Gary J. Bass: What Really Causes Civil War?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Gary J. Bass, an associate professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, is writing a book about humanitarian intervention.]

The commonplace assumption that a more homogeneous society is a more peaceful society certainly sounds reasonable. Surely monoethnic Japan should have an easier time maintaining domestic order than Indonesia; or Slovenia than Macedonia. After all, in a country with numerous ethnic or religious groups, politicians are easily tempted to organize factions along group lines — which can lead to rising tensions and even civil war or the collapse of the state. In 1938, Benito Mussolini warned, “If Czechoslovakia finds herself today in what might be called a ‘delicate situation,’ it is because she was not just Czechoslovakia, but Czech-Germano-Polono-Magyaro-Rutheno-Rumano-Slovakia.”

Today, as Iraq spirals toward outright warfare between Sunnis and Shiites, it risks joining a lengthening list of countries that have seemingly inevitably been ripped apart by bitter sectarian hatreds: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan and not least Lebanon, which experienced civil wars in 1860 and 1958 and from 1975 to 1990 and may face yet another one.

But what if this whole premise is wrong? Odd as it may seem, there is a growing body of work that suggests that multiethnic countries are actually no more prone to civil war than other countries. In a sweeping 2003 study, the Stanford civil war experts James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin came to a startling finding: “it appears not to be true that a greater degree of ethnic or religious diversity — or indeed any particular cultural demography — by itself makes a country more prone to civil war.”

Fearon and Laitin looked at 127 civil wars from 1945 to 1999, most often in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. They found that regardless of how ethnically mixed a country is, the likelihood of a civil war decreases as countries get richer. The richest states are almost impervious to civil strife, no matter how multiethnic they might be — think for instance of Belgium, where Flemings and Walloons show almost no inclination to fight it out. And while the poorest countries have the most civil wars, Fearon and Laitin discovered that, oddly enough, it is actually the more homogeneous ones among them that are most likely to descend into violence.

Fearon and Laitin explained their findings by noting that while the world is awash with political grudges, ethnic and otherwise, civil wars only begin under particular circumstances that favor rebel insurgencies. The most common situation involves a weak, corrupt or brutal government confronting small bands of rebels protected by mountainous terrain and sheltered by a sympathetic rural population, and possibly bolstered with foreign support or revenues from diamonds or coca. These insurgents may be ethnic chauvinists, but they could equally well be anti-colonialists, Islamists, drug lords, greedy opportunists, communists of various stripes and so on....

comments powered by Disqus