Managing Internationalized Ethnic Conflict: Evaluating the Role and Relevance of Mediation

By Bercovitch, Jacob | World Affairs, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Managing Internationalized Ethnic Conflict: Evaluating the Role and Relevance of Mediation

Bercovitch, Jacob, World Affairs

For more than four decades the cold war shaped every facet of the international environment. It created an incompatibility of goals and interests between the two superpowers--the Soviet Union and the United States--and their spheres of influence and led to tensions and conflicts at both the international and intranational levels. While there was exceptional stability at the superpower level, the third world became the location of the majority of conflict, with the after-effects of colonialism--namely internal division and economic decline--leaving many third world countries ripe for external interference and suppressed internal conflict. The United States and the Soviet Union were only indirectly engaged in conflict, allowing or encouraging their respective client states (mostly in Asia and Africa) to go to war against each other.

Conflict management during this period was characterized mostly by deterrence, suppression, and diversion (proxy conflicts) rather than resolution. The United States and the Soviet Union intervened unilaterally in a number of conflicts, but their interventions served limited interests, mostly those of leaders or groups supported by either superpower. Conflict suppression in the superpowers' spheres of influence, under the umbrella of deterrence, served, paradoxically, to intensify latent demands for political identity.

With the end of the cold war and the associated changes in the social, economic, and political environments, much has been made of the nature of conflict in this new world. The bipolar international system changed into a very different system; east-west security and alignment tensions decreased, and with this came the expectation that a prolonged period of stability would characterize the new system. The great powers, acting through the international community, would effectively prevent any conflict from breaking out. The end of the cold war marked the end of conflict, the "end of history" even. An long era of peace was what we all expected at the dawn of the 1990s.

But what we have seen since 1991 is not a decrease but an increase in the number and intensity of conflicts. The post-cold war period is characterized by an explosion of nationalism, the accentuation of national identity, and the eruption of violent conflicts in places as diverse as Angola, Burma, Sudan, Iraq, Russia, Turkey, Ethiopia, Bosnia, and many others. These conflicts, largely generated within state boundaries, have become known as ethnic conflicts or ethnonational conflicts (a superfluous term, as it happens). By one account, only 7 of 111 militarized conflicts in the twelve years after 1989 were of the traditional interstate kind, and even these may have had a strong internal or communal dimension (see table 1). (1)


The term "ethnic conflict" is broadly used to describe a wide range of internal conflicts. More specifically, we should note that if we wish to describe a group of people as an ethnic group, the group must have a sense of collective and separate identity, common ancestry, a shared culture and history, and an attachment to a specific piece of territory. (2) An ethnic conflict is thus a conflict that involves two or more groups that perceive themselves as different and are seen by others as different. Peoples, nations, communities, or minorities can all be seen, and are seen, as ethnic groups, and all do find themselves involved in various conflicts. Ethnicity is one of the features that distinguish groups and actors; it is one of the features that produce differences, difficulties, and conflict. Despite its prominence, however, ethnicity is but one of the possible causes of conflict.

Ethnic conflicts arise when groups with a separate sense of identity perceive their governing structure to be incapable of addressing their basic needs. When such needs are denied or are not met, grievances are formed, and demands that the situation be redressed become more and more voluble.

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Managing Internationalized Ethnic Conflict: Evaluating the Role and Relevance of Mediation


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