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Ethnic Conflict and European Security: Lessons from the Past and Implications for the Future

Authored by Ms. Maria Alongi. | October 1996

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With the outbreak and intensification of a number of ethnically defined conflicts on the European continent since the fall of communism, a conventional wisdom has formed that makes ethnic tensions and instability in Europe almost synonymous. This prevailing notion of an ethnic threat to European stability also has affected the debate on European and transatlantic security institutions. Indeed, the capacity to prevent and respond to ethnic conflict has been a major consideration in the process of institutional development undertaken by several key political and security organizations, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), and the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) . As further proof of the centrality of ethnic questions in European security, the effectiveness and continued relevance of these organizations has often been linked to their responsiveness, or lack thereof, to the most prominent ethnic conflict in Europe: the Balkan crisis.1

Is this linkage between ethnicity and instability in Europe in fact correct? And, does our evaluation of the European security processes and organizations reflect their actual and potential capacity to manage the problem? In order to evaluate the impact of ethnicity on the tensions and conflicts affecting European security and the role of security organizations in mitigating that impact, Women In International Security, the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, the United States Institute of Peace, and the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College convened a conference in Washington, DC, on October 24-25, 1995, entitled "Ethnic Conflict and European Security: Lessons from the Past and Implications for the Future." The two-day discussion, which analyzed the sources of ethnic tensions in Europe as well as the institutional developments in the European security framework, yielded four principal conclusions:

  • First, greater precision is required when discussing ethnic conflict in the context of European security. The ethnic problem in Europe is multifaceted: stemming from different causes, involving a variety of issues, and thus requiring different approaches. In addition, although ethnic tensions are a prominent feature of the European security landscape, not all present a threat to security and stability. In sum, not all ethnic problems should be equated with ethnic conflict.
  • The threat to security and stability in Europe arises not from the presence of ethnic tensions in regional relationships, but from the exploitation and manipulation of these tensions for political ends--a process that can be termed the "ethnicization of politics."
  • The international community has not yet developed appropriate mechanisms to respond to challenges of an ethnic nature. Although certain effective tools to manage the centrifugal forces that ethnic tensions have produced already exist, prior to the implementation of the Dayton accords, responses have been halting, ad hoc, and inconsistent. In addition, in certain cases, international responses to ethnic conflict have actually aggravated the problem.
  • The inconsistent approach of the international community to ethnic demands and grievances reflects to a large extent the inadequacy of existing norms for international behavior in the post-Cold War era. Indeed, there is an inherent dichotomy in the current international approach to ethnic questions, which is based on the potentially contradictory norms of the inviolability of borders, ethnic and minority rights, and the right to self-determination. It is incumbent upon the international community to reevaluate how these norms are to be applied in response to ethnic questions.


Close examination of the nature of the ethnic threat to European security reveals the importance not simply of the ethnicaspect of a crisis, but of the susceptibility of the crisis to political manipulation--the ethnicization of politics. In the most severe cases of ethnic conflict in Europe to date--the Balkan crisis and Chechnya--the breakdown of political authority and profound systemic change facilitated the exploitation by political leaders of preexisting ethnic tensions, exacerbated by political and economic cleavages, and elevated the crisis to conflict. The Balkan crisis in particular suggests that the nature of the response of the international community can have a significant impact on development of the crisis. It also highlights the importance of developing appropriate tools to prevent or manage of the crisis.

The development of European security institutions so far suggests that a great deal of progress has been made in establishing mechanisms for conflict prevention, while crisis management and resolution tools are less developed. A largely untapped potential for crisis management rests in establishing mechanisms for involving grass roots groups and non-elites in preventive diplomacy. This approach may alleviate the problem, cited as a key aspect in the denouement of the Balkan crisis, of imparting undue legitimacy on political leaders who exploit ethnic tensions by making them the only interlocutors of the international community.

In addition, normative questions raised by ethnic conflicts, such as the relative weight of national self-determination in relation to the commitment to respect borders, and minority rights vis-à-vis individual rights have not been addressed fully. In order to establish better tools for institutions, such questions will have to be resolved to provide guidance for third parties in formulating policy responses to situations of ethnic tensions and conflict. An equally important normative exercise for the international community will be to reexamine assumptions about the early use of force as a measure for conflict resolution. Ultimately, as the end-game of the Bosnia conflict may demonstrate, the influence of the international community in conflict prevention and management may rest on the credibility of its commitment to back its words with force.


1. Recall, for example, the statement by Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) that NATO should go "out of area or out of business," ("NATO: Out of Area or Out of Business," speech to the Overseas Writers Club, Washington, DC, June 24, 1993).