REVIEW: Stuart Kaufman, 'Modern Hatreds. The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War'


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Subject: REVIEW: Stuart Kaufman, 'Modern Hatreds. The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War'

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Original sender: Stefan Wolff <S.Wolff@bath.ac.uk>

REVIEW: Stuart Kaufman, 'Modern Hatreds. The Symbolic
Politics of Ethnic War'


Stuart J. Kaufman, 'Modern Hatreds. The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic
War'. Ithaka and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. ISBN
0-8014-8736-6 (pbk.), 12.95. ISBN 0-8014-3802-0 (pbk.), 29.50. xii+264
pages. Index.
 
Reviewed by Stefan Wolff [s.wolff@bath.ac.uk], University of Bath,
England, UK
 
Developing a new theory is not an easy task, and it is all the more
difficult if the theory is to be applied to a subject that is in
itself extremely complex. If, on top of that, the subject is a going
concern in international politics and the new theory to be applied to
it therefore has potentially significant policy implications, the task
may seem rather daunting from the authors perspective. From the
reviewers point of view, the challenge is not at all easy either, as
he or she has to judge the validity of the proposed new explanatory
framework against the range of existing alternatives and in relation
to the case studies on which it is tested. Stuart Kaufmans book Modern
Hatreds has earned pass marks on both counts.
 
In seven chapters, Kaufman outlines a systematic general theory of
ethnic wars that combines rational choice accounts and psychological
explanations into a symbolic politics theory, the core assumption of
which is that people make political choices based on emotion and in
response to symbols (p. 29). This rather broad assumption, of course,
does not tell us anything about the likelihood of an ethnic war
occurring, and Kaufman therefore identifies three necessary conditions
in this regard: the existence of myths of justifying ethnic hostility,
the presence of ethnic fears about the very survival of a group, and
the availability of an opportunity for the ethnic group(s) to mobilise
and fight. Distinguishing between elite-led and mass-led processes in
conflict escalation, Kaufman argues that the three preconditions will
only lead to ethnic war if they result in rising mass hostility,
chauvinist mobilisation by leaders making extreme symbolic appeals,
and a security dilemma between groups, that is, war results from a
vicious feedback loop in which hostility, extremist symbolic appeals,
and a security dilemma all reinforce each other to spur violence,
whereas war can be avoided if any of these three processes is absent
(p.34). On this basis, Kaufman suggests a variety of policy
alternatives for conflict resolution peacemaking, reassurance,
peacebuilding, and a range of crisis management options.
 
Following this outline of this symbolic politics theory, Kaufman
proceeds to apply it to a number of cases from the former Soviet Union
(Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova) and to the former
Yugoslavia. By his own admission, this is not a full-scale test of the
theory, but rather shows how the theory generates fairly simple, yet
different and convincing, explanations for the causes of violence [in]
each case. (p. 45) The choice of cases follows the most similar
systems design, allowing Kaufman to focus variables other than
opportunity and type of institutions namely on myths, fears, and elite
behaviour, which are core elements of symbolic politics theory. The
case studies provide ample evidence for the basic correctness of
Kaufmans theoretical assumptions as to the causes of war, and there
are some brief negative case studies as well, pointing to how symbolic
politics theory can also account for cases in which ethnic wars did
not occur.
 
However, there are a number of problems with the case studies once one
begins to look at them in detail. First, there are inconsistencies in
the presentation. On page 111, Kaufman argues in relation to the South
Ossetian case that people motivated only by profit would not have
shown the discipline and determination to persevere in dull blockade
duties for months (my emphasis), while just one page on Gorbachev is
criticised for not having intervened sooner and in greater force to
oppose the poorly disciplined paramilitaries (p. 112, my emphasis). On
page 129, the reader learns about the Transnistrian case that
Moldovans and Russians did not hate each other and that although
ethnic fears were strong, ethnic hostility was not. In contrast, the
conclusion of this case study asserts that all of the key
preconditions for ethnic violence were present, including mutually
hostile ethnic mythologies generating emotive symbols of conflict (p.
162). In relation to the other Moldovan case Gagauzia Kaufman claims
first that [g]iven that the experience of Romanian rule was within
living memory, the Gagauz did not need a written nationalist mythology
to fear union with Romania (p. 161), only to argue a little later that
[a]mong the Gagauz such [emotive] symbols were not available, and war
was avoided. (p. 163) A last example of this kind can be found in the
concluding section of the Yugoslav case study. On the one hand,
Kaufman argues that perfectly free Serbian elections in the late 1980s
could well have brought to power a nationalist politician who would
have followed a course similar to Milosevics (p. 198), but later on
finds that if there had been no Milosevic, many problems leading to
the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, could have been managed in
other, i.e., non-violent ways. Which way is it, one wonders, and
perhaps even more whether a publisher like Cornell University Press
couldnt have found a manuscript reviewer and/or copy editor who would
have picked up these things alongside phrases such as simmering
resentments simmered (p. 201).
 
Apart from these inconsistencies in the case studies, there seem to be
a few explanatory shortcomings of the theory as it stands. If the fear
of group extinction is so crucial in symbolic politics theory, it
needs to offer a convincing explanation as to why individuals
sometimes place the cultural, not physical, survival of their group
higher as their own physical survival, i.e., why do people choose to
go to war with another group, which poses a very real threat to their
physical existence, when the alternative might be to assimilate in one
way or another but remain alive? This is obviously not a problem of
symbolic politics theory alone, but something that lacks from other
theories explaining ethnic conflict as well. More concretely in
relation to the case studies, for example, it was not quite clear to
me why the absence of an Azerbaijani mythology justifying hostility
toward Georgians or claiming an Azerbaijani homeland in Georgia
stopped Georgians from embarking on a course of war against Azeris in
their country, especially when their political leaders including
Gamsakhurdia articulated hostility vis-a-vis Azeris which clearly
existed among Georgians (p. 124). Likewise, why did the Georgian
national movement [which] aimed at ethnic dominance pose[d] a real
threat to the Ossetians and Abkhaz but not to the Azeris in Georgia
(p. 125)?
 
These criticisms may seem overly harsh (which they are not meant to
be) and may appear to be counter to the earlier assertion that
Kaufmans book is an extremely well-argued and important contribution
to the field of ethnopolitics (which they arent meant to be either).
Stuart Kaufman has provided an excellent foundation from which the
development of symbolic politics theory in the field of ethnopolitics
will hopefully proceed further. Most important in this respect is
perhaps not the detailed analysis and explanation of ethnic conflicts
that have already exploded into wars, but the study of those where
this has not (yet) happened, in order to devise policies that can
prevent such escalation. Again, Kaufmans summary of How to Prevent
Ethnic Wars offers a useful starting point for further research in
this area. According to him, preventing war means preventing extremist
politics by limiting opportunity in the short run and changing the
hostile myths and attitudes in the long run. In the medium run,
economic growth and aid can also help by offering gainful employment
to potential paramilitary recruits and be ameliorating economic
conflicts that might become ethnic flash points. (p. 215) Here, a new
policy research agenda is outlined that will put Kaufmans take on
symbolic politics theory to its most valuable use.
 
In summary, Stuart Kaufman has written a book that is easy to read and
at the same time intellectually stimulating. It will therefore prove
useful in in advanced undergraduate and graduate teaching. Hopefully
it will also challenge other scholars to apply and further develop the
theory outlined by Kaufman.

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