces creates conflict. Feelings of cognitive dissonance erupt as individuals attempt to re-order their interactions and create internal consistency vis a vis the other. Political mobilization, and ultimately, physical violence, becomes an easily accessible, simple and cheap method to remove the cause of the inconsistency. Ethnic politics arises to minimize disruptions through collective action on issues like conflict in order to maximize group reward. If the challenge is recurrent, conflict can become a coping mechanism for evolutionary roadblocks. Threats and opportunities generate responses, putting pressure on the group to adapt or disintegrate. It is through these political processes, protective boundaries are erected around resources that ensure survival privileges, privileges often earned through earlier violent conflict.
Resource competition is an important aspect in the mobilization of ethnic groups and the concomitant power struggles often drive political mobilization along ethnic lines. Political mobilization based on expectation of political rewards often follow ethnic boundaries and identification. At the group level, broad strategies for collective political and economic advantage can be discerned. Ethnic groups often fail to assimilate into the dominant culture and thus cannot position themselves resource distribution system. Once ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ has been defined, all that is needed to spark offensive action is effective leadership. The closeness of the ethnic connections translates into allegiance to political leaders whose political messages are consistent with their own self-image. Leaders use group coercion based on to influence how individuals think, advocate on issues and support institutions at both the domestic and even international levels. These designed behaviors take advantage of coercive information processing routines that limit and define the parameters through which the environment, i.e., self and group, can be viewed. These feedback mechanisms build and reinforce the ideas of sameness and solidarity so important to ethnic identity. This simplifies leadership problems of motivation and overcoming resistance via solidarity, but quickly blunts the ability to transform ethnic identity into new and more effective coalitions as needs and requirements change.
Perceived threats, like the uneven distribution of resources, would cause individuals to identify more strongly with their ethnic group. Individually, conflict makes a person more aware of their mortality and drives them to value established belief systems and identities. This mortality salience produces greater hostility towards critics of a person’s identity and belief system, particularly the sub-structural role of religion, which produces a unique self-validity. Groups then harness religion and idealized identity “to institutionalize violence and the bend the will of individuals and clans to its own.” Individuals and groups will kill to in the name of their sacred values and this has a singular impact on the duration of ethnic conflicts. Loss of identity, influence or group would cause a person to lose a link to his or her immortality. This would make the individual hew more tightly to ethnic identification and support the actions needed to win the conflict. This is a key in the total mobilization that ethnicities often achieve in conflict. Conversely, states can rarely achieve full mobilization when combating ethnic conflict; the citizenry is too diverse to consider threats from small ethnic groups as existential in nature. The strategic will and purpose of ethnic ideologies is tied up in the simple structural connections between early self-identity, ethnic identity and political ideology. Threatening situations drive conservatism, i.e., conflict draws ethnically self-identified individuals closer together.
Strong ethnic bonds create a distinct advantage. Ethnic cohesiveness translates into motivation. Motivated irregular combatants fighting over historicized grievances can go far towards evening the odds with heavily mechanized and technologically advanced forces. That motivation is often derived from the feelings of encirclement ethnicities feel from the dominant culture. This creates an inherent insecurity in ethnic islands located in a sea of a dominating culture. The offensive capability imparted by ethnic solidarity should not be underestimated. Tactically offensive actions directed against civilians, enemies and wayward allies can do much to motivate endogenous groups and caution states or groups who may think of in intervening. This provides militarily weak groups with an incentive to strike early against soft targets. For liberal states, this creates an ethnic security dilemma. The requirement that states provide a needed service, namely security, requires realist (anarchical) interpretations of an environment full of threats. This in turn drives conservatism, a reinforcing mechanism for ethnicity. It seems that, for liberal state regimes, stability balances on a tiny fulcrum between ethnic tension on one side and the threat of inter-state war on the other.
The simplest kind of war to ignite is when the protagonists differ greatly. The ability of leaders to mobilize for conflict is aided by the ability to illustrate the menacing difference between the two groups. Conflicts in the future will revolve around these ethnic coalitions and the division of resources between groups. Often, established groups engage in violence because of perceived threats, and new groups initiate conflict because of an inability to integrate with the dominant group. Feelings of encroachment in previously established groups, and feelings of marginalization that intrude on identity values produce the pre-cursors of conflict. Inability to assimilate through economic avenues leads to an increasing ossification of social strata. Minority elites may have an avenue of assimilation as talented individuals are co-opted into the dominant majority. As the state structure matures, authoritarian formations of control can provide a false sense of stability, with ever-increasing levels of force used to quell dissent and protest. When the systems’ restraining rules breakdown the anarchical nature of ethnic competition increases. The collapse of this central state power containing rival ethnicities greatly increases the chances of violence. 
Migration from the poorer global south provides one of the most vexing problems of ethnicity as failed and failing states push people to move in search of better lives. The more prosperous North may be a surprising victim of its greatest success: The modern economy. The desire for unending growth and the inexorable pull of resources from the south has created a belief that the ‘economic pie’ is unlimited. This disconnecting of money from value has made the economy a product of social-technical practice. The slowing of established economies creates a situation in which conflict is inevitable. In the past, this conflict from encroachment could be muted, in capitalist states because economies were expanding; in socialist states with authoritative discipline. The general feeling was that economies were expanding and opportunities for personal enrichment abounded; this limited the feelings of threats from newcomers. There appears to be the real possibility that there is a limit to money and that limit, perceived or real, may be reached. The economic crisis of 2008 may be an indicator that the international economic superstructure that has provided so much expansion after World War II may finally be grinding to a halt, severely limiting personal economic mobility.
Military specialists, particularly in the United States, need to resist the siren song of simple state on state conflicts, which are inarguably on the wane. The bulk of history, and the future, will be small, brutal conflicts driven by ethnicity. States unprepared for wars against materially weak coalitions have paid the price. Arguably, the Soviet Union failed to defeat the largely Pashtun mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan and the United States have been unable to dominate the same people thirty years later. U.S. led western action has unleashed pent-up sectarianism throughout the Middle East through the removal of stable dictatorships. Even Beijing is sitting on uneasy populations in Xinjiang and Tibet while its attentions are pulled towards intimidating its (non-Han) neighbors in the South China Sea. Disintegration of national states can be observed today in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria and Mexico. The Congo is a region in which little state control has taken root in its remotest areas, spawning a conflict that has spread across the continent. The vast majority of literature on future conflict revolves around technological innovations meant to overcome the age-old military tyranny of time and distance: Stealth fighters, autonomous, armed drones, nano-robots that reside in the body and harnessing quantum mechanics to process information. These are methods, and however technologically advanced, are simply tools wielded by the drivers that construct conflict. Deeper analysis reveals deeply embedded biological processes, i.e., conflict is an inevitable condition of human possibility. Indeed, it seems that the most powerful states’ often seem to rest on a singular concentration of one ethnicity that is tied to the conception of that state. Roman and Persian empires, Charlemagne and William the Conqueror, German lebensraum to the modern Chinese migration into Tibet and the Uighur lands, and the current epidemic of Islamist expansionism into non-Muslim lands testify to the power of ethnic bonds. Indeed, a paradox of the new security dilemma is laid bare when one considered that the most homogenous societies have been the most violent, ironing their populations’ differences out. Perhaps achieving the total mobilization required for the most destructive wars of the past two-hundred years required a relatively homogenous population turning economic output into military force. Riots in Paris and London, Ferguson and Baltimore and the rise of the ethnic political groups in Europe and the United States seem to herald a return to a darker time. A happy, cosmopolitan pluralism was the promised reward for accepting the architecture of state domination but it has become a myth located squarely in the failure of liberalism to erase ethnicity. That disbelief fuels a breakdown in civil society at the individual level, driving persons to rely on coalitions that are safe and familiar. It should be clear that ethnic identification is a powerful predictor of conflict, both ex ante in its evolution of tools to ensure survival and ex post facto in its distribution of resources. It is also clear that ethnicity and culture reinforce each other in ways that cannot be easily observed. There is a strategic interaction between the two that creates an opaque floor below which the fusing of the two is hidden, perhaps making it impossible to predict when and where conflict may explode. Will ethnicity trump Westphalia, putting it under pressure and revealing that the international system itself is a construct based on dominance and resource control?
 Using the 2015 v. 4 UCDP/PRIO dataset; Uppsala Conflict Data Program (Date of retrieval: 10 MAR 2015) UCDP Conflict Encyclopedia: www.ucdp.uu.se/database, Uppsala University, Pettersson Therése & Peter Wallensteen (2015) Armed Conflicts, 1946-2014. Journal of Peace Research 52(4).
 The latest year complete data is available.
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