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Q&A with Jason Lyall

Collective identity influences international conflict

Princeton NJ -- One of the thorniest issues for scholars and policy-makers is why wars begin, and why certain states adopt aggressive policies internationally.

Photo of: Jason Lyall

Jason Lyall is an instructor of politics and international affairs

Jason Lyall, an instructor of politics and international affairs, has explored the role of collective identity in the root causes of international and related conflicts, such as ethnic separatism and emerging national security threats. He maintains that the way in which various groups — centered on nationality, ethnicity, race, religion or other categories — are formed affects how aggressively they pursue conflict.

Lyall, who joined the faculty last July, recently completed his Ph.D. in international relations and comparative politics at Cornell University. His dissertation, “Paths of Ruin: Why Revisionist States Arise and Die in World Politics,” examined how a state’s collective identity shapes — and often undermines — its grand strategy and military effectiveness.

Lyall currently is engaged in several additional research projects, including a study of Russia’s response to American military operations in Central Asia; a comparison of political opposition in Eurasian “hybrid” regimes; and a collaborative study of ethnic separatism in post-communist Eurasia and Southeast Asia. He has taught courses in national security and last fall offered a junior research workshop on “Order and Change in World Politics.”

He recently was interviewed by staff from the Woodrow Wilson School’s Office of External Affairs.

Your research focuses on the origins of interstate conflict. What are some of the root causes of such conflict? When do states become aggressive and violent internationally, and why?

Sometimes it appears as though there are as many theories for why states fight as there are actual wars. Some scholars cite territorial ambitions as the prime motive behind war; others argue that domestic factors such as government type, bureaucratic politics and ideology are crucial ingredients. Still others will point to the anarchic nature of international politics and argue that security considerations will drive states to fight one another. An emerging research agenda is now examining how gaps in information and misperceptions will lead states to adopt conflicting policies. We should note, too, that the reasons for why states fight do vary across different historical eras. It was once legitimate to fight for dynastic reasons, for example, a notion that we would dismiss as inappropriate today.

My own research focuses on the connection between collective identity and the outbreak of war. In particular, I argue that the ways in which a regime legitimates itself offer clues about its willingness to pursue aggressive strategies. For some regimes, risky foreign adventures and wars are actually seen as beneficial because they help to shore up legitimacy at home. Indeed, the more shaky a regime’s legitimacy, and the more it relies on scapegoating against foreign opponents, the greater the likelihood that war will be viewed in a favorable light. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and perhaps contemporary China, are two important examples of these types of states.

Your work also focuses on political opposition in so-called “hybrid regimes” in Eurasia, where states have the trappings of democracy but are not fully free. How can political opposition mobilize successfully in such oppressive environments, according to your research?

The wave of democratization that began in Serbia in 2000 and then rippled through Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and now perhaps Lebanon, is indeed a testament to the ability of small groups of committed citizens to transform societies. We are very much in the early stages of explaining how such movements could form and mobilize under conditions marked by electoral fraud, widespread censorship and the threat of state repression. As we have seen with Otpor (Resistance) in Serbia, Kmara (Enough) in Georgia, Pora! (It’s Time!) in Ukraine or Kifaya (Enough) in Lebanon, several factors appear crucial.

First, because these groups remain small — sometimes numbering in the few thousands — they must remain united. Internal divisions over tactics or political goals will often blunt efforts to capitalize on public discontent with the regime.

Second, movements will only succeed if they can make common cause with the state’s military forces and, in particular, its intelligence services. Ties forged between these protest movements and the armed forces prevented the government from ordering violent crackdowns. Fence-sitters were therefore emboldened to protest, enabling once-small movements to surge in size to 100,000 or more in a short period.

Third, these groups must have some means of circumventing government censorship to get their message out. While news of initial protests did pass by word-of-mouth, protest groups also had their own printing presses to create pamphlets, notices and even stickers announcing demonstration times and locations. In Georgia and Ukraine, announcers on state television refused to broadcast the official line and instead openly denounced the current government.

Fourth, these movements all had a clear, unifying set of grievances that resonated among broad segments of the population. And, finally, these movements did not stand alone. Substantial amounts of American assistance and aid was poured into these movements to ensure their success. Activists from Otpor, for example, were sent to Georgia and then Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan to teach the secrets of successful mobilization. These activists are now active in Russia, Belarus and Armenia.

My own research has focused on the tactics used by activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest the Chechen War. Though these movements have failed in their bid to end the now-decade-long war, they have nonetheless mobilized in the face of extensive censorship, bureaucratic obstacles and veiled threats from the state. Indeed, these movements have made innovative use of the Internet, personal networks and public demonstrations (including rock festivals) to pressure the government. Some groups are now experimenting with the use of text messaging to create “flash mobs,” where activists descend on a designated location after receiving a signal through their cell phones and pagers. While these groups remain small — some protests are attended by fewer than a dozen activists — they retain memberships comparable to the original size of Kmara or Pora.

How serious a threat is ethnic separatism in Russia and the former Soviet republics?

The threat of ethnic separatism is quite low in post-communist Russia today. In one sense, Chechnya has been made an example of what happens to republics if they pursue secessionist ambitions. Indeed, the real danger at present is that the conflict in Chechnya will spill over to neighboring republics and states, destabilizing the region. There is no question that the violence has spread: armed conflicts between Chechen guerrillas and Russian forces have taken place in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and the Pankisi Gorge between Russia and Georgia.

With the deaths of the first-generation of Chechen leaders, we are witnessing the increased radicalization of these militias, with militant Islam now assuming much greater prominence. The March 9, 2005, assassination of Chechnya’s president, Aslan Maskhadov, by Russian forces has removed the last moderate from the Chechen fold, accelerating this slide. It is unlikely, however, that the Russian Federation will unravel along ethnic lines in the near future.

The problem of separatism is much more prevalent in the republics of the former Soviet Union. A number of separatist enclaves — Abkhazia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Trans-Dneister in Moldova — remain frozen in a twilight space between statehood and autonomy. Some 15 years after the Soviet collapse, these conflicts continue to linger, sapping economic recovery and democratization across the region. Though a return to open conflict is unlikely in the near future, the prospects for a peaceful resolution to these crises are also quite dim.

As the United States increases its military operations in Central Asia, how do you see the Russian government responding, now and in the next decade?

President Vladimir Putin initially welcomed the establishment of American airbases in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Georgia to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (October 2001). He had much to gain from doing so. Not only could he rid himself of the Taliban and threat of Islamic fundamentalism that it posed for Russia’s Muslim populations, but he could also wrap the Chechen War in the cloak of a global anti-terrorist operation.

Putin was assured that these bases would not be permanent. As it became increasingly clear that this was not the case, however, Russia began to craft strategies designed to contain American influence in the region. We have seen, for example, a flurry of institution-building among Russia and Central Asian states, the establishment of a new Russian airbase in Kyrgyzstan and eight large-scale military exercises in and around Central Asia. These exercises should command our attention, for several of them rival the size of operations held during the late Soviet period.

While it is too early to suggest that we are seeing a reprise of the 19th-century “Great Game,” there is nonetheless evidence of renewed competition between the U.S. and Russia. Though open conflict is unlikely, the combination of a new American presence and old Russian concerns about its “soft underbelly” may create a security dilemma that forces each state to undertake increasingly risky actions. One danger is that Russia, the United States and now China will be dragged into escalating competition for access to the rich energy resources that abound in the region. Security fears may also manifest themselves in seemingly unrelated ways. Russia’s deployment of a new intercontinental ballistic missile may be one outgrowth of security concerns about being “encircled” by the West.

What are the gravest emerging threats America and its allies face, and how can U.S. policy-makers and military strategists respond to prevent major national security crises?

In my judgment, nuclear terrorism is the most pressing security threat that the United States currently faces. The amount of unsecured nuclear material in Russia, coupled with extensive proliferation networks between Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, means that the danger will only increase over time. What’s worse is that the current administration has actually cut funds for the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. This program, which is designed to secure “loose nukes” in Russia, suffered a 10 percent funding cut over 2004-05. In 2006, some $416 million has been earmarked for the program, which sounds impressive until we realize that at current spending levels it will take another decade until these materials are secured.

There are a host of additional threats that will continue to dominate our security concerns for the foreseeable future. Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain active, for example, while the continuing insurgency in Iraq threatens to undermine nation-building efforts there.

More than any specific policy recommendation, I would simply advise U.S. policy-makers to think more deeply about the nature of the threats that the U.S. faces. After all, you can’t craft a successful strategy if you don’t first understand the nature of your enemy. As we round into the fourth year of a “War on Terror,” it still remains unclear how we define the threat, how we define “success” and how we would know when we’re being successful. The time has come for critical reflection, both private and public, on the nature of the “War on Terror” and its bearing on American security.