Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict: Shadows of Modernity

By Andreas Wimmer | Go to book overview

4
Who owns the state?
Ethnic conflicts after the end of empires

Since the fall of the Wall, ethno-nationalist conflicts have outweighed all other forms of political confrontation. The intransigence of ethnonationalist politics has led to catastrophe in Bosnia; on the southern borders of the former Soviet Union in the Caucasus and in Tajikistan a bushfire of separatist battles has been ignited; Sri Lanka finds no more respite than does Burma's hinterland or southern Sudan. This list could easily be extended: since the 1950s, the number of ethnic conflicts has continued to increase (Gurr 1993a: 101), and in three-quarters of all wars worldwide between 1985 and 1992 ethno-nationalist factors predominated (Scherrer 1994a: 74). Gurr lists a total of forty-nine fields of ethno-political conflict for the 1993–4 period alone (Gurr 1994: 369–74), when the trend reached its peak.

Why are these conflicts so frequent in our times? Most popular authors fall back on the very principles of nationalist thinking and thus naturalise the phenomena they seek to explain. They are being caught by the ideological 'tyranny of the national', to use Gerard Noiriel's (1991) rather drastic term.1 Journalists join bestseller-producing sociologists such as Ulrich Beck (1997) in postulating a universal desire for cultural rootedness, accentuated under current conditions of globalisation and rapid social change. Globalisation makes people search for a secure national homestead and to react with an aggressive nationalism threatening existing state borders. One wonders, however, how earlier waves of ethnic conflict may be explained if 'globalisation' represents, according to these authors, a new world historical epoch of declining nation-states and ethno-cultural fragmentation.

Another widely held view was most prominently expressed by the late Ernest Gellner (1983) and later by Tom Nairn (1993). It is also quite common, if rarely openly expressed, among Western foreign policymakers disenchanted with the prospects for preventing and settling ethnic conflicts in the East. The new states that issued from the former

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1
Cf. also Bourdieu (1993); Wimmer and Glick Schiller (forthcoming).

-85-

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