Possible and impossible solutions to ethnic civil wars

TitlePossible and impossible solutions to ethnic civil wars
Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsKaufmann, C


Advocates of international action seek to redress the failures of local political institutions and elites by brokering political power-sharing arrangements, by international conservatorship to rebuild a functioning state, or by reconstruction of exclusive ethnic identities into wider, inclusive civic identities. Pessimists doubt these remedies, arguing that ethnic wars express primordial hatreds which cannot be reduced by outside intervention because they have been ingrained by long histories of inter-communal conflict. 


Both sides in the current debate are wrong, because solutions to ethnic wars do not depend on their causes

This paper offers a theory of how ethnic wars end, and proposes an intervention strategy based on it. The theory rests on two insights:

  1. First, in ethnic wars both hypernationalist mobilization rhetoric and real atrocities harden ethnic identities to the point that cross-ethnic political appeals are unlikely to be made and even less likely to be heard.
  2. Second, intermingled population settlement patterns create real security dilemmas that intensify violence, motivate ethnic "cleansing," and prevent deescalation unless the groups are separated.

As a result, restoring civil politics in multi-ethnic states shattered by war is impossible because the war itself destroys the possibilities for ethnic cooperation.


Stable resolutions of ethnic civil wars are possible, but only when the opposing groups are demographically separated into defensible enclaves. Separation reduces both incentives and opportunity for further combat, and largely eliminates both reasons and chances for ethnic cleansing of civilians. While ethnic fighting can be stopped by other means, such as peace enforcement by international forces or by a conquering empire, such peaces last only as long as the enforcers remain.

This means that to save lives threatened by genocide, the international community must abandon attempts to restore war-torn multi-ethnic states. Instead, it must facilitate and protect population movements to create true national homelands. Sovereignty is secondary: defensible ethnic enclaves re-duce violence with or without independent sovereignty, while partition without separation does nothing to stop mass killing. Once massacres have taken place, ethnic cleansing will occur. The alternative is to let the interahamweand the Chetniks "cleanse" their enemies in their own way.

The remainder of this paper has three parts. The next part develops a theory of how ethnic wars end. Then, I present a strategy for international military intervention to stop ethnic wars and dampen future violence, and rebut possible objections to this strategy. The conclusion addresses the moral and political stakes in humanitarian intervention in ethnic conflicts.