- The Limits to Partition
To the Editors (Michael C. Horowitz and Alex Weisiger write):
In his article “Partitioning to Peace: Sovereignty, Demography, and Ethnic Civil Wars,” Carter Johnson argues that partition is frequently the best available policy response to ethnic civil wars. By creating a new measure of the degree of demographic unmixing achieved through partition, Johnson demonstrates that mere changes in sovereignty are insufficient to produce peaceful outcomes. He contends, however, that “complete” separation of the two sides will help to bring peace. He concludes that partition is a useful tool for the international peacemaker, with the caveat that it “should be considered, however, only where populations are already largely separated at the time of intervention, or where interveners are prepared to separate groups using mass population transfers.”1 He interprets these findings as “strong evidence for advocates of partition (p. 168).”
We believe that Johnson’s caveat is more important than it appears at first blush, and that its practical implication is to render partition an effectively useless policy tool. The partition prescription is grounded in the logic of the ethnic security dilemma, but there is empirical evidence that genuine conflicts of interest exist alongside security dilemma fears. In this context, participants will resist the population transfers necessary for effective partition. Given that the international community is not going to carry out population transfers in the face of violent resistance, effective partition is unlikely to occur except through ethnic cleansing during war. Johnson’s data are consistent with these observations: effective partition rarely happens, and when it does, it is through ethnic cleansing rather than organized population transfers. In short, successful partitions ratify military outcomes. Furthermore, when we consider that even effective partition has not guaranteed peace, these observations strongly suggest that the international community should retain its current position toward partition of tacit acquiescence in a small number of unavoidable cases, but should not promote partition as a strategy to end ongoing wars.
The partition prescription is grounded in the logic of the ethnic security dilemma, in which conflict breaks out in an intermixed ethnic setting because each side fears that the other is going to attack it and therefore sees a strategic benefit to striking first. Neutral partition, if possible, is a logical solution to this problem because it eliminates incentives [End Page 203] for preemptive action and facilitates each side’s efforts to defend itself. Given these effects, partition logically should be welcomed by participants.2
That observation, however, points to a significant problem with the ethnic security dilemma and the prescription of partition. From Kashmir to Kirkuk, ethnic conflicts have involved not only fear of attack but fundamental disagreements about who should control important pieces of territory. In other words, security motives interact with predation to produce distinct but overlapping incentives for fighting.3 This observation has important implications for the viability of partition as a strategy. Partition depends on outside interveners being willing to facilitate the transfer of populations, which they are reluctant to do given the violations of international law involved (p. 150). If the conflict in question involves not only security fears but competition for control of disputed territory, the international force facilitating partition does not merely act in the context of violence; it becomes a target. As examples such as Somalia in 1993 and Rwanda in 1994 show, there is little historical evidence that outside interveners are willing to suffer these sorts of costs to facilitate an outcome from which they do not directly benefit.
Given competition over territory, voluntary population transfers are also a chimera, which Johnson acknowledges when he states that “all of the complete cases” of partition “involved large-scale forced population transfers during the countries’ wars, with the possible exception of Bangladesh.”4 If the international community will not carry out involuntary transfers and the participants will not accept voluntary ones, then ethnic cleansing—held up by partition advocates as worse than their recommendation—is the only way that population transfers will occur.5 From this perspective, advocacy for partition becomes advocacy for signing off on ethnic cleansing after the fact. That is very different...