Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation, and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World
by Andreas Wimmer
Summary written by Alemayehu Weldemariam, School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University
Citation: Andreas Wimmer. Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation, and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013
Andreas Wimmer has written an immensely impressive book. Waves of War is impressive not only in its ambition, but also in its breadth. The book, based on a series of articles written over a period of ten years, aims to address a broad interdisciplinary literature and audience in comparative historical sociology, comparative politics, and international relations about nationalism and war. It is intended to remedy the defect in current scholarship on war and peace which overlooked the political power of nationalism in shaping the contemporary world and in shaping our thinking about the causes of war and peace. What underpins the book’s analytic framework is the issue of “how power, legitimacy, and conflict relate to each other and how they are intertwined with the politicization of social categories such as nations, ethnic groups, and the like. It brings three traditions in political sociology and comparative political science together: relational structuralism, an institutionalism focused on questions of legitimacy, and a power-configurational approach.” He posits war springs from three different sources. First, war is more likely to break out if sections of a population are politically excluded. Second, conflict is more likely to escalate “if such political exclusion violates the principles of political legitimacy.” Third, war is more likely to break out if the rivals aim at removing the form of the regime due to the high stakes involved.
To accomplish what he sets out to do with the book, he develops complicated statistical modeling that relies on a dataset with 484 distinct wars, including 77 wars of conquest, 111 inter-state wars, and 296 civil wars, 109 of which were secessionist and 187 non-secessionist. The dataset includes 156 territorial units, 140 of which were incorporated into an empire at some point (92 between 1816 and 2001), and 150 of which experienced nation-state creation. And he uses the 2001 grid of states to determine the units of observation. The thrust of the book’s argument is that nationalism is a major force that has shaped world and domestic politics over the past 200 years, including many of the inter-state and civil wars fought during this period. In other words, the shift to nation-state is the major cause of war in the modern world.
In an early work, Wimmer critiqued “methodological nationalism,” which he faulted for stifling social theory: “The social sciences have become obsessed with describing processes within nation-state boundaries as contrasted with those outside and have correspondingly lost sight of the connections between such nationally defined territories”. By expanding on that, he takes the argument to its logical conclusion and shows that modernity, since its inception, was built on ethnic and nationalist principles of legitimacy and that these principles continue to shape political action.
Waves of War is one of the most fascinating and exasperating books so far written on war. Having laid out what I think to be fascinating about it like his attempt at grand theorizing by combining comparative macro sociology with micro sociology of nation-state formation by utilizing large datasets and rigorous statistical analysis. One source of my exasperation is the undue over-reliance on quantitative research on vexed issues such as nationalism and war that might be better studied at micro-level with the help of careful ethnography and historical interpretation. It does not seem to leave enough space for particularities.
Another source of my exasperation over this work is the lack of analytic clarity and the prevalence of conceptual obfuscations that one finds throughout the book. Even if at times he goes to great lengths to make analytic distinctions among empires, nation-states, and dynastic kingdoms, he fails to attain the same degree of analytic clarity in respect of such terms as ethnicity, nation, nationhood, nationalism, ethno-nationalism, nation-building, and empire-building. There is a list at the end of the book that contains names of states with their corresponding year in which they attained nation-statehood. He assigned the year 1993 for Eritrea, 1974 for Ethiopia, 1960 for Somalia, 1956 for Sudan, and it’s interesting to see that South Sudan is missing from the list because its independence was declared in 2011, a decade after the end of the dataset. The dataset covers 145 entities between 1816 and 2001. The problem with that is he is using readily available historical dates that mark changes in the form of regimes, but not in the typology of the polities, i.e. from empire to republican form or became independent of their colonial masters.
In order to help you appreciate the point I am getting at, take, for example, Ethiopia. He listed Ethiopia as having attained nation-statehood in 1974. He conflates the notion of the nation-state with a republican form of government, as if national cohesion were not an indispensable element of nationhood. Somalia became an independent republic in 1960, but it was a far-cry from being a nation-state. Although Ethiopia has been around for over 2000 years, but it is hard to point out as Wimmer did a certain moment in time when it attained nation-statehood. 1974 represents little more than the overthrow of the last emperor. The project of nation-building that was started by Emperor Tewodros was continued by the military regime that supplanted the imperial rule. The Ethiopian Empire, like nearly all empires, took shape through continuous conquest and other forms of integration, as a multiethnic polity. This originated in the early centuries CE as attested by the epigraphic inscriptions. The ethnic basis of the monarchy and ruling elite, starting with the Agaziyan, kept shifting from Aksum southward. But the Aksumite polity was already referred to as Behere Ityopiya (the Ethiopian Nation) by 6C CE. The way to move forward in understanding Ethiopia is to look at the evolution of the center-periphery relations of the political core from empire and thence state, beginning with Emperor Tewodros and greatly advanced by Haile Selassie I and Derg, and at separate and merging ethnies, the most crucial part of which being the story of the Oromo migration.
What Wimmer does not seem to appreciate is that the modern political form of the nation-state took shape along two independent lines, the state and the nation. This model is structurally analogues to how Max Weber envisioned the development of capitalism, along two lines: the cultural framing of capitalist enterprise (Protestant Ethic, NW Europe), and the bureaucratic organization of capitalism (Roman law through France and the Prussian state.) Their separate developments are related, interpenetrating, but independently variable. Somalia and Ethiopia stand out as two thumbnail versions of the Horn of Africa – Somalia as a nation looking for a state and Ethiopia as a state looking for a nation.
What he offers as a short definition of empires, nation-states, and other polities turn out to be unhelpful. He claims "empires are characterized by centralized bureaucratic forms of government, the domination of a core region over peripheries, an ethnically or culturally defined hierarchy between rulers and ruled, and claims to universal legitimacy". In regard to nation-states, he states they "are also based on centralized bureaucratic forms of government, but are ruled uniformly without an institutionalized differentiation between core and periphery, embrace the principle of equality of citizens (replacing hierarchy), and govern in the name of a bounded national community rather than some universal principle." With respect to what he calls "dynastic kingdoms," he says, they "also govern through centralized bureaucracies, but lack the center-periphery structures and the universalist forms of legitimacy of empires. In contrast to nation-states, such absolutist states are not based on the equality of all citizens, and ruled in the name of dynasty, rather than a nation. Feudal states, tribal confederacies (e.g. the Sanusi of Libya), city-states (e.g. Switzerland before 1848), and patrimonial empires (e.g. Tukulor or Mongol empires) all lack centralized bureaucracies." The definitions themselves raise further question as to what he means by such terms as core and periphery. More importantly, the term ‘nation-state’ loses its analytical utility.
Though Wimmer has not acknowledged it, it appears that his idea that nationalism (self-rule or self-determination) is the legitimating principle for modern nation-states is borrowed from Rupert Emerson’s germinal book, From Empire to Nation, (R. Emerson, 1961). For Wimmer the logic of the nation-state is necessarily ethnic and nationhood is simply a subtype of ethnicity. Though nation-state formation has historically been intertwined with ethnicity, but the logic of the nation-state is above all statist.
Given his disenchantment with current scholarship on the political economy of war, Wimmer unsurprisingly concludes “It is thus a genuinely political understanding of war in which economic interests or military-technical feasibility play a secondary role. … war does not result from the anarchic nature of the international system …, from the rise and fall of global hegemons, or from revolutionary class conflict, but from the struggle between competing projects of state-building based on different principles of political legitimacy.” Nevertheless, he seems to be taking away with the other hand what he gave you with the one hand when he writes, “[i]ndeed, much empirical research finds that gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is one of the most robust factors in predicting civil war onsets.”
He faults much of the literature on ethnic conflict for offering hardcore political economy accounts, such as the greed and opportunity, leaving little room for nuances. He claims that his research findings “stand in opposition to the greed-and-opportunity school, which discounts ethnicity and more specifically ethnic exclusion and grievances as relevant factors in explaining civil war.” Even scholars who point to state collapse or political instability or the relative strength of rebels are not impervious to his critique. Moreover, he asserts to have gone beyond the minority-grievance model by showing that ethnic mobilization and conflict do not exclusively involve discriminated minorities fighting for their rights. He makes a further unsubstantiated claim that “armed rebels are more likely to emerge from excluded majorities, not minorities, and groups in power instigate an important number of armed conflicts.” These are just claims that can be readily refuted by producing counterfactuals from the history of armed rebels around the world such as the TPLF in Ethiopia, Nuer-based-SPLA-faction led by Machar in South Sudan, and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
Overall, instead of attempting to overcome the deficit in current scholarship on war that is dominated by hardcore political economy factors as the only serious candidates for explaining the phenomenon of war as he claims, Wimmer appears to elevate grievances borne out of political exclusion as the prime driver of violent conflicts to the exclusion of other important factors, such as conflict entrepreneurship, elite opportunism, state capacity for repressing rebellions, and resources for minority mobilization. The way to move forward in understanding the causes of violent conflicts is to synthesize the findings of the different schools in a manner that paints the complete picture, rather than the different parts as in the Buddhist tale in which a number of blind men report on different parts of the elephant. The book is also remarkable for its sweeping critique of the democratic peace theory in both its monadic and dyadic forms and overly-pessimistic attitude towards the possibility of institutionally engineering peace.
Waves of War leaves much to be desired. Despite his acute awareness of the limitations of quantitative research and the associated ambition of scientism, the experience of reading it leaves one wondering whether Wimmer himself believes he has succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do, i.e., to overcome the deficit in current scholarship on war and peace, in spite of the elegance and sophistication of the mathematical models deployed.
Wimmer, Waves of War, p. 11
 Ibid, p.16
 Ibid, p. 23
 Wimmer, A., and Glick Schiller, N. (2002), “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nationstate building, migration and the social sciences”. Global Networks, 4, p.307.
 For a detailed account of the evolution of Ethiopia as a cohesive multiethnic polity, see Donald N. Levine, Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, 1974, University of Chicago Press; for a historical account of the center-periphery cleavage in the political and legal development of Ethiopia, see my Legal Pluralism in Contemporary Ethiopia, Saarbrucken, Germany, 2010
 Wimmer, Waves of War, pp. 113-114
 Ibid, 115
 Ibid, 119
 Ibid, 172