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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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Irredentism and International Politics
Thomas Ambrosio

Praeger Publishers, 2001
0-275-97260-7, 58.50, 226pp


‘Irredentism' is derived from the Italian word for unredeemed. In traditional political context it refers to attempts to detach Italian speakers from Austro-Hungarian and Swiss control. For current application, political scientist Thomas Ambrosio defines irredentism as ‘attempts by existing states to annex territories of another state that their co-nationals inhabit' (2). Looking at four recent case studies, Ambrosio has set about to construct a theory of irredentism.

The wars of Yugoslav dissolution were ethno-centric, not state-centric. Ambrosio argues that from 1987, Slobodan Milosvic recognized the political gain to be had by playing the nationalist card. This was to manifest itself in a Serbian irredentist project. From the outset, Milosevic's pragmatic – or realist -- tendencies were manifest. Establishing Serb domination of Yugoslavia was impossible both militarily and because it became apparent that Yugoslavia could not be saved as a unified state. Thus the pragmatist Milosevic adapted the historical and rhetorical idea of a greater Serbia; Milosevic sought an ethnically Serb-dominated state that could be carved from the remnants of Yugoslavia.

Ambrosio's model of irredentism hypothesizes that as international toleration for an irredentist project increases, the costs of launching such a project decrease (27). It was at Dayton that the opposite occurred; Milosevic, under press from the rising cost of sanctions, surrendered the irredentist project he had used to gain power.

Ambrosio attributes success in Armenia's irredentist project in Nagarno-Karabakh to a permissive international environment. The Armenian lobby was effective in ensuring that public opinion in the United States backed Armenia, and Russia and Turkey took no opposing action. Broadly, irredentist projects are abandoned when international toleration decreases as a result of international interaction with the ethno-territorial nationalism that prompts the project (27).

Ambrosio's study of post-Cold War Hungarian foreign policy is the most interesting of his cases. Hungarian goals rested on three pillars: western integration; good bilateral relations with neighboring states; and, attention to the condition of the Magyar Diaspora (118). Endemic to this triad was a check on any irredentist project. For example, too much pressure on Romania regarding constrictions on Magyar culture would put pressure on the second pillar. As western integration rested on a holistic assessment of European values, a failure of the latter two pillars could impede this.

Ambrosio's two-level theory, particularly the emphasis on international toleration and involvement, provides a good guidance for the assessment of irredentism. As Ambrosio cautions, because he has considered only multiethnic federal states, the strict theoretical application of the model elsewhere may face limitations. His analyses are acute though, and provide solid background for continuing observance of the cases discussed. The interplay between international toleration and ethno-territorial nationalism is a valuable area to consider in looking at any irredentist situation.


Jon Levy, Washington, DC.



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