[Currents headergraphic]


Currents online welcomes submissions of opinion pieces from faculty and staff. To submit an opinion piece, see policies and submittal procedure.

April 26, 1999

The Myth of Ethnic Conflict

By Ronnie Lipschutz

The president is wrong. In his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in San Francisco on April 15, 1999, President Clinton dredged up all of the old, hoary myths about why some people are killing other people in the Balkan Peninsula. For almost ten years, these stories have been told again and again, and the result has been a decade of policy failures, blood and death. It is high time that these myths were exposed for what they are: a means of avoiding effective diplomacy and justifying the cynical use of force. What are these myths? Some of them include the following:

"At the end of the 20th century, we face a great battle between the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration, the forces of globalism versus tribalism." The very term "tribalism" raises a vision of ancient time, yet the integration and disintegration to which the President alludes are very much products of the late 21st century, not the 10th. The ten-year history of bloodshed in the Balkans is the result of economic and social decline that began with the global recession of 1982 and 1983. Had Yugoslavs not been faced with the prospect of growing impoverishment as they were marginalized from the global economy, it is much less likely that they would have fallen to killing each other.

"We don't want the 21st century to be dominated by the dark marriage of modern weapons and ancient ethnic, racial and religious hatred." The "ancient" hatreds so often cited as the causes of violence have their roots in events that have taken place over the past 100 years. To be sure, in the 13th century, Muslim Turks defeated Orthodox Serbs in Kosovo. But the vision of Yugoslavia that emerged in the 1800s was a union of South Slavs who could stand on their own apart from the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. There were other movements that sought autonomy for individual cultural groups, but it was not until the Nazi occupation of the Balkans in World War II that Croats and Serbs began to kill each other in earnest. And for some decades after 1945, all of the component nations of the Yugoslav Federation managed to live in relative peace. Five or six decades is not so ancient, after all.

"Prosperity and personal freedom . . . is being threatened by the oldest demon of human society: Our vulnerability to hatred of the other; those who are not like us." Sigmund Freud once remarked on the "narcissism of small differences." People seem to be more distrustful of those who are similar to them, especially if they are poor. In a time of wealth and prosperity, it is envy that eats away at the social fabric, and in a world permeated by advertising and consumerism--yes, even in Serbia and Kosovo--what cannot be acquired through accumulation might be taken by force. It is odd, however, that the poor Serbs have chosen to attack the even poorer Kosovar Albanians.

"Kosovo is a very small place on a very large fault line . . . On the border lands of Central and Eastern Europe, at the meeting place of the Islamic world and the Eastern and Orthodox branches of Christianity." The significance of the "fault line" metaphor has never been very obvious; we live with fault lines as a fact of life and, occasionally they move. And fault lines are natural; religions are not. In geopolitics, the term "border lands" has always been used to denote regions of small, weak countries squeezed between large powerful countries. Who is on the other side of this supposed border land? Turkey? Russia? Islam? Is the President somehow suggesting that Western Christianity is doomed to always fight with Islam or Orthodoxy? Does he think that wealth and prosperity will, somehow, eliminate this distinction?

There are good reasons to intervene in Kosovo, the most prominent being, as the President argued, to end human rights violations, ethnic cleansing and what might become genocide. But he and others should not fall back on old cliches and stories in order to avoid difficult and complex questions and explanations.

Ronnie Lipschutz teaches politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is coeditor with Beverly Crawford of The Myth of "Ethnic Conflict": Politics, Economics and Cultural Violence (1998) (see Currents article on his book).

To the Currents home page

To UCSC's home page