Research on Ethnic Conflict

Chris Fitz in Sarajevo in 1996.
Chris Fitz in Sarajevo in 1996.

The following work is a culmination of original research finished in July 2001.  It was presented as a thesis to the Master of Arts program in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies at the Universitat Jaume I in Castellon, Spain. The work received professional and academic attention briefly until September 11, when US foreign policy shifted almost exclusively toward “terrorism” as a unifying concept. A key point of the thesis is that political leaders and major media acted in willful ignorance to abet major genocidal campaigns in the 1990s, both in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.  Ethnicity, it asserts, is a political concept far more than an indigenous reality.  Coordinated military operations are only possible with complex military and political institutions, structures that operate with a rational, if sometimes hideous, agenda.  The genocides of the 1990s, like genocides before, were political and military operations requiring both calculated terror and the silence of significant dissent – internally and externally.

In the decade since, many of the thesis’ assertions have become more obvious: “ethnicity” as a political organizing method is not some kind of mysteriously growing trend on the world stage of “potential threats.”  More importantly, it’s increasingly obvious that the rhetoric of foreign policy is aligned with just a few simplistic principles  – currently terror and war – for both domestic political expedience and to hide inconvenient situations that inevitably emerge. That, however, is for another paper.  For now, I invite you to read and enjoy this original research from another era, one less laden with the emotion of our current events.

The Clinton Shift and Ethnic Conflict:

U.S. Media, Foreign Policy and the Myth-making of Ethnic Conflict
in the War of Bosnia-Herzegovina 1992-1994


The 1990s wars of former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina, are considered by many commentators to be the defining crisis of United States foreign policy in that decade. Gaining center stage in US media for their brutality, proximity to so-called Western civilization and the apparent neighbor-versus-neighbor “ethnic” nature of the violence, these wars captured public attention with a widely repeated (mis)understanding that a “cauldron of ancient ethnic hatreds,” tightly sealed under the dictatorial Tito regime (1948-1980), vindicated themselves in the thaw of the Cold War. People who had been killing each other for thousands of years were simply returning to their historical fate.  Such was the popular logic.

This paper vehemently opposes such claims as a basis for substantial research.  Arguing from a number of common-sense assumptions and from a small body of critical literature on ethnicity, it asserts that “ethnicity” played a central function in the media and official discourse of that era primarily to promote particular domestic US agendas, notably, an official US policy agenda of inaction.  This is most visible in the “Clinton Shift,” an awkward reversal in which Bill Clinton rescinded a campaign promise for decisive engagement in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the course of his presidency’s first year in 1993. The discourse surrounding such a reversal starkly reveals the superficial functions of “ethnic conflict” in the Clinton Administration’s foreign policy rhetoric, but also served to powerfully shape the actual situation of violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The paper demonstrates the justification of the “Clinton Shift” by examining in detail two six-month periods of Time Magazine in the context of a broader quantitative examination of the Washington Post and contextual surveys of other news media.  Time articles were coded according to article type and section, and text was searched for key words and phrases related to ethnicity and ethnic conflict.  Image content, averaging 50% of Time article space, was given additional consideration.  Subsequent analysis of key words and their developments was compared to State Department archival text during that period.

The Time content analysis is a stunning portrayal of delinquent behavior by Time editors and journalists and by Clinton Administration officials.  It shows a discourse that began with unsubstantiated claims about the ethnic origin of the conflict and rapidly evolved into a more subtle and strategic but equally unsubstantiated discourse dependent on ethnicity, called “neo-primordial.”  This new, seemingly refined discourse used the primordial “ancient ethnic hatreds” myth on which to build language of “Serb, Croat and Muslim contenders” in a “civil war” practicing “ethnic cleansing” on “each other.”  The direct ties between the original primordial claims and the neo-primordial language as explicit functions of foreign policy agenda are especially evident in the discourse that accompanies the Rwanda genocide of 1994, examined in detail by comparison.

The paper finds a complicity that strongly implicates Time Magazine and the Clinton Administration as organizations that supported the perpetrators of the genocides of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.  It also finds an eagerness by academic entrepreneurs to recklessly participate in the “ethnicization” of foreign policy that became popular during this decade.  In retrospect, it is clear that such under-researched and under-critiqued assumptions about so-called ethnic factors had devastating consequences, both reifying the propaganda claims of the perpetrators of “ethnic cleansing” and genocide and establishing new and problematic definitions of “peace” on the ground.  Perhaps more insidious, the inscription of an exoticized ethnicity in language surrounding US foreign policy institutions reveals a peculiar attempt to construct a civilized and triumphant West to newly dominate the otherwise “uncivilized” post-Cold War world.

The thesis is 112 pages and available in PDF format. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)  Unless you are a researcher in this field, I recommend the introduction as a concise primer on the basic tenants of this work. However, the original research review, especially the blow-by-blow article account in Chapter 3, makes for an interesting story in itself. Above all, I hope the work inspires you as a reader to vigilance about the purposes and effects of exotic “ethnicity” concepts in both foreign policy language and your every day life. In short, don’t believe the hype.

  • Title and Contents (14K)
  • Introduction:  Looking for the Right Lens (189K)
    • Chapter 1:  The Rise of Ethnic Conflict Discourse (534K)
    • Chapter 2:  Spinning Ethnic Conflict in Time, An Overview (552K)
    • Chapter 3:  Spinning Ethnic Conflict in Time, Article Analysis (130K)
    • Chapter 4: Looking into the Mirror, Reflections of a US Discourse (60K)
  • Works Cited (22 K)
  • Appendix 2.1:  Index of State Department Archives (16K)
  • Appendices 1.1-1.6 not available due to size and formatting difficulties.

You may also read my article on in The Journal of Human Rights, reviewing Powerless by Design, by Michel Feher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.