Ethnic Warfare on the Wane

A NEW WAY TO MANAGE NATIONALIST PASSIONS

In November 1999, Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, promised in both Jakarta and Washington to hold a referendum on autonomy in the secessionist province of Aceh. His government reportedly started negotiating with representatives of the Free Aceh movement -- something flatly unthinkable under Wahid's autocratic predecessor, Suharto.

Wahid's actions are hardly isolated. Indeed, they bespeak a new global strategy to contain ethnic conflict. Its essential principles are that threats to divide a country should be managed by the devolution of state power and that communal fighting about access to the state's power and resources should be restrained by recognizing group rights and sharing power. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that tribal and nationalist fighting is still rising frighteningly. But in fact, the rash of ethnic warfare peaked in the early 1990s -- countered, in most regions, by the application of these principles.

The brutality of the conflicts in Kosovo, East Timor, and Rwanda -- and the messiness of the international responses to them -- obscures the larger shift from confrontation toward accommodation. But the trends are there: a sharp decline in new ethnic wars, the settlement of many old ones, and proactive efforts by states and international organizations to recognize group rights and channel ethnic disputes into conventional politics. In Kosovo and East Timor, intervention was chosen only after other means failed. The fact that the United States, NATO, the United Nations, and Australia intervened was itself a testament to the underlying premise that managing ethnic conflict has become an international responsibility.

Evidence about the shift toward accommodation comes from tracking some 300 politically active ethnic and religious groups over half a century.1 The eruption of ethnic warfare in the early 1990s was the culmination of a long-term general trend that began in the 1950s and peaked shortly after the end of the Cold War. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia opened the door to new ethnic and national claims, and about a dozen new ethnic wars erupted in the erstwhile Soviet empire between 1988 and 1992. In the southern hemisphere, more than two dozen ethnic wars began or resumed in roughly the same period, most of them not directly related to the end of the Cold War.

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