When are domestic publics most sympathetic to nationalist territorial ambitions? Conflict scholars commonly assume support should be greatest when territory is framed as being of intangible value to national identity over tangible importance to national security and economic prosperity. This should be especially true regarding lost homelands, territories wherein a state has previously exercised sovereignty and to which it has enduring ethnic ties. This article presents experimental evidence that directly challenges these assumptions, demonstrating the variability of Serbian popular attachments to three lost territories: Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro. It finds that intangible framings do not necessarily engender stronger assertions that such territories belong to the homeland than tangible framings do. Nor do they necessarily motivate greater support for nationalist territorial agendas. These findings cast doubt on conventional wisdom regarding domestic publics’ contributions to territorial conflict and offer refined insights regarding in which instances intangible claims are most conflict-prone.
International territorial conflicts are frequently characterized by political recourse to narratives of nationalist entitlement, stifling conflict resolution by raising domestic audience costs and discursively limiting bargaining flexibility. Conflict incentivizes elite employment of such claims precisely because security threats and fear of violence heighten popular resonance of adversarial collective identity frames. This article argues, however, that consensus mobilization behind nationalist territorial claims is highly dependent upon the particular narratives elites select to justify them. Employing controlled individual-level experiments administered to diverse populations in Israel, it demonstrates how exposure to competing narratives of homeland, security, economic prosperity, and settlement impacts support for control of East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. Although indivisible claims to ‘United Jerusalem’, the Golan, and West Bank settlement blocs and strategic highlands are generally considered popular consensus issues in Israel, only particular narratives trigger consensus mobilization behind each. Some narratives even encourage conciliatory policy attitudes against such appeals. As a democracy embroiled in multiple enduring territorial disputes, analysis of the Israeli case contributes to understanding of the limits and political consequences of elite rhetoric. Demonstrating the affinity between narrative frames and popular policy preferences, this article also lends insight into the intersubjective beliefs that drive mass support for nationalist territorial claims.
Dissertation: Security or Identity? Narratives of State and Nation in International Territorial Conflict Protraction
My dissertation explores how popular domestic beliefs regarding the meaning and value of disputed lands contribute to the protraction and resolution of international territorial conflict. Using comparative historical analysis and artefactual field experiments, I find in Israel and Serbia that persistent popular unwillingness to relinquish claims to a “United Jerusalem” and “Kosovo and Metohija” have resulted from the extraordinary position of these territories in their respective national homeland narratives. These outcomes stand in stark contrast to Israel’s largely popular withdrawals from the Sinai Peninsula, Southern Lebanon, and Gaza Strip, dominantly valued as strategic rather than cultural assets. They also contrast with Serbia’s acquiescence to the political independence of both Bosnia and Montenegro, spaces of high concern for Serb political self-determination but relatively low territorial-cultural priority. The Golan Heights and the West Bank are also analyzed as disputed spaces wherein strategic and cultural narratives continue to contribute to conflict protraction. In doing so, I demonstrate how particular strategic and cultural narratives come to dominate public discourse over disputed spaces and, in turn, how these narratives constrain the policies states can legitimately pursue in these spaces. Ultimately, I find that popular perceptions of national identity can be as powerful a force in determining government policy as state security prerogatives.
Will Reno (Chair), Hendrik Spruyt, Jason Seawright