We Didn’t Start the (Ethnic) Fire, Right?

Forgive me for quoting Billy Joel in the title of this blog entry, but I couldn’t resist taking a little pop international relations theory to illustrate my point. The international system today, at least as news coverage would have it, is reaching a tipping point of declining U.S. power and increase in conflicts in key regions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central America. The Islamic State extorts its way across Northern Iraq while its Shi’a rival Nouri Al-Maliki holds on to power to save his life, Hamas and Israel trade attacks while civilian deaths in Gaza mount, and the Ukraine still barely holds together.

At home, members of Congress have claimed we are fighting our own kind of war against white people while the opposite continues to appear in accusations of police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. The common denominator, on the surface, for these global and domestic fires is ethnic divisions and ethnic nationalism. The results of this global conflict are destabilizing:

Rise in Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

PicSource: UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Civilian Deaths in Iraq, 2003-present

Source: U.S. government (red), predictions (gray)

With conflicts splintering minority ethnic groups in the Middle East and leading to greater civilian deaths, the global community must create a policy framework which can address the conflicts. First, however, a solution requires an understanding of the causes of destabilizing conflict. Is the world witnessing the controversial conclusion of Samuel Huntington in his “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis that the end of the Cold War meant the beginning of culture-based wars? Are radical groups such as Pan-Slavists, international jihadists and Israeli hardliners going to continue to thwart negotiations as they push for ethnic and national purity?

The causes of the conflict are likely more complex, and less deterministic than suggesting the world is fated to fracture into cultural groups. Most of the conflicts are domestic, and the Middle East is witnessing the internationalization of Syria’s civil war. Though the U.S. and Russia are at loggerheads and supporting their opposing sides globally, fears of a “New Cold War” are probably overblown. A more likely hypothesis is the elite-led ethnic strife theory, a post-Cold War example being the Serbian nationalism led by Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. A few radical, influential leaders gain political power through exploiting ethnic differences. This is a tried-and-true strategy from the Jim Crow South to current Afghan elections.

Clearing the Brush

If the cause of the fire is the “brush” of ethnic hatred clogging the channels of a free and open democracy, then the first step ought to be to reconcile ethnic hatreds. Of course, this route is easier said than done but has been done before. A reason Nelson Mandela became famous was because of his emphasis on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa in the wake of the African rise to power in the early 1990s. Rather than continue a conflict spiral, Mandela opted for forgiveness and cultural healing, targeting not people but at dismantling a system which kept people apart:

We are not anti-white, we are against white supremacy … we have condemned racialism no matter by whom it is professed.” -Nelson Mandela, Treason Trial, 1961

A similar movement has attempted to take root in the United States, offering religious reconciliation between white and black communities affected by the racial oppression still continuing since the Civil Rights era. Understanding, forgiveness and restitution are key steps in the process of leading a solution which does not opt for the low-hanging fruit of racial politics and instead confronts the scars of racial violence head on. More practically, however, these reconciliation movements must tackle how to resolve policy issues and power-sharing between ethnic groups. For example, a problem in Ferguson, Missouri is that a town of two-thirds African-American residents has a police force that is 95% white. The same issue of representation applies to Syrians and Iraqis.

Dousing the Fire

In the short term, however, what can policymakers do to rectify the ethnic and religious conflicts battering the Middle East? If the “Obama Doctrine” of nonintervention and diplomacy is failing to control conflict, the American public ought to question what the threshold of intervention should be. Right now, the basket of international pressure from the United Nations, economic sanctions and targeted airstrikes and capacity building of foreign militaries without any boots on the ground can go little farther without becoming direct military intervention.

Diplomacy can be a powerful option when the negotiating parties have leverage, and to quell these global conflict, the United States must reach out to countries such as Egypt, Iran and Russia to apply joint pressure on the resources of substate terrorist groups, splinter factions and governments to negotiate rather than try to wrangle on irresolvable issues on their own merits. John Kerry’s approach to Israel-Palestine negotiations, which was hardly surprising in its failure, is an example of starting from the wrong end of the problem.

An alternative to consider is the rise in resource-based conflict as climate change and population growth tax the systems of countries such as Egypt and increase inequalities. Furthermore, control of valuable resources such as oil remain an interest of groups. Rather than focus on the ethnic conflict, solving the economic growth puzzle could also reduce conflict by giving all parties a positive outcome to peaceful settlement.

Firefighters or Fire Prevention?

The United States may not have started many of the global fires raging, but as a member of the international community and UN Security Council, it certainly has a responsibility to find a multilateral solution to the problem. Resources are not infinite, and the U.S. will have to make important choices on how to respond.

Perhaps instead of running from one fire to the other, policymakers could implement solutions which better manage conflict and promote peacemaking and power sharing. In the end, we shouldn’t have to say: “we didn’t light it, but we TRIED to fight it.” Thanks, Billy Joel.

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