What is a summary of Chaim Kaufmann's “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Wars”?

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The basic idea of this article is that ethnic civil wars cannot be stopped in the way that most people try to stop them.  However, the people who say that they cannot be stopped at all are wrong too.

People typically try to stop ethnic civil wars by proposing various types of power sharing agreements.  They urge the sides to talk and learn to get along.  Kaufmann says this is impossible.

What he says is that you need to separate the sides into their own enclaves.  The sides need to not come in contact and they need to be able to defend themselves from any attacks.

Once this happens, there will be fewer reasons to fight and peace can be achieved.

pnrjulius's profile pic

pnrjulius | (Level 1) Educator

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Kaufmann outlines two common theories of what causes ethnic violence and how it can be reduced: The first is that we can solve ethnic violence by restructuring the local political system, or else by redefining ethnic identities in broader terms (e.g. "European" versus "British" versus "English"). The second is that ethnic violence is impossible to solve, because ethnic identity runs too deep and can't be changed.

Kaufmann argues that both of these theories are wrong, and that it doesn't matter whether ethnic identity is deep or ancient, it only matters what can be done to halt the violence.

He argues that many actions by the international community are in fact counter-productive: Trying to restore multi-ethnic states by force means moving people to live together who hate and fear each other, and only exacerbates violence. He argues that we must in fact enforce physical segregation, separating the different ethnic groups so that they live apart with well-defined and well-defended borders.

He contrasts ethnic violence with ideological violence: Ideological violence (e.g. capitalist versus communist) allows people to change their minds and restore unity by "winning hearts and minds", while, he argues, ethnic violence cuts off this option, because the fight is about who you are instead of what you think. While one ideology can win by changing everyone's mind (indeed, capitalism largely won the Cold War), ethnic violence can only end when the two sides are separated or one is exterminated.

Kaufmann warns against any attempts to change people's ethnic identity, arguing that such attempts are invariably futile and often counter-productive. Instead, we must take ethnic identity as fixed and separate people accordingly. Strong states must be established (or re-established), one for each ethnic group, and they must maintain order and defend themselves against attack while not engaging in aggression against the others.

He also cautions against relying on invasion and occupation by other nations; while this might work temporarily, he says that as soon as the occupation ends, unless it has managed to segregate the population properly, the violence will resume. (This does appear to be what happened in Iraq, for example.) Segregation need not be total, but it must isolate the opposite ethnic group into a small and easily-controlled minority.

Perhaps most depressingly, he argues that increased education and literacy can be counterproductive, because by preserving history better they also keep fresh the wounds cut by old atrocities. I honestly find this rather implausible, as in general more educated countries have less violence, and the extremely high literacy rates in the US, Europe, and Japan don't seem to have preserved ethnic hatreds that were quite severe in World War 2---which is within living memory. If the nuclear bombings were not enough to make Japanese people hate and fear Americans forever and the genocide of Jews in Germany did not make all Germans forever pariahs across Europe, then there is hope that wounds between nations can be healed after all.

Overall I think Kaufmann is probably right about the short-run dynamics: The best option for stopping genocide now is to segregate the populations. But the long-run outcomes are not as clear. Many multi-ethnic nations have survived and prospered, and in some cases even essentially eliminated their ethnic violence (when was the last time you heard about violence against Irish or Italian people in the US?). Segregating people into ever-tinier enclaves based on arbitrary (and often quite recent!) ethnic divides may stop the war today, but it cannot truly bring a just and lasting peace.

Perhaps the best solution is a hybrid of the two methods: Start by segregating people until things calm down, but do not treat this as a permanent solution. Ultimately the goal will be to reunify people into a multi-ethnic nation; it might start by trade agreements and peace treaties, and over generations progress to a shared sense of identity and perhaps even a formal unified national government. We are seeing this process in Europe right now, and despite many obstacles it seems to be proceeding fairly well. Perhaps people will always think of themselves as French and English and German to some extent; but already the hatred between them is far less than it was even 70 years ago, and they are beginning to see themselves as all Europeans.


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