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Ethnic Conflict: Implications for the Army of the Future

Authored by Major General William A. Stofft, Dr. Gary L. Guertner. | March 1994

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Ethnic conflict is an elemental force in international politics and a major threat to regional security and stability. Ethnicity as a source of conflict has deep historic roots. Many such conflicts lay dormant, suppressed by the Soviet empire or overshadowed by the ideological competition of the cold war. Both protagonists in the cold war demonstrated unwarranted optimism about their ability to defuse ethnicity and ethnic conflict. Marxists believed that ethnicity would give way to "proletarian internationalism." Social class and economic welfare would determine both self-identity and loyalty to political institutions that would transcend ethnic identification or religious affiliation.

Western democracies assumed that "nation building" and economic development were not only vital components in the strategy to contain communist expansion, but that capitalism, economic prosperity, and liberal democratic values would also create free societies with a level of political development measured by loyalty to the state rather than to the narrower ethnic group. Instead, the goals of assimilation and integration within the larger context of economic and political development are being replaced by violent ethnic corrections to artificially imposed state boundaries. The Balkan and Transcaucasian conflicts, for example, are ancient in origin and have as their object the territorial displacement of entire ethnic groups. Such conflicts by their nature defy efforts at mediation from outside, since they are fed by passions that do not yield to "rational" political compromise. They are, as John Keegan describes in his most recent study of war, "apolitical" to a degree for which Western strategists have made little allowance.1

The demise of European communism and the Russian empire has unleashed this century's third wave of ethnic nationalism and conflict. The first came in the wake of the collapsing Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian empires which came to a climax after World War I; the second followed the end of European colonialism after World War II.

The third wave of ethnic-based conflict may transform international politics and confront the United States with new security challenges.2 The extent of the historic transformation underway since the cold war will be determined by the interplayof many trends, some cyclical like ethnic conflict, and some historically unique. Cyclical trends include the violence that follows failed empires and states, economic scarcity, environmental degradation, epidemics, mass migrations, and even ethnic cleansing.

Historically unique trends which make the post-cold war world unpredictable include global transparency and communications, mobility, proliferation of military technology, including weapons of mass destruction, and the potential scope of environmental changes caused by the unprece- dented assaults from population growth, industrialization, pollution, climatic change, and the emergence of new, virulent diseases. Any one of these trends is capable of producing synergistic effects that fast-forward systemic collapse in the Third World, reducing the radius of trust and loyalty to ethnic kinsmen, tribe, clan, or religious group.

The United States and its allies are confronted with intractable zones of hostility in failed, fragmenting states that resemble the anarchy of the pre-nation-state system. Failed states are inevitably altered by what Martin van Creveld describes as the legal monopoly of armed force being wrested from official hands by warring factions that create an environment in which the distinctions between war and crime are lost in a rising tide of violence and anarchy.3 Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Peru, Sudan, Chad, and Liberia are all dramatic cases.

These trends are not indicators of an inevitable dark age of ethnic conflict. They are, however, warnings to both our military and civilian leadership that we face an unprecedented number of conflicts ranging from high-tech forces emerging from the "military-technical revolution" to primitive inter-clan, urban warfare. The primary interest for the U.S. Army is to protect our national interests when they are at risk from these trends.


1. John Keegan, A History of Warfare, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, p. 58.

2. The most comprehensive, documented post-cold war study of ethnic conflict is Ted Robert Gurr, Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993.

3. Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War, New York: Free Press, 1991, pp. 197-207.