Why States Commit Genocide

by Benjamin Studebaker

We have a very poor understanding of genocide. Genocide is the sort of thing we typically associate with chaotically evil people, people who “just want to watch the world burn” and have no respect or regard for human life. Those who commit genocide are viewed as irrational, irredeemably bad people. I am not convinced by this. This is not to say that I think genocide is defensible or morally justifiable, but I think there are rational, logical reasons that motivate states to commit genocide. I enjoy attempting to theorize rational explanations of seemingly wholly malevolent phenomenon–back in September, I offered a theory of why states sometimes deliberately target civilians in war. Today I’d like to offer a theory of genocide, one that I hope will help us to make better sense of the circumstances that promote genocide and understand how those circumstances might be avoided.

For states, power proceeds from wealth and manpower. States with large populations and lots of wealth can field larger armies, manufacture more military hardware, and research new technologies quickly. The United States is at present the most powerful state in the world because it combines the third highest population with a top 10 per capita GDP. China and India have more people, but China’s per capita output is roughly 1/9th the United States’, and India’s is roughly 1/6th China’s. In terms of output, the United States’ nearest competitor with a sizable population is Japan, which has only slightly more than 1/3rd the US’ people and and about 9/10ths its per capita output.

I say this to highlight how utterly senseless and stupid genocide appears at first blush. When a country commits genocide, it slaughters large numbers of its own people. Genocide is also typically highly disruptive to the economy, because it often (though not exclusively) comes part and parcel with civil war or some other kind of domestic strife. To commit genocide then is for a state to deliberately destroy the basis of its strength. It is a deliberate self-weakening, the shooting of oneself in the proverbial foot. What on earth could motivate a state to do such a thing? Why would power-hungry, ruthless dictators who want to expand their states and conquer territory intentionally make it harder for themselves to accomplish those objectives?

I propose that the answer is nationalism and self-determination. Nationalism I take to be the belief that one’s nationality is a critical part of one’s identity, that one has interests that are derived from that nationality and that those interests are sometimes worth defending by fighting and dying for one’s nation. Chief among these interests is the belief that the nation’s survival must be protected, and that this survival is best protected by the creation of a territorial nation-state. For a nationalist, the idea that one’s nation could become subject to another nation is terrifying, because nationalists presuppose that people of different nationalities have fundamentally different interests, that to be ruled by a foreign nation is to be used by that nation to satisfy its interests. In sum, nationalists do not believe that foreign occupiers will treat them as free and equal citizens, that their interests will be given equal consideration by that foreign nation-state. For them, occupation or annexation are synonymous with a loss of freedom irrespective what the occupier or invader claims or what policy the occupier implements.

Countries in which many people are nationalists are consequently very hard to conquer or annex. Nationalists will resist foreign occupation much harder than non-nationalists because they equate occupation with slavery. They believe that if their nation is not self-determining the government, they are being subjugated. For nationalists, freedom requires national self-determination.

The effects of nationalism are easy to see. In many cases over the last hundred years, foreign states have been ejected from territories they have sought to control by nationalist independence movements. Nationalism is the reason for decolonization and the end of the European empires in the 50’s and 60’s. Nationalism caused American defeat in Vietnam and Iraq. Nationalism broke up the Austrian and Ottoman dynastic empires into collections of smaller independent nation-states. When a one nation attempts to occupy another, the defending nation always has more to lose (namely, its survival as a nation-state) and consequently will persevere with far greater resilience. Despite a huge gap in wealth between countries like Britain and France and countries like Kenya and Algeria, once the Kenyans and Algerians acquired some level of nationalism they were willing to fight longer and harder for independence than their European masters were willing to fight to keep their distant empires. In the same way, the North Vietnamese were willing to fight longer and harder, to endure far greater suffering and misery, than the Americans would, because the Americans were attempting to hold territory in a part of the world that was of only tangential importance to their citizens, while the North Vietnamese were fighting for the integrity of their nation-state.

It wasn’t always like this. Before nationalism, empires frequently ruled territory that contained many diverse peoples. The Habsburg family once ruled over the Spanish, Dutch and Austrian nations, along with many of the nations of Latin America. The Romans ruled hundreds of peoples great and small, from Greeks to Gauls to Britons to Iberians to Gallicians to Egyptians to Thracians to Illyrians to Carthaginians to Numidians and on and on. Before nationalism, peoples would rather submit to foreign conquerors than risk the loss of life and limb, and as a result conquerors rarely engaged in genocide except as a means of exacting vengeance on foreign rulers who defied them (as the Mongols and Assyrians were wont to do). Empires often took some of the vanquished as slaves, but rarely did empires kill thousands or millions of defenseless people deliberately and systematically for the sole purpose of decimating another nation. Instead, empires often brought conquered peoples into their trade networks, recruited them into their armies, and, eventually, even granted them citizenship rights. By treating conquered people well, they could in time acquire their loyalty.

Nationalism changed all of that. By placing lexical priority on independence and self-determination, all foreign occupiers become villains regardless of whether they are benign or malevolent in their treatment of the occupied nation. In this day and age, even members of a nation like the Scots, which enjoys spectacularly generous subsidies and full voting rights from the British government in Westminster, desire independence purely on the basis that some Scots are nationalists and believe that nothing less than full self-determination does their nation justice. If good treatment doesn’t buy loyalty, occupiers quickly find that they are without incentives to treat subject peoples well or to attempt to integrate them into their states. Nationalism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy–if occupiers have nothing to gain by offering fair terms of cooperation, they will not offer them, and the subjugation nationalists fear becomes reality precisely because they fear it and refuse to cooperate with the occupier.

The occupier is left with two choices:

  1. Get Out.
  2. Kill Them All.

Often times, occupiers choose to abandon whatever ambitions they might have had and leave in defeat and disgrace. But this doesn’t always happen–some leaders correctly reason that if they could just replace the existing population with their own people, they could pacify the territory and keep the resources it provides. If those leaders have the stomach for it, they will do the following:

  1. Systematically murder the resisting nation.
  2. Colonize the extinct nation’s territory with their own citizens.
  3. Profit.

If we want to prevent genocide, we need to prevent occupiers from having to choose between defeat and genocide. Too often (and even if it’s once in a hundred or once in a thousand times, it’s too often), they will choose the later. Occupied nations need to realize that if their goal is survival, sometimes the best survival strategy is to accept the rule of the conqueror provided that the conqueror be willing to offer them fair terms of cooperation. If they give the occupier a choice between defeat and genocide, they must recognize the risk that the occupier may not be willing to accept defeat, that he may be morally indifferent to their survival and will choose to meet resistance with raw force.

I must again emphasize, this is not to excuse those who commit genocide, it is merely to suggest, given that there are rulers out there who are willing to commit genocide if they believe it is the only way they can hold territory, that we ought to prevent those leaders from being placed in situations in which they are encouraged to have those thoughts. It is not enough to morally scold the perpetrators of genocide–they are indifferent to our scolding. We must go further and prevent genocide-friendly scenarios from arising in the first place. The leaders of conquered nations should recognize that it is not inevitable that they will be mistreated if they cooperate, that indeed their nation may thrive under the occupier, or, at the very least, not be destroyed, that by refusing to cooperate they increase the chance that the occupier will respond with deadly force and worsen their situation further. If they’re not careful, they may, as a result of their fear of destruction, themselves come to be destroyed.