Nations go to war, and scholars disagree

Why do nations so furiously rage against each other?

Twenty experts, six panels, four regions and nine hours were barely enough to scratch the surface of this age-old question when the Merriam Symposium on “The Challenge of Ethnopolitical Conflict: Can the World Cope?” convened Nov. 29 in Houston Hall.

The School of Arts and Sciences’ day-long forum, co-sponsored by the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, focused on Kosovo, Jerusalem, Rwanda and Africa’s Great Lake Region, and Kashmir.

A few dozen core participants attended panels all day, but some sessions attracted extra audience members. The Jerusalem and Rwanda panels, for example, drew crowds of more than 100 people.

Although panelists maintained a scholarly tone in their presentations, they found agreement could be difficult to come by.

During the session on reconciliation, conflict-resolution expert and former diplomat Joseph Montville said South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a good example of using story-telling to “revive [victims’] suspended mourning process and move it toward completion.”

Directly after Montville’s speech, Pamela Reynolds, an anthropology professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, harshly critiqued the Commission’s structure, especially its emphasis on absolution and “moving on” instead of justice and reparations.

Panelists also disagreed about whether state-formation was inevitable or even appropriate for all people. While most panelists took it for granted, French journalist Gerard Prunier said that “the nation-state is not the only form of social organization available to us.”

Panelists even disagreed about the word “cope” in the event’s title. Prunier called it “hypocrisy” to talk about coping with violence in foreign nations. “We’re not coping. We’re trying to keep bloodshed down so we don’t have unpleasant images on the television while we’re eating dinner.”

But Donald Horowitz, a Duke University professor who spoke about challenges in building coalition governments, said he liked the word cope. “It points to the lack of perfect solutions,” he said.


Originally published on January 18, 2001