Escaping the Symbolic Politics Trap: Reconciliation Initiatives and Conflict Resolution in Ethnic Wars

Published date01 March 2006
Date01 March 2006
Subject MatterArticles
Existing approaches to resolving ethnic civil
wars have a dismal track record. Though a
few studies are optimistic about resolving
civil wars, there is no existing approach for
resolving ethnic civil wars that is both reliably
effective and morally acceptable. The
military victory of one side can reliably end
ethnic wars, but such victories are too often
followed by mass killing or other severe
repression. Compromise settlements, in
contrast, usually break down into renewed
f‌ighting. Peacekeeping troops can prevent
such renewed f‌ighting, but only as long as
they remain in place. Peacemaking policy is
therefore at an impasse: it is essential to f‌ind
a way to resolve ethnic civil wars, but no
acceptable means of doing so has been
The reason for this failure lies in the inad-
equacy of the rationalist paradigm underly-
ing current conf‌lict resolution practice. This
paradigm overlooks key causes of ethnic wars
and, therefore, key obstacles to their resolu-
tion. In particular, diplomats and rationalist
analysts tend to assume that the sides in
conf‌lict are rational actors who recognize the
costs of war and so prefer peace. They
© 2006 Journal of Peace Research,
vol. 43, no. 2, 2006, pp. 201–218
Sage Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA
and New Delhi)
DOI 10.1177/0022343306060622
Escaping the Symbolic Politics Trap:
Reconciliation Initiatives and Conf‌lict Resolution
in Ethnic Wars*
Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of
Existing approaches to resolving civil wars are based primarily on the assumption that these wars result
from conf‌licts of interest among rational individuals. However, peacebuilding efforts based on this
approach usually fail in cases of ethnic civil war, leading sooner or later to renewed f‌ighting. Symbolic
politics theory suggests the problem with these peace efforts is that they pay insuff‌icient attention to
ameliorating the emotional and symbolic roots of extremist ethnic politics. The theory suggests that
resolving ethnic war requires reconciliation – changing hostile attitudes to more moderate ones, assuag-
ing ethnic fears, and replacing the intragroup symbolic politics of ethnic chauvinism with a politics that
rewards moderation. The only policy tools for promoting such attitudinal and social changes are
reconciliation initiatives such as leaders’ acknowledgement of their sides’ misdeeds, public education
efforts such as media campaigns, and problem-solving workshops. Integrating such reconciliation
initiatives into a comprehensive conf‌lict resolution strategy, it is argued, is necessary for conf‌lict
resolution efforts to be more effective in ending ethnic civil wars.
* The author thanks the United States Institute of Peace
and the Council on Foreign Relations for research support
for this project. Thanks also go to Mark Beissinger, Steve
Crowley, Michael Desch, Henry Hale, Ted Hopf, Juliet
Johnson, Chaim Kaufmann, Carol Leff, Roy Licklider,
Patrick James, Donald Rothchild, and Steve Saideman for
helpful comments on previous versions of the article.
attribute violence solely to conf‌lict over
tangible interests and to the breakdown of
institutional order, so they focus on interests
and institutions in peacemaking. The reason
this model has produced so few successful
civil war settlements is that the parties are
often not entirely rational or amenable to
compromise. The main problem is often not
the interests at stake, but the emotion-laden
symbolic politics of def‌ining, pursuing, and
discussing them.
Effective conf‌lict resolution, therefore,
requires addressing the emotional and
symbolic processes that inf‌luence how
tangible issues are perceived and how they
play out politically. A growing wave of litera-
ture on ethnic violence and conf‌lict resolu-
tion using the social–psychological paradigm
offers a basis for doing this, providing a new
set of insights into both the causes and reso-
lution of ethnic civil war. The purpose of this
article is to show how a symbolic politics
approach can build on the insights of the
social–psychological school to suggest a com-
prehensive strategy that would make conf‌lict
resolution efforts more effective.
The missing key to conf‌lict resolution, I
argue, is to stablilize mass and elite prefer-
ences on both sides around attitudes
amenable to compromise and to mobilize a
political coalition in favor of it. According to
symbolic politics theory (Edelman, 1971;
Kaufman, 2001), ethnic wars are driven by
hostile popular emotions toward out-groups,
emotions harnessed by political leaders
wielding emotive ethnic symbols. Playing on
those emotions, however, can create a
‘symbolic politics trap’ for the leader: once a
leader has aroused chauvinist emotions to
gain or keep power, he and his successors
may be unable to calm those emotions later,
even if they wish to reverse course and
moderate their policies. Therefore, the way
for third parties to address these problems is
to promote not just peace, but also reconcili-
ation, addressing the emotional foundations
of hostile political attitudes, and their
symbolic expression, to help stabilize peace.
In sum, existing approaches to resolving
ethnic civil wars usually fail. Symbolic
politics theory offers a plausible explanation
for that failure and a sensible prescription for
f‌ixing the problem. This article, therefore,
offers a new hypothesis. Effective conf‌lict
resolution in cases of ethnic civil wars would
require something never before attempted on
such a scale: a comprehensive strategy inte-
grating the logic and practice of reconcili-
ation initiatives with the traditional tools of
international mediation and conf‌lict resolu-
tion. Unless conf‌lict resolution efforts
address the emotional and symbolic roots of
ethnic violence as well as the tangible inter-
ests at stake, they will continue to be in-
The Failure of Conventional
The conventional wisdom about peacemak-
ing in ethnic civil wars was, for a long time,
pessimistic. I def‌ine ethnic civil war as a civil
‘war in which the key issues at stake – that
is, the express reasons political power is being
contested – involve either ethnic markers
such as language or religion or the status of
ethnic groups themselves’ (Kaufman, 2001:
17). In Azar & Haddad’s (1986: 1140)
typically gloomy assessment, such ‘identity-
driven conf‌licts are obstinate and do not lend
themselves to traditional forms of settle-
Some recent studies have challenged this
view, but the evidence is not persuasive.
Walter (1997, 2002) argues, for example, that
third-party intervention almost always results
in settlement of civil wars if the third party
agrees to enforce the bargain. But Walter’s
analysis includes only six peace agreements in
ethnic conf‌licts. If we understand success as
journal of PEACE RESEARCH volume 43 / number 2 / march 2006
1Making a similar argument from a different starting
point is Ross (1993).

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