Containing fear: the origins and management of ethnic conflict

TitleContaining fear: the origins and management of ethnic conflict
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsLake, DA, Rothchild, D


The most widely discussed explanations of ethnic conflict are, at best, incomplete and, at worst, simply wrong. Ethnic conflict is not caused directly by inter-group differences, "ancient hatreds" and centuries-old feuds, or the stresses of modern life within a global economy Nor were ethnic passions, long bottled up by repressive communist regimes, simply uncorked by the end of the Cold War.

We argue instead that intense ethnic conflict is most often caused by collective fears of the future. As groups begin to fear for their safety, dangerous and difficult-to-resolve strategic dilemmas arise that contain within them the potential for tremendous violence. As information failures, problems of credible commitment, and the security dilemma take hold, groups become apprehensive, the state weakens, and conflict becomes more likely. Ethnic activists and political entrepreneurs, operating within groups, build upon these fears of insecurity and polarize society. Political memories and emotions also magnify these anxieties, driving groups further apart. Together, these between-group and within-group strategic interactions produce a toxic brew of distrust and suspicion that can explode into murderous violence.

Ethnic conflict can be contained, but it cannot be entirely resolved. Effective management seeks to reassure minority groups of both their physical security and, because it is often a harbinger of future threats, their cultural security. Demonstrations of respect, power-sharing, elections engineered to produce the interdependence of groups, and the establishment of regional autonomy and federalism are important confidence-building measures that, by promoting the rights and positions of minority groups, mitigate the strategic dilemmas that produce violence

International intervention may also be necessary and appropriate to protect minorities against their worst fears, but its effectiveness is limited. Noncoercive interventions can raise the costs of purely ethnic appeals and induce groups to abide by international norms. Coercive interventions can help bring warring parties to the bargaining table and enforce the resulting terms. Mediation can facilitate agreement and implementation. A key issue in all interventions, especially in instances of external coercion, is the credibility of the international commitment. External interventions that the warring parties fear will soon fade may be worse than no intervention at all. There is no practical alternative to active engagement by the international community over the long term.

This essay presents a framework for understanding the origins and manage- ment of ethnic conflict. Focusing on the central concept of ethnic fear, we attempt to provide a broad framework for comprehending, first, how the various causes of ethnic conflict fit together and potentially interact and, sec- ond, how policies can be crafted to address these causes. Moreover, while our approach is largely "rational choice" oriented, we also seek to examine how non-rational factors such as political myths and emotions interact with the strategic dilemmas we highlight. We recognize that many of the ideas presented here have already appeared in the burgeoning literature on ethnic conflict, and do not claim to be presenting an entirely novel approach, although we note some areas of disagreement with prevailing approaches.