Ethnic Conflict, International Norms, and Federalism

Happy Hannukah... and paper writingIt’s paper writing season at Chez/Beit Zellman and I’m plowing through them like the snow blowers that will soon be criss-crossing our driveways and streets here in Chicago.

Yesterday I put the final touches on a paper I wrote from my comparative federalism class with Ed Gibson on the role of norms in structuring regime choice following intrastate ethnic violence and international intervention.  Today I am working on a book review of Thomas Ertman’s Birth of the Leviathan for Kathy Thelen’s course on institutions.  Tomorrow I hope to begin writing my research design for the dreaded second year paper while fulfilling a course requirement for Risa Brooks’ international security seminar.  On Monday, I will be sitting in to help proctor an exam for my Introduction to International Relations undergraduate class which will be followed by a solid week of grading.

Oh yes… and tonight is the first night of Hannukah: light them hannukiot (or more appropriately neyrot)!

Needless to say, I have still a very busy week or two ahead before it all comes to a crashing halt.  In the meantime, please enjoy my introductory paragraphs to the federalism paper.  I assure you, this makes the paper sound much more interesting than it actually is…

Ethnic Violence, International Norms, and Federalism: Domestic Problems and International Solutions

A rather substantial literature has developed surrounding the study of comparative federal institutions. Although only 24 of the world’s 193 recognized countries have federal systems, citizens of these states make up about 40 percent of the world’s population. Given the character of federalism as a political system of shared sovereignty and divided autonomy between a central government and territorially defined constituent units, it is altogether unsurprising that federalism is often found in geographically expansive states with diverse populations spread over vast areas of territory as in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and the United States. Federalism, as a political institutional outgrowth of improved technologies of transport and communication, is theoretically able to govern with greater legitimacy and responsiveness than older imperial models of rule while allowing relatively high degrees of political independence to its constituent units.

According to de Figueiredo, et al., the preservation of a federal system is therefore dependent on constraining the power of the central government such that it does not overwhelm the provinces while ensuring that it is strong enough that the provinces are not able to deconstruct the bases for national unity. Alfred Stepan adds to this understanding the critical provision that true federal systems must be democratic as they enshrine these relationships within a constitutional framework and defend them through a formal rule of law. This is because “only a system that is a constitutional democracy can provide credible guarantees and the institutionally embedded mechanism that help ensure that the law-making prerogatives of the subunits will be respected”. Edward Gibson and Tulia Falleti further note that it is not enough to see federalism as an institutional relationship between a political center and its constituent subunits but that interprovincial conflict between differentially powerful subunits may also have a substantial impact on the form, content, and function of the federal state. As such, “[c]onflicts between regions and conflicts between levels of government operate simultaneously in federal systems, and they jointly affect important outcomes in the institutional development of federalism and its degree of centralization”. Taken together it is clear that a federal system must not only have the structural elements of shared sovereignty and divided autonomy, but it must also have a constitutional structure capable of preserving the respective competencies and autonomies of both the subunits vis-à-vis the central government and each other.

Yet not all countries are equally capable of fulfilling these roles nor do they perform them in identical ways. This is hardly surprising given that each federal state is embedded in different social, political, economic, and historic institutional contexts. Although the origins of federalism in each case do not entirely determine its precise performative outcomes as the reasons for which the political organizing principle had been chosen may have little to do with its present function, it does seem likely that the conditions under which federalism is selected will have some explanatory influence on its persistence. It is the contention of this paper that while the literature has explored and developed in great detail the functions of federalism and the domestic political origins of its institutions, it has largely neglected the analysis of international factors conditioning its selection. Accounting for these pressures is important not only because domestically negotiated institutional arrangements have been found to persist and perform better on the whole than those which are externally imposed, but because the external environment may actually constrain the range of policy options open to political actors forcing them to select potentially suboptimal governing structures that fail to address root causes of domestic conflict.

To test this proposition, this paper will engage the literature on federal institutions and its application to cases of intrastate ethnic conflict. Given increased multilateral international intervention and post-conflict involvement in instances of civil war and ethnic violence since the end of the Cold War, these cases should provide an easy test of the proposition that international conditions matter in the selection of post-conflict governing regimes Focusing on the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, and Sudan, I find that although factors such as ethnic demography, territorial distribution of populations, and the on-the-ground political realities post-conflict make federalism a seemingly logical point for negotiation, it is international norms regarding human rights and state territorial integrity coupled with the depth of international involvement in the particular conflict which pushes other options off the table. It is my hope that this paper will serve to both improve understanding of the origins of federalism in the modern era and evaluate the appropriateness of its application in cases of intrastate ethnic violence particularly with respect to brewing debates about the political future of Iraq. Additionally, it implicitly contributes to the growing body of literature on the impact of international norms and critique those who see the impact of “peace ensuring” norms as an unqualified good.

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One Response to Ethnic Conflict, International Norms, and Federalism

  1. […] See my presentation at this year’s ISSS/ISAC conference for more detail.  Here my recent paper on federal "solutions" to ethnic conflict may also be mildly […]

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