March 6, 2018 - mh9868a

Theories of War and Ethnic Conflict

Many scholars disagree on the catalyst that provokes war. War is such a complex issue that is it often hard to pinpoint a specific cause for its outbreak. Some scholars believe that rebellion needs an opportunity for action to arise, while others think it can stem from other factors like the environment, lack of a sovereign, or border issues. Often, ethnicity and religion are also a part of conflict. This is true in some recent wars in the Middle East. Some particular breakouts of war whose causes could be disputed are the Bosnian War and Croatia’s war for independence in the 1990s. To determine a catalyst for war in these conflicts, some theories of war will be analyzed and applied to the wars in Bosnia and Croatia in order to come to an understand of the causes of these similar wars.

In their essay, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler argue that economic and military opportunity fuel civil war in the presence of collective grievances. That is, the accumulation of feelings of wrongdoing and neglect among a certain population can cause conflict. Some grievances include, “ethnic or religious hatred, political repression, political exclusion, and economic inequality.” If that disadvantaged group has military and economic resources, than the conflict can become an all out war. Sometimes, rebel groups in civil war can get funding from terrorist organizations or other hostile governments who could gain from the rebellion. Sometimes, to get funding rebel groups will go so far as to control natural resources to exploit a necessity for funding. Also, rebel militaries can thrive when in economic disparity because low-income people will join the rebel cause for more security in their lives. Additionally, Collier and Hoeffler explain that rebel militaries can take advantage of social cohesion. That is, people will want to belong to their particular social group. For example, if a bunch of people with their ethnic identity join the rebel cause, then more people of that ethnic identity will also join that cause. Overall, Collier and Hoeffler say that economic and military opportunity fuel civil war.

Secondly, in his essay, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” Barry R. Posen argues that military advantage, technology, and geography are important variables in anarchic civil war. More specifically, he claims that the offensive side has an advantage over the defensive side in war. This is because the offensive side understand the geography of its own land which is helpful in several ways. First, the offensive fighters know other people in the area who could potentially stand up for the same cause and those who could potentially oppose the cause. Also, the offensive knows the terrain of the land better than the defensive, so they are often better prepared for battle. Also, they can act preemptively if they sense that their aggressor is weak. That way, they can prevent an aggressor attack from even happening. Furthermore, Posen argues that the only technology that plays a significant role in military advantage is nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are effective technology in war because they incite group thinking, and many countries will want nuclear weapons as well. However, if all states have nuclear weapons, all of them have this advantage. Basically, Posen is arguing that military advantage in geography and technology can be key tools in anarchic civil war.

Lastly, in his essay, “Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe,” Roger D. Petersen argues that emotions motivate people to act violently in ethnic conflicts. More specifically, he explains that the feeling of resentment, anger, fear, and rage all build up in the mind and cause urges of violence. Anger, fear, and rage all add up to eventual resentment for a certain group or ethnicity. Then, the resentment can cause people to act violently against another ethnic group. Petersen argues that this is the root of many ethnic conflicts around the world. Furthermore, he describes hatred as a cultural schema writing that, “schemas can contain fairly constant representations of the innate nature of other ethnic groups. Some of these representations may be of a very negative nature.” That is, the innate nature of hatred within an ethnic group can be the underlying cause for resentment and anger among feuding ethnic groups. In fact, underlying hatred for one certain ethnicity can even fuel goals of other ethnicities to pursue even violent goals. Thus, many factors of emotions play a key roles in instances of ethnic conflict.

In the early 1990s Croatia fought in a civil war for independence from Serbia after a long history of ethnic differences. In his book, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, Robert D. Kaplan explains that, traditionally, Croatia was more of a Catholic area, and Serbia was traditionally Orthodox. This major religious difference caused problems between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Croats. For example, the Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb in Croatia named Alojzije Stepinac was hailed a Croatian hero, but many Serbs claimed he was a mass murderer. Specifically, the Serbs thought that Stepniac was a mass murderer because he supported the Ustashe regime, which backed Serbia-killing death camps during World War II. Additionally, when Croats began to rebel against Serbia, the archbishop thought that a free Croatia was the country’s, “God-granted blessing.” Kaplan writes that these religious differences fueled the animosity between Serbia and Croatia even though, “the Serbs and the Croats were, as regards race and language, originally one people” Overall, religious differences deteriorated the relationship between Serbs and Croats.

An outbreak of skirmishes turned into an all out Croatian war for independence in 1991. In his book, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict, Jack Snyder argues that a change in regime caused ethnic rifts to form in former Yugoslavia. That is, Snyder writes, “although Communist Yugoslavia had always had an ethnofederal state, the decentralization reforms of the 1960s and early 1970s sharply increased the power of the ethnic republics.” When these ethnic republics began to clash, nationalism was at a high point for media which only encouraged fighting. So, when it was election time, the religious and ethnic differences were just too much to bear. Snyder writes that, “less than six months after the first democratic elections, the country was at war. Slovenia and Croatia, failing to win Serbian agreement to their demands for greater autonomy, declared independence.” Therefore, the increase in ethnic tensions after the election led to the start of the all-out war between Croatia and Serbia.

Similarly, war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 over ethnic conflicts in the region. In her book, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Mary Kaldor argues that the ethnic violence stemmed from fear and hate. For context, Kaldor writes that, “Bosnia-Herzegovina was the most ethnically mixed republic of former Yugoslavia.” For the most part, the biggest difference was religion because, as mentioned, Serbs were Orthodox and Croatians were Catholics. There were Muslims living in the region as well. Another issue that complicated matters for former Yugoslavia was the fact that, “during the 1950s and 1960s, [Yugoslavia] experienced fast economic growth based on a model of rapid defence-oriented heavy industrialization that was typical of centrally planned economies.” This was an issue because later, in 1990, a pre-election poll was take to find out if citizens would support a central, nationalist government. In that poll, 74% of the Bosnia-Herzegovina population voted against nationalist parties. Contrary to that, in the actual 1990 election, 70% of the population voted for nationalist parties. When this happened, those who opposed nationalist parties became violent. Kaldor writes that, “the very scale of the violence can be interpreted not as a consequence of ‘fear and hate,’ but rather as a reflection of the difficulty of reconstructing ‘fear and hate.’” Thus, conflict broke out in Bosnia because of a rift between ethnic parties and nationalist parties within the state.

Both the war in Bosnia and the war between Croatia and Serbia can be categorized as ethnic conflicts. Additionally, both of these conflicts erupted because of overwhelming ethnic differences groups of people. Therefore, these two conflicts adhere to Roger D. Petersen’s theory that violence and conflict stem from emotions. In both of these cases, the conflict stemmed from the friction between ethnic groups with long histories of cultural differences.

For the case of Croatia and Serbia, the conflict was caused by a seperation of a state into two religious sects. As previously explained, Serbia was predominantly Orthodox while Croatia was predominantly Catholic. While these two countries used to be sections of one country called Yugoslavia, they are vastly different. In fact, in his essay, “The Banality of ‘Ethnic War,’” John Muller writes that, “the casual notion that each ethnic or national group in Yugoslavia is united by deep bonds of affection is substantially flawed.” So, citizens of Croatia and Serbia are not bonded because instead of bonds to Yugoslavia, they are bonded by religion. Furthermore, according to Petersen, when fear of another way of life, in this case a religious one. That is, Petersen writes, “the emotion heightens sensitivity to signals regarding that danger. One is more likely to think in terms of a worst case scenario.” That is, the fear of Serbia’s Orthodox religion  caused Catholic Croats to feel a heightened sense of danger and ultimately rebelled. Thus, as Petersen’s theory states, the emotion of fear played a big role in the cause of the Serbian-Croatian war.

For the case of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Pertersen’s theory of war and emotion also applies. When war broke out in Bosnia over economic growth and political shifts. One particular political shift that caused conflict was the nationalist rise to power. In his essay, “Ethnic Nationalism and International Conflict: the Case of Serbia,” V. P. Gagnon defines nationalism as, “simultaneously (and confusingly) ethnic national sentiments or beliefs; political rhetoric that appeals to ethnic nationalist sentiment; and violent conflict that is described and justified in terms of ethnicity.” These nationalist political changes invoked feelings of fear and anxiety among minority religions in Bosnia. Particularly, the minority Muslim population faced much of the brunt of the violence. According to her essay,  “Instant History: Understanding the

Wars of Yugoslav Succession, ” Gale Stokes writes that, “all of its Muslim majority had been killed or expelled, and their homes destroyed by [Catholic] Croats who included some of their fellow-villagers.” That is, the Catholic Croats murdered a village of Muslims in Bosnia because they could not get passed their ethnic and religious differences. Thus, Petersen’s theory of war and emotions is aligned with the minority religions’ feelings of fear that eventually provoked war in Bosnia.

To determine a catalyst for war in the Bosnia and Serbia-Croatia conflicts, some theories of war were analyzed and applied to these wars in order to come to an understand of the causes of these two very similar wars. Ultimately, Roger D. Petersen’s argument that ethnic conflict is caused by emotions was found to be true in the cases in both the wars of Bosnia and Serbia-Croatia. For example, Serbia and Croatia fought based on religious differences and feelings of fear and danger. Also, Bosnia fought over the fearful and nationalistic divide between minority Muslims and majority Catholics and Orthodox Jews. Overall, differences in religion in these countries led to feelings of fear, which eventually lead to the outbreak of violence in these Balkan countries.


Works Cited

Collier, Paul and Anke Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers 56, No. 4 (2004), pp. 563-595.

Gagnon, V.P., “Ethnic Nationalism and International Conflict: The Case of Serbia.”

International Security 19, No. 3 (1994/5), pp. 130-166.

Kaldor, Mary, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 3 rd . ed.

(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), pp. 32-70.

Kaplan, Robert, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (New York: Picador, 2005), pp.           3-78.

Muller, John, “The Banality of Ethnic War,” International Security 25, No. 1 (2000), pp. 42-70.

Petersen, Roger, Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth

Century Eastern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 17-84, 225-241.

Posen, Barry, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict.” Survival 35, No. 1 (1993), pp. 27-47.

Snyder, Jack, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (New York:             W.W. Norton, 2000), pp. 204-219.

Stokes, Gale, John Lamp eand Dennison Rusinow, “Instant History: Understanding the

Wars of Yugoslav Succession.” Slavic Review 55, No. 1 (1996), pp. 136-160.

Essays civilwar / conflictresolution / ethnicconflict / war /

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *