The Identity Matrix

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The Identity Matrix

We belong to groups. The behavior of those groups is largely dictated not by ideology but by demography. To understand how and why, one needs the identity matrix.

Intro: America breaks

Those who know me know I’m a bit obsessed with studying ethnic cleansing. This isn't an idle pursuit; as I’ve argued, ethnic cleansing is integral to the international sovereign order and, beyond that, to human nature and politics itself. And indeed, things seemed to be coming to a head in the United States in advance of last night’s midterm elections. (Which, in a diverse society, is quite often when it happens.) Just in the last fortnight (as of this writing), we have seen racial killings, a synagogue massacre, caravan hysteria, mail bombs sent to opposition leaders and news outlets, and the US President announcing his intention to end birthright citizenship.

Then, last night, the polls came in. Ron DeSantis won. Steve King won. Duncan Hunter won. Ted Cruz won. The Republicans kept the Senate, and, though they lost the House, in many of the most prominent races where their candidate relied on demonization of the other—immigrants, Islam, people of color—they won.

In this toxic milieu, I have been asked how I can simultaneously predict ethnic cleansing in America on the one hand and call for reconciliation and national unity on the other. How can I possibly wish to share a country with a tribe that wishes to purge America of its multitudes?

This is my attempt to answer the question.

The simple answer is that I believe that our group’s choices are not our own. We, at the collective level, are to a great extent prisoners of demographic forces we cannot control, or even—from our own vantage points—fully understand. The behavior of America’s racial, ethnic, and religious groups are largely the product not of their decency but of their distribution.

Groups are unevenly distributed across the land, and they fear other groups—and, given how groups treat each other, this makes sense—and so band together to seek self-determination. But when demography threatens that self-determination, they act defensively against perceived foreign threats. They will do this regardless of the stated beliefs of their individual members. Most people are good, but they’re fearful.

But as an individual person, you may have trouble seeing it, because you are a single point in a multidimensional identity matrix, and you are a complex, independent being who contains multitudes—race, gender, religion, language, and more—and who likely bears no personal animosity towards the other, whoever they may be. But where you are in the matrix matters, in ways you may not even fully grasp. Who you see as a threat is a demographic question.

In order to resolve today’s conflicts, including here in the United States, we must understand how they originate in demographic distribution across multiple dimensions, and then work within the constraints of that distribution to achieve a pacific outcome.

Because I believe this, I find it difficult to blame or hold groups responsible for their worst actions, or the worst actions of their most extreme individual members. While I condemn the actions themselves, I cannot be confident my own group(s) wouldn’t behave the same way in the same situation, and I am very confident that the perpetrating group and its members would behave differently if they were placed in a different situation.

So, to my friends on the left who cannot understand why much of America continues to vote steadfastly for open displays of white supremacy, my answer is: demography is making them believe that they have to.

Here’s my theory for how the identity matrix works. There are three components: 

  1. VERTICAL: Your own personal layer cake of different identities

  2. HORIZONTAL: Layered planes on which different groups and their wealth are distributed across the territory

  3. TIME: The population pyramid and the relative ages of groups within a territory

Let’s take each in turn.

1. The Vertical Axis: You

In the matrix, you, the individual, are a column of identities. You have many different identities to which you belong. Think about these, then stack them. Some are lineage-based, in that you inherit them from your parents: race, ethnicity, tribe, country/region of ancestral origin, home city, mother tongue, religion, sect, hair color, eye color, favorite sports team, etc. Others are not lineage-based, such as gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. (While both types are important, the distinction between the two shall become apparent a bit later.)

Not all of your identities are immutable.

  • Some can be masked (by passing, eg., if there is no visible physical difference between your group and others).

  • Some can be changed (by leaving a religion, eg., though doing so can be wrenching).

  • Some can be expanded (learning a new language, eg., though overcoming the shibboleths of a mother tongue accent can require a generation or two).

  • Some can be joined (“whiteness” in America does tend to be defined outwards bit by bit).

  • But some are very difficult to dislodge (particularly racial or ethnic classifications).

  • Some are important to your life and prospects and even physical safety (ethnicity matters a great deal in the Balkans, for instance)…

  • while others are irrelevant (sports fandom is intensely tribal but the long-term stakes are fairly low… unless your sports team is tied to your ethnic group in the Balkans, in which case it matters a great deal also).

All of these identities form a part of who you are, but in practice, the one you glom onto in any moment is typically the one that is most salient, usually because it is the one that is most under threat. In that moment, when you are a potential target because you belong to a group, that group is your refuge. That brings us to…

2. The Horizontal Plane: The distribution of your groups across territory

Which identity is the most fearful? This is largely dictated by the second axis in the matrix, the horizontal plane. This is the distribution of groups across territory, with different layers of identity overlaid in patterns like a topographical map. How many of your group exists in a territory relative to other groups, and whether you are diffuse across the landscape or concentrated in a region, and whether your population spills across borders to other lands, and whether your group has disproportionately large or small economic and political power relative to its numbers, determines how your group will behave, and how it will be treated.

Consider: are you American and living in America? Most Americans are concentrated in the United States of America where you live, and far outnumber non-Americans. Are you a racial minority within America? Well, by definition you’re outnumbered, and you’re probably diffuse, though more likely to live in a major urban center and quite possibly segregated into a neighborhood of mostly your group. Are you Muslim? Well, you are part of a vast ummah of nearly two billion, but only a scattered few millions of them live in the United States, and must adjust accordingly. Are you female? You’ll find the distribution is pretty even where you live, as it will be almost everywhere else.

Identity groups band together in self-defense when they feel threatened, and like phalanxes will configure to counter the threat. Once they do this, they are locked in until the threat is removed. There are only three ways to undo the phalanx: withdrawal, total subjugation through ethnic engineering, or switching identity layers so that the group no longer feels threatened.

You can experience this by considering your own identities. By way of example, I am variously American, white, Jewish, male, straight, brown-eyed, of average height, Midwestern and suburban by birth, and monolingual, among others. Most days, none of these are my defining feature: my individuality is. But on 9/11 I was an American foremost, because that was the identity that was threatened. And after Charlottesville or the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, I was Jewish foremost. While I am horrified by attacks in any country or against any religious group, it is difficult for even the most empathetic among us to conjure quite the same primal fear while watching a predator hunt someone else as we get when we are the prey. And animals that are prey form herds.

Think of your identity layers, and see how this has affected your life. You’ll get the picture. But know this: even if you reject this instinct, a great number won’t, and in their multitudes they will form the phalanx anyway, with or without you. And whether you support it or not, your safety is often free-riding on the phalanx. A Serb in the Krajina in 1992 could have been a pro-Yugoslav, liberal, pluralistic democrat, but his ability to live in his home was dependent on the Serb phalanx’s success in keeping the Croats at bay. And when the Serb phalanx collapsed in 1995, this hypothetical liberal, pluralistic democrat Serb fled along with all the other Serbs. Distribution matters.

Understand also, people must often choose between identity layers, because a phalanx is an unwieldy configuration that often can’t operate on many layers and distribution sets at once. A majority of white women, in the 2016 election, aligned with whiteness more than gender. This is why the current president is who he is. Why did they do this? Change. The distribution of gender is fixed in America, but the relative distribution of whiteness is changing. And change is destabilizing. That brings us to…

3. Time: the age structure of your groups

There is a third, final axis to the matrix, which is time. This is represented by the population pyramid, the demographic distribution across generations. Median age, and the median age of each group, determines not just how the distribution is now but where it’s going. A numerically dominant group that is older than other groups won’t stay numerically dominant for long, and will usually react badly to the changing circumstances. Consider American whites: they’re still somewhere between 63% and 73% if the population depending how you count it, but declining (both relatively and, as of last year, absolutely) because they are older and have lower birthrates, and because their numbers are not being buttressed by immigration to the degree that those of other groups are. Time matters in demography. The white backlash in America today is as much against the future projected demography of the country as the present one.

Even if the temporal distribution is comparable between groups—that is, their age structures and birthrates are similar and so no group is growing faster than another—a young distribution is both a harbinger and a force multiplier of domestic instability and makes it more likely that groups will fight as their populations mushroom. With a flat, young population pyramid, most people are under 30 or even under 18, and people have more kids and they have them earlier, so the population grows exponentially, and so the costs to the state of providing jobs and land and opportunity and housing to all these new folks go up, while the costs of recruiting the most frustrated among them into a rebel army goes down. And in a diverse society, it’s always easiest to blame any structural failures to provide opportunity for each new generation on other groups… on them.

But even in a homogenous society, a country’s median age is a startlingly accurate predictor of its level of prosperity, democracy and political stability. If you are so young that your population doubles every 20 years, your demography is unstable regardless of ethnic distribution because rapid population increase will alter your social structures in a host of ways. Today, if your country’s median age is under 20, you’re either a failed state or could quickly become one (think the Sahel, Yemen, DRC, Afghanistan). Low 20s, you’re probably poor and autocratic, and if you had an Arab Spring, it failed (think Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and lots of sub-Saharan Africa). Mid 20s to low 30s, you’re a mid-income country facing turmoil from the rising demands of a nouveau middle class, and you might have elections but if so, the system is fragile (think Turkey, Tunisia, Nicaragua, Peru). Mid 30s to early 40s, you’re hopefully in the OECD and you’re rich and stable (think Western Europe), but if you’re not, you’re a former Eastern Bloc communist state and you’ve sort of missed your window to become rich (think Eastern Europe). Above 45, you’ve got social security problems but you don’t want to take in young immigrants to fix the problem because you’re a bit xenophobic (Italy comes to mind). There are very few exceptions to this trajectory.

This has international repercussions. Because young growing populations are directly correlated with poverty and conflict, there will be large economic and refugee outflows from these places to more wealthy and stable ones, which are almost universally older. That, as we have seen, will affect the identity distribution within those countries and have consequences for their politics as well.

When groups feel threatened, they do this… if they can.

When groups feel threatened, they do this… if they can.

Groups seek security in space and time

Because groups fear other groups, they tend to value self-determination, and are thus tribal and (to the extent possible) territorial. They want their place in the world and don’t want to be ruled by other groups. Given how minorities are consistently treated the world over, this desire is entirely reasonable and its legitimacy, at least, must be respected.

How a group behaves is largely dictated by its historic, current, and projected distribution. There is no Rawlsian veil here. We know where we are. As a general rule, no one wants to be a minority because you are at the mercy of the majoritarian mob who could come for you with torches at any time. Groups try to engineer their circumstances so they are not in a minority status. A university professor I knew once put it to me that the violent breakup of Yugoslavia took place entirely because each group said, “Why should I be a minority in your country when you could be a minority in mine?” Usually, through ethnic engineering, groups succeed in forming homeland states. The stakes are high, because if they don’t succeed, they are usually brutally subjugated. The fates of the Uighurs, Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Kurds, Assyrians, Biafrans, Ambazonians, and others are instructive.

The specific nature or ideology of the identity is almost irrelevant when compared to the distribution. Appealing, for example, to the Christian charity of America’s white evangelicals to be kind to migrants will fall on deaf ears if those migrants belong to a different group that is in any way demographically significant. This is true even if the migrants are also Christians. This is not because white evangelicals are hypocrites but because they are being collectively driven on by overwhelming, visceral, primordial tribal fear of them and what they might do, and there but for the grace of different demographic distributions go all of us, in one way or another. After all, when they were minorities, Christians were persecuted too. They haven’t forgotten. It’s on the wall of every church.

We know the identity specifics are of secondary importance because even within the same group, different configurations lead to radically different behavior. Jewish-Americans and Armenian-Americans are mostly pluralistic liberal democrats who believe in minority rights, wish to help refugees, and celebrate a diverse nation. Since they themselves are tiny and diffuse minorities, this is natural. Meanwhile, Israelis and Armenians are among the most ferociously territorially nationalistic peoples on earth. Since they are tiny concentrated minorities who fled persecution from all directions to their current homelands, and since they both face violent revisionist claims on their current homelands by demographically larger neighbors, they correctly see their state as the sole refuge available to them. Same people, different configuration. Neither of these responses, by the way, is necessarily wrong; they are natural and rational given the distribution of identity groups across the matrix. But the outcomes for them and their enemies can still be tragic.

The third axis is relevant here. An older concentrated power group will be loathe to welcome even a small number of newcomers who are younger and have higher birth rates because the perceived long-term threat to demographic control of territory. A migrant caravan headed towards the American border is a few thousand people seeking a better life, and they are approaching a nation of 330 million people with nothing but the best of intentions, but to the ethnonationalist American there is no appreciable difference between that caravan and an invading army. Both herald a loss of identitarian territorial control. The reaction will be similar, and it will be unpleasant. This is not racism per se—at least it doesn’t have to be—but rather a tribal reaction dictated by the distribution of groups in the matrix. Until the threat abates or is superseded by another, the phalanx is locked in place.

If a group ends up in a political configuration where they are a minority, they can either try to integrate or leave. But this decision isn’t entirely their own either. It’s dictated by demographic distribution too. In practice, leaving is only possible when a group is concentrated in a region, either successfully like the Eritreans, or semi-successfully like the Kosovar Albanians, or unsuccessfully like the Catalonians. By contrast, a diffuse minority population cannot achieve territorial self-determination, so it must try to work within the system to achieve equal rights. The Roma can’t really seek independence. Neither, at least not after the Great Migration, can African-Americans, even though after centuries of mistreatment such an effort would certainly garner broad sympathy. African-Americans have not anytime recently exceeded four in 10 in any state in the union. (At 37%, Mississippi currently has the highest percentage.) As a result, hypothetical Black America today has no viable geography, and so African-Americans have been compelled to seek political rights within the system, with, to put it mildly, mixed results.

And this is where the difference between lineage-based and non-lineage-based identities becomes manifest. Because gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation are largely fixed in any population across time and space, they are by definition diffuse. As far as we can tell, even with extreme social engineering, the male-female ratio in every human society is always somewhere in the ballpark of 1:1, and somewhere between 5-10% of the population is LGBTQ+. The public behavior and visibility and freedom of these identity groups can be controlled, but the numbers are consistent pretty much everywhere. Even if a zealot deported all gays, very quickly there would be a new crop born into the next generation. But lineage-based identities can be engineered; so if a society deports all its Jews, they’re gone for good. Balkan ethnic groups can Balkanize, but Balkan men and women cannot. Thus, despite systematic discrimination and sometimes shocking denials of basic rights, there has never to my knowledge, anywhere in the world, been a women’s separatist movement. Nor has anyone proposed a territorially independent LGBTQ+ republic. (By the way, autonomy won’t cut it here, which is why college safe spaces don’t solve America’s race and gender problems. Real safe spaces have flags and border controls and, optimally, seats in the United Nations General Assembly.) Lineage-based identities can, and do, partial across the land. Non-lineage-based ones have to learn to live together.

Misalignments between power and demography are destabilizing

The most insidious ethnic security dilemmas often take root when there is a misalignment between wealth/political power and demographic power. This is what Amy Chua calls the “market-dominant minority.” If a minority runs the commanding heights of the economy, as ethnic Chinese have in much of Southeast Asia, and especially if they also control the state, as under Baathist Iraq and Syria, or Apartheid South Africa, or pre-revolutionary Rwanda, each group will see the other as a threat. The minority group may have power and wealth, but they’re heavily outnumbered and they know that if the majority gets political rights, the minority stands to lose everything. These dynamics are extremely difficult to solve. So far in South Africa it has worked out well enough, but this is a singular exception. From Vietnam to Iraq to Rwanda to Algeria, it usually doesn’t end well for the minority group. And even success is conditional; one populist electoral cycle could end the minority group’s safety at any time. If you wonder why Bashar al-Assad instantly chose to level whole cities rather than negotiate with his own people, this is why. His decision was made for him by Syria’s demography.

The minority group is damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they’re less successful on average, they will face stereotypes and discrimination, and be confined to the margins. But if they fight through this discrimination and succeed to a disproportionate or even equivalent degree, their lot can be even worse, because they become targets. Jews in Europe never threatened to impose a minority regime anywhere, but because they were often economically successful, they were targeted by the majority everywhere they went and consistently subject to deranged populist conspiracy theories that begat hate crimes, pogroms, expulsions, and the Holocaust. Today, the continent has been largely emptied of them.

Of course, if the misalignment goes in the other direction, and the largest group by numbers also has disproportionate economic and political power, this group can—and almost inevitably will—bulldoze all minority groups so effortlessly that it won’t even realize what it is doing. This is why so many American whites fail to see that racial inequality is even an issue in the United States. The country’s structures have disadvantaged people of color so long that American whites don’t even realize the inequalities are there.

At least until now. When the marginalized minority group protests its marginalization, the power group says, “Why are you complaining? Work harder like we do.” But when the marginalized minority group acquires sufficient demographic heft to force its protests to be heard, the power group views them no longer as a nuisance, but as a threat. And they form the phalanx.

Misalignments between people and borders are destabilizing

There’s another kind of misalignment, a horizontal mismatch of territorial borders and people. This causes destabilization in two ways. First, it tends to be the justification for cross-border invasion (think Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland in the name of the Germans who lived there, or the “Greater Serbia” project, or the ongoing Nagorno-Karabkh dispute).

But second, even if the borders are agreed upon, the nature of the society is not. In diverse societies, the rivalries within the polity are often so intense that factions within it will feel greater kinship with foreigners of the same or similar identity group than they do with their own countrymen of different backgrounds. In the Syrian war, the Alawites running the minority government turned to their fellow Shi’a from Lebanon and Iran to help fight the majoritarian uprising, and later their historic ally Russia. The mostly Sunni rebels called in backup in the form of cross border sanctuary, financing, fighters and materiel from various Sunnis in Turkey, the Gulf, and even—in the case of Daesh—disaffected Sunnis in Western countries. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds sought alliances with Iraqi and Turkish Kurds, and with the United States as well. Diverse countries become proxy wars for homogenous ones.

This is normal. It’s happening in America too. American whites now seem to increasingly prefer white Russians to Americans of color. “Russia is our friend” is not something you would have expected to ever hear from the party of Reagan and Goldwater and Nixon and McCarthy. But here we are.

Misalignments between identity layers are destabilizing

The phalanx doesn’t just respond to threats within its own identity layer—ethnic group vs. ethnic group, holy warrior vs. holy warrior, etc.—but against any threat from any layer in the matrix. It will constantly reorient itself against the biggest threat it sees. And some of the nastiest conflicts transpire when groups are operating on different identity prisms and so don’t just hate each other, but don’t understand each other either.

The most obvious example of this the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, where neither side’s hardliners actually acknowledge that the other side even exists. For their part, Palestinians specifically and Muslims generally often find it difficult to understand how Judaism functions as both a tribe and a religion, and consider its insularity a show of intolerance and arrogance. Jews, meanwhile, often find it difficult to understand why Islam keeps spreading and proselytizing, which from a Jewish perspective is also a show of intolerance and arrogance. The two groups aren’t operating on the same identity layer, and thus misidentify who they are dealing with.

Palestinians thus view their conflict with Israel as a religious war against a racist imperial settler colonial project foisted on them by dastardly Europeans. Israelis see themselves as a tiny, persecuted homeland tribe, no different than Armenians or Estonians, who came to their homeland in spite of the worst efforts those same dastardly Europeans, and who just wish to live in their little corner of the world and not be menaced by the vast, expanding, hostile blob of which the Palestinians are just the tip of the spear, indistinguishable from the rest. Thus, conflict.

(As an aside, Judaism also doesn’t quite fit into America’s racial dynamics, or, indeed, almost anyone else’s identitarian dynamics. It is so ancient that as an identity, it is conceptually misaligned with most of the layers of the matrix, which I suspect is one reason why Judaism so consistently bothers identitarians everywhere.)

The mis-labeling in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is highly typical, especially when territory and citizenship are at stake. Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be Bengalis. The Rohingya do not. Armenians consider Azeris to be Turks. Azeris do not. Serbs consider Kosovar Albanians to be Turks. Kosovar Albanians do not. Russians consider Ukrainians to just be Russians who were tempted by fascism for some reason. Ukrainians feel otherwise. Nobody considers Macedonians to actually be Macedonians. Etc.

Changes in the matrix are destabilizing

Just like a chemistry set, altering the composition of a solution will change its nature. Almost any noticeable change in demography will cause relative power loss for somebody and will be met with resistance from that somebody.

Consider the United States again. America is the world’s oldest democracy and calls itself multiethnic. Frankly, we should be able to handle this stuff if anyone can. But in fact, we were historically not really a multiethnic democracy at all. Until recently, whites have had an unassailable demographic hammerlock on the national political machinery. Now, that is changing, and fast. Whites are voting decisively for one political party, but that party has lost the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections. As a result, whites are starting to behave like threatened minority or plurality power groups like the Syrian Alawites or Great Lakes Tutsis or Lebanese Maronites. Losing control of demography, they are abandoning democracy and imposing illiberal structures to maintain their power. And ethnic politics breed big men. The tribe’s standard-bearer can have unlimited scandals and be manifestly unfit for leadership and his constituency will never waver as long as he represents them against their domestic foes. Moreover, supporting the standard-bearer will become a mark of tribal loyalty, so as the tribe forms the phalanx, they will become even more intransigent and difficult to peel off. This dynamic is an almost inevitable outcome of the change in distribution along the third axis to the relative detriment of a loss-averse tribe of humans. The Serbs did the same thing with Milosevic, the Croats with Tudjman, the Turks with the Young Turks. There is nothing unusual or uniquely odious about American white people here. This is a human thing. It is largely out of our control, and individual goodwill makes basically no difference at the collective level. Demographic change is driving this thing as surely as a chemical reaction.

Unfortunately, no one can see the identity matrix for yourself. You have to be told what it is.

And this is why I maintain tremendous empathy for groups, even when their behavior is appalling. They are acting out of identitarian self-defense at the collective level. Their behavior is so dictated by their demographic configuration in the identity matrix that it is honestly difficult for me to hold them wholly responsible for it.

In the identity matrix, most groups instinctively understand their surroundings but only from their own vantage point. No one realizes the threat they pose to others; they only see the threats from the other groups. They don’t see how their own phalanx menaces. They see the phalanx formed by the other group, and decry “identity politics.” This is how the ethnic security dilemma works; each group is fearful, doesn’t understand why the other group is fearful, and so assumes the worst.

American factions, for instance, remain consistently oblivious to how terrifying the lay of the land looks to other groups. Educating them will not help, because their fear comes from numbers, not words, and if they feel the threat of the numbers of the other, even if the intent of the other is in principle benign, they will form the phalanx, and the conversation is over.

There are few more perfect examples of this dynamic than the following incredibly un-self-aware tweet by Tucker Carlson—Tucker Carlson!—in the aftermath of various acts of pre-election violence:

I take this lament as sincere. Carlson doesn’t see white identity politics because of where he stands in the identity matrix. But from his vantage point, he does see everybody else’s identity politics, and he is afraid of them. In this, at least, Carlson is all of us.

This is why the identity matrix is useful. Understanding its dynamics can allow us to recognize the fears of the other, mitigate them, avoid conflict where possible, or at least achieve stable (and hopefully optimal) configurations. It also holds the promise of the one tried-and-true way to peaceably overcome the phalanx: switching identity layers to unite disparate and historically conflictual groups. Virtually all human conflicts are resolvable if demographic distribution is taken as the starting point. If we understand how our positions in the identity matrix dictate our individual and collective actions, we can be more empathetic, more forgiving, and ultimately more peaceful and tolerant.

Outro: America Breaking

With the 2018 election in the books, we must again try to figure out how to operate as Americans, how to stop people from feeling they must vote along straight racial lines to survive, how to stop weaponizing demography. Using the identity matrix, we have the capacity to switch identity layers and emphasize our national unity over our racial, ethnic, and religious differences. Or, we can continue to face off phalanx on phalanx, and perhaps the diminishing power group will strangle the democratic system to survive, or cleanse America into homogeneity… or perhaps America’s minorities will overwhelm the diminishing power group through demographic change. One way or another, we will eventually be reconfigured into something stable.

But of course, given our demography distribution, it remains to be seen whether we Americans will ultimately find that stability within one political entity… or several.

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Ethnic Engineering Glossary

Ethnic engineering: the deliberate manipulation of a territory’s political borders and/or demography for the purpose of ensuring one group’s unquestioned dominion over the territory. This can include:

  • Genocide: "Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." The most extreme form of ethnic engineering, and the only one that without question demands some form of international intervention. Special emphasis should be given to the word intent; it's only genocide if extermination is the direct purpose of the act.
  • Ethnic subjugation: The intent to destroy, in whole or in part, not a group, but a group’s political aspirations/capacity to be a political force. While this can often involve mass suffering, it is distinct from genocide in that, because it targets the political goal and not the group, once the conflict is over the groups can potentially safely live alongside one another without fear, depending on the outcome of the conflict. Unlike genocide, which is rare, ethnic subjugation is common. It can take the form either of a single campaign to defeat an adversary, such as the defeat of a secessionist bid, or a continuous regime of enforced and, sometimes, legally codified vertical hierarchy, although at this point it bleeds into ethnic zoning. It can also be the means by which other forms of ethnic engineering are imposed on a resistant population.
  • Ethnic cleansing: “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” Note that the manner of force and intimidation is not defined. Any involuntary identity-based population transfer, including through bureaucratic enforcement of existing immigration laws, is ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is widespread in the international system. Note also that it is not an independent crime under international law.
  • Negative ethnic cleansing: Maintaining an area’s ethnic homogeneity or current demography by using force or intimidation to block persons of other groups who would wish to migrate to and live in the territory from doing so. This includes any identity-based immigration control or blood-based citizenship regime.
  • Ethnic swamping: Changing the demography of a disputed territory by importing members of one’s own group into the area until they outnumber other groups. There are two forms, but only one of them is “engineering” per se. Top-down swamping occurs when an identitarian political entity imports members of its own group for the purpose of solidifying demographic dominance of a disputed territory. Bottom-up swamping occurs when large numbers of members of another group or groups migrate to a territory, not as part of an organized campaign of conquest but usually to seek economic opportunity or refuge, with the cumulative effect of changing the demography of the territory. A middle ground between these two forms would be an un-state-sanctioned land grab by settler colonials. Top-down swamping usually requires ethnic subjugation. Both forms usually breed an ethnonational backlash by the existing population.
  • Negative ethnic swamping: In the context of a collapsing political order such as an empire, taking in large numbers of refugees belonging to the dominant group in order to secure control of disputed territory (and often replace ethnically cleansed populations of other groups). This could also be thought of as a mutual, though often violent, population swap between groups in the context of a post-imperial or post-totalitarian partition.
  • Ethnic zoning: Using a hierarchical or segregation regime to separate groups within a territory, usually for the purpose of blocking the access of marginalized groups to certain physical spaces, neighborhoods, opportunities, resources, or wealth. This can take the form of vertical zoning or horizontal zoning or a combination of both, depending on whether the parties are divided geographically or in terms of privileges within the society. While both vertical and horizontal zoning are usually subjugatory, the manner of their enforcement depends on the relative demographic strength of different groups, and viable resolutions to the inequities inherent in such regimes vary based on demographic distribution.
  • Assimilation: Eliminating or downplaying the differences between groups by absorbing groups into the dominant group.
  • Negative assimilation: Blocking the spread of a new identity, usually a religion or language, by using force or intimidation to prevent its spread or acceptance in a territory. As a corollary, denying a group its own self-defined identity.
  • Right-sizing the state: Changing the boundaries of the territory controlled by the group to ensure demographic dominance. This can either take the form of increasing territory through acquisition or surrendering territory largely populated by another group or groups either through partition, ceding of the territory to another polity, or border adjustments. In the former case, the territorial acquisition can be of land already containing the group's members (the logical outcome of "homeland nationalism")... but if it isn't, it will be followed by a dual ethnic swamping and ethnic subjugation campaign.
  • Nationalization: Rather than attempting to subjugate, expel, eliminate, or zone groups apart from the dominant group, instead switching identity layers to form and/or emphasize a national identity that supersedes sub-identities within the polity. This is distinct from assimilation in that the national identity does not have to correspond explicitly with the identity of the dominant group, and so other groups can keep their identities while downplaying them relative to the national identity. The classic nationalization quote comes from Massimo d'Azeglio in 1861, following Italian unification: "We have made Italy; now we must make Italians."


Separation is natural


Separation is natural

We need to redefine what we mean by "ethnic cleansing" far beyond our conventional understanding of the term, so that it includes all the ways states constantly control their demography: systems of government, immigration policy, border controls, citizenship laws, and more. The term should be understood broadly, and as part of a still wider suite of policies, called "ethnic engineering," by which identity-based states ensure identity-based control of territory.

And the international sovereign order, and the stability it gives us, could not exist without it.


1. What we talk about when we talk about ethnic cleansing

  1. A similar problem applies to “terrorism,” which also has no internationally accepted definition and probably never will. I like to say, only partly in jest, that the only definition everyone would agree on is that terrorism “is what they do to us.”

  2. A note on terms. I use the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the forced removal of any lineage-based identity group, be it ethnic, religious, sectarian, linguistic, or what have you. It is my view, as of this writing and pending further exploration of the matter, that the effects of identity-based security dilemmas operate similarly on all of these categories.

When a new term is invented in response to a specific event, we often struggle to decide how to apply it elsewhere. “Genocide” was Raphael Lemkin’s attempt to describe the Holocaust. Once the term entered common usage, the debate began. What other genocides were there? Did the Turks commit genocide against the Armenians? Did the United States commit genocide against the Native Americans? Were the Khmer Rouge genocidal? Was Stalin? What about Caesar's conquest of the Gauls? Etc.

The same is true of ethnic cleansing. The term was first used to describe the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and that is where our minds often go when we consider what it means. So the genocidal massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, which horrified the world and finally moved the United States to decisively intervene in the conflict, is the indelible symbol of ethnic cleansing.

This way of thinking about ethnic cleansing is a mistake, akin to observing the color red and assuming you have the whole spectrum. It misses nearly the entire picture. Genocides are rare. Ethnic cleansing is endemic. Benjamin Lieberman’s book “Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe” details just how ubiquitous the tactic was to building the international order Europe enjoys today, but it’s not just Europe. Demographic control is integral to the nation-state project.

The United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect notes that the term ethnic cleansing “has not been recognized as an independent crime under international law.” Nor is there an official definition. I suspect I know why. Governments understand that defining ethnic cleansing would be a fraught business, and would expose the many ways states attempt to control their demography.

The best we have so far is probably from the UN Commission of Experts studying violations of international humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia, which defined the term as “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.” This definition is useful because it emphasizes the intent and effect of the act more than the tactics employed. This is the definition I want us to use now. When you think of ethnic cleansing, I do not want you to think of Srebrenica anymore, at least not in isolation. Genocide is only the most brutal means of ethnic cleansing, getting rid of a group in your territory by exterminating it entirely. Many if not most states have a strong interest in maintaining or solidifying their current demographic structure, which was seldom achieved peacefully. Ethnic cleansing is not an anomalous war crime, an extreme and unusual depravity in international affairs that the Bosnian Serbs invented, any more than the apocryphal apple that fell on Isaac Newton's head marked the commencement of gravity. Ethnic cleansing is our shared history, and it is built into the way the international system works.

2. Why do people ethnically cleanse each other?

  1. Academically, this is not actually true, and works such as Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” have been edifying in understanding the mindset behind Nazi crimes. In the public discourse, however, I find there’s little room for this kind of subtlety, and any exploration of motivations is shouted down as apologia. Public debates tend to focus instead on the tactics, the sequence of steps the Nazis took in their extermination campaign.

  2. This can also happen if the group poses no threat themselves but is tied to a much larger identity group that does threaten the identity-based integrity of the state. This would partially explain Myanmar’s targeting of the tiny Rohingya minority, who are mostly Muslim, even though they are demographically insignificant and pose basically no threat to the state at all.

  3. Other sources report significantly fewer. Displacement figures for both Croats and Serbs vary depending on whom you ask.

  4. My paper about this incident is here, though since writing it I have found a greater disparity in reported displacement numbers for both Serbs and Croats than I report there.

  5. It would have been really nice if Western policymakers had figured this out early in the Syrian conflict, and realized that “Assad must go" was a potentially genocidal demand.

  6. The census can be a highly destabilizing factor for the same reason, as it effectively ranks identity groups numerically, allowing larger or growing groups to flex their muscles and frightening smaller or relatively declining groups. Some countries, such as Nigeria, have had to “de-ethnitize” their census just to stop civil wars and military coups from breaking out each time they run one. Perhaps the increasingly diverse and brittle United States should consider the idea.

Apart from obfuscating much of the story, there's another reason why lumping ethnic cleansing in with genocide is analytically unhelpful. Genocide is so odious that the perpetrator’s motivations are basically irrelevant. “But why did Hitler hate Jews so much?” is the wrong question. We wave garlic and crosses at genocide. It is pure evil and we must stop it and defeat it. It is almost like a corollary to Godwin's Law. The first invocation ends all political arguments.

Ethnic cleansing, however, has a very identifiable cause in almost every case, and one that we can empathize with even if we are horrified by the result. It arises, almost without exception, from an ethnic security dilemma and a moment of political revisionism, often after the collapse or breakup of a polyglot entity such as an empire or totalitarian state. Disparate groups fear that other groups will unite to dominate them or seize lands they claim for themselves, so they preemptively mobilize to defend themselves and secure their claims. Generally, people don't ethnically cleanse because they're evil, they do it so that no one will do it to them.

The ethnic security dilemma is zero-sum and self-reinforcing. In 1991, when Yugoslavia broke up, Croatia seceded, and then an enclave in Croatia called the Krajina, where Serbs held a slight majority, counter-seceded. The Krajina was diverse and had been so for generations. Under Yugoslav rule, it didn't matter who lived there, as it was part of one multi-ethnic communist dictatorship. But the dispute of whether it would belong to a Serb-dominated or Croat-dominated political unit rendered the very existence of each group there a threat to the other. In order to ensure Serb control, the breakaway Serbs, backed by Belgrade, kicked out nearly the entire Croat population, possibly as many as 250,000 people. In the summer of 1995, the military tables turned, and the Croat army stormed the Krajina and took it over. Nearly the entire Serb population—estimates range from 150,000 to as many as 300,000—fled. Most never returned, and today Croatia’s Serb population is about a third of what it was before the war. For both sides, the fear of being ethnically cleansed incentivized ethnic cleansing and proved self-fulfilling. This is typical.

Truth and reconciliation do not end the ethnic security dilemma. In fact, states often subsequently forget they ever committed such acts, or even celebrate them. If the ethnonational claim to a territory is inconvenienced by the presence of others, the forced removal of those others undermines the national origin myth, and therefore must be expunged from memory. It cannot be taught in schoolbooks. It cannot be acknowledged or apologized for. The surviving populations move on with life as normal, as if nothing ever happened. The thing about ethnic cleansing is, you don't notice the people who are no longer there. The whole point of the undertaking was so that you wouldn't have to think about them anymore.

Democracy does not solve the ethnic security dilemma, it exacerbates it. Getting rid of the Rohingya polls quite well in newly democratic Myanmar. It was the 1990 elections in the Yugoslav republics that brought in nationalists who broke up the state and cleansed it of its diversity. The 2005 Iraqi elections handed power from the minority Sunnis, who had largely run things under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, to the majority Shia, who cleverly and successfully campaigned on a platform of being more numerous, while the Sunnis largely boycotted the proceedings. The inevitable civil war erupted the following year, and ended less because of the American “surge” and more because the Sunnis realized they were going to lose. During the surge, the United States paid the two main Iraqi factions to not fight each other, and stamp out their respective unsavory elements, until after American forces left. The instant they were gone, sectarianism returned, and the Islamic State invasion in 2014 caused a re-run of the war, again ending with Sunni defeat. (One could imagine this dynamic continuing.) Next door, the minority-controlled Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad took note. When the Arab Spring came to Syria, the government demonstrated that there was literally no limit to what it would do to prevent a similar outcome. “Democratic” in the context of the ethnic security dilemma is good for majoritarians and bad for minorities, and incentivizes ethnic cleansing to ensure electoral success. The fact that the surviving Hutu genocidaires, who linger on in the ungoverned spaces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, call themselves the “Forces for the Democratic Liberation of Rwanda” is telling. Democratic liberation is terrific if you’re an ethnic militia whose ethnicity constitutes 85% of the population. Not so if you’re 15%. Ethnic cleansing is demographic gerrymandering. It is democracy by other means.

Your own personal aversion to ethnonationalism, and your diverse group of friends, is irrelevant here. A great many Yugoslavs had, and still have, no interest in separatist projects, and intermarriage between groups was common before 1991. Yet the war came anyway. The ethnic security dilemma operates at the collective level. The existence of a nationalist leader and his or her constituency, no matter how limited, is terrifying to other groups and causes them to react, setting off a chain reaction in which voices of moderation are bulldozed.

3. So what constitutes ethnic cleansing?

  1. It’s technically possible, as of this writing, that Congress could still step in to save the day here.

  2. Let’s highlight two important differences here. First, the tactics reportedly used by the Myanmar regime could also qualify as war crimes, while a bureaucratic deportation regime like that of the United States would not. Moreover, the DACA recipients are generally recognized as citizens of somewhere, even if they've barely lived in that somewhere. Not so the Rohingya, who are rejected by Bangladesh (as well as basically everybody else) and are stateless. We should not minimize these differences. Nevertheless, both acts should be understood as ethnic cleansing.

  3. The development investments, it appears, often backfire, as Africans save up the money from working in EU-funded projects in their home countries to finance the expensive and perilous trek to Europe.

  4. In general, it's a bad look to outsource your immigration enforcement to slave traders.

  5. Though they did reportedly massacre some who stayed.

  6. See Laura Silber and Allan Little’s “Yugoslavia: Death Of A Nation.” Penguin, United States, 1997, p. 358.

Since ethnic cleansing entails any method of identity-based demographic control, we have to define the term outwards, far beyond what is conventionally understood. States are creative about this sort of thing.

The most indisputable form of ethnic cleansing is the kind that apes the Balkan tactics that spawned the term. A military or paramilitary campaign of terror to force most or all of an ethnic group out of a territory, such as the current campaign in Myanmar against the Rohingya people, obviously qualifies. UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the Human Rights Council in September that the Rohingya exodus “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Of course, since the term is relatively new and there’s no legal definition, there is no textbook. “Textbook” here means “something that resembles what happened in Bosnia.”

Accusing Myanmar of ethnic cleansing is not difficult. The next step is harder. At the same time that Myanmar is evicting nearly a million people who have lived in the country for a long time but that the state rejects as citizens, the Trump Administration is doing the same in the United States. Its decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient protections, presumably leading to a systematic deportation of some 800,000 people who have lived in the United States for nearly their entire lives, looks different in this light. A state has arbitrarily decided not to grant citizenship to people who live in its territory, and is now getting rid of them, sending them back to a country they barely know just because they share an identity with the people of that country. Because in America's case, nearly all the DACA recipients are from Latin America, and almost none are white.

The tactics used to carry out this program are of course very different. Myanmar reportedly burns villages, uses rape as a weapon, and plants landmines. ICE does not do these things. But this says less about the relative humanity of the two regimes and more about their relative wealth. Strong states with resources and territorial control have a monopoly on the use of force (or, borrowing from the UN, shall we say “force and intimidation”) and can deport millions under a legal regime by using the bureaucracy and law enforcement. Weak states that struggle to control their territory don't have this luxury, and resort to pogroms. Alex de Waal called Sudan’s Darfur policy “counterinsurgency on the cheap.” Myanmar’s Rohingya policy is “strong on immigration on the cheap.”

The two policies look physically different but from the perspective of the state their goal is the same. Nearly a million people of a specific background want to live in the country, and aren't welcome, and the state is forcing them to leave. The tactics used do not determine whether a policy is ethnic cleansing, the result does. Murder by hatchet and murder by administering a painless but fatal dose of poison are both murder. If Myanmar’s actions constitute ethnic cleansing, why don’t those of the Trump Administration?

I will go even further, however. The above is “positive ethnic cleansing,” or removing existing people from a territory. There is also “negative ethnic cleansing,” or preventing people who would naturally want to migrate to and live in and be a citizen of your state from doing so based on who they are. Negative ethnic cleansing can be just as violent and identitarian as the positive variety, but it’s so ingrained in our international system that many of us don't even realize it’s there. But migrants do. Negative ethnic cleansing includes any kind of identity-biased restrictive immigration policy. It is the policy of the successful ethnonationalist. Having secured identity dominance in her territory, she will now defend that territory against migration- or fertility-based demographic change.

Consider the recent Foreign Policy series “Europe Slams Its Gates.” The series chronicles the European Union’s attempt to stop the flow of migrants from North Africa through a combination of economic investments and security arrangements with foreign governments and militias. The effectiveness of these tactics is debatable. So is the morality of the security arrangements. But as with the DACA case, the real question here is the intent. And the intent is obvious. Europe wants to block a flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East in order to maintain demographic stability. Absent the policy, tens of millions of people of African and Middle Eastern descent would be in Europe right now, living, working, intermarrying, and (depending on citizenship laws) becoming politically enfranchised citizens. Blocking them makes no economic sense. Flows of mostly young, working age migrants are a net economic positive for aging, industrialized countries facing pending labor shortages (a fact of life for nearly every country in Europe). So the only conceivable reason for Europe to spend enormous financial outlays on immigration restrictions that compel migrants to take dangerous illegal trips across the Mediterranean by boat, perishing by the thousands annually in the process, is to keep Europe demographically “European.” This is negative ethnic cleansing.

States can also legally codify ethnic purity through blood citizenship laws. A restrictive regime gives the state the legal standing to remove unwanted peoples and call it immigration policy. If a homogenous country requires parental citizenship and places high hurdles on naturalization, it will likely remain homogenous in perpetuity. If that country is aging so rapidly that it faces acute labor shortages and population decline, is wealthy enough that many would like to emigrate there, and still maintains that citizenship regime, we do not have to wonder why. We know.

There is a final element to ethnic cleansing, and that is, to borrow from Mitt Romney, the concept of “self-deportation.” Romney’s comment during the 2012 American presidential campaign drew chuckles, but self-deportation is not funny. Often a group isn't forced to leave their homes, but rather reads the writing on the wall and leaves of their own accord. This doesn't happen by chance, and we must ask ourselves if it is even useful to distinguish it from ethnic cleansing when it does happen. Often it is the result of persecution towards an impoverished minority, such as the undocumented Mexicans Romney was speaking of. Long before Myanmar's current ethnic cleansing drive, its policies towards the Rohingya were so unpleasant that a majority of the group's members had already left the country. But a changing political dynamic can also encourage previously dominant settler colonials to flee en masse.

Consider the pieds-noir of Algeria. In 1960, there were a million of them, many tracing their lineage back to France's seizure of the territory in 1830, or even earlier. In 1962, the year Algeria gained independence, nearly all of them were evacuated, and by 1970 fewer than 50,000 remained. If such a total removal of a population from a territory in such short order is not ethnic cleansing, the term has no meaning. The Algerians may not have actually removed most of these people. They didn’t have to. The changing political landscape and security situation compelled the pieds-noir to remove themselves. Similarly, Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman washed his hands of the cleansing of the Krajina after Croat forces seized it in 1995, causing virtually the entire Serb population there to flee. “I thought 60 to 70 percent of the Serbs would stay,” he later said, “that they would understand that democratic Croatia will guarantee their ethnic rights. So the Serbs themselves are to blame for their destiny.” In fact, the invading army left escape routes, and the Serb leadership and population took them without hesitation. If you change the political dynamics of a territory and suddenly an entire identity group packs up and leaves in response, is this appreciably different than formally throwing them out?

Ethnic cleansing is, in short, any policy that ensures demographic dominance of a group or groups in a territory or polity to the exclusion of another group or groups. Pogroms, discriminatory immigration systems, harsh border regimes, blood-based citizenship laws, and even dynamics in which identity groups feel sufficiently unwelcome that they simply remove themselves, are all part of a suite of policies intended to effect and maintain an ethnonational program. For my part, I see little difference between them. They all have the same purpose. They all force people to not be where they want, often with fatal results, and do so on identity grounds.

4. Ethnic engineering

  1. Unlike most other terms here, I made the first two of these up. It’s possible terms exist and I just don’t know them, but I’ve never heard an official term for either of these tactics, which is odd, as they are both common.

  2. Please see Anthony Howell and C. Cindy Fan’s "Migration and Inequality in Xinjiang: A Survey of Han and Uyghur Migrants in Urumqi,” Eurasian Geography and Economics, 2011, 52, No. 1, p. 123.

  3. Serbia faced a similar problem in the 20th century in Kosovo to that of the Israelis in the West Bank today. It did not end well.

  4. That is, unless you want to get creative about how you define Apartheid and Jim Crow segregation, arguing that the physical separation they require amounts to ethnic cleansing within a single polity. We could call this “ethnic zoning.” Consider American segregation. If our definition of ethnic cleansing is “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area,” “separate but equal” would definitely qualify, as would redlining, and even gentrification and gated communities or suburbs. American whites might have to share a national polity with African Americans, but they will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid sharing neighborhoods, property wealth, school systems, equal treatment by law enforcement, etc. In this fashion, they Balkanize America, achieving political dominance and control of territory and wealth without formally splitting the country up or kicking people out. “States rights” in this framing is really about the right to ethnically zone, transferring more equitably distributed federal resources to local polities that can keep white money and land in white hands, with the “other” out of sight and mind, merely a tolerable, invisible reservoir of exploitable low-wage labor.

  5. Example: in the Maldives, Islam is the state religion and officially, the population is 100% Muslim. No human population ever became 100% anything naturally.

  6. Example: Khartoum’s attempt to enforce sharia law upon its largely non-Muslim southern population played a role in renewing the North-South war in Sudan, ultimately leading to South Sudan’s secession.

There are three notable policies that are not ethnic cleansing per se but are nonetheless part of the ethnonational program towards unwanted identity-based populations: ethnic swamping, ethnic subjugation, and ethnic assimilation. To understand these, we need to define the term “ethnic cleansing” outwards yet again. Let us instead think of “ethnic engineering,” different ways of ensuring a group’s dominance in a territory, of which “ethnic cleansing” is just a subset.

Ethnic swamping occurs when the state claims disputed territory, and wants to solidify its claim by settling members its own group until they demographically overwhelm the locals. Ethnic swamping is not ethnic cleansing, but a substitute. It is ethnic cleansing by other means. This tactic does not preclude ethnic cleansing or genocide: the settling of most of the countries of the New World after 1492 arguably involved all three, often in tandem. The difference with ethnic swamping is that you’re not actually making the group you dislike leave. You’re simply out-populating them.

While settler colonial projects almost by definition must attempt ethnic swamping, the most obvious contemporary example would be Chinese settlement policy towards Xinjiang and Tibet, in a country where Uyghur and Tibetan populations are hopelessly outnumbered by Han Chinese. By encouraging westward migration, either state-arranged or, increasingly, self-initiated, the Chinese government is making both groups a minority in the territory they would claim as their own, thus rendering impossible any claims to independence. Even the Dalai Lama has largely given up on the idea. While the extent of this practice in Tibet ignites stormy debate, Xinjiang’s numbers are available, and they are notable. In 1945, Uyghurs were nearly 83% of the population, to 6.2% Han. By 2008, it was 46.1% Uyghur and 39.2% Han. Whatever the motivations for such population transfers, the result demographically ropes the disputed region to the national core, locking in Chinese territorial integrity while allowing the state to dictate cultural dominance, regional wealth distribution, and security arrangements. And that is what ethnic swamping is all about.

The Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank is a highly ineffective attempt at ethnic swamping. The Israeli policy bears some similarities to the Chinese one, though it has far less international recognition. However, it has a fatal flaw: the Israelis quite simply do not have the numbers. China has a reservoir of some 1.24 billion Han Chinese to swamp perhaps three million Tibetans and 11-15 million Uyghurs. By contrast, if one includes the Palestinian diaspora, Israeli Jews are already outnumbered by their Palestinian foes, and this will only increase in coming years, as the Palestinians have higher birthrates. Even a universal aliyah probably wouldn't be enough, as there are fewer than 15 million Jews on Earth. You can’t ethnically swamp if you are a minority. At least, you can’t do it democratically.

Of course, nobody likes to be ethnically swamped, not the Native Americans, not the Uyghurs, not the Tibetans, and not the Palestinians. They correctly see the arrival of newcomers as a sustained attempt to expropriate their claim to the land, and they know they will face discrimination and distrust under alien control. So to maintain such a program, one needs another tactic: ethnic subjugation.

Ethnic subjugation occurs when an identitarian government responds to a violent uprising by a group, particularly a regionally concentrated group, by collectively punishing the whole group. Ethnic subjugation is not genocide, but a substitute. It is genocide by other means. It is an attempt to destroy, in whole or in part, not a group, but a group’s capacity to be a political force. Not surprisingly, it is often mistaken for genocide. The Save Darfur Coalition routinely called the Sudanese government’s actions in Darfur genocide, but this labeling muddied the term and missed the point. Sudan had no reason or desire to exterminate the tribes of Darfur. It just wanted to suppress their revolt, and was short of money, so it armed the janjaweed and had them do it. A richer state with more advanced military and administrative capabilities does not get accused of genocide. I’ve never heard anyone suggest Russia’s Chechnya operations constituted genocide, but Moscow’s intent there was identical to Khartoum’s in Darfur. In each case, a regional identity-based revolt was forcefully suppressed. The ethnic group can continue to exist, but its political aspirations are destroyed and its humans are killed indiscriminately to drive home the point. Often, the poorer the state, the more indiscriminate the killing, hence de Waal’s term “counterinsurgency on the cheap.” Nigeria’s 1967-1970 defeat of the Biafran secession was another example, as was Sri Lanka’s crushing of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. There are a lot of these.

In all of the aforementioned cases, it was a minority enclave that was subjugated, but the tactic is also used by minority identity-based regimes to maintain authoritarian control over majoritarian uprisings, as in Bahrain and Syria during the Arab Spring. In fact, such regimes seldom have any other choice, and when the subjugated group is a legitimate demographic threat, the subjugation must be permanent and often legally codified. Apartheid, slavery, and Jim Crow were indefinite subjugation regimes. Minority dictatorships achieve the same ends without admitting what they are doing. Despite the death tolls from all of the above cases, none of this is ethnic cleansing, nor is it genocide. Whether it is a war crime or not is thornier.

There is still another way to “cleanse” unwanted minorities: assimilate them out of existence. Whether this can be done depends on the identity-based ideology of the state. It is easier to convert a whole population to a proselytizing religion or make them all speak your language than it is to make them look more like you if they don’t. Large states including France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and the United States have clearly done sufficient assimilation, each in their own way, to forge a national identity in much of their population that supersedes other identities. The unifying force can be a common enemy, religion, language, or loyalty to tsar/emperor/grand poobah. America, a nation of immigrants, has been unusually good at this. My own backstory is instructive: my ancestors were Poles, Jews, Russians, and Italians, none of whom were considered “American” or “white” or likely spoke much English on arrival. Three generations on, I am clearly American, generally considered “white” and speak only English. I mention these characteristics not to suggest that this is an improvement, but rather to note that I have been largely assimilated into the national, ethnic, and linguistic identities of this country’s demographically and historically dominant group, something my Jewish ancestors never experienced in their much longer sojourn in the Russian Empire. While I still retain certain cultural characteristics—a handful of Yiddish pejoratives and a fondness for pasta, mostly—I am far more American than I am anything else.

However, this practice has limits and dangers. Nationalizing programs are not as easy or accepted as they once were. Any attempt to wipe out a language or religion would be called “cultural genocide” today. In the identity politics hotpot of the United States, even making English the official language would draw fierce condemnation. America has also been far less amenable to assimilating people of color than it was to my forebears. If a group is disallowed such assimilation, or actually prefers to keep its existing customs, a nationalizing program starts to look less like assimilation and more like subjugation, and can often backfire. Also, assimilation granted can be taken away on a dime, as Jews have routinely discovered virtually everywhere. If you find yourself stealing the children of oppressed minorities to educate them in your language and school system, all in the name of a program that shares its name with that of the Borg from Star Trek, perhaps it is time to reconsider your program. Even so, assimilation is not cleansing—no one is forced to leave—so much as it is erasure.

Just as with “negative ethnic cleansing,” there can also be “negative assimilation,” where you block or quarantine a new identity, particularly a religion, to prevent it spreading. Japan once persecuted Christians during the Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century. Today, Japan is 1% Christian. By comparison, South Korea is nearly 30% Christian, and the Philippines is 86% Roman Catholic and another 8% other Christian denominations. Anyone who has seen the movie “Silence” will understand the brutality such a policy requires, but demographically, even 400 years later, it's clear that it did what it was supposed to do.

5. Ethnic cleansing is part of the system

  1. And now, a brief aside on R2P. My fellow Americans, imagine if France conducted a humanitarian intervention in the United States to stop us from deporting DACA recipients and set up a humanitarian safe zone in, say, New Mexico, where they could seek refuge. Would we like this? No, we wouldn't. Would it be sustainable long-term? No, it wouldn't. And this is why we should be extremely skeptical about the Responsibility to Protect.

  2. Arguably, empires even exacerbated these security dilemmas, because they encouraged large migratory flows within their lands. The Ottoman Empire never planned to collapse, so it never stopped to consider what might happen to Turks who migrated to the lands that became Greece or Bulgaria, or vice versa.

  3. This is because states that have completed identity-based partition and separation can grant minority rights where they could not before, because demography is no longer a weapon to be used against them. A Serb family in Croatia in 1994 was a fundamental threat to Croatian territorial integrity, just by being there. A Serb family in Croatia today is somebody’s neighbor… albeit a neighbor who may face continued discrimination.

  4. This is why I argued in 2015 that Iraq and Syria would be more peaceful and stable if they Balkanized. The ensuing two years of carnage have done little to convince me otherwise.

  5. I should mention a couple of other ways to solve the ethnic security dilemma, but I’m footnoting them because they’re difficult to manage. One is constitutionally paralyzing the government to eliminate it as a political battleground. This has worked, sort of, in Bosnia, Lebanon, and Belgium, though it usually requires some form of geopolitical superstructure or external hegemon to keep it from disintegrating. Additionally, Nigeria’s elegant electoral de-ethnicization system has also been effective, but would be difficult to replicate anywhere else. Imagine if the United States took all identity indicators off its census; increased its number of states by a factor of 12; changed the electoral college to make it impossible to win the presidency without garnering minimum support among multiple regional and racial blocs; and got both Republicans and Democrats to agree to alternate between presenting a white candidate and a non-white candidate every other election cycle. I can’t imagine it either, but this is basically what Nigeria does. It’s an astounding achievement. Even so, building this system required half a century that included a civil war, innumerable military coups, and three separate stabs at civilian governance, and even now the country is plagued by Boko Haram, MEND militants, simmering separatists, intercommunal violence, and spectacular corruption.

  6. Most other examples have been less “return” than “revenge.” Both Krajina Croats and Kosovar Albanians were allowed to go home after being displaced by Serbs... and promptly counter-cleansed the Serbs. So if you support “unconditional right of return” for Palestinians, it might be worth taking a moment to consider what that would look like in practice.

  7. Some will protest at this juncture that the EU has free movement. But free movement does not equal free citizenship. My thoughts on how the EU and the Schengen zone elegantly sidestep ethnonationalism are here.

  8. Hi there, I see you object to this assertion because you read Samantha Power’s “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” “But America intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo!” you say. Yes, we did. The Bosnia intervention did not stop ethnic cleansing: it codified an ethnic cleansing project already completed over the previous four years, and today nearly all Bosnian Serbs live in Republika Srpska and nearly all other Bosnians live in the rest. The Kosovo intervention did not stop ethnic cleansing either: NATO bombing was in fact what precipitated the Serb decision to ethnically cleanse the Kosovar Albanians—previously they had relied on ethnic subjugation—and NATO victory allowed the Kosovar Albanians to return the favor. By that time, the continued existence of Kosovo as part of Serbia in a multi-ethnic political entity—and that is the point of stopping ethnic cleansing, right?—was inconceivable, and the enclave unilaterally declared independence in 2008.

So if there’s no appreciable demographic difference between Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya and America’s treatment of DACA recipients, does this mean that nearly all immigration policy is a crime? It seems that the more internationalist-minded in the foreign affairs set would be ready to take such a step, especially with the current attempt to include ethnic cleansing—which, remember, still isn't actually by itself illegal under international law—under the Responsibility to Protect. I would actually go in quite the opposition direction. Demographic control is integral to maintaining today’s sovereign order. And today’s sovereign order is good. Demographic control is the price we pay for keeping it.

The international sovereign order as we know it today—a system where all states are free and independent within recognized borders—has been integral to the “Long Peace” the world has enjoyed since the Second World War. States do not fear conquest as they once did. Few borders have changed. Most of the ones that have have been due to the internal collapse of empires large and small: the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and the British, French, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Nazi, and Ottoman Empires.

Each of these empires (save the short-lived Nazi one, obviously) was a tapestry of different groups who moved and intermarried and traded freely through it. The first problem with empires, however, was that they knew no borders, and sought to expand in any direction they could. This was inherently unstable, requiring almost continual peripheral warfare, a scramble for colonies, and ultimately imperial overreach and eventual destruction. The second problem with empires was that they suppressed ethnic security dilemmas through force, without getting rid of them. Only fear could keep the local systems in line. And each time an empire fell, its various pieces viciously ethnically cleansed each other into identity-based, territorial homelands. These spasms of violence created many countries we know today.

The nation-state system that was created, by contrast, has proven far more stable than the imperial system it replaced. Few states created in the age of nationalism no longer exist, and while some splinter, since the Second World War few have lost territory to violent acquisition by another state. In the 21st century very few states have actually gone to war with each other at all, or remained in a state of hot war for long. Today’s international news headlines are dire—highlighted by four active famines as of this writing—but when we read them, we forget that even now we live in easily and without question the most peaceful, prosperous, and stable moment in the history of humankind. The international sovereign order, to the extent we maintain it, works. In modern times we only have a few models to organize international affairs. This is by far the best one we have ever come up with. We remove blocks from this Jenga set at our peril.

It works not in spite of, but because a great many of its nation-states are identity-based in character. That is, they are homelands for a specific group of people, and that group constitutes an unassailable demographic majority, and thus has no reason to fear domination by other groups. This is true for most democracies, including nearly all non-principality European states. It is also true for most of East Asia. And while many post-colonial states have a patchwork of groups, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, these have often faced tremendous instability precisely because of their diversity, and furthermore most of them only achieved independence by forcibly removing the bulk of the colonizing humans, often including settler communities that had lived there for generations. Anti-colonialism can be a nationalizing, unifying force... for a while at least.

Solving the ethnic security dilemma through partition and population transfer has consistently led to more stable outcomes and more liberal societies, as in the former Yugoslav states today. This is not because ethnic partition is good, far from it, rather because solutions that don't fix the ethnic security dilemma are worse. Post-imperial states with an ethnic security dilemma that insist on staying together, such as Syria and Iraq, must use ethnic subjugation to maintain that unity. Let us not forget what ethnic subjugation often requires. Cities— Aleppo, Mosul—must be obliterated. Whole demographic groups must be indiscriminately slaughtered or starved into surrender.

Ethnic cleansing, as Lieberman argues, usually arises in times of insecurity, such as the decline or collapse of an imperial authority, and ethnic cleansing exacerbates that insecurity. However, it is difficult to look at the various outcomes in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East today and not conclude that ethnic cleansing, once completed, yields more stable outcomes than the previous imperial system. Either way, it is usually permanent. There is little precedent for a large-scale population displacement episode in which the ethnically cleansed were ever allowed to go home again. The reasons for this are obvious: allowing returns would recreate the ethnic security dilemma that caused the ethnic cleansing in the first place. Try to imagine Yugoslavia being put back together again; the reunification of the Indian Subcontinent; millions of Ashkenazi Jews returning to Poland, this Poland; or the restoration of Greek and Turkish populations forcibly transferred from each others’ countries in the early 1920s. It’s difficult. And that does not bode well for, say, the likelihood the Rohingya ever going back to Myanmar. It also throws into serious doubt the viability of any “unconditional right of return” for the Palestinian diaspora.

Hang on, actually, there is one example that comes to mind of a successful diaspora return following systematic displacement: the conquest of Rwanda by an invading Tutsi rebel army from Uganda in 1994. Costs of this successful return include the Rwanda Genocide and the Second Congo War, the destabilization of much of the African subcontinent and the deaths of several million people. Be careful what you wish for.

Ethnic engineering and its consequences are built into the international sovereign order, and the power of the state to control its own demography on identity grounds is manifest and in fact integral to the maintenance of that order. We do not and cannot seriously object to ethnic swamping or short-term ethnic subjugation programs, nor to blood-based citizenship regimes or discriminatory immigration quota systems. If you accept that Tibet is part of China, the question of which citizens of China live where is a purely internal matter, no more a question of international relations than gentrification in American cities. And no state has ever responded peacefully to a violent ethnic secessionist bid, nor could one reasonably be expected to. We cannot maintain an international sovereign order where states (or free movement zones such as the EU) cannot independently control their immigration policy or remove those without legal right to residency. It would be wildly impractical and a stability-shattering violation of sovereign rights to attempt such a thing.

But even if you could do it, such a policy would be disastrous, because in practice, almost any noticeable level of demographic change away from the dominant group in a country creates instability, regardless of the location. In the two 20th century instances in which it proved sufficient to tip the country’s demographic balance—Lebanon in the 1970s, Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s—civil war soon followed. Even relatively small Muslim communities in Europe, buttressed by the arrival of a million Syrian refugees to a continent of three quarters of a billion people, have fed a right wing electoral wave, Brexit, and xenophobia the continent once thought banished. While few nationalist parties have actually seized power so far, they’ve changed and effectively won the debate on immigration. Marine Le Pen made the runoff in the 2017 French elections. The Muslim population of France is estimated at 8.8%. How will the French vote if it doubles? You can wish that people didn’t behave this way collectively, but it appears you can’t ask them to stop. They won't listen to you.

If we want sovereign and independent states—and, given the alternative, we should—we must accept a modicum of sovereign demographic control, not because we like it, but because it is going to happen regardless. If states can balance their demography, the demagogues will remain on the political fringe. If states are disallowed from this practice, the demagogues will feed on the resultant ethnic security dilemma and take over, and then they will restore demographic dominance through odious means. The outcome is the same, except in the latter case, you have demagogues in power.

Our foremost goal, rather than rectifying past ethnic cleansing or creating a utopian post-tribal world, should be to prevent ethnic security dilemmas. All other goals must be secondary. Ethnic security dilemmas make war criminals of us all. They destroy all capacity for peaceful coexistence or harmony within a polity. They incentivize an ethnonational program in which the state cleanses the unwanted or engineers them into oblivion. And once underway, this program cannot be stopped or undone. No one can restore the vanished communities of Salonica. No one, save perhaps an army of smugglers, can stop Europe from sealing its borders. No one can stop a determined American administration from limiting refugee flows and deporting overwhelmingly non-white immigrants by the millions. It is doubtful anyone can stop Myanmar’s operation either, for even if the campaign ended now, how could the Rohingya ever feel safe in Myanmar again? And if Myanmar’s army can run out a million Rohingya by torching their villages and mining the ground behind them, the ship has sailed.


Ethnonationalism > Healthcare?


Ethnonationalism > Healthcare?

After the Republican Party passed the American Health Care Act 2.0 with zero Democratic votes today, Democrats in the chamber taunted them by chanting "na na na na, hey hey hey goodbye" on the assumption that many of them would get voted out by their constituents. The optics on this little stunt were horrible—do these people only care about the number of seats they hold, and not about the passage of a bill that will obliterate healthcare coverage for tens of millions? But conventional wisdom is that these Democrats are right. Version 1.0 of the AHCA was super unpopular, and, oh yeah, it was opposed by virtually every healthcare-related group:

So surely Republicans will pay at the polls in 2018 and perhaps 2020 as well. Right?


But what if they won't?


The left is assuming that people who lose their insurance will switch and vote Democrat because the loss of healthcare is a traumatic experience that can literally mean bankruptcy or death. But what if that's not the reason people vote anymore?


In the 2016 election, people voted along ethno-religious lines more than ever before. The vast majority of non-whites voted Democrat. The vast majority of Christian whites voted Republican. As these groups have become increasingly equal in number, they have increasingly voted in blocs. Only 8% of African Americans voted for Trump, even though he was running against the second-least popular candidate of all time whose turnout lagged. A record 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. American elections are increasingly a census, where everyone votes along identity-based lines rather than ideological ones. And if an election is a census, to switch sides is to betray your tribe. What if white Christians — 54% of the population as recently as 2008 but only 43% today — feel it would be a betrayal to abandon their group, which already considers itself increasingly persecuted? That would make the loss of their insurance, or even their lives, a secondary concern. Moreover, many of those who lose their insurance won't be part of this in-group, but will belong to America's growing ethnic and racial minorities, who are disproportionately poorer than whites and thus dependent on Medicaid in greater numbers. Medicaid will lose $880 billion in the bill the House just passed. Insurance is all about pooling risk. Perhaps white Christians, the historic power group in the United States, do not wish to pool resources with these others, and are even willing to sacrifice their own individual lot to make sure they don't have to. America's segregated cities and increasingly re-segregated schools show just how far American whites have been willing to go to avoid sharing their lives, communities, and resources with other groups.


I want to stress, I am not white-bashing here, I am human-bashing. This isn't about whites or white evangelicals, it's about how people vote in demographically riven, economically stratified societies. Any historic power group in a democracy facing a demographic challenge can be expected to behave this way. And the overwhelming majority of minority voters who vote Democratic shows this works in all directions. This behavior is not retrograde or irrational: it's highly predictable and can happen any time a society that divides itself into roughly equal-sized identity groups goes to the polls.


But let's say you reject my premise that American political parties are turning into ethnonational power platforms. Let's say you think economic factors are more important in voters' minds. That guarantees nothing in 2018. Donald Trump was elected promising to bring back jobs (and after all, that's how half of America gets its health insurance... although the AHCA will do a number on that too). Economically depressed regions of the country rebelled against the establishment and free trade to elect an economic nationalist. Perhaps they believe that only Trump can fix it, as Trump himself believes. Perhaps that's more important to them, and come midterms they're willing to give the President's party the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they believe that establishment technocrats who could fix the healthcare system have rigged it in favor of elites, and they may not trust Democrats to fix it.


And even if you are still convinced that hordes of healthcare-deprived voters will nonetheless rebel against the GOP over the AHCA, consider this: the Senate map in 2018 is terrible for Democrats, and the House is so badly gerrymandered that the Democrats would need an overwhelming landslide victory to win even a small majority there.


Perhaps I'm wrong. But if Republicans still control both chambers of Congress after the 2018 midterms, the above reasons will probably be why.



Why Not Meet With Kim Jong Un?


Why Not Meet With Kim Jong Un?

  1. There's loads wrong with this, notably that Trump had no problem either with the concept of dynastic succession or the brutality, purges, and executions that have accompanied the young Kim's ascent to the throne. But let's leave that as a pop-up footnote for the moment.

  2. Though given their respective temperaments, I wouldn't be surprised if they got along swimmingly.

  3. There are in fact good reasons why not, of course. Most notably, it's completely unacceptable to resolve Korean peninsular issues without actively involving Seoul. However, North Korea has always claimed that its nuclear weapons program is a deterrent against the nuclear arsenal of the United States, so if they insist it's a bilateral issue, why not take them up on it and see what happens? We've seen where the alternative leads.

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2007, he said he would be open to meeting without preconditions with the Iranian leadership to resolve the nuclear standoff. Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, pounced. Obama could not be taken seriously as a candidate for such a stance, she said. Obama's statement was painted as a huge, potentially campaign-ending gaffe.

Except the American public didn't really care. Obama won the nomination and the presidency, and while he never did have a sit-down with Ayatollah Khamenei or any Iranian president, he did oversee negotiations of the Iranian nuclear deal that, even in the era of Trump, so far appears to be holding. Crisis averted.

This week, Donald Trump said he would be "honored" to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, called him a "smart cookie," and credited him with leadership skills for having taken over his country at such a young age. He had said something similar in 2016 on the campaign trail, and the comment fits into his longstanding worldview that if he can just meet face-to-face with important people, he and he alone can work out a deal.

Media and establishment types erupted on Twitter. And yes, there was the predictable partisan hypocrisy: conservative media and leaders let the comment go where they would have pilloried Obama as weak and naïve for having said the same. But does the general public care?

The real problem here is the question of legitimacy. The establishment foreign policy worldview is that meeting with bad leaders grants them legitimacy, as if even acknowledging them is the equivalent of Chamberlain capitulating at Munich. This is frankly silly, akin to the game kids play when they annoy a child by pretending he or she doesn't exist.

US: North Korea doesn't exist.

North Korea: I exist!

US: Did someone just say something?

North Korea: (Launches rockets)

US: Hey!

This isn't just an American tactic, though we do it more often than most. Long ago, the North Koreans decided that the South Korean government was a puppet state and demanded direct negotiations with the United States to end the Korean War (which is technically ongoing, if frozen). This posture is equally unreasonable, and the United States has insisted on dealing with the issue of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula through negotiations with six parties. The North keeps walking away from these talks and, in the meantime, advancing its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The fact is, regimes gain legitimacy by their existence and their ability to govern and hold territory, regardless of how reprehensibly they do it. It doesn't matter whether Washington considers Pyongyang's government legitimate. It's there. Nor is it likely going away anytime soon, and certainly not due to any (sane) action Washington can take. Why not engage it by any diplomatic means available?

Now, do I think Trump and Kim Jong Un can resolve the Korean War with a face-to-face? Of course not! But why not give it a shot? Nothing else has worked, and this latest posture from Trump is a hell of a lot better than the previous week's threat to pointlessly and destructively turn the frozen conflict into a hot one with hundreds of thousands of needless casualties. Too often in international affairs, even the willingness to negotiate is denigrated as weakness. The only thing this stance does is allow problems to fester. Let Trump and Kim meet if they want. Why not?


The "America First" President joins the "Do Something" crowd


The "America First" President joins the "Do Something" crowd

The President of the United States, who once tweeted this...

... on Wednesday could be found saying this, in response to another Syrian chemical weapons attack that was almost certainly carried out by the government of Bashar al-Assad ...

It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was — that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.

... and had his spokesperson Sean Spicer throw in this to boot:

These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.

And just like that, the America First president, who as far as I can tell still hasn't used the words "human rights" in a sentence, became a humanitarian interventionist. You know the type: the analyst who argues that if we just apply a little more military pressure to the same problem, it will convince a bad actor to stop doing bad things. This was the sort of foreign policy establishment thinking that Donald Trump railed against on the campaign trail.


Why does he suddenly care about Syrian civilians?

The biggest surprise, honestly, is that Trump reacted the way he did at all. He seemed genuinely shocked by this incident. But why this one? Trump seems to have no problem with extrajudicial killings when other leaders do them. He seemed to have no problem with all the other people Assad had killed. He just had a warm meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has a plenty questionable human rights record. A few days ago, his Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley could be found saying that removing Assad was not a priority. In fact, prior to this week, there was widespread speculation that Trump might actually join Russia to help Assad crush the rebels. A far more predictable response from Trump would have been to obfuscate, imply the videos were faked, suggest that the victims were terrorists who had it coming, etc. ... exactly what the Russians were doing.

Three possible explanations come to mind for the sudden about-face.

1. He was genuinely moved by the videos. They are deeply disturbing — I'm not even going to link to them — so this is possible. But it seems unlikely. After all, without putting too fine a point on it, I have yet to see this president show the slightest empathy towards anyone to whom he is not related by blood or marriage. It just doesn't seem his style.

2. He took this personally. This was not just a heinous attack on innocent civilians, it was a serious inconvenience to Trump's policies towards Russia, the Middle East, and refugees. Trump seems to respond reflexively to either flattery or insult. The fact that Assad would do this to him is what makes it particularly unacceptable in Trump's mind.

3. The effects of the attack were caught on video. Trump is particularly attuned to popular reaction to media images. My most likely theory is that he recognized that Americans would be outraged by what they were seeing, and jumped out ahead of that outrage. The videos humanized a war with inhuman statistics — hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced. A few specific Syrian children being gassed is horrifying, even to those who would deny them refuge in the United States.


So now what?

This evening the Washington Post reported that Trump was considering military action against the Assad regime. This means that Trump is now caught in the same trap that Barack Obama was after the "red line" episode. Any action taken against Assad will be deeply destabilizing to both Syria and international peace, given the direct support for the regime by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Overthrowing Assad would leave complete anarchy and a clearer field for Islamic State and others, and would be ruinous for the ethnic and religious minorities that support the regime and depend on it for protection. But anything short of overthrowing Assad will be ineffective given the nature of the regime and its inherent inability to accept compromise, political transition, or free elections. There are no good options here. Also, escalation is highly likely. Here's Micah Zenko:

Obama's solution was to go to Congress to get permission for airstrikes that he admitted at the time would not change the political calculus, get rebuffed, and then settle for the Russia-orchestrated deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria... which, as it turns out, apparently did not remove all of them.

Trump's next step is unclear. If he does nothing, he will be pilloried by the "do something" crowd. To wit:

But if he actually does something, that could easily be worse. There's a high risk of retaliation by Iran against American forces in Iraq and a serious risk of direct conflict with Russia. Even if these things don't happen, weakening the Syrian government means weakening the strongest actor left in the field, which likely prolongs the war and gets even more people killed. What's more, Russia and Iran have stood by Assad as he has done this and worse for years. Will Rex Tillerson be able to convince them to abandon their longtime ally? Why should they? Whatever replaces him will be no friend to Moscow or Tehran.

It is always possible that some decisive action could work, or at least compel the regime to find other ways of killing its citizens besides chemical weapons. But the most likely outcome is that Washington retains enough hostility to Assad to not accept him as legitimate, but not enough to do what is necessary to remove him. And the war will continue, probably for the rest of Trump's presidency, and possibly beyond.


Trump's foreign policy could be fascinating


Trump's foreign policy could be fascinating

More than any previous president, Donald Trump comes into office as a wild card on international affairs. He is not beholden to any of the standard orthodoxies of American foreign policy, and his contradictory statements and actions make it unclear what he is actually going to do. His policies are more Jacksonian than anything we've seen in modern times. He has expressed no interest in promoting American values abroad, only in acquiring good deals for the United States. He wants to ramp up military spending but it's unclear what for. He seems to think that the best way to handle asymmetric threats like terrorism is torture.

Here are four immediate thoughts for what we might expect.


Neoconservatism is dead, for now, again

Neoconservatives — who believe that Washington must forcefully stand up for American values abroad — have historically switched back and forth between Democrats and Republicans depending on what the ruling party's policies were. They hated Nixon's detente, but loved George W. Bush's presidency. Most of them were horrified by Trump's candidacy and defected from the GOP this cycle to favor Hillary Clinton, whose support of various interventions in the name of American values dovetails nicely with their worldview. Now, with her defeat, they are an ideology without a party.

It's remarkable that a Republican nominee could hate the Iraq War as much as Trump does. Never mind that Trump was not actually against the Iraq War when it happened, as he claimed. Unlike most establishment Republican candidates this cycle (Marco Rubio comes to mind), Trump could flout party orthodoxy with impunity... and even turn the issue against the Democrats, given that Clinton was their nominee. He has allowed the GOP to finally unburden itself from defending the war. Now both parties can have an honest debate about what's next.


Trade deals are dead

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is finished. NAFTA might be torn up. Trade wars are a legitimate possibility, recessions be damned, as is the United States storming out of the World Trade Organization in a huff.

We are about to find out just how important trade deals are in cementing ties in international affairs. TPP proponents have argued that if it did not pass, Asian and Pacific countries would turn to China, which would rewrite the trade rules of the region on its own terms. Will that happen? Or will countries continue to use the United States economically and militarily to counterbalance China's rise? The standard post-war liberal orthodoxy hasn't had a lot of counterfactuals to compare it to, and it's about to get one now.


Will Trump uphold our security commitments?

People who like the status quo and don't want to see nuclear proliferation and war on the Eurasian continent breathed a mighty sigh of relief when Trump said he would uphold America's security commitments to South Korea.

He had previously complained that Japan and South Korea free-ride on American defense commitments, demanded that both countries pay the United States more, and suggested that they should get their own nuclear weapons. After his victory, South Korea held an emergency security meeting to discuss its options, and soon after Trump reassured South Korean President Park Geun-hye in a phone call.

That's one hurdle out of the way. Now what about our security commitments across the other ocean? Just as with Japan and South Korea, Trump has claimed that the United States was getting a raw deal in Europe and Europeans were free-riding without contributing to their own defense. Given Trump's closeness with Russia, this raises serious questions about whether he will continue to uphold America's commitments to NATO. If he does not, all bets are off. Russian invasions of Baltic states? European nuclear proliferation? The return of balance-of-power politics on the continent? All in play.


Trump's win means that the war in Syria is more likely to end sooner

My biggest fear for a Hillary Clinton presidency was that she would ramp up American involvement in the war in Syria, turning it into a full-blown proxy war between the United States and Russia which would last as long as those two countries were willing to sustain it... which, as the Cold War demonstrated, could be decades.

With Trump as president, the rebels are doomed and they probably know it. Trump wholeheartedly buys the Russian line that Bashar al-Assad's government and ISIS are the only two viable actors in the field, and that the latter must be destroyed. The United States will likely now stand aside while Assad crushes all opposition, and might even coordinate with Russia to get the job done. Trump seems to view the world almost exclusively from a nationalist, what's-in-it-for-us perspective, and the plight of the Syrian people living under Assad's yoke simply doesn't concern him at all.

That said, the Syrian war has been so destructive that any outcome that stopped the fighting might be superior to continued bloodshed. An Assad victory is now the fastest, and most likely, way for that to happen.


This could end with ethnic cleansing


This could end with ethnic cleansing

Donald Trump will now be President of the United States. Many people are concerned that Trump will undo much of Barack Obama's policy legacy. While true, this does not distinguish Trump from any other Republican candidate. But Trump is a different candidate, and he is so mainly because he ran without a trace of compromise towards America's burgeoning minority populations, who he consistently demonized. The results are evident in the exit polls, where Trump won the white vote by record margins.

There are many intersecting reasons for his victory: class, gender, anti-establishment grievance, and economic factors. But ethnic identity seems to have been decisive. A white America was an integral part of the Trump campaign message (and even more so for many of his supporters), and despite his comments and behavior towards women, 53% of white women tellingly voted for him anyway compared with only 43% for Hillary Clinton.

Now victorious, there's only one problem for these folks: whites are a majority today, but they won't be for long. Demography is destiny, and American minority groups are growing faster than whites are. By 2042, according to Census Bureau projections, the United States will become a majority-minority country. That's scarcely a generation away. If whites are to maintain political control of America, as they seem determined to do, America will need to become less democratic and it will need to have fewer non-whites. This will primarily be achieved through systematic voter suppression — in some U.S. states, this has already begun — and the mass removal of millions of human beings based on ethnicity. This is generally referred to as ethnic cleansing.

This sounds alarmist. It isn't. If there is an example of a majority power group losing its political power demographically and surrendering it peacefully, I am not aware of it. Civil war or illiberal/anti-democratic suppression are more common outcomes. There are several ways this could occur, and none of them are pretty, for they all involve the brutal realignment of citizens with borders in order to protect the sovereignty of the national identity group in power.

Despite accounting for their lowest share ever, whites were still 70% of the electorate in 2016. But demography is like an oil tanker: it has to be stopped miles before it even sees the shore because it takes so long to slow down. So the deportations will have to begin now, something intrinsically understood by those who favored a candidate promising to build a wall with Mexico, ban an entire religious group from entering the country, and remove 11 million people from American territory. And as the deportations become more futile in coming years, they can be expected to increase in intensity and cruelty, ultimately targeting not just undocumented migrants but citizens as well.


This is all around the world

This, sadly, is normal. In recent times, we've seen numerous attempts by governments to fight population demographics. Most of these involved systematic oppression, ethnic cleansing, or both, often in previously peaceful, stable, and diverse places. Within my lifetime, conflicts from Kosovo to Bahrain to Croatia to Apartheid South Africa to Iraq to Cote d'Ivoire to Syria to Rwanda have all featured mismatches between political/military power and demographic power. The results have ranged from suppression to genocide.

Whatever you think America stands for, or the West, or liberal democracy, just bear in mind that these things happen all around the world, and there is no reason why they cannot happen here. (After all, for African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights Movement, they really did happen here.) Consider America's institutions and ask yourself, under one-party control of all three branches of government, which among them would successfully prevent a sustained push towards such outcomes. With the end of the Voting Rights Act and a retrograde Supreme Court, active voter suppression can now join mass incarceration and gerrymandering to form a triumvirate of minority disenfranchisement. The President can also severely restrict migrationincluding from specific places, and, as we quietly saw with the Obama Administration, engage in mass deportations.

In fact, the sorts of leaders who do these things are globally ascendant. Illiberalism, authoritarianism, and nationalism, often marching hand in hand, have swept the world in a wave, from the Philippines to Turkey to Russia to Hungary and, now, to the United States. Each of these countries has its own unique characteristics, but they all have one thing in common: the consolidation of power behind an illiberal strongman advocating a nationalist platform.

The rise of European far-right parties is the next wave. It began with Brexit and it will not stop there. The Netherlands has an election next year, and current frontrunner Geert Wilders wants to ban the Quran and close mosques. France has an election next year, and Marine Le Pen's National Front is surging. Austria's forthcoming re-run of its invalidated May presidential poll, where far-right candidate Norbert Hofer nearly won, may yet produce the European Union's first far-right head of state.


Why is this happening?

There are two types of nationalism at play: ethnonationalism and economic nationalism, or, put bluntly, fear of immigrants and fear of trade.

Ethnonationalism can be expected to emerge any time there is large-scale demographic change in a country that threatens the identity of the power group. Far-right parties in Europe have been pretty open about this, whether it's Hungary's Viktor Orban referring to refugees as "poison" or the head of Austria's far-right party calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel "the most dangerous politician in Europe" due to her migration policy. For these folks, the immigrant is a fundamental threat to the identity of the nation. They are unapologetic in their desire to see more homogeneous countries.

Economic nationalism is more complicated. A combination of global factors have buffeted the working class in many countries for years, bleeding away job security while widening income inequality. An easy target is to blame foreigners, treaties, trade pacts, or international organizations such as the European Union, all of which are un-elected and therefore face a democracy deficit. Any capable populist demagogue can get extensive mileage from such tactics regardless of the facts.

All of this raises significant questions about future policymaking in the European Union and the United States. Perhaps trade deals will need to be abandoned, given the backlash they provoke. Perhaps migration will have to be forcibly halted, even for refugees, for if it isn't, right-wing parties will continue to seize power and ultimately dismantle the Union. (Le Pen and Wilders have promised Frexit and Nexit referendums for their own countries.) Perhaps this is even for the best: with the likes of Wilders and Le Pen in charge, refugees may not be safe in Europe anymore.


And for America?

My own country, a nation of immigrants, a nation that has from its inception been defined by those who journeyed to its shores to pursue their dreams, is now at a crossroads. Far more diverse than the typical European state, it must decide how widely to define the identity of "American." I have long hoped that America would continue to define the term outwards to encompass ever more groups, as it did in the past (including for my own ancestors). The identity politics at play in the 2016 Presidential election, however, suggest that it will not.

A lot can change in a quarter century, but let's be clear: white majority rule in America cannot be maintained by liberal means for much longer, and many of those who voted in this year's poll know it. The question is, did Trump win primarily due to ethnonationalism or economic nationalism? Or, put another way, how badly does America want to remain majority white?


The right tries to figure out a new foreign policy


The right tries to figure out a new foreign policy

Tuesday night's Republican debate was widely derided as a house of horrors more fit for the day after Halloween than the day after Hannukah. To wit:

But this was quite predictable. A more unexpected reading can be found in the morning after's Wall Street Journal op-ed page. There, James Taranto lamented the end of the "Bush doctrine," or the idea that democracy promotion should be foremost on America's agenda and that regime change is a primary means of achieving it.

Let's consider two statements by the men who are #1 and #2 in the polls right now. First, Donald Trump:

In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems; our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now.
We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to the Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory.
It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.

Second, Ted Cruz, asked to clarify a comment that he wouldn't shed a tear for the end of the Assad regime:

Well, it’s more than not shedding a tear. It’s actively getting involved to topple a government. And we keep hearing from President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Washington Republicans that they’re searching for these mythical moderate rebels. It’s like a purple unicorn. They never exist. These moderate rebels end up being jihadists.
And I’ll tell you whose view on Assad is the same as mine. It’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel doesn’t have a dog in that fight because Assad is a puppet of Iran, a Shia radical Islamic terrorist, but at the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t want to see Syria governed by ISIS. And we need to focus on American interests, not on global aspirations.

Whoa! Trump sounds like Dennis Kucinich, Cruz like a populist Henry Kissinger. (Purple unicorns!) How did these sentiments make it into a Republican debate?

Here's how: the war in Syria is where ideological rigidity goes to die. Foreign policy on the right generally falls into one of three camps: isolationism, neoconservatism, and realism. All are flummoxed by Syria.

  1. Confusingly, al Nusra is al Qaeda's affiliate, and fights not only the Assad government but other rebels, including Daesh.

  2. See Trump, Donald.

  3. Would that he'd felt this way in 2006: a partitioned Iraq would not have required the political reconciliation upon which the surge's ultimate strategy depended. Without that reconciliation, Iraq unsurprisingly lapsed back into violence the first chance it got.

If you're an isolationist, try explaining why it's okay to do nothing while a quarter of a million people die and a region is destabilized. If you're a neoconservative, try explaining how taking the fight directly to Daesh will do anything other than help the Assad government, and by extension Russia and Iran... or how taking the fight to Assad will do anything other than help extremist rebel factions, including Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, who want control of Syria. And if you're a realist, you want to promote America's national interests... but in Syria, what are they? Stability? Democracy? Counterterrorism? Short-term geopolitical gain? Several of these have diametrically opposed policy prescriptions.

All of this has opened up a real chance for a conversation on the right for the first time since before 9/11. What are America's goals in the world? How best to achieve them? The party is grappling with the legacy of the Iraq War in a real way for the first time, and demonstrating that it's entirely possible to be patriotic, even chauvinistic, and still have a meaningful debate on tactics and outcomes.

So what does this leave? It leaves people skittering to outflank each other. Ted Cruz conflates liberal internationalism and neoconservatism, positioning himself as the "third way" between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. John Bolton, George W. Bush's famously neoconservative former UN Ambassador (and not actually a Presidential candidate, but humor me here: he did form an exploratory committee), is now improbably the champion of partitioning Iraq and Syria. Jeb is his "own man," he says. Only Lindsey Graham, currently polling at 0.0%, offers a full-throated, unqualified defense of the Bush years.

For now, then, the Bush doctrine is repudiated, at least rhetorically, by the two leading candidates on the GOP side. Between fits of terror-mongering, the candidates on Tuesday night seemed to legitimately debate what will take its place. Leopards don't change their spots, but perhaps, in this case, they might change the way they hunt.



Schengen and the art of the possible

What if we can have European integration or refugee resettlement, but not both?

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov, uploaded to Wikipedia 4 September 2015.

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov, uploaded to Wikipedia 4 September 2015.

  1. And yes, this is a TV episode, not the movie of the same name.

  2. The Federation quietly lays the groundwork through embedded anthropological research and quiet diplomatic contacts before the big reveal. In the episode, it's explained that this has been done ever since the first contact with the Klingons went horribly wrong. Trekkies, the comment section below will let you correct everything I've said that's wrong.

First Contact,” a 1991 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” , concerns the moment a previously isolated civilization is first contacted by the United Federation of Planets. In this episode, the race about to be contacted are the Malcorians, a suspiciously humanoid society of religious suburbanite dweebs with a fondness for Communist office buildings and John Lennon spectacles. They consider themselves the center of the universe.

Gene Roddenberry's famous television show, in its various incarnations, has always put humankind — and its fellow humanoid aliens with accented foreheads or ears — on a temporal spectrum of development, from primitive and tribal to federated and cosmopolitan. It has signposted the places we can go if we embrace the better angels of our nature. But it has never shied away from what happens when a species isn't ready to make the leap.

That may be where we are with the Schengen states today.

The Limits of Free Movement

The Schengen Zone

The Schengen Zone

  1. This overcomes the problem of what is called "homeland nationalism," the idea that a national state has power and influence over its ethnic compatriots even if they're citizens of other countries. Interwar Germany, post-Yugoslav Serbia, and modern day Russia all have made such claims to have influence, and ultimately territorial control, over people beyond their borders.

    There are two reasons homeland nationalism is so pernicious. One, it justifies international aggression, most infamously Hitler's seizure of lands with ethnic Germans in them outside Germany's interwar borders. And two, its ultimate logic is ethnic cleansing: after the Second World War, most of Germany's neighbors evicted their German populations to prevent such revisionism from ever happening again.

The beauty of Schengen is in the free and unfettered movement of people across borders within the zone. If you're German, you can travel to the Czech Republic, get a job there, live there, and get married there. But you're still German: you can't vote in the Czech Republic and there's no chance Germany will use your presence there to try to annex Czech territory. By allowing for movement that doesn't threaten the hard-won self-determination of peoples, Schengen accounts for, and accommodates, the persistence of national identity. Rather than confronting nationalism directly, Schengen steps around it. It's elegant.

Refugees turn this on its head. A refugee is in practice from outside the Schengen zone, and is by definition unable to return to his or her homeland for fear of persecution. Most are settled, often permanently, in countries that offer them asylum. Sometimes this includes the granting of citizenship. For the states of Europe, which often labored for centuries to construct a national polity, the prospect of such a massive demographic upheaval is inherently destabilizing. It's the opposite of Schengen, which protects national identity while allowing for a cosmopolitan, integrated continent.

Refugee flows and the arrival in large numbers of the "other" awakens the slumbering nationalist. As refugee flows increase, so too does support for the likes of Pegida, Golden Dawn, the National Front, the UK Independence Party, and others. And while the demonization of refugees is abhorrent, the long-term demographic implications are real: the number of displaced Syrians alone, counting internally displaced persons, exceeds the population of many smaller European nations. That's just Syrians, and just today. Consider the relative demographic trajectories of European states (with flat or declining populations), and compare them to the Middle East or sub-Saharan and Sahelian Africa (with populations that double every 20-25 years) and you begin to see the potential scale of the change.

Morally, our common humanity should render this irrelevant. Syrian refugees are suffering through no fault of their own, Europe has the physical capacity to take them in, and should do so. But what if the act of doing so spells electoral defeat for pro-European politicians, and leaves Europe in the hands of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage? What if the act of doing so ends Schengen and breaks up the EU?

All it took to hammer home the fear of the "other" was one fake Syrian passport — again, a fake passport — found on the body of one of the Paris attackers. This is the context behind Manuel Valls's comments this week that Europe "cannot take anymore refugees." This is not true in a factual sense: physically, of course Europe can. Nor is this comment reasonably based in the fear of refugees bringing terrorism: these refugees are overwhelmingly fleeing terrorism, and in any case all the Paris attackers appear to have been European. Rather, what Valls is saying is that the European body politic cannot take any more refugees without an anti-European nationalist backlash. Valls is practicing what he believes is the art of the possible.

Ready or Not?

  1. Spoiler alert! and I mean it, stop reading this unless you've seen the episode. It's a good one, except for yet another pointless and bizarre sexual excursion for Commander Riker.

In "First Contact", the Malcorian security chief is so opposed to interplanetary integration that he attempts to stage his own assassination and blame Riker for it. When the Malcorian President learns of this, he makes a heartbreaking decision: he decides his own people are not ready for first contact, and tells the Enterprise crew to come back in a few generations to try again.

It's a devastating ending: everyone involved knows that they will likely never see each other again, and an entire planet will be denied the benefits and wonders of the cosmos, possibly for generations or even centuries. The President's top scientific aid actually abandons her planet and runs off with the Enterprise rather than be consigned to a future of such terrestrial boredom. But it's arguably the right decision: the planet is almost ready for first contact, but not quite. First contact could embolden religious hardliners, "planetists" (if you will), and other reactionary elements to strike down much of what the society has, to that point, achieved.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously wrote in Letter From a Birmingham Jail that "[t]his 'wait' has almost always meant 'never'." But given the incremental but very real progress of European integration in the postwar era, what if Europe today is like the Malcorians ... almost ready for this moment, but not quite? What if we are faced with an awful choice: limit migration and leave huge numbers of refugees out in the cold, or put the decades of remarkable integration Europe has achieved so far at intolerable risk? Sometimes, we face a moral responsibility but are not up to the challenge. Is this one of those times?


The Four-State Solution


The Four-State Solution

  1. Otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, etc. This blog will henceforth use the term "Daesh," for two reasons: 1) It's the term most used by the folks actually fighting the group on the ground, and 2) the group dislikes it, as it apparently has a pejorative double meaning in Arabic. I'm not going to pretend the recent Paris attacks didn't affect this decision.

  1. Great, just what the region needs, a white guy trying to change the borders, right? That's why this post will not get into the specifics of where the new borders should be, or even whether any of the four states would subsequently subdivide further. These are questions for the parties themselves: they live there. The purpose here is to explore why partition would work.

The situation in Syria seems hopeless. A quarter of a million people have died, and millions are displaced. Daesh have internationalized the conflict by attacking Paris, Beirut, and a Russian passenger plane. In an almost absurdly retro announcement, Russia has allied with France and both countries have ramped up their involvement in the war, even as they fundamentally disagree on how it should end. And while the recent Vienna talks brought the welcome sight of Iran sitting at the table for the first time, the resulting joint statement reveals that the parties can, in essence, agree on only one thing: that Syria's "territorial integrity" should be respected — diplomatic-speak for "the borders shouldn't be changed."

But the combatants are ignoring this demand: for some time now they have all been practicing deliberate population displacement as a weapon of war. So effective is this that, by some accounts, more than half of all Syrians have had to flee their homes, the majority internally.

But in the very evil of this tactic lies, paradoxically, what could be the only viable solution to the conflict. Syria and Iraq now look less like two states and more like four: a Sunni Arab state in the center of both countries ringed by a Shiite Arab state to the east, a Kurdish state to the north, and an Alawite-led state (which would encompass other minority groups) to the west. If we recognize this, we could expedite the end of the conflict by changing the incentives of its combatants. If we fail to recognize it, the war will likely continue.

Partition brings about ugly memories: India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine, etc. It's true, velvet divorces are rare. But the self-destruction of troubled post-Ottoman political entities isn't exactly new, and it doesn't have to end badly. Let's consider, for a moment, the Balkans.

Why do people ethnically cleanse each other?

In 1991, Yugoslavia imploded. Nationalists swept to power in most of its republics, which then began to secede one by one, first from Belgrade, then from each other. As he beheld the unfolding multi-layered ethnic war, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker famously declared, "We got no dog in this fight."

James Baker

James Baker

This comment has been pilloried as amoral realism incarnate — not to mention grammatical apostasy — ever since, but we should not forget that Baker had good reasons for saying it. In 1991, the United States did not, in fact, have a vested interest in any specific outcome in Yugoslavia, and all sides were, in fact, committing atrocities. Today, the Serbs come in for the most opprobrium, but this is largely because they, in control of most of the former Yugoslav army, had the best weapons and the grandest ambitions. The Croats, by contrast, generally get a moral free pass for committing the largest act of ethnic cleansing in Europe since the end of the Second World War — their lightning cleansing of up to 300,000 Serbs from their ancestral homes in the Krajina in the summer of 1995. And the Kosovar Albanians — on whose behalf NATO intervened in 1999 — evicted or intimidated nearly all the ethnic Serbs out of Kosovo almost as soon as they could. Meanwhile, members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were accused (not without reason!) of trafficking organs of political prisoners.

Why did all these parties deliberately displace each other's civilians? Because in an ethnic turf battle, demography is a weapon. If Serbia claimed all lands where Serbs lived for "Greater Serbia," then Croats and Kosovars would remove those Serbs, and with them, the justification for that claim. In the breakup of Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing was not evil for its own sake. It was a deliberate tactic to encourage national formation.

And here's the seldom discussed part: it worked. When the United States finally intervened in 1995, it was largely to protect already-established identity-based territorial units from each other. While the brief US campaign was directed against the Bosnian Serbs, America's ultimate strategy was not to pick a dog in the fight so much as give each dog its own backyard. For this reason, it was successful. Decisive victories and timely intervention and effectively "solved" the Balkans and left no room for revisionism, bringing in unprecedented peace and good neighborliness between its major groups. No one seriously considered respecting Yugoslavia's territorial integrity in 1995. Instead, they came up with a solution that worked.

Let's call it the European solution.

The Nationalizing Moment in Europe

  1. In fact, the question of Kosovo bedeviled Serb nationalists for most of the 20th century. Kosovo is integral to Serb identity but by the time Serbia regained the territory in the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars, 90% of its inhabitants were Kosovar Albanians. Serb nationalists immediately began wrestling with ways to resolve this "problem," and Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown in the late 1990s was merely the latest and last attempt.

    For more, see p. 23 of Klejda Mulaj's “A Recurrent Tragedy: Ethnic Cleansing as a Tool of State Building in the Yugoslav Multinational Setting.” Published in: Nationalities Papers, Vol. 34, No. 1, March 2006.

  2. For more on this, please see Hobsbawm's "Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality," Second edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, page 60.

  3. We need to take a brief break here to talk about how comically unworkable the Belgian government is. The country is split between Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloon populations, which makes forming a national government extremely difficult. Its governance crisis of 2007-08 was resolved by the selection of Herman Van Rompuy as Prime Minister, a man so unassuming he offended no one. It was said that he "only opens his mouth to breathe," a talent that so impressed Europeans that Van Rompuy was immediately plucked from his post to become the first President of the EU.

    Deprived of its compromise candidate, Belgium quickly fell into another political crisis, and for nearly two years was unable to form any government at all. On the day they broke post-Saddam Iraq's record for consecutive days with no government, Belgians threw a massive nationwide party.

  4. It is no coincidence that the biggest threat to the Schengen area of free movement in Europe has come not from tensions between its members but from an influx of refugees from abroad. This again shows the powerful relationship between demography and nationalism. Schengen populations can move freely but their citizenship is largely fixed. Refugees, many of whom will not be able to return home, are often given permanent residence or even citizenship, altering the long-term demographic stability of the countries that take them in.

    For the nationalist-minded, a Spaniard moving to Berlin for work isn't a demographic threat: a Syrian refugee fleeing to Berlin is.

    Now, is this an offensive position to hold in 2015? Of course. But that may not matter at the moment. The Westphalian order tamed the Pegidas of the world. Demographic upheaval unleashes them again. It is what it is.

The thing is, in the age of nationalism, this is generally how states have been made. We are appalled by the recentness, not the originality, of the collapse of Yugoslavia and Iraq-Syria. Earlier, this was standard nationalist procedure.

The 20th century in Europe is widely depicted as a titanic battle between liberal capitalism and totalitarian communism and fascism. But in many ways, it was truly about nationalism, about breaking down polyglot empires (Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the British and French Empires after 1945, the Soviet empire in 1991) into nationalized states. If the borders and people didn't line up, one or the other would be moved, peacefully if possible, violently if necessary. Millions were involuntarily swapped between Ukraine and Poland, and between Greece and Turkey. A Serb agreement in principle with Turkey to deport all the "Turks" (their term for Kosovar Albanians) of Kosovo to Turkey en masse was foiled only by the death of Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the outbreak of the Second World War. During the war, Eastern Europe was decimated to make room for Aryan expansion. After, millions of ethnic Germans were forcibly removed across Eastern and Central Europe. Hundreds of thousands, if not more, died migrating to a ruined and occupied Germany many of them had never lived in or even visited.

Where the state was not right-sized in the 20th century, it was homogenized by diktat in the 19th. Upon Italy's unification, Massimo d'Azeglio purportedly declared, "We have created Italy. Now we must create Italians." Indeed, from Perugia to Sicily to Lombardy, Italy was a patchwork of linguistic and cultural traditions. In some respects, it remains so. But in 1860, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, "[t]he only basis for Italian unification was the Italian language"... which only 2.5% of the population used on an everyday basis. Similarly, in France, a country notable for its strenuous efforts to standardize and purify its national language, half of Frenchmen didn't even speak French at all at the time of the 1789 revolution, and only 12-13% spoke it "correctly." The use of public education and bureaucratic standardization allowed states to create a seemingly eternal, unified national heritage where none had previously existed: in Italy, in France, in Germany.

As a result of these two processes, by the end of the 20th century, nearly every European group that could reasonably claim a state had one — Scottish, Catalan, Basque, and Bosnian Serb aspirations notwithstanding — and nearly every state had been "right-sized" except for Belgium and, it would seem, Ukraine.

As states secured their sovereignty, they could begin to give it away. Postwar Europe, in fits and starts, was able to willingly confederate into a European project that needed no army to enforce itself on the continent, but was instead built on economic policy and free movement. As before, so now. Serbia and Croatia viciously fought each other over sovereignty in the 1990s. Two decades on, Croatia has ceded much of the sovereignty it gained to Brussels by joining the European Union. Serbia hopes to do the same.

What’s more, with their territory assured and the threat of the “other” removed, both countries democratized remarkably quickly, and their respect for minority rights improved rapidly. Serbia removed Milosevic. Croatia voted out Tudjman's nationalist party as soon as he died. Croatia invited back its displaced Serbs. (Most declined to return, but at least they were invited.) Serbia reached an understanding on, if not a recognition of, Kosovo. In other words, the acts of illiberal nationalist demagogues created the dynamics where liberal democracy became possible.

The Nationalizing Moment in the Middle East

Which brings us back to Iraq and Syria. Their experience today looks increasingly like that of the Balkans in the 1990s. (For starters, the United States once again "got no dog in this fight.") But herein lies hope: if partition could pacify the former Yugoslavia, why not Syria and Iraq?

Some of us have felt that Iraq was headed for a breakup for some time, but it would have been difficult to support this outcome in more polyglot Syria at the outset of this war. Quite simply, the humanitarian cost of ethnic and sectarian cleansing would have been far too great, and the risk of regional instability too dangerous. But now, both of those things have happened: half of Syria's population is displaced, and most of the region and several great powers are involved in one way or another. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have taken more than three million refugees alone. The threat of internationalization increases daily. The costs of the four-state solution are sunk. The benefits have still to be grasped.

And let's be clear: all the major combatants are displacing people, just on different scales. Daesh, alone among the parties, gleefully broadcasts its atrocities on YouTube, and the Syrian government's barrel bombs garner most of the headlines and outrage. But with every town they take back from Daesh, Kurdish fighters are changing the facts on the ground to ensure that their region is indisputably Kurdish. Shiite militias in Iraq are doing the same. Huge swaths of the territory of both countries have been forcibly homogenized out of a multi-dimensional ethnic security dilemma.

It would be difficult to imagine any settlement where all of those who have left are able to return home. But as the Balkans have shown, a stable, peaceful, and even democratic and pluralistic outcome can take place even if they do not.

Why the Four-State Solution Would Work

  1. Note that there are multiple layers of identity here, ethnic and religious. Most Sunnis in Syria are Arab but many are not. Kurds are generally Sunni but are politically apart. Some Sunnis continue to fight for the government, and some minorities oppose it. The point is this: these identity-based division are not universal, but they are widespread and difficult to dislodge. And they must be accounted for in a political settlement.

To understand how to end the war, one must understand why the combatants are fighting it. Currently, the domestic parties, even and especially the most vicious among them, are mostly acting out of fear. (The video above, featuring a pro-regime militia commander explaining to FRONTLINE's Martin Smith why he fights for Assad, is revealing.) They either fear oppressive rule under minority dictatorship, or they fear political oblivion at the hands of a vengeful majoritarian democracy. These fears, in both Iraq and Syria, are well-founded. The four-state solution resolves them all.

Before 2003, both Iraq and Syria were ruled by ruthless Baathist regimes that were disproportionately controlled by a minority sect (Sunnis in Iraq, Alawites — who practice an offshoot of Shiism — in Syria). The U.S. invasion and imposition of elections effectively handed Iraq to its Shiite majority. The Sunnis, many of whom had been ejected from their government and army posts by de-Baathification, revolted, the insurgency began, and civil war followed. Today's Baghdad government is overwhelmingly majoritarian and Shiite-controlled. The Sunnis of Iraq will never win an election again, and they know it.

Minorities in Syria, including the Alawites (estimated to be about 12-13% of the population), Christians (perhaps 10%), Druze (3%) and others, now fear that the same will happen to them if the Assad government falls. For this reason, they will likely never accept the kind of political transition Western powers are demanding. (Nor will their backers.) Their cruelty towards civilians isn't surprising either: the decisive majority of Syria's population is Sunni and thus represents a demographic threat to the current power structure merely by existing.

The Kurds, meanwhile, are a regionally concentrated minority group in both Iraq and Syria (as well as Turkey and Iran, but that is another matter). Subject to poison gas attacks by Saddam Hussein and genocidal treatment by Daesh, the Kurds want independence. It's difficult to blame them.

All of these groups, in a united Iraq and Syria, have every incentive to continue their current behavior and trajectory. The four-state solution solves this dilemma: it formalizes the people-border alignment the parties have already created through population displacement, and thus removes demography as a weapon. Elections in the four-state solution will not be a means for one regional ethnic or religious group to demographically crush another. In other words, by acknowledging the consequences of deliberate displacement, the four-state solution removes the reason for such displacement, and indeed for the continuation of the war itself.

The four-state solution similarly resolves the seemingly intractable divisions between regional and great powers. The clear division of Sunni and Shiite spheres of influence ends the nasty proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia by giving them nothing to fight over. By preserving the current Syrian government in rump form in a new Alawite state, Russia keeps its regional and international influence, as well as what might be its only real ally. And Western powers see a return to stability and a security architecture more conducive to democracy than the current one ever could be. If no one truly wins, at least no one loses.

What about Daesh?

Actually, there is one loser: the self-described Islamic State. It has preyed on the sectarian security dilemma by appealing to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria for whom the governments of Baghdad and Damascus are anathema. But alone among the parties, Daesh cannot ideologically endure in a territorial nation-state: it demands an ever-expanding caliphate across much of the Muslim world. And alone among the parties, it has no major international or regional backing.

So why has the United States had such trouble building an anti-Daesh coalition? Because for most of the key players, the group is the second-highest priority. Turkey has no love for Daesh but is most concerned about the Kurds. Assad and his allies are focused on any rebels who could gain Western backing. The Saudis and Qataris are focused on removing Assad. The Kurds hate Daesh but are only interested in taking back their own territory from the group. Many Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis are horrified by Daesh but fear Damascus and Baghdad more.

Even after Daesh's heinous attacks against Lebanese, French, and Russian civilians, removing them should be the second step, not the first. By trying to take out Daesh first, America and its allies are asking the combatants to act against their interest and to shift their focus away from what they see as their primary foe. This cat-herding will likely produce modest results at best. It's one thing to get the Kurds to retake Sinjar, but another to get anyone to try to go to Raqqa.

Daesh's sadistic violence has been instrumental in creating the facts on the ground for the four-state solution, but the four-state solution would ironically prove its undoing. By resolving everyone else's main conflict, it would pave the way for a united anti-Daesh campaign that is impossible today.

Insisting on protecting Syria’s territorial integrity today makes no more sense than if the Dayton Accords had demanded Yugoslavia be put back together again.

How It Ends

This time, the people on the ground are drawing their own borders.

This time, the people on the ground are drawing their own borders.

  1. German satirical news site Der Postillon mocked the conference by claiming that the only Syrian in attendance was a refugee working as a waiter at the Imperial Hotel.

The Vienna talks, while laudable for finally getting Iran and Saudi Arabia in the same room, had one notable absence: Syrians themselves. This seems fitting, because while the Vienna statement reaffirmed Syria's territorial integrity, the actual parties on the ground are breaking it apart. Their tactics are drawing us increasingly near a four-state solution whether we like it or not, and whether the parties intend it or not. Insisting on protecting Syria's territorial integrity today makes no more sense than if the Dayton Accords had demanded Yugoslavia be put back together again.

No settlement will bring back the dead, undo the destruction, or erase communal distrust. No settlement can justify the tactic of deliberate population displacement. And four states will not immediately end the fighting: the Sunni state will have to liberate most of its territory from Daesh's clutches, for starters. But the four-state solution will lay the groundwork for a permanent and sustainable security architecture that has not previously existed in post-Ottoman times.

Best of all, it is a self-created, not imposed, solution. We, the self-described "international community," do not need to re-run Sykes-Picot and draw new borders for others. We must merely recognize the ones the parties are drawing right now through their violence. We don't need to Balkanize Syria and Iraq: Syria and Iraq are Balkanizing themselves.


This South Sudan peace deal is not going to work. Here's why.


This South Sudan peace deal is not going to work. Here's why.

The United States can force Salva Kiir to sign a peace deal, but can't make him like it.

The United States can force Salva Kiir to sign a peace deal, but can't make him like it.

Two days ago, after much wrangling, South Sudan President Salva Kiir — he's the one who famously wears that black cowboy hat President George W. Bush once gave him — finally signed a peace deal with his Vice President Riek Machar.

A bit of background: South Sudan is the world's newest nation and one of the poorest. Historically underdeveloped since British colonial times, it spent half a century fighting for independence from Sudan, and finally got it in 2011. In December 2013, a rivalry between Kiir and Machar spiraled into an ethnic civil war that's been going on ever since.

The conflict has been predictably awful for civilians, displacing 1.6 million of them. South Sudan's neighbors, Western donors, and the United Nations have been urging an end to hostilities since they began. Yesterday's deal isn't the first deal to end hostilities, it's at least the ninth. The previous eight fell apart within days, sometimes hours, and this one will almost certainly go the same way... possibly in the time it would take you to read the full text of it (72 pages) ... or even before I finish writing this.

So why aren't these peace deals working? Two reasons, both applicable to such agreements in general:


1. Outsiders can't want peace more than the parties do.

The South's neighbors have taken on hundreds of thousands of refugees. Americans and Europeans are fed up with funding the adventures of venal and narrow-minded leaders. The credibility of UN peacekeepers suffers every month this goes on. So everyone wants this war to end... except the parties, who have clearly been dragged kicking and screaming to peace

Signing the agreement Wednesday, Kiir said he felt the peace deal had been imposed on him and said it is flawed. Kiir said some aspects of the deal “are not in the interest of just and lasting peace. ... We had only one of the two options, the option of an imposed peace or the option of a continued war ... We are here talking about peace.”

Does that sounds like an enthusiastic statesman to you? Neither he, nor Machar, have held back on social media either.

When outside actors want peace more than the parties, the parties can exploit that desire to win concessions and commitments, but since the fundamental underlying issues between the parties have not been solved, they'll go back to war almost as soon as it suits them. This is not because they're inherently evil: they fight because they don't trust each other, think they can gain by fighting, and think they will lose by not doing so.

It's hard for international actors to provide the necessary guarantees to change that mindset. Neighbors, donors, and U.N. officials can play a useful role as mediators when the parties are exhausted by fighting but lack the trust to implement a deal themselves. But we're not there yet: both sides still clearly want to fight. In peacemaking, the old saying is arguably inverted: you can get the horse to drink only when it's made its way to the water on its own.


2. Spoilers.

Even if the parties wanted to agree, they're not united. Several generals for Machar have broken away and refused to accept the agreement. Their intransigence will likely give Kiir, who visibly dislikes the deal, reason to violate it. That will force Machar to react, and he's already rhetorically laying the groundwork for doing so:

While rebel and opposition leader Riek Machar is happy that Kiir signed the compromise agreement, the long list of reservations cited by Kiir signals “a lack of commitment,” said James Gatdet Dak, a spokesman for Machar. “(Machar) thinks these are unnecessary and he says these were discussed during the mediation ... so there is no need to bring them up again,” Dak told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Nairobi, Kenya.

Moreover, a bad peace deal can do more harm than good by giving the parties time to plot something even more sinister. The 1993 Arusha Accords in Rwanda were a classic example. Ill-conceived and indifferently enforced, they gave the political space, time, and incentive for Hutu Power to prepare the 1994 genocide. It would be tragic if something similar happened here.

When the parties don't want a deal, and can't unite enough to enforce it, a deal is unlikely to last. That doesn't mean international actors shouldn't try, but they should not seek an agreement purely for its own sake.


After the deal fails

The only reason this deal happened was because the parties were threatened with targeted sanctions and an arms embargo. Once the deal fails, those punishments will be back on the table at the United Nations Security Council.

  • Arms embargoes, especially on small arms and light weapons, are notoriously difficult to enforce, particularly in this region, but they still represent an annoyance and a stain on the credibility of a government that gets, and needs, a lot of foreign goodwill and aid.
  • Targeted bans, usually useless — does Omar al-Bashir really care that he can't visit the French Riviera? — may bother this particular crop of senior leaders more than most, since they've earned a reputation for being "slow talkers and hard drinkers" and for lavish spending in swank hotels.

Only when the conflict dynamics change, or when continued fighting does the political leadership more harm than good, will South Sudan have a stable peace.