Are spreading identity wars the scariest thing in the world?

Last week, I poked a bit of fun at the tendence of politicians and pundits to label one threat or another the "greatest threat" to America’s national security or way of life. Today, Walter Russell Mead goes a step further with a blog post describing what he says is the "scariest thing in the world": ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
547545_nigeria_32.jpg
547545_nigeria_32.jpg

Last week, I poked a bit of fun at the tendence of politicians and pundits to label one threat or another the "greatest threat" to America's national security or way of life. Today, Walter Russell Mead goes a step further with a blog post describing what he says is the "scariest thing in the world":

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.

Last week, I poked a bit of fun at the tendence of politicians and pundits to label one threat or another the "greatest threat" to America’s national security or way of life. Today, Walter Russell Mead goes a step further with a blog post describing what he says is the "scariest thing in the world":

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.

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. 

Mead uses two current examples to illustrate this trend: the uptick in religious violence in Nigeria and the persecution of the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan. These are, without a doubt, disturbing developments, but are they really something altogether new in regional history?

Nigerians were fighting over ethnic identity and religion before colonialism arrived. And in the late 1960s fought a staggeringly brutal civil war over an ethnically-based independence movement in Biafra. I also suspect that the argument that "identity wars" are a new phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa might be news to Hutus and Tutsis. 

As for Kyrgyztan, it has a millennium-old nationalist tradition defined by resistance to foreign invaders. The Kyrgyz-Uzbek tensions are also just one of the handful of ongoing ethnic conflicts that have simmered since the fall of the Soviet Union including a few — Chechnya, Georgia’s breakaway provinces, and Nagorno-Karabakh — that have already broken out into armed conflict.

Other examples noted by Mead, the Sri Lankan Civil War and the communal tensions between India and Pakistan, are also decades-old conflicts. 

Overall, statistics on war casualties have been trending downward in the opening years of this century. That doesn’t mean this promising trend will continue or that the current ethnic tensions in places like Nigeria and Kyrgyzstan aren’t a prelude to a much larger global calamity, I’m just not sure I buy that ethnic conflict was ever a uniquely European or Middle Eastern phenomenon.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: War

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