The Herb Brooks School of Conflict Resolution

In Miracle‘s stylized depiction of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, the coach, Herb Brooks, manages to overcome deep animosity between his East Coast and Minnesota-based players by putting the team through hellish conditioning sessions. United by their shared hatred of the coach, the two blocs of players slowly bond and become a proper team, an organically forged singular unit.

The following hypothesis is almost certainly preposterous, and mostly inspired by the desire to indulge in a cheap joke, but neither of those are a reason to stop reading.

What if the Dayton Accords have been Bosnia’s Herb Brooks? If you subscribe to the view that Dayton is responsible for the laughably poor governance to which the country has been subject since 1995 (see here; I am skeptical), then you can also see it as the source of the current protests, which have pointedly refused to adopt the language of ethno-national division and have instead focused with remarkable and commendable (not that they’re looking for validation from some grad student with a laptop) consistency on addressing the raft of governance issues which plague Bosnian state institutions. In this telling, Dayton has now “succeeded” in overcoming ethnic divides by providing Bosnia with a set of politicians so unappealing that citizens, united by a desire for a functioning state apparatus, are (finally?) loudly demanding civic-minded politics undertaken without regard for ethno-national considerations.

In the abstract, does this mean we should optimize post-ethno-national-conflict institution building for violence minimization and not efficacy? I’m not convinced we have particularly good models for when and why ethno-national (or similar; I’m willing to believe Sunni/Shia violence would fit here) differences become salient to the point of motivating societal break down and large scale violence, and we also don’t appear to be particularly skilled at dealing with the fallout after the shooting stops. As far fetched as it may sound, perhaps U.S. foreign policy in post-ethno-national-conflict scenarios would be better served by attempting to create institutions which in essence force political life to be barely tolerable at best absent large-scale reconfiguration of how politics is imagined by its participants.

The argument might be something like the following:

If you build a state that works, formerly warring ethno-national entities will remain at odds and fight each other (perhaps without, or with greatly reduced violence) for control over its institutions. But if you build a state that is too disjointed to capture in its entirety, and perhaps therefore too disjointed to be functional, then maybe you create political space for an organic desire for a functional state which can be embraced on the basis of common citizenship, not common ethno-national background.

Of course, it remains to be seen what comes of Bosnia’s protests, and regardless it would be odd to intervene in an ethno-national conflict, end the fighting, and hand back the country’s population a set of purposely deformed institutions. But stranger things have turned out to make better policy.