Ethnic Conflicts and State Building

Spring 2008

Albert Somit and Steven Peterson’s Human Nature and Public Policy suggests that public policy should conform to human nature. The following answer is based on Chapter 13, titled “Ethnic Conflict and State Building” by Bradely Thayer, in Human Nature and Public Policy.

In Human Nature and Public Policy, Albert Somit and Steven Peterson argues that it is important to understand human behavior in order to dictate policies. They note that every policy has a reaction and causes and effects, and these are largely due to human behavior. With a few exceptions, policies usually reflect the views of the human nature, as they inevitably deal with social, political, and economic issues that consider our reactions and motives on a daily basis. The particular focus of this essay will be on Chapter 13 titled Ethnic Conflict and State Building, by Bradley Thayer. Peterson and Somit basically conclude on this topic that policies designed to stop or limit war and violence between people or nations should be based on the fact that these behaviors “have characterized human affairs since the beginning of recorded history and have given no indication of diminution, all palliative efforts notwithstanding” (13). Thayer argues that ethnic conflicts have evolutionary roots, and therefore it is particularly difficult to make policies because so much of ethnic conflict is about human nature. Nevertheless, evolutionary theory does not “offer proximate explanations of ethnic conflict” but assists in the causes and triggers (238).

Since the end of the Cold War, ethnic conflict has been widespread, such as from Sri Lanka, Bosnia, to Liberia. They are important to study because ethnic conflicts often lead to much abuse in human rights and disasters. Ethnic conflicts also influences U.S. policy making- for example, it affects how much of a presence the U.S. will have in Europe if the conflict tin Kosovo should affect Albanian minority in Macedonia. An ethnic conflict also has political implications for the region, as well as economic implication for the area and its partners as well (especially when sanctions are common during such conflicts).  We seek to understand the roots of these conflicts so that we may make effective policies, and evolutionary models assist us in this process.

Thayer discusses evolutionary theory to illustrate the difficulties of creating policies that would not only limit or terminate ethnic conflicts but also conform to human nature. He uses examples of xenophobia and ethnocentrism to explain the contribution of human evolution on this issue. Xenophobia is the fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners, or those unknown to us. Ethnocentrism is when one believes in the superiority of their ethnicity. It is a collection of traits that would predispose the individual to show discriminatory preferences for groups with the closest identities to themselves. Both of these traits have existed since the beginning of time in humans and other animals- such as with cats and dogs, as Thayer points as an example. Some argue that competition for territory and other scarce resources caused these traits to appear in human nature; since we live in groups, we compete with other groups, and create wars to get the most resources. Fear of strangers escalated as technology advanced and we were able to make more specialized weapons to threaten one another and defend ourselves. Ethnocentrism proves why individuals generally support their own community more than others. For example, given the human nature, you would not normally sacrifice for strangers. This also explains why people identify with a nation, and communities similar to them in conflict. Nationalism has definitely played large parts in ethnic conflict, as being part of a group only strengthens the “causes” being fought for or defended.

Given these points by Thayer, it confirms the difficulty of conforming to human nature in making policies, especially when the international community is considering involvement. When we learn about these ethnic conflicts, it is in our human nature to sympathize, and most of us who are especially disconnected from the region feel this way. However, that does not mean that the United States will go and use its recourses to end the conflict in Yugoslavia or in Darfur, Sudan. It is very hard to conform to human nature in this sense because while we see the humanitarian abuse, policies must take many other factors into consideration, such as the economic interests, safety of its own citizens, and how it will affect political alliances or monetary relations with other involved parties. Policies must judge on these multiple levels because an ethnic conflict has so many implications for the home nation as well as the conflicted region’s interests, ranging from political, fiscal, to social and historical.

Thayer suggests that we need to change the concept of the national identity as a way of combating ethnic conflicts, and make it be one that includes everyone in a region no matter the race, religion, or background. He suggests that we do this through education as well as media to promote ethnic integration. However, this is a possible, but a difficult process because the very nature of humans has created these ethnical differences in the first place, and some of the prejudices have existed for so long that often becomes part of the culture in many regions of the conflict.  It is difficult to attain complete unity in nations where it is particularly multiethnic. Thayer points that many countries like the United Kingdom, India, France, and the United States have “successfully” used education to promote ethnic integration. Indeed in the United States, racial toleration and acceptance is emphasized through education in schools, and yet racially segregated schools still exist throughout the country. In India, division between castes in schools and in the community still widely exist and accepted because this classification system has existed for so long in society that it is part of the very culture of India. In France, many Muslim families face the problem of having to limit possible schools that their daughter can attend because it is against he law to wear the headscarf inside educational institutions. Combating evolutionary traits such as xenophobia and ethnocentrisms is often too idealistic in international politics. But the recognition that such feelings exist is important in beginning changes, as slowly as it may be. This is why ethnic conflicts take so long to terminate, as changes must be brought in time and must be sensitive to the people and the parties involved.

The evolutionary model used by Thayer assists us in seeing how ethnic conflicts are often inevitable because so much of it is evolutionary, such as xenophobia and ethnocentrisms. It is imperative to realize that ethnic conflicts have evolutionary origins and so cannot be simply eliminated. Rather, they can be controlled and limited. Thayer asserts that the international community must work together to suppress ethnic conflicts. However, this is not always possible because many members of the community that have the means to limit ethnic conflict have other interests to respect as well, especially when ethnic conflicts have so many triggers, from cultural, historical, to economic, and political. Ethnic conflicts are indeed multifaceted, and have very complex origins, and they continue to be a danger for many parts of the world today. What policy makers can do is understand the causes to help scholars “better predict the circumstances in which ethnic conflicts may occur”, and then suggest certain courses of actions. Because so much of human nature is evolutionary, policies wil continue to be suggested and considered, and ethnic conflict will probably remain, like a “social phenomenon”, and continue to be part of the fabric of international politics.


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