Ethnic Security Dilemma Revisited and Regretted

One of the regrets of my career is that I was developing the ethnic security dilemma concept the same time as Barry Posen, who published his in Survival in 1993.  As I prepared for my comprehensive exams in 1991 in IR and Comparative Politics, I focused on ethnic politics for the latter exam.  I wrote papers that developed the IR concept for ethnic politics, got nice comments from my profs, but moved on to the dissertation. I should have tried to publish the piece–I would have scooped Posen.

Why talk about it now?  Well, one lessons is that publishing good ideas in grad school might just help one’s job market outcomes–I spent three years on the market and ended up in a less desirable spot.  If I had that pub, who knows?

More importantly, I have been forever frustrated since because Posen’s view of the ESD is a pretty military one–that it is all about translating the security dilemma to the civil war battlefield.  So, he ends up arguing that intermixing provides temptations to pre-empt, which leads to group competition which leads to spirals and violence.  The policy implication of this is to separate groups–partition or something short of it, so that groups are not tempted.  The problem is that groups that are quite concentrated, that are not intermixed, are not deterred by their vulnerability.  Highly intermixed groups have to worry and may be deterred by their vulnerability.  Indeed, in many of the classic ESD cases, outside actors have to be brought in to trigger the violence (see John Mueller’s stuff).

My view of the ESD was a political one–that competition was not for terrain and neighborhoods but for control of the government.  Why? The greatest threat to any group is the coercive apparatus of the state.  Genocide is committed mostly by governments who have most, if not a monopoly, of the means of coercion.

Why am I thinking about this today?  I am preparing for my Contemporary International Security class, which meets tomorrow.  One reading focuses on the surge in Iraq and seeks to explain what caused the decline (temporary as it clearly now is) of violence.  Four arguments are in play: that the US surge worked on its own, that the Anbar Awakening (Sunnis turning against extremists in their own group) worked on its own, synergy between the two (the authors’ argument), that violence declined because the ethnic security dilemma was resolved via ethnic cleansing.

That is, no more ethnic insecurity due to intermixing as violence was aimed at creating homogeneous neighborhoods.  The article does a great job of showing that violence was not related to intermixing, that the creation of homogeneity did not lead to less violence but to changes where violence occurred.  That the homogeneous neighborhoods served as bases for aggressive actions, not for defensive ones.

Anyhow, I am always glad to see some evidence that I might have been right long ago.  And, yes, I did publish pieces of my view of the ESD in various spots along the way, but it was a bit late to influence how others view it.  So, the more popular version continues to shape how people think about ethnic conflict.  Which proves the old academic saying: if you snooze, you lose.


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