Every autumn, at local parks throughout the United States, thousands of Scots come together to have an ethnic conflict. Kilted chieftains from all the major clans—the MacGregors and Campbells, the McDonalds and Wallaces—march along with tartan banners held high. Bagpipers parade back and forth, drones erect and chanters skirling. Clansmen and clanswomen let out war whoops as they descend onto the soccer field or baseball diamond. Occasionally, someone denounces the English. Eventually, one of the clans receives a trophy for being the fiercest and then everyone decamps to the beer tent.

These are the peculiar rituals of Scottish Highland games, a large and growing form of weekend entertainment for people of Celtic heritage. But the eager participants, standing in line for a sample of Scotch whisky or a lunch of meat pie and shortbread, are centuries away from a time when the Scots were less quaint: when thousands of people were killed in inter-clan feuding, when Highlanders staged bloody rebellions against English rule, and when the English crown and feudal lords responded with what would now be considered ethnic cleansing—forcibly removing Highland farmers in a sweeping campaign known as the Clearances.

That was the 18th century, when northern Scotland was a land of social conflict, violence, and danger. “Till the Highlanders lost their ferocity, with their arms, they suffered from each other all that malignity could dictate, or precipitance could act...Every provocation was revenged with blood, and no man that ventured into a numerous company...was sure of returning without a wound,” wrote Samuel Johnson during a tour of the region in 1773. His depiction stands in stark contrast to the conditions in modern Scotland, which has been devoid of mobilized violence since the eighteenth century.

But the Scottish example raises an intriguing question: why do some disputes that we now label “ethnic conflicts” seem to endure across the centuries, while others become the purview of suburbanites who happen to spend their weekends puffing on bagpipes? Judging from the Scottish experiuence, it does not seem unreasonable to believe that being a Chechen, Serb, or Hutu could one day become the same thing as being a Highland Scot. But even posing the question in this way raises important issues about the nature of civil wars and the “ethnic” component of ethnic conflicts.
The Nature of Civil Wars
The 1990s seemed to be the age of ethnic conflict. Around the world, the end of superpower competition heralded a sudden upsurge in age-old animosities. Federations collapsed and genocidal wars broke out, each one over basic differences of religion, language, and history. This is one common reading of the last two decades, but it is in large measure inaccurate.

In the first place, the very label “ethnic conflict” is largely a product of perception and representation, not an analytical tag that describes a unique kind of social violence. No violent conflict ever involves all, or even most, members of one ethnic group suddenly rising up and deciding to kill all the members of another group. This is the cartoon version of ethnic war, but it is seriously out of step with reality.

Rather than an entire ethnic group universally declaring war on another one, it is generally small factions of committed militants that execute wars. Governments can also adopt the causes of ethnic, religious, clan, or regional factions, casting themselves as either defenders or avengers of a certain group. However, their determination and brutality can often create the social dividing lines that they claim to be defending. This, in turn, leads to new injustices, which the next generation may seek to avenge.

Mobilized ethnic groups certainly can and do have an effect on politics, but the opposite can also be true: politics can help create mobilized ethnicity in the first place. In other words, “ethnic conflict” is not a meaningful category of analysis until we untangle what we, and the belligerents themselves, really mean by the label.

The second reason to be skeptical about the applicability of the term “ethnic conflict” is that, over the past half century, the great peak in substate violence came not in the 1990s but in the 1960s, during the end of European colonialism. Many of the conflicts that accompanied the end of the British, French, and Portuguese presence in Africa might just as well be labeled “ethnic conflicts” as “postcolonial wars.” Indeed, these armed engagements involved battles between groups mobilized along lines of culture and language. Yet, because of the analytical lenses in vogue at the time, as well as the public relations strategies of belligerents, these conflicts were usually given political glosses as national liberation struggles or as anti-imperialist revolutions. Superpowers were then easily able to take sides, either supporting or covertly working against their proxies on the ground. The Cold War, in the end, largely determined the labels that analysts applied to substate wars.

Third, most of the 1990s actually saw a decrease in internal armed conflicts, not an escalation. The end of the Cold War proved to be a remarkably positive event in many parts of the world, simply because the United States and the Soviet Union ceased providing overt and covert support to warring parties. Only in Europe and Eurasia did the number of armed conflicts increase, but even there warfare waned as the decade progressed. For many regions, the allegedly chaotic post-Cold War era has been remarkably peaceful in comparison to past decades.

Finally, a great normative change has taken place in the international community in the last half century, and it came fully into force in the 1990s: the preference for negotiated settlements over outright victory. Historically, civil wars have ended in victory, but that outcome has rarely been wrapped in magnanimity. Victors have generally either killed or expelled civilian populations loyal to the losing side, which is, in a way, what happened in the case of Britain’s oppression of the Scots during the Highland Clearances more than two centuries ago. Today, however, there is a wide array of international institutions committed to peaceful settlements and a normative legal structure that privileges negotiations over battlefield victory.
Scots, Chechens, and the Myths of Ethnic War
In understanding all of these themes it is helpful to consider Scotland and Chechnya. Both were distinct regions of larger empires. Both have been divided for centuries between lowlanders and highlanders, each with different traditions, economies, and ways of life. Both were religiously distinct from the imperial center and have had long histories of rebellion against imperial rule. In addition, both have been the targets of what we would now call anti-insurgent campaigns, Scotland in the late eighteenth century and Chechnya in the mid-nineteenth century and afterwards. Both produced nations-in-exile, with Scotland sending people to Appalachia, Australia, and other parts of the world throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the latter sent to Central Asia in the 1940s. Both peoples, in other words, have a great deal of justifiable animosity towards their imperial oppressors and a history of acting on this anger in a violent manner.

The puzzle, then, is that Scotland and Chechnya ended up so differently—the former as a peaceful European region, the latter as the site of a brutal, decade-long guerrilla war. Perhaps the most important distinction between these two examples is that Scotland has not seen significant violence for more than two centuries. Chechnya, on the other hand, experienced major disruptions during World War I, the Stalinist purges, and World War II, in which Stalin ordered the entire Chechen population deported for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Chechnya is, thus, one of the best examples of the fact that violence in the recent past increases the risk of violence in the present.
The Peril of Misplaced Historicism
These examples also illustrate that there are deeper issues concerning the meaning of the term “ethnic conflict.” In fact, the mere question of why some countries, regions, or peoples have turned out to be more violent than others illustrates three basic problems at the heart of how we think about ethnicity, identity, and war.

First is the peril of misplaced historicism. When the leaders of belligerent groups claim that some long-forgotten battle or ancient wrong is the impetus for their struggle, it is tempting to take them at their word. Serb politicians frequently made reference to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo to justify their argument that Kosovo held a central place in Serb history. From April to November each year, Irish Loyalists commemorate the victory of Protestants over Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne in 1609. Chechen fighters sometimes make reference to the long history of resistance to Russian imperial rule—the series of border wars that defined the north Caucasus from the late eighteenth century on—as antecedents to their struggle for independence today.

However, interpreting the present by referring to the misty past is mainly a matter of propaganda. In many intergroup disputes, there is no linear connection between distant forms of social mobilization and those that take place today. They are as disconnected as a suburban “Scotsman” is from a Highland shepherd of yore. Drawing lines from the past to the present is a purely political act, not an analytical one.

History does not make violence either inevitable or more likely. The reason is simple: there are far more bad historians in the world than there are leaders of ethnic armies. There simply were no “Scots” in the eighteenth century, at least not in the sense of a unified ethnic group with clear and common interests. Instead, there were highlanders and lowlanders, feudal lords and farmers, urban merchants and itinerant intellectuals. There were likewise no Serbs, Tutsis, Albanians, or Chechens, at least not with the meanings that those labels have come to hold hundreds of years later. In interpreting the past, it is important not to apply such ethnic labels to individuals who may have had no real conception of themselves as belonging to such a group.

Moreover, not every instance in which some group feels aggrieved for the injustices inflicted upon their alleged ancestors produces an ethnic conflict. In fact, conflicts defined along lines of culture, language, or religion are relatively rare. In the former Communist region, wars between Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea, or Romanians and Hungarians in Transylvania, or Kazakhs and Russians in northern Kazakhstan never arose in the 1990s, even though it would have been relatively easy to construct narratives of oppression out of the histories of interaction between these groups. History is important mainly to the extent that leaders manipulate it to their own benefit. It is not a record of grievances that will inevitably turn violent of their own accord.

This is not to say that history plays no role in determining intergroup violence. However, it is usually the more immediate history of interethnic relations that is critical—the history that has been recently experienced and can be remembered by the current generation of political leaders and their constituents. In the former Yugoslavia, memories of interethnic violence during World War II turned out to be important sources of grass-roots mobilization. As the chaos of war spread from neighborhood to neighborhood, citizens could remember what a neighbor’s grandfather had done to their own relatives during the previous war. Some of these individuals were not above using the circumstances of social breakdown to exact personal revenge.

Recent institutions matter as well. In Rwanda, Russia, and elsewhere, social categories created by previous governments—from the colonial era, for example, or during the Soviet period—became lines along which groups were mobilized. It is these kinds of personal memories and social institutions that are the real catalysts of intergroup violence, not the imagined grievances of long-ago eras.
Uncritical “Groupism”
A second problem with the term “ethnic conflict” is what might be called uncritical “groupism,” an issue which Rogers Brubaker explores in detail in his brilliant collection of essays, Ethnicity Without Groups . As Brubaker argues, both nationalists and analysts of ethno-national conflict see the world as a collection of groups—masses of distinct colors spreading across the cartographical landscape. Reality is, of course, more complicated. Not all those whom we might label “Chechen” or “Hutu” think of themselves in terms of such categories. And even if they do, these labels compete with many other forms of identity, such as social class, religion, or regional affiliation.

Humans have a wide array of identities with which they associate at various times. The aim of the ethnic entrepreneur or the purveyor of violent mobilization is to convince significant numbers of people to select only one of those identities, the ethnic one, and subordinate all the others to it. Thus, when analysts interpret “ethnic conflicts” only in terms of the alleged groups involved, they play immediately into the hands of those who have “ethnicized” the conflict in the first place—casting it as a war between entire groups, rather than between mobilized individuals claiming to act on those groups’ behalf.

Such terminology applies the metaphor of interstate war to a much more irregular and complicated form of violence. When we say that Germany invaded Poland in 1939, we mean that the regular army of the German state crossed an internationally recognized boundary and used military force illegitimately against its neighbor. But when we say that “the Serbs” attacked towns and villages in eastern Bosnia in 1995, we are saying something far less clear. It was, of course, not the case that all ethnic Serbs in the former Yugoslavia made war on all Bosnian Muslims, nor that those who were fighting in “Serb” units were all ethnic Serbs. It is small groups of violent entrepreneurs, not entire populations, that create the conditions for large-scale violence. Yet, by taking ethnic leaders at their word, analysts often become party to the conflict itself, by recognizing a small set of violent entrepreneurs as spokesmen for a larger population.
The Danger of Poor Governance
Beyond historicism and groupism, there is yet another key component to the way in which we understand ethnicized disputes, and it has to do with the issue of governance. Most civil wars begin because the basic institutions of security, good governance, and social stability have broken down. Large-scale ethnic mobilization usually takes place when the bounds of ethnic membership become politically salient. People rely on ethnic leaders for protection. They turn toward ethnic confreres for security. In an environment of uncertainty and lawlessness, they come to see ethnicity as a shorthand way of telling friend from foe. Mobilized ethnicity, in other words, is generally a product, not a cause, of state breakdown.

Poorly governed countries are at risk of violence along cultural lines for the same reason that they are at risk of social violence in general: rational individuals seek security for themselves and their families in whatever ways are available. If they can no longer count on the state police forces to provide equitable law enforcement, they will sometimes seek protection from an ethnic militia instead. If the state misuses taxpayers’ money, citizens may entrust their money to a religious organization that uses it better. If the state fails to provide basic education or health care, perhaps an ethnically affiliated, private foundation can do so instead. There is nothing inherently violent about any of these alternatives. However, they do push people to identify with their putative cultural group and, in time, form strong lines of social allegiance and obligation.
Dealing with “Ethnicized” Disputes
None of these arguments concerning the nature of ethnicity and conflict can gainsay the problem of dealing with violent disputes once they have become ethnicized. Once people are systematically targeted because of their ethnicity, race, religion, or regional affiliation, it is difficult to claim that a conflict has not become a genuinely ethnic one. Once groups come to see themselves as uniquely victimized or privileged because of their ethnicity, talk of inaccurate history, misplaced groupism, or disfunctional governments seems beside the point.

But this is an overly narrow view of the issue. Even in the depths of the bloodiest and most intractable conflicts—from Bosnia to Darfur, and from Chechnya to sectarian Iraq—there is still space for non-ethnic solutions. The international community’s tack has normally been to look for the least costly way out. This method usually involves buying off violent entrepreneurs by rewarding their communal group, redrawing boundary lines, crafting new communal institutions, and cementing the very social divisions that the militants worked hard to establish.

This kind of solution may be an inevitable part of international politics, given the prevailing opinion regarding ethnic conflict. If countries are insufficiently committed to recasting the basic terms of ethnic violence, there may be no choice but to accede to the versions of history and identity that those with the most weapons in hand preach and defend. Such solutions are not flawed because they are ineffective in ending ethnic conflict, although this may, in fact, be true. They are flawed because they are founded upon reasoning and terminology that are formulated as propaganda devices rather than analytical tools.

Within any conflict, there are always multiple interpretations of the basic issues at stake: the boundary lines between friend and foe, the fundamental causes of the dispute, and the design of a reasonable solution. The challenge for peacemakers is to identify and embolden those voices that seek to recast the terms of the debate, rather than those that attribute the violence to age-old and irreconcilable social divisions. Negotiations must focus on the true nature of the conflict and avoid rhetoric and reasoning that adopts ethnic terminology and explanations. More often than not, the ethnic divisions upon which the conflict in question is based are a product of violence and not its original cause.

So, in light of this argument, can Chechens ever become Scots? There is no reason to expect that, over time, they cannot—although it would take a massive immigration of ethnic Chechens to the United States, Canada, and Australia to replicate the Scottish experience. The point is that misreading history, groupism, and governance can lead analysts to amplify, rather than interpret, the claims that nationalists, ethnic cleansers, and violent entrepreneurs tend to make. Critiquing the labels we use ought to be the starting point for real analysis. Otherwise, we will be left with the difficult task of having to explain why one history of violence, ethnic cleansing, and exile produced a long cycle of death and retribution, while another simply produced suburban men in skirts.