Changes Contributing to a More Daunting World

This paper examines the changes that have contributed to ethnic, religious, cultural, social and political conflicts in today’s world. This paper argues that changes contributing to conflicts have many faces; and therefore, one should consider changes at different levels such as causes, parties, character of conflict, tools and consequences. While discussing following changes conceptually, this paper will also emphasize the context and history when it is relevant.

To begin with, despite the hegemony of ideological and ethnic conflicts in the second half of the 20th century, conflicts about identity, social and economic inequality, poverty, resource competitions, territory and land, and environmental issues have become the main causes of many conflicts all around the world. The development of conflict-related studies gives significant clues about sources of conflict and the changes that impact the world.

Conflicts were framed in terms of ideology as the bipolar world focused on the relationship   between the U.S. and the Soviets and the extensions of this relationship influenced geopolitical dynamics in different parts of the world. For example, Latin America and particularly Cuba as well as some Middle Eastern countries became central to the contestation between the two great powers and their ideological and geostrategic ambitions. As the great historian Hobsbawm pointed out, the emergence and consolidation of (capitalist) nation states caused the age of extremes, exemplified by the two great wars and their great consequences to humanity (Hobsbawm, 1996). As the Peace and Conflict 2012 Report highlights, since the end of the WWII, most conflicts have taken place between different ethnic, cultural and religious groups while the number of interstate conflicts has decreased remarkably (Hewitt, Wilkinfeld, & Gurr, 2012). The shift from inter-state conflict to inter-group and intra-group conflicts is not only a result of modernity, but also a symptom of the saliency of ethnic/religious group identity as mentioned in Donald Horowitz’s and Rogers Brubaker’s seminal works. Identity-based conflicts, whether based on religion, culture or ethnicity, are not only a result of grievances or exclusive nation state policies, but also a result of the globalization process that made the world smaller but bigger than ever.

Socio-economic and political discrimination along with oppression of different cultures and languages are the cause of many lasting conflicts. The Minorities at Risk Project (MAR) has mapped more than 100 conflicts between minority groups and majority groups since 1980s. One of the key findings of the project is that many conflicts have taken the shape of low-intensity conflict that plagues political and economic systems of many nations, and causes vicious cycles of instability (Gurr, 1971; 2011). On the other hand, according to Paul Collier of Oxford University, it is greed instead of grievances, which impels people to rebel and form rebel groups as they are aware of vast resources and eager to control them, which results in internal armed conflict (Collier & Hoeffer, 2004). Despite this significant change in the nature of conflicts and the shift from traditional understanding of ethnic and religious conflicts, this approach failed to understand that conflicts occur in many poverty ridden yet resource- rich countries because of weak political institutions. As Acemoglu argues, political elites and rebel groups do not only mobilize resources but also try to reach political ends over already weak political institutions, which have become the most significant reason why nations fail (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012).

For many rebel groups and political elites, reaching political ends means mobilization of society, economic resources, use of organized violence and in some countries, forced child soldiers. In contrast to traditional warfare and inter-state conflicts, such conflicts usually involve more civilians than ever and result in high numbers of civilian deaths, refugees and internally displaced people. Along with costs of humanitarian crises that left many in Rwanda, Bosnia and currently Syria vulnerable to conflict, diasporas have become a significant player in conflicts since they usually intervene on behalf of their fellows and raise awareness in the international arena (Kaldor, 1999). Nevertheless, diasporas are usually more radical than actual victims of conflicts. For example, recently a member of the Coptic diaspora promoted the blasphemous film, The Innocence of Muslims, which Copts rejected and protested against sternly. Such attempts of diaspora members kindle the flames of conflict not only at local level but also at transnational level. At the same time, opening of private media outlets and the availability of information on media and databases pose another challenge to coexistence in a world where understanding each other and respect to different beliefs and ideas have decreased significantly.

More importantly, at a different level, as Blatmann and a report of USAID recently highlighted, children and youth are neither only passive victims of conflicts nor active participants; they are mostly resilient survivors (Blatmann & Annan, 2010; Sommers, 2006). Although attempts to rehabilitate youth exist, interventionist approaches or shortcomings of policies to address problems of youth result in political instability, increasing crime rate and violence level. This is a significant change in conflicts in terms of who fights and who is engaged in the process of reconstruction of states. According to a World Bank working paper, one of the significant reasons why post-conflict settlements fail is that the youth is not well-integrated into the society, they are not provided employment, and socio-psychological approaches are not used effectively (Peeters, Cunningham, Acharya, & Adams, 2009). This phenomenon implies, in case the youth and former children soldiers are not rehabilitated, it is highly likely that conflicts will recur or reignite. Furthermore, Hewitt provides conflict statistics that show the number of recurring conflicts is far greater than newly arising conflicts, which suggests resolution of conflicts does not necessarily mean the conflicts are over.

The character of conflicts has changed remarkably since many conflicts are not wars fought in the conventional fronts but rather are low intensity conflicts that take place both in urban and rural areas. This change refers to non-existence of borders for rebel groups, to the threat they pose everywhere and the longevity of such conflicts. For example, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Mahdi Army of the Sadrist movement organize bloody operations against civilians in the urban areas, where they do not necessarily have a constituency. Even though the PKK has been fighting against the Turkish state for more than 25 years, no promising resolution attempt has been sought yet. Also, since conflicts last longer rebel groups establish governance structures, such as justice, executive bodies and parallel governments. This reflects how rebel groups become sophisticated to attract more supporters and adapt to lasting conflict environment (Mampilly, 2009).

Further, while national borders are not as protective as they were in the past and vulnerable to transnational attacks, tools used in conflicts by states, rebels and terrorist organizations have changed remarkably. To prevent such attacks and other abuses of technology, such as internet attacks on security and defense networks, nations usually invest in securitization policies that causes arms race. For example, the drones are developed by both governments and private security companies and offered to the use of many countries to strike back rebel groups, but their transparency and how they are used remains ambiguous (Bashir, 2012, September 24). Such a use resulted in the killing of 34 civilians in Turkey, in a coordinated operation of U.S. forces and Turkish military. In summary, as Mari Kaldor mentions, technology is one of the most significant dimensions of the new conflicts as it is available to the use of states, rebels and terrorist networks.

Overall, the changes that contribute to conflicts in the world are not only related to structural causes, such as the change in the international political order, but also to developments in technology and emergence of new players. Despite active engagement of international organizations and key nations, the conflicts are far from being resolved as they require more than allocation of resources, namely mutual understanding, political will, socio-psychological approaches to prevent reigniting of conflicts as well as a language and culture of coexistence.


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