Autumn 1996 (4.3)
Words of Caution
The Latest Academic Industry
by Henry R. Huttenbach
©1996. From Analysis of Current Events, June 1996, Vol: 10:6, published with permission from the Association for the Study of Nationalities. All rights reserved.
There has literally been a "Wirtschaftswunder" in the coast-to-coast explosion of academically based Conflict Resolution Centers. Largely in response to the ethnic-inspired clashes that have marked the disintegration of communist multi-national states, these enterprises have popped up all over the academic map. Their missionary-like emissaries have fanned out across the Eurasian plain, selling potions of "reason," "compromise" and "peace" to those engaged in lethal ethno-battles kindled by unscrupulous, ambitious, demagogic, post-communist ethno-politicians.
Lubricated by generous infusions of foundation dollars, Conflict Resolutionism has captured many an imagination, egos, and fellow travelers in search of grants and travel opportunities to exotic places. What is going on here?
Academics, of course, have always been prone to advice-giving beyond the confines of the campus. "Consulting" is a time-honored source of extra-income; few university-based economists have not done a stint of advice-peddling to local businesses all the way up the ladder to the heady corridors of power of government. Prestige and status beginning with titles as gurus have helped promote future publications and, of course, promoted promotions to higher ranks and salaries. University scientists also have often held parallel posts with industries as auxiliary brains. The same goes for political scientists and sociologists. At least, in these cases, they operate within the parameters of their discipline and expertise. But that is not quite the case with respect to the instant specialists waging wars against conflict, specifically against ethno-disputes.
As the fires of ethno-conflict erupted in the post-communist world, teams of counter-conflictors were formed in academic quadrangles. Were they lawyers? Trained diplomats? Experienced negotiators? Labor-management mediators? Marriage counselors? Area specialists? Ethno-experts? What professional skills qualified them for these instant ventures into the unknown. Ethno-nationalist conflict, after all, is basically "terra nova," better, "terra incognita."
There are, at present, no certified and proven training programs for ethno-peace-making: on the theories, on the histories, on comparative case studies. So far the problem is tackled largely by neophytes, no matter their other worthy qualifications. All but a handful are rank amateurs, if not less, in acquaintance with things ethnic; most are neither familiar in depth with the characteristics nor with the dynamics of ethno-struggles, of inter-ethnic disputes and wars, let alone of the techniques of ethno-conflict resolution beyond good intentions, which, in these circumstances, usually aggravate and complicate rather than assuage and resolve.
Dozens of "seminars," "workshops," "missions," "regional offices" have been held and opened. Hundreds of position papers and reports have streamed off the desks of the Ethno-Conflict Resolvers' (ECRs) lap-tops onto the academic desktops of fellow ethno-specialists. Where the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] has repeatedly failed, where the United Nations has floundered, where diplomats have tried and given up, the ECRs have gone on their triumphalist safaris, only to learn the nuts they seek to crack are much harder than they imagined. The mirage of "resolution" buoyed by extraordinary, unrealistic optimism has sustained these missionaries in their quest for ethno-peace and American-style "mutual understanding."
But the complex conflicts spawned by bitter ethnic rivalry require far greater sophistication and realism, beginning with an intimate grasp of the intricacies of ethnicity and its constituent parts: language, religion, culture, territory, historical memory and, above all, fear of extinction. To underrate or ignore these elements is to betray an egregiously naive unawareness. To expect that ethno-peace can be engineered and preached by holding rap sessions in idyllic conference centers, whether in Bellaggio overlooking Lake Como [Italy] or in Stanford [California] on the Pacific Coast, is sheer folly.
To bring intellectuals together for three or four days of "free exchange" and then expect them upon their return home to be the vanguard of a peace movement is, at best, ludicrous. There is a certain arrogance here at work, another upsurge of Universalist American political medicine ready to heal a suffering misguided world.
This may sound harsh, but is it far off the mark? Is it a wise direction to take for academics? Or won't they catch the highly contagious bug of ethno-bias, of taking sides, and of losing their academic credibility? Can they ever be taken seriously again after having caught the fever of anti-ethno-conflict activism? Will their involvement lead to serious, dispassionate case studies, lasting scholarly articles, and "bona fide" monographs? Or will their work betray the symptoms of "apologias," the characteristics of self-justifying memoirs?
A wiser course would be to leave conflict resolution to the politicians, if only because CR is inherently a political act that involves compromises and related techniques. Behind-closed-door deals should not soil the pens of academics whose task it is to analyze "à distance" and not to become "intellectuels engagés" who have to account for their successes and, in this case, their repeated failures.
Foundations, take heed! Money can be spent and invested otherwise without corrupting the fragile fabric of academe. Scholar-crusaders, alias ECRs, beware the beguiling call of Mephistopheles that brought eternal ruin to the once scholarly Faust. The seductive voices of the sirens have caused many a good sailor to founder on the hidden rocks beneath the water's surface.
Henry Huttenbach is Professor of History at City College of New York. He edits "Analysis of Current Events" for the Association for the Study of Nationalities (Eastern Europe and ex-USSR). Tel: (212) 650-7384; Fax: (212) 650-6970.
From Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.