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

Authored by Ms. Maria Alongi.

October 18, 1996

22 Pages

Brief Synopsis

On October 23-25, 1995, coinciding with the Bosnia peace talks being held in Dayton, Ohio, Women in International Security (WIIS), an international, nonpartisan educational program; The Friedrich-Eberet Foundation; the U.S. Institute of Peace; and the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute sponsored a conference, "Ethnic Conflict and European Security: Lessons from the Past and Implications for the Future." Among the participants and attendees were scholars and policymakers from the United States and Europe concerned with the crisis in the Balkans and the larger ramifications of ethnic conflict for European security.

This rapporteur's summary compiled by Ms. Maria Alongi captures the primary themes of the conference to include linkages between ethnicity and instability in Europe, the role European and transatlantic security institutions can play in mitigating those tensions, and the various positive roles Russia and the United States can play in resolving or lessening the impact of ethnic conflict. Ms. Alongi concludes that the nature of the threat posed by ethnic conflict to European security is bound inexorably to a political manipulation; an ethnicization of politics. And while the Balkan crisis held the potential for catapulting Europe back to July 1914, the way the international community reacted to head off a further deterioration in the situation provides some basis for optimism.


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.

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.

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