WikiSummary, the Social Science Summary Database

Lake and Rothchild: Containing fear

From WikiSummary, the Free Social Science Summary Database


Lake and Rothchild. 1996. Containing fear: The origins and management of ethnic conflict. International Security 21 (fall): 41-75.

In Brief

When ethnic groups come to fear for their future (physical) security, they prepare for conflict, thus initiating a security dilemma. Several things can cause such a fear to develop, such as a decline in cultural security or past experience with conflict. The factor that Lake and Rothchild dwell on the most is rising anarchy, essentially a Hobbesian argument: as the Leviathan (the state) declines (becomes unable to prevent conflict), ethnic groups fear that their physical security may be at risk.


  • Y: Ethnic conflict
  • X1: Fear of what the future might bring (conditioned strongly by what the past has brought).
  • X2: Three strategic dilemmas: information failure, credible commitment problems, and incentives to use force pre-emptively (the security dilemma).
  • X3: "Nonrational factors" like "emotions, historical memories, and myths"

Why War instead of a Bargin?

This is where the strategic dilemmas come in to play. The three variables under X2 come directly from Fearon 1995. Details:

  • Information problems: After summarizing the incentives to bluff/misrepresent that Fearon gave, Lake and Rothchild point out that a strong state (or other outside mediator) can frequently help overcome these problems (by collecting information about/from both parties). As states decline, they become less able to do so, making ethnic conflict more likely than an ethnic bargain. The state's inability to mediate this conflict contributes to its further decline. It's important to point out that the collapse of the state does not precede the ethnic conflict typically, but is caused by it. See de Figueirido and Weingast 1999.
  • Commitment problems: Although a larger group might make a credible commitment not to abuse a smaller one by power-sharing, guaranteeing a diverse military, or letting the minority hold important economic assets hostage, a shift in one ethnic group's power (especially demographic) makes such commitments break down.
  • Security dilemma: when there are information problems and commitment problems, a security dilemma arises if there are incentives to strike first (offensive advantage).

Internal Strategic Problems

  • An ethnic group's leaders may be labeled "soft" by ethnic extremists, forcing them to adopt a more hard-line position to stay in power. (Think "Only Nixon could go to China.")
  • Individual members of an ethnic group may be prompted (by ethnic activists) to act more "ethnic" than they would otherwise in order to not be labeled a traitor.
  • Together, this leads to the polarization of society, which can be exacerbated by the nonrational factors in X3.
  • They trace this part of the argument to Horowitz's assertion that people have a desire to belong to a group, subject to Kuran's assertion that this desire varies in intensity.
  • Fear (X1) can increase this sense of group (ethnic) identity. Sounds like the "rally 'round the flag" effect: "The emotional power of ethnic attachments is typically increased by the unifying effects of what are perceived to be external threats. People who have little in common with others may unite when they feel threatened by external enemies."

Solving Ethnic Conflict

"We can only hope to contain ethnic fears, not permanently eliminate them." The last half of the article considers several policy options to help reduce fear and overcome the strategic problems, beginning with the adoption of confidence-building measures.