Ethno-Nationalism in the Contemporary World

O.N. Mehrotra,Senior Fellow,IDSA


The problem of ethno-nationalism has not attracted much attention from international theorists and strategic studies analysts because ethnic crises were not considered serious threats to international security and world peace until recently. An ethnic crisis was generally considered to be an internal affair of a country and the international community or international organisations were generally not involved in the resolution of such a crisis, until it became a bilateral or multilateral problem between two or more states and they sought the assistance of the international community. In fact, for many years, the most serious threat to international security was the likelihood that an East-West confrontation could lead to nuclear war. Thus, many scholars and analysts engaged themselves in their intellectual studies on reducing the possibility and causes of a nuclear war. Though its possibility has not been completely eliminated, the causes of nuclear war have been reduced with the end of the Cold War because many confidence building as well as arms control measures have been adopted in the recent past.

For followers of the idealist tradition, economic interests determine international relations, and the role of the state has gradually been shrinking. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) will soon gain prominence. Moreover, it is believed in parts of Western Europe that state barriers would be lifted soon as the ideals of the European Union (EU) are being translated into reality. But, at the same time, students of international relations have been attracted to the study of anthropology and sociology because ethnic conflicts are becoming the main factors in determining relations between two or more states1 as well as resolution of problems for consideration by the international organisation, namely, the Security Council of the United Nations.

In fact, the ethnic violence in the Balkans cannot be comprehended without studying the cultural, social and religious factors. Why does violence erupt in some multi-ethnic states and not in others? The causes of ethnic conflicts have to be studied before arriving at any conclusion or prescription for a solution. This requires knowledge of the local history, socio-economic conditions and political life. This paper does not discuss in detail all the aspects of ethno-nationalist crises in the contemporary world. It deals briefly with the meaning of ethnicity; the origins and development of ethno-nationalist movements in general and outside intervention in ethnic crises in the post-Cold War period in particular. It briefly examines outside intervention in resolving the ethnic crises in Bosnia and Sri Lanka.

In the post-Cold War period, the maximum human casualties have been caused by ethnic wars. In merely two summer months of 1994, about half a million people were mercilessly butchered in an ethnic civil war in Rwanda. The Rwandan ethnic war, which is yet to end, has not attracted the attention that it deserved from the media and international community. However, it has threatened the national integrity, security and peace of neighbouring countries. Since a majority of countries, with a few exceptions, are multi-ethnic and one or more ethnic groups usually live in the neighbouring countries, there is every likelihood that an ethnic crisis in a country may also involve another country. In such a situation, two and more countries may adopt diametrically opposite views on an ethnic crisis and its resolution. In other words, it may become an international crisis, with calls for intervention by the international community, e.g., the bloody Bosnian ethnic war.

In the post-Cold War period, ethno-nationalism has assumed prominence because some new countries were constituted on the basis of ethnicity and this raised the expectations of many ethnic groups to be able to achieve their cherished goal of establishing a new country on the basis of ethnicity. Ethnicity is a sense of ethnic identity. It has been defined variously. For its understanding, we may quote George de Vos who has defined it as consisting of the "subjective, symbolic or emblematic use" by "a group of people.... of any aspect of culture, in order to differentiate themselves from other groups." The cultural makers may be language or dialect, distinctive dress or diet or customs, religion or race. Any one of the cultural makers may become a divisive cause of creating differentiation between two groups of people in a community. These two different groups are known as two different ethnic groups. In a community, the number of ethnic groups may increase even in modern times. But an ethnic group may not emerge as another separate ethnic group unless it has developed a "subjective self-consciousness, a claim to status and recognition, either as a superior group or as a group at least equal to other groups. Ethnicity is to ethnic category what class consciousness is to class."2

Ethnic nationalism is not a new phenomenon. In his essay on representative government, John Stuart Mill reached the conclusion that "it is in general a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with nationalities."3 But nationalism more than ethnicity has repeatedly been denounced as an anachronism. Harold J. Laski has termed nationalism as an outmoded, deep-seated disease which plagued mankind and which cannot be healed by incantation. Nationalism has been a catchword with many different meanings in modern times. It can work in a multiplicity of forms. It can be exploited for cultural integration, political ends, democratic ideals and even toward authoritarianism. Nationalism as an ideology can sometime be dangerous as it may lead to the formation of an authoritarian government that may also follow the policy of expansionism. The extreme form of ethnic nationalism is the primary cause for ethnic cleansing which Hitler adopted in the inter-War period and which recently occurred in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In case new nation states were allowed to be established on the basis of ethnic nationalism, there would be around 8,000 nation states. In fact, Lord John Acton rejected Mill's views on determining the boundaries of governments on ethnic lines and reaffirmed his faith in the multinational or multi-ethnic state.4 Though it is universally recognised that a nation state cannot be established on the ground of ethnicity because it would lead to the disintegration of many multi-ethnic states and the likelihood of bloodshed, ethnicity has been emerging as the sole basis for legitimising the demand for constituting a new state.

Nationality may be defined in one of two ways—by ethnic or civic criteria.5 While ethnic nationality is based on the consciousness of a shared identity, culture, belief in common ancestors and history, civic nationality is encompassed within a geographically defined territory. In fact, ethnic nationalism has had an advantage over territorial or civic nationalism because the former appears as a natural continuation of a pre-existing ethnicity.6 Louis L. Snyder breaks down the variation of nationalism as: (i) a force for unity; (ii) a force for status quo; (iii) a force for independence; (iv) a force for fraternity; (v) a force for aggression; (vi) a force for economic expansion; and (vii) a force for anti-colonialism.7

As noted above, there are many cultural makers that differentiate one ethnic group from the another, amongst which the language issue plays a significant role in distinguishing one ethnic group from another. Incidentally, the growth in the number of languages has been a continuous, unending phenomenon. The European culture, civilisation and science have for centuries been dominated by three languages—English, French and German—but this has not prevented the growth of standard languages in Europe from 16 in 1800 to 30 in 1900 and 53 in 1937. A claim to a national status for a new language may lead to the formation of a new ethnic group and demand for recognition of its independent identity. Such a demand may be opposed by the government, thus, leading to confrontation between the two. At times, the agitation for recognition of a new language as a national language may become violent and attract the attention of the international community. In fact, many independent sovereign countries and units of a country differ from each other only because their people speak different languages. In India, many states were constituted on the basis of different spoken languages.

In this respect, religion has also played the crucial role in the formation of a new ethnic group. In fact, many countries were constituted on the basis of religion. The clashes for recognition and separation of people belonging to two different religions may cause division of a country into two parts. Religious zealots and nationalist may see threats to their culture and national integrity in the growth of a new religion and a new way of life. Even the superpower—the United States of America—which claims to be a sincere observer of human rights, following the ideals of liberal democracy and secular values, did not hesitate in demolishing a commune in Oregon in 1985. The commune, known as Rajneeshpuram, was spread over 64,000 acres in a semi-desert area where 5,000 people were leading a different kind of peaceful life. This might have led to the apprehension that a new religion or ethnic group was growing which might demand recognition of an autonomous region and, in future, an independent country, in the heart of a mighty country. Consequently, it was not allowed to grow.

In fact, a new ethnic group is generally not formed until and unless there is self-consciousness about its recognition as an independent identity. It has been noticed that the elites have a vested interest in encouraging the formation of a new ethnic group because that might accord them political power. Elite competition plays the most dynamic role in realising self-consciousness in respect of independent identity of a group of population in a community.

In the pre-modern societies, the landed aristocracy was the most influential group in the community and, therefore, it was the primary elite element in its ethnic group. Religious elites in such societies came from different class backgrounds in Europe. In India, they belonged to a particular caste and so were largely the landed aristrocrats and feudal lords. In the modern society, senior administrative and military officers, rich and famous attorneys, influential academics, businessmen and leaders of most political organisations constitute the elite group in a community. The elite group is the main motivating force in imbibing self-consciousness in an ethnic group and raising the demand for the recognition of its independent identity in a community.

The process of strengthening ethnic unity begins with more demands. The leaders of an ethnic group usually raise the demand for control over the public system of education, especially in their areas of concentration because they would like to teach their own history, language and culture to their children. They may also demand a major say in the national political system as well as autonomy in the territory inhabited by their ethnic group or even demand a sovereign national status. The movement for achieving the objective of sovereign statehood can be successful only if the leaders receive popular support for their cause. At the same time, they also make efforts to build a supportive constituency in one or more foreign countries. In case they are successful in their efforts, they hope to receive recognition of their demands from the international community as well as consideration of their cause in international forums. However, the process of ethnic identity formation and its transformation into nationalism is reversible because of strong opposition from other ethnic groups and the brute force of state authority.

Nevertheless, in the post-Cold War period, ethnic nationalism has gained momentum and recognition. In the present era of electronic media, ethnic minority groups in any country may try to magnify their cause by raising the issue of violation of human rights in the place of their residence. If the ethnic movement gains prominence in the state and also acquires international recognition, the next step may be the demand for autonomy for the ethnic group or independent sovereign status for it.

Whether there was a history of nationalism in an area or not, once the demand for an independent sovereign status for that area was raised, the nationalists would claim that nationalism had always been present in a latent, suppressed form. In fact, in such a situation, an ethnic group would oppose being ruled by another ethnic group any longer. Their relations would be termed as those of the rulers and ruled. Once such an emotion was generated, in a charged atmosphere, as Lord Acton put it, "began a time when the test simply was that the nation would not be governed by foreigners. Power legitimately attained and exercised with moderation, was declared invalid."8 The current history of the demand for recognition of independent identity on the basis of nationalism and ethnicity is largely a manifestation of Lord Acton's prescription.

Once the movement for establishing a new state on the basis of ethno-nationalism gains strength, the leaders of the movement demand granting of the right of self-determination for deciding an independent political status, as in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, the principle of self-determination has been used differently for different objectives. The notion of self-determination was central to the idealist thinker Immanual Kant who used it to validate his conclusions.9 He was a moderate idealist thinker who gave more importance to the individual than the state like other extreme idealists, e.g., Hegel. The right of self-determination on various grounds gained primacy and legitimacy because of the Wilsonian and Leninist theses.

The self-determination movement has been a major historical force to establish a strong democratic state. It was also a legitimate demand to liberate a country from the yoke of a colonial ruler. In fact, it "served well those who sought to dissolve empires."10 The principle of self-determination has now often been propagated to acquire a sovereign independent nation state for an ethnic group in a multi-ethnic state. In other words, it is a means to fragment an existing multi-ethnic state. The newly independent established state on the basis of self-determination is not necessarily a democratic country. It may not grant equal rights to minority ethnic groups residing in its territory. Though the Baltic states gained their independence without exercising the right of self- determination by their people, the leaders of these states claim that they gained their independence from the Russian imperialism, following the principle of democratic polity. But the Russians have been reduced to second class citizens in Estonia and Latvia.

In fact, now the self-determination movements, with rare exceptions, "undermine the potential for democratic development in non-democratic countries and threaten the foundations of democracy.....It is time to withdraw moral approval from most of the movements and see them for what they mainly are—destructive."11 In this respect, it may be noted that the new states of former Communist countries have generally not achieved their independence by exercising the right of "self-determination but rather....imposed on them from the outside."12 Contrarily, in January 1992, the Badinter Arbitration Commission attached to the European Commission (now called European Union) Peace Conference recommended that a referendum should take place before any further consideration could be given to according recognition to Bosnia Herzegovina. The Bosnian Muslim President, Alija Izetbegovic, declared the republic's independence after holding a referendum on independence of Bosnia from Yugoslavia on February 29-March 1, 1992. The referendum was boycotted by the Serbs who constituted 31.3 per cent of the population in Bosnia. The pertinent question is whether in such a situation, the views of a substantial minority ethnic group should be ignored or given weightage to determine the status of a new country, i.e. recognition by other countries. In fact, in such a critical situation, it is difficult to arrive at a crucial decision on whether to support or oppose or be neutral to the demand of self-determination raised by an ethnic group in a violent, fractured, multi-ethnic state. Any change of political status or even maintenance of status quo is likely to be destabilising. However, it is generally believed that the status quo must be maintained and the crisis defused gradually by good offices or mediation but outside intervention should be avoided in the resolution of an ethnic conflict.

Be that as it may, the principle of self-determination as a method of determining the right of a minority group to attain sovereign status in a crisis in a multi-ethnic state is not universally accepted as a legal right. The principle of self-determination had its intellectual origin in the 19th century. It received political recognition at the Versailles Peace Conference, where it was used for the redivision of Europe and the dismemberment of the defeated empires. But it could not become a rule of international law because it was not incorporated in the Charter of the United Nations. It also does not feature in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During the accelerated trends towards decolonisation, the principle of self-determination acquired the legal status of "right" with the adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1960 of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. But the UN General Assembly has not clarified exactly when the right to self-determination is applicable, especially outside colonial countries, i.e. in an independent, sovereign, multi-ethnic country where a minority ethnic group may demand secession from the country by exercising the right of self-determination. In this respect, it may be noted that when India ratified the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it stated that, in its view, the right to self-determination applied only to peoples under foreign rule and not to sovereign, independent states or to a section of a people or a nation.13 China, unlike many former Communist countries, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, has not recognised the right of self-determination or right of secession for different minority nationalities in the country.

In the recent past, the ethno-nationalist wars of secession have highlighted "the inherent tension between 'self-determination' and 'sovereignty' or `territorial integrity'."14 In fact, neither sovereignty nor self-determination is an absolute right. For years it was maintained that the European territorial division was frozen at Yalta. But the unification of Germany began the process of redrawing of the boundaries of the former Communist countries of Europe. Thus, for the third time in the 20th century, a large scale restructuring of states in Europe and the former Soviet Union was carried out. Whether the new states were established peacefully or violently, they followed one fundamental principle that only the internal boundaries would become international boundaries. However, there are some territorial claims on the ground of ethnicity, and ethnic armed conflicts followed but boundaries have not been drawn on the basis of ethnicity except in Bosnia, where temporary division of territory was done on ethnic lines.

In spite of the creation of new states in the post-Cold War period, the claim to the right of secession has not yet been recognised by the international community. "International law does not prohibit secession, whether voluntary or violent, but it has neither recognized a right to secede nor identified even tentatively the conditions that might give rise to such a right in the future."15 Incidentally, the birth of new sovereign states in Europe and Asia was caused not by adopting the process of secession but by the disintegration of former Communist countries. In reality, the former Soviet Union disintegrated, Czechoslovakia was divided peacefully and the former Yugoslav republics followed the policy of secession but not entirely according to their Constitution. Interestingly, the Soviet republics had the right to secede from the union but the procedure of seceding was not given in the Constitution.

In the post-Cold war period, the ethno-nationalist issues have raised a pertinent question as to when the international community should intervene in the resolution of a crisis. There are no universally accepted criteria in respect of outside intervention in an ethnic crisis in a country. The international intervention in an ethnic crisis is generally justified on the ground of humanitarian consideration and not for settling competing claims over identity or territory. There are many instances of outside intervention in resolving ethnic crises. But they have generally not been successful. In this respect, we would discuss outside intervention in the ethnic crises in Sri Lanka and Bosnia.

The Indian direct intervention in resolving the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka was enshrined in an agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi and Junius Jayewardene on July 29, 1987. In the terms of the agreement, India sent its armed forces, better known as the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF), to Sri Lanka for the cessation of the civil war and the surrender of arms by the Tamil Tigers in the Jaffna Peninsula and the Eastern Province. Initially, the IPKF did not receive a hostile reception in the area but later it clashed with the Tamil Tigers and annoyed the local civilian population. Incidentally, the Tamil Tigers were reportedly assisted by the Sri Lankan forces to launch attacks on the IPKF. The Indian armed forces suffered heavy casualties and pulled out from Sri Lanka under an agreement signed in 1989. The IPKF's stay in Sri Lanka became a contentious issue that spoiled bilateral relations between the two countries for some years. The Indian armed forces could not be successful in resolving the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka as they were in the former East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh). In fact, all outside interventions in ethnic crises are fraught with innumerable complications and cannot follow the same pattern; therefore, they are not always crowned with success, as many Indians had believed before the IPKF debacle in Sri Lanka.16

The Bosnian ethnic crisis has been eluding solution even though the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led forces have been engaged in establishing peace in the civil war ridden country for more than two years. The 60,000-strong NATO forces, called Implementation Force (IFOR) and Stabilisation Force (SFOR), were sent to Bosnia following the Dayton Peace Accord that was initialled by the leaders of the warring factions (Muslims, Serbs and Croats) after three weeks of intense negotiations in the United States, in November 1995.17 The Croat and Serb leaders of Bosnia agreed to the peace accord under pressure from the international community and the leaders of Croatia and Serbia. The objective of the peace accord was to establish a multi-ethnic country but it was agreed to establish a federation of Croats and Muslims and a separate Republika of Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Croats are also not interested in cooperating with the Muslims in the smooth functioning of the federation and are waiting for an opportunity to secede and merge with mainland Croatia. The Serbs are perhaps the most unfortunate of the three because they are reportedly not welcome in Serbia which has a large number of refugees and their Republika Srpska has received merely 2 percent of the $5.1 billion International Donors Reconstruction Programme.18

The international community supported the creation of a multi-ethnic state in Bosnia where no sense of common national community existed. The Clinton Administration invested its prestige in the continuation of the multi-ethnic state of Bosnia which will certainly collapse once the SFOR is withdrawn. The Clinton Administration faced a dilemma before sending its forces to Bosnia. The issues were not only the desirability of sending them but also whether they would be protecting national security or interests as well as when they would be called back —the exit strategy, a fall-out of Somalia's debacle. No doubt, it has been made clear that the peace-making forces would not be stationed in Bosnia indefinitely, but the Dayton Accord did not clear a path toward a stable state.19 The SFOR has been reduced to 34,000 troops but the final exit of troops cannot be possible for a long period if the international community wishes to avoid resumption of the bloodly ethnic war in Bosnia which left more than 2,00,000 people dead or missing and many more forced to flee to safer places as many cities and villages were either badly damaged or totally destroyed. In short, outside intervention in an ethnic crisis is bound to face innumerable problems and is fraught with complexities in the way of achieving any success.

In the post-Cold War period, various ethnic groups have achieved independence and sovereign status or recognition of the regional autonomy. In this respect, there was a setback for the secessionists of Quebec because they lost the Quebec sovereignty referendum by a narrow margin in 1995. But there have been more successes than losses for advocates of ethnic identity and regional autonomy for an ethnic group in a multi-ethnic community. In September 1997, the Labour government headed by Tony Blair in Great Britain successfully conducted referendums in Scotland and Wales to constitute separate new legislatures for them, with the objective of bringing the "government closer to the people." In fact, Prime Minister Blair himself canvassed for establishing home-rule in the two regions. In April this year, he also broke the stalemate in the Northern Ireland ethnic crisis and has been working along with leaders of the warring factions to bring about stable peace in the region. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of India has also promised to create more states on ethnic or regional lines.

It is believed that ethno-nationalist crises can be reduced if a state follows the principles of "fuller representation, responsiveness and democratistion".20 In a multi-ethnic state, the cultural, linguistic and religious rights must be respected. Neither the majority nor the minority should seek to impose its values on the other.21 The fundamental principles of individual rights such as freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion are not only to be enshrined in the Constitution but observed in letter and spirit. A minority ethnic group's demand for more rights or creation of autonomous area or administrative unit or recognition of its language as national or official should not be considered as a move toward the weakening of the state's authority or a move toward its secession from the mainland.

It is generally believed that in a democratic country, ethnic groups will not need to complain against the central government for violation of their rights. While the ethnic problem in a multi-ethnic state cannot be eliminated entirely, the ethnic groups should feel protected if their rights are guaranteed in a state. In the post-Cold War period, any ethnic crisis may become an international security issue and call for intervention by the international community. The intervention may be justified on humanitarian grounds, though the concerned state may oppose such an intervention on the ground that the issue comes under domestic jurisdiction. In fact, the international interventions have not followed uniform criteria. While the international community decided to intervene in the Bosnian civil war, it failed to intervene when Croatia carried out "ethnic cleansing" almost at the same time. In fact, an outside intervention in an ethnic crisis is more likely in a relatively small and militarily weak state than in a militarily strong state. Though US leaders were quite critical of the bloody Russian military action in resolving Chechnya's ethnic conflict, they could not take any move for direct intervention in resolving the crisis because that would have brought about a face to face confrontation between the US and Russian armed forces. However, the US leadership could take a controversial decision to send NATO-led forces into Bosnia for a military intervention in the resolution of the bloody Kosovo ethnic problem. In the post-Cold War period, an ethno-nationalist crisis may pose threat to international security and, therefore, the international community may be called upon to intervene and resolve the crisis without disturbing international peace and, if possible, ensuring the unity of a state.



1. See Lawrence Freedom, "International Security: Changing Targets," Foreign Policy, no. 110, Spring 1998, p. 52.

2. Paul R. Brass, Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison, (New Delhi: Sage Publishing, 1991), p. 19.

3. John Stuart Mill, Representative Government (London: J.M. Deut and Sons, 1910), p. 362 as quoted in David Welsh, "Domestic Politics and Ethnic Conflict," Survival, vol.35, no.1, Spring 1993, p. 65.

4. John Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power (London: Thames and Hudson, 1956), p. 169 as quoted in Welsh, n. 2, p. 65.

5. Jack Snyder, "Nationalism and the Crisis of the Post-Soviet State", Survival, vol. 35, no. 1, Spring 1993, p. 7.

6. Anthony D. Smith, "The Ethnic Sources of Nationalism", Survival, vol. 35, no. 1, Spring 1993, p. 55.

7. Louis L. Snyder, The New Nationalism (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1968), pp. 35.

8. Quoted in Nationalism, Its Meaning and History, (Princeton, 1955), pp. 122-23.

9. See Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford, England: Basi Blackwell 1983), pp. 1303.

10. Amitai Etzioni, "The Evils of Self-Determination", Foreign Policy, no. 89, Winter 1992-93, p. 21.

11. Ibid., also see pp. 2235.

12. Victor Zaslavsky, "Nationalism and Democratic Transition in Post-Communist Societies," Daedalus, vol. 121, no. 2, Spring 1992, p. 98.

13. See John Chipman, "Managing the Politics of Parochialism", Survival, vol. 35, no. 1, Spring 1993, p. 148.

14. Hurst Hannum, "The Specter of Secession: Responding to Claims for Ethnic Self-Determination", Foreign Affairs, vol. 77, no.2, March/April 1998, p. 13.

15. Ibid., p.14.

16. See O.N. Mehrotra, "Ethnic Strife in Sri Lanka", Strategic Analysis, vol. XXI, no. 10, January 1998, pp. 152036.

17. See the text of the accord in Keesing's Record of World Events, 1995, pp. 4083031.

18. Charles G. Boyd, "Making Bosnia Work", Foreign Affairs, vol. 77, no. 1, January/February 1998, pp.4647.

19. See Gideon Rose, "The Exit Strategy Delusion" Foreign Affairs, vol. 77, no.1, January/February 1998, pp.6465.

20. Etzioni, n. 10, p. 25.

21. The 1992 UN General Assembly declaration on minority rights only calls on states to "protect the existence" of minorities, granting the latter the right "to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social economic and public life". See Hannum, n. 13, p. 17.