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Published on: November 7, 2011
The Scariest Thing In the World

The scariest thing in the world has nothing to do with Greek debt plans, Italian bond yields or even American pension funds.  It is not the prospect of war in the Persian Gulf over the Iranian nuclear program. The scariest thing in the world is the prospect that the identity wars are spreading from Europe […]

The scariest thing in the world has nothing to do with Greek debt plans, Italian bond yields or even American pension funds.  It is not the prospect of war in the Persian Gulf over the Iranian nuclear program.

The scariest thing in the world is the prospect that the identity wars are spreading from Europe and the Middle East into the rest of Asia and Africa.

The identity wars started in early modern Europe around the time of the Protestant Reformation.  After a century of genocidal violence that left most of Germany ruined and depopulated, those wars subsided until the French Revolution set off an even greater and more devastating wave.  Closely connected to the industrial revolution and the rise of democracy, nationalism emerged as a dominant political force in 19th century Europe, spreading from northwestern Europe toward the south and east.  Over the next 100 years, more than a hundred million people died in wars as multinational empires in Europe and the Middle East ripped themselves apart in paroxysms of war, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Turkish soldiers march with Armenian civilians in 1915 (Wikimedia)

More recent crises — like the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the Kurdish conflict, the Greco-Turkish conflict over Cyprus, the violence in the Caucasus and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — are the last reverberating echoes of this horrendous upheaval, and they are bad enough.

One of the biggest questions in world politics today is whether identity wars (conflicts between groups with different cultural, religious and/or ethnic backgrounds who inhabit the same stretch of land) were a special feature of modern European and Middle Eastern history or whether these conflicts will appear in more of Africa and Asia in the 21st century as development spreads.  Are identity wars a fundamental aspect of the modernization process or did they arise out of specific European and Middle Eastern characteristics that don’t apply elsewhere in the world?

If identity wars are endemic to modernizing human societies, we can expect more cruel and bloody convulsions from southern Africa through the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia in the next 50 to 100 years.

Identity wars can be among the most vicious, violent and prolonged conflicts human beings can fight.  The Balkan wars in the 199os shocked the world as ethnic cleansing and genocide reappeared in a part of Europe that had been mostly peaceful since World War Two, and where different religious and ethnic groups seemed to coexist reasonably well.  World War One and World War Two, both wars of identity driven by a mix of nationalist and ideological politics, were unprecedented in ferocity and scale.

One hoped that Africa and Asia would be spared the scourge of such conflicts in the 21st century, but those hopes are beginning to fray.  The signs are mounting that the ethnic, religious and cultural forces that drove the great wave of identity wars of the last 150 years are alive and well in the non-European world.

Out of many possible examples illustrating this growing trend, let’s just take two: Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan. In Nigeria, the escalation of religious and communal violence continued in recent days with well over one hundred people killed in bombings and other attacks. Nigeria shows what can happen when religious and tribal identities reinforce one another and mix with economic conflicts.  The nightmare scenario for Africa in the next 50 years would be that ethnic and religious divides undermined the fragile unity of Africa’s many poorly governed multi-ethnic states and that a generation or more of warfare, massacre and ethnic cleansing would re-order the continent into smaller and more ethnically and religiously homogenous countries.

This isn’t an inevitable fate, but it is much more likely than the Africa establishment inside and outside the continent would have us believe. 30 years of war in Sudan, genocidal ethnic struggles in the Great Lakes, the vicious wars of independence in Ethiopia: there is evidence enough that fragile post-colonial identities and state structures cannot always stand.  Grandiose cosmopolitan plans for nation building among multi-ethnic and multi-confessional populations haven’t worked in other parts of the world; it is not clear what would make Africa more fertile soil for these experiments.  Often, governments in multi-ethnic countries are weak and corrupt precisely because the state must rest on complex and inefficient bargains between elites representing different ethnic and religious communities.  One reason that nationalist groups all over Europe and the Middle East demanded states of their own is that the multinational states worked so poorly.  The Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (the best of the bunch, but still slow, corrupt and incompetent at many things), the Russian Empire: all were overwhelmed by the tasks of governing diverse populations in an age of rapid development and social change.

Today’s leaders in Nigeria, the “Democratic” “Republic” of Congo, and many other African states are every bit as incompetent as any of their European and Ottoman predecessors.  For much of Europe (emphatically including the Turks) the voyage to modernity lay through bloody seas.  With many ethnic and religious identities in Africa becoming stronger rather than weaker over time, the chances for a Great Restructuring of the post colonial settlement seem to be rising over time.

But this is not just an African problem.  Recent reports from the unhappy country of Kyrgyzstan confirm that ethnic hatreds and genocidal violence don’t need the excuse of religious conflict to blight the hopes of emerging countries deep in Central Asia.  As Joshua Foust reports in a harrowing Atlantic piece, the persecution of the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan looks more and more like scenes in much of Europe and the Middle East during the dreadful conflicts of the not so different past.

Almost every Uzbek you find in Osh has a heartbreaking story of tragedy: homes burned down, family members beaten to death in the street. The local government response has worsened the injustice. The Uzbeks who didn’t lose everything in the riots and fires now face a predatory local government that threatens them unless they sign over controlling stakes of their businesses to Kyrgyz. I found several restaurants and cafes run by Kyrgyz that had been owned by Uzbeks before the June Events.

In Europe and the Middle East, this sort of thing generally went on until a set of wars and conflicts culminated in either the physical extermination or the forced expulsion of enough people to create homogenous nation states in what remained.  The conflicts were often made worse by the presence of ambitious and conniving outside powers who exploited these divisions for reasons of their own.  With China, Russia, India, Pakistan and the United States all interested in Central Asia, we must expect more of the same.

Major ethnic groups in Central Asia (click to enlarge) (Wikimedia)

Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan are just two of several examples of recent and ongoing ethnic conflict; others include the Sri Lankan civil war that ended brutally in 2009 — as many as 100,000 people may have died. Pakistan, China, India, and various African and Pacific island nations are all struggling with ethnic violence, demands for independence, and conflicts between different groups.

These days, nationalism is trying to reassert itself within the European Union.  It is on the boil across the Middle East.  Despite many attempts to tamp it down (including the fundamentally racist technique of labeling groups of people who would qualify in Europe as “nations” as “tribes” when they live in Africa), it is on the rise south of the Sahara and beyond the Urals.  It lurks in South Asia where communal tensions challenge both India and Pakistan in complex ways.  It animates armies of Chinese bloggers and others to push for aggressive policies in the South China Sea — and eggs Vietnam and others to respond.

More than 200 years after the French Revolution unleashed the modern wave of identity wars, the world has developed vastly more powerful weapons and techniques of war. Advancements in warfare technology will only continue.

But we are no closer now than we were 200 years ago to resolving the question of nationalism and the death struggles between peoples that nationalism often entails.  And that is the scariest thing in the world.

show comments
  • John Alsina

    Can you give some examples of wars that were NOT identity wars? All wars require some practical way of distinguishing friend from foe. “Practical” means using simple criteria. Voila! “identify” war!

  • Brock

    Spengler/David Goldman has been writing about this for a while, sort of. I think his central response is that history has offerred two solutions: partition or universal religion.

    According to Goldman, western society has created only two examples of universal religion: Holy Roman Empire and the United States’ Constitution (I would add British Monarchy under Common Law to the list). All other Western States are essentially tribal in nature.

    The only hope for Africa and SE Asia is that they either partition peacefully or find a universal religion (hopefully not Jihadist Islam). Which isn’t much of a hope.

  • Otis McWrong

    With this in mind, it seems a great idea that we continue to enthusiastically embrace multiculturalism and its attendant hordes of “the different”. What could go wrong?

  • ahem

    “Identity wars”–you gotta be kidding. What planet are you from? Just call it “the Caliphate”; it’s more honest. Christians are not trying to take over vast swathes of land; the Muslims, however, are.

  • CCJ

    Your link to the Foust article is broken, and I believe his name is spelled “Foust,” not “Faust”.

  • Anthony

    WRM, your subject matter is both weighty and despairing – such generally is social and political philosophy. Conflicts between groups (humans) are age old problem – man’s inhumanity to man needs no survey here. Yet, your exposition brings to mind “Patrimonial Power in the Modern World” (The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science – July, 2011). The editors argue that unless madiating factors exist within differing cultural, religious, and/or ethnic backgrounds wno inhabit the same stretch of land a sense of depersonalization forms and contributes to inclination towards “The Eternal Return of the Tribe” (Nation). I fear our 21st century “Scariest Thing In the World” turns on how we interpret and genuinely aspire humanly to proffer ways out of this growing revanchist behavior.

  • Akshay Kanoria

    Coming from India, I have a slightly divergent opinion on this whole multi-ethnicity issue in weak democratic states. India has multiple religions (and sects and castes within), languages, ethnicities and cultures all (largely) peacefully co-existing together in a vibrant democracy with one of the most rapidly growing economies in the world.
    When talking about how ethnic conflict or religious conflicts tear a nation apart, it is rather easy to find examples. When looking at how states can rise above such problems, it helps to look at a proven success story. I highly recommend you look into the Indian example as a model for other diverse nations seeking to establish lasting democracy.

  • Eric

    I agree about Nigeria, but Kyrgyzstan should be fairly stable for some time. It borders Xinjiang autonomous region, therefore China is unlikely to let up her hegemony and risk inflamation of ethnic unrest in Xinjiang.

    Typically regions of frozen conflict are peaceful until imperial control fails – Yugoslavia, USSR, British Empire, Alexander’s empire etc. When the overlord control comes off the conflicts come unfrozen. This is therefore unlikely to happen in Kyrgyzstan until China changes significantly. Which is not to say life will be pleasant, particularly for the poor Uzbeks.

  • rob5289

    Please read Steven Pinker’s wonderful review of the history of violence, “The Better Angels of our Nature.”

  • Anne

    The Kyrgystan flare-up was not caused by religious differences, both are Sunni Muslims. It appears to have been set off deliberately by angry members of the govt. replaced by Roza Otunbayeva (sp?). Still, the ethnic fault line did exist…but when in history have they not existed?

  • Luke Lea

    India is in may ways unique, composed of many thousands of endogamous locl communities stratified by caste buy united by a religious world-view that, while not universal, encompasses the entire sub-continent (minus the Mulsims of course, which is a problem).

    China, on the other hand, includes something like 700 million Han, and I am given to understand that nationalist passions are just beneath the surface (remember when we accidentally bombed their embassy in Belgrade?). Certainly the modernization process is churning the demography more or less as it did in Europe. Whether in case of break down this is more likely to lead to regional war-lordism as it did in the 1930’s or one giant ethnic “beast” maurauding through Asia is a question I hope never gets answered. What does an 800 lbs Gorilla take?

  • John Burke

    It’s not racism to refer to African (or other) tribes as tribes, rather than nations. Africa is home to hundreds of tribes few of which could ever constitute a nation in the sense we know it. Some tribes actually have a great deal in common but are blood enemies. So it upis with the Hutu and Tutsi who are ethnically similar, speak the same language and live traditionally in the same territory — but hate each other. On the other hand, the Hausa, Ibdo, Yoruba and a half dozen other tribes of Nigeria are of several ethnic groups, all speak their own languages and have disparate cultures but have managed generally to live as a single nation until
    recently (they have a secession in the 60s but so did
    we). Militant Islam may divide the nation but if so, it will not be tribal.

    In North Africa, we have recently learned how important tribes are in Lybia, notwithstanding the fact that almost everyone is an ethnic Arab, speaks Arabic and shares the same Sunni Muslim faith and thousand year old culture. If Lybia comes apart along tribal lines, we would be foolish to view the pieces as nations in the sense that Slovaks or Slovenians comprise a nation.

    In Iraq, we learned that tribes were still important but tribal membership cut across the far more important Sunni-Shia divide.

    And in Afghanistan, there are dozens of tribes just among the ethnic Pashtuns who share a language, culture, religion and history. While it is possible to imagine a nation of Pashtunistan, there will never be a nation of the Afridis, the Waziris, the Durrani or the Mohmand.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      While there is a great variety among sub-Saharan tribes, they are much more like nations than like Arab and Berber tribes. They speak different languages, for one thing, and often have quite different customs. While some are small, many are quite large (millions of members) and quite a few have a history of political independence and state building before the colonial era. These are on the whole much more serious and consequential entities than the tribes of the Arab world.

  • Anthony

    @ 6, error correction: 4th sentence should read: The editors argue that unless mediating factors exist within differing cultural, religious, and/or ethnic backgrounds, those who inhabit the same stretch of land can develop a sense of depersonalization; such sense can contribute to predilection towards “….”

  • MichaelM

    I’m going to jump on board with the notion that the idea of identity conflicts being at all historically recent is bumpkiss. Prior to the Reformation it’s easy to pick out conflicts obviously based on identity: the Crusades (ALL of them, including 1204), the Byzanto-Iranian Wars of Late Antiquity, etc etc etc.

    Ideas shot ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ are an innate aspect of human nature and have been driving us to new heights of slaughter and violent excess since we have been human.

  • DrMorbius

    @John Alsina says:
    November 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Are you kidding us? Did you even READ the essay?? If you did, did you give it any thought at all???

    American Revolution, American Civil War, the Continental European wars of the 18th century, the imperial conquest wars of Rome and of Great Britain… I could go on and on and on.

    Those were wars of revolution against a mother country that was alike in ethnicity and religion, a civil war between two powers who were also alike in religion and ethnicity, wars between dynastic powers that were so limited and so tightly governed that the inhabitants of opposing powers sometimes didn’t even realize they were at war, and wars by imperial powers solely interested in materiel gain, powers who could care less about the ethnicity or religion of their foes, powers who, regularly or occasionally, employed the martial services of their former enemies.

    Identity wars are wars centered on race and/or ethnicity and/or religion and/or ideology; they are wars for no real practical materiel gain (or where practical gain is concomitant with or subordinate to other issues), wars often waged by one people against another who otherwise seem to be so similar that observers sometimes scratch their heads and wonder what possible quarrel the two sides could have with each other.

    They are wars that resemble more than anything blood feuds writ large; blood feuds become total wars in the modern era…

  • Mark Michael

    North America has not had terrible “identity” wars in the 400 years that Europeans have settled here. The worst war was our Civil War which was (mostly) over slavery. European ethnic groups that were at each other’s throats in the Old Country, learned to put aside their hostilities within a couple generations in America. The US’s fights with Canada petered out by the mid-19th Century, and they didn’t amount to much in the way of blood and treasure expenditures. We stole a big chunk of Mexico, but they’re to weak to fight back. Well, they’re immigrating into America so heavily, maybe they’ll take back the SW that way! But it’s not a bloody, violent conflict.

  • http://whiskeys-place.blogspot.com whiskey

    Oh please Mr. Mead. Brutal wars in the Balkans are old news. The Turks killed half the population conquering them, as before them the Huns, the Romans, the Macedonians, the Greeks and the Persians had done. Hulagu Khan left about a million skulls outside Baghdad. Caesar killed about a million Gauls. None of these occured in modern nation states, heck the Persians were a multi-ethnic empire, comprised of many subject peoples. As was the Turkish Sultanate, and the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander.

    The Balkans in particular were a seething cauldron of hatred kept “peaceful” by Tito’s brutality, although less bloody than Saddam’s on the same model. No one should have been shocked with his passing, the place would blow up into hyper-violence. Any more than the power-struggles among the French and Hapsburgs would turn Germany into abbatoir, with Sweden and Russia getting into the act.

    All that modernizing did was give better weapons to large, industrial states that could not be matched by smaller, less modern states (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Greece) or archaic, pre-modern states (Russia). With nukes as a commodity now, and the AK-47, and IED, the ability to conquer and hold with industrial infrastructure is negated. India must fear and tolerate every Pakistani provocation because Pakistan can wipe out its cities.

    Turks are not European, any more than Europeans are Muslims, or Africans, or Asians.

    There is nothing wrong with nationalism. It actually WORKS. Multi-nationalism as you note fails, by its very nature it is corrupt and brutal, resting on the suppression of most to benefit a few (the Saddam model in various Tito, Xerxes, Alexander, Stalin, Mao, and Napoleon permutations). You and every other human are engineered to trust people who look and act like distant relatives. Nationalism can engender high-trust societies. It is necessary but not sufficient of course to a wealth producing society that innovates.

    No innovations, came out in a steady stream from multi-national empires. Nation-states alone create a constant flow of innovation, change, and technological vitality critical to creating and defending wealth. [India is a pest-hole with forced child brides and suttee and the rest of the barbaric stuff that marks them as utter and complete failures. Yes they produce dirt-cheap English speaking semi-competent laborers. This is not an accomplishment.]

  • Hutch451

    So a central component of Professor Mead’s thesis is that identity wars in Africa represent some sort of contagion from Europe and the ME? Identity wars, i.e. conflicts between tribal entities, have been part and parcel of Africa’s political landscape for thousands of years. It is quite plausible that the migration of early humans from Africa to Eurasia was at least partly due to tribal identity wars. To lay recent occurrences of identity wars in Africa at the feet of Europe seems a bit cockeyed to me.

  • Eric the Chartruse

    How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll, tootsie pop?

  • Jeff77450

    This essay reminds me of one that appeared here 06 September, _Under the Bus: A Pack of Pouting Greens_. I commented that for several decades there had been a school-of-thought that, long-term, the Earth could support about one-billion people and that based on about thirty-two years of formal & informal study & travel I considered that one-billion figure to be likely to be true.

    I didn’t state that that figure was an established fact or that it even qualified as a “theory” since a theory is accepted by the scientific-community at large and not just the individual who proposes it. An individual proposes a hypothesis.

    In any case I was attacked, I gather with “glee,” and accused of wanting to commit genocide. (I had suggested no such thing). A couple of enlightened individuals suggested that I kill myself first.

    That one-billion figure still hasn’t been proven, and probably won’t be in my lifetime, but this current essay reminds me of that verse of scripture, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country.”

    Of course, one tribe (of humans) has been trying to annihilate another since long before the Earth’s population reached that first billion, circa 1800. But it seems to me–and this isn’t profound–that over-population pressures can only exacerbate the problem of identity-wars.

  • Luke Lea

    Wow, Whiskey! I didn’t know you were so knowledgeable.

  • David Billington

    I am inclined to agree that “identity” is too broad a term (in Europe, one would have to include the Crusades and not argue that it began with the Reformation). But your larger point is I think well taken.

    The danger in Asia is that its major actors will repeat the disastrous history of Europe from 1890 to 1945. The prevalence of nuclear weapons gives grounds for hope that large-scale war can be averted, but in a multipolar world it may be harder to avoid conflict than in the bipolar world of the Cold War.

    Just as Britain began to lose its maritime advantage after 1890, it is likely that the means to disable satellites and sink expensive surface fleets in the next decade or two will reduce America’s present advantage and make every country in Asia less secure. The 1914 scenario could repeat itself: a jihadist terror attack on India finally provokes India to attack Pakistan, dragging in China and then America and Russia. Or China could finally put pressure on Taiwan to give up its independence or assert maritime claims that Japan cannot tolerate.

    Asians know the history of the twentieth century and are in no hurry to repeat it. But the arms race in Asia shows no sign of abating, and it may be more difficult to prevent a clash from triggering a conflict that no one really wants.

  • Patrick

    Not sure I see any sign that these conflicts are proliferating in Africa or Asia… if we look at the last 50 years, do we see anything to match the ferocious conflicts we saw in Liberia/Sierra Leone, Cambodia/Vietnam, Algeria, Biafra (Nigeria), Ethopia/Eritrea, Sudan, Congo (1999-2004), Rwanda/Burundi, Angola, and Pakistan/India/Bangladesh? All of these were intertribal/communal conflicts/civil wars. Seems like the world got a lot more peaceful in the last two decades to me.

  • http://nautright.blogspot.com/ Mike Mahoney

    Isms are a constructed facade to be used as a rallying point or target. This is not to say isms are utterly baseless. No, they’re ubiquitous. Obviously what is constructed is not the fact that isms exist in the natural state but the power structure that puts them to use in binding groups of people.
    Western notions of natural law/common law/constitutions sought to unravel that utility. When the experiment works, power is dilluted. Now then, see the reason the west is hated?

  • Gene

    Identity War

    Hate Crime

    Resource acquisition

    robbery

  • lupus scrivner

    A badly written article. Ever hear of taking things from rough to refined draft?

    And the thinking is just ignorant, with no sense of history. How can you just blame whitey for something so universal as in-group out-group conflict? Sad excuse for a thinker you are, Mr. Mead. Funny what passes for “publishable” writing these days.

  • Bosnian

    “Over the next 100 years, more than a hundred million people died in wars as multinational empires in Europe and the Middle East ripped themselves apart in paroxysms of war, genocide and ethnic cleansing.”

    Someone, here, mentioned that you are Professor, if I am not mistaken? I wonder… what kind?

    This article is clearly written with certain ideological point of view. Therefore, I do not take it as a serious or “scientific” one. It is rather neocolonial and neoliberal in its core, and as such looking for excuse for numerous massacres and famines committed and caused by imperial forces and administrators even to this day. An Iraq may serve as the most prominent and gruesome example. This article is written with very strong dose of late Samuel Huntington.

    Those, “more than a hundred million people” are victims of colonial(s) lunacy and their planners. Just to mention handling of dissolution of Ottoman Empire by Western powers and Russia and for that matter the Balkans question in 1919 – Treaty of Versailles. Or, Drang Nach Osten. All those victims are victims of deep-rooted Westphalian national cultural fixation and its “culture”. As we can see that “culture” tearing EU apart, even today.

    Maybe Dear Professor, you should read the book of one other professor: Mark Mazower,
    “Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century”.
    One thing is certain: Those with “identity” (Westphalians) are very successful in exporting their best product to those without it: violence.

    Yugoslavia was mentioned, few times here, as an example of to paraphrase of impossibility of multi-cultural state. Yugoslavia is/was the country where I was born, and where I lived happily along the other without “identity”. When “brutal” dictator Tito died, and “democracy” arrived/imposed, the population found themselves in an inter-communal war which is in essence imposed by the EU and US. I, myself, ended up as a refuge, which I am going to be the rest of live, i.e., with f….. life.

    Not sure are you good or bad… but you are for sure: Westphalian.

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