Archives for category: Nationalism

In my book, The Politics of Nation-Building, I explore the reasons behind a state’s choice to assimilate, accommodate, or exclude ethnic groups within its territory.[1] I develop a theory that focuses on the international politics of nation-building arguing that a state’s nation-building policies toward non-core groups — any aggregation of individuals perceived as an unassimilated ethnic group by the ruling elite of a state — are influenced by both its foreign policy goals and its relations with the external patrons of these groups. Through a detailed study of the interwar Balkans, I conclude that the way a state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, this argument does not travel to states where the ruling elites are not motivated by a homogenizing imperative.

Some places in the world are run by core groups consisting of apparent minimum winning coalitions,[2] others by elites that go at great lengths to establish national states.[3] Why do some countries have leaders that try to make the national and the political unit overlap and others that opt to rule with a minimum winning coalition? One argument suggests that maybe the degree of diversity prevents the nation-building path in some cases, other arguments focus on the pattern of spread of nationalist ideology and/or the prevalence of competing ideologies such as communism, yet others put forth the importance of war-making and imitation of successful military tactics as a mechanism that accounts for the spread of nationalism and the nation-state system.[4] In The Politics of Nation-Building I build on some of these and suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the nation-building option is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers using non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or even annex parts of their territory.

The European story is well known and so are the interactions between the Russians and the Europeans. Tilly’s argument that war made the modern national state may be correct but it is also based on an understood reality: borders were constantly changing during the centuries that modern European states developed.[5] But the Westphalian principles have been adhered to more in some parts of the world than others.[6] Border fixity did not only vary tremendously over time but it also significantly varied crossnationally across the globe.[7] For example, following the Treaty of Berlin in the end of the 19th century the borders of Africa “froze” after the decision of the Great Powers.[8] This led to a completely different incentive structure for both ruling elites and counterhegemonic elites in countries with “fixed borders”. Beyond the case of Africa, however, we can point to other places with similar levels of border fixity that resulted from different geopolitical configurations, such as Latin America—the back yard of the USA—or the Middle East, where the colonial powers also left their mark on the demarcation of borderlines.[9]

Overall, areas that were part of a geopolitical configuration that guaranteed border fixity had less of an incentive to pursue nation-building policies. Within these cases the only countries that I would expect to see nation-building policies emerging involve cases where an external power (major power, regional power, neighboring state, diaspora group and so forth) attempted to cultivate a fifth column within their territorial boundaries. Moreover, it would not be surprising if this phenomenon of external backing of non-core groups would be less pronounced in regions where border fixity was perceived to be really high. However, this ‘equilibrium’ becomes more or less sustainable based on the structure of the international system and the ability—real and/or perceived—of regional actors to defy these geopolitical configurations I described above.

The crucial question today is: What is the future of border fixity in today’s world? More importantly, what is the perception of the relevant actors across the world with respect to this question? The list of border changes is longer than we want to admit. One just needs to cite former Yugoslavia and USSR;[10] but more recently we find cases beyond the traditional spaces where nation-building has already made its mark like Sudan.[11]Discussion of border changes has also emerged in the case of Iraq, Mali, and even Syria. It remains to be seen if any such plans will materialize. Granted the list of cases could have been much longer if nationalist principles were to be fully operative but this is not a satisfactory answer. Even if we only get a few dozen of the hundreds of border changes we would get based on nationalist principles, the reverberations will be felt globally. Moreover, such a situation would further push the spread of nationalism, encourage external involvement, and boost nation-building projects across these areas. We are already observing manifestations of this dynamic, but more border changes would certainly intensify it. This in turn will have the direst consequences for the well being of ethnic groups that are perceived as having ties with external powers that are perceived as enemies by core elites. Shi’as in various Sunni dominated states in the Middle East are a case in point.

What can be done? The International community can impact perceptions of border fixity by either investing resources in upholding the norm of territorial sovereignty or by promoting regional integration schemes around the globe that would indirectly guarantee existing borders and, according to The Politics of Nation-Building, would also lead to accommodationist policies. However, neither of the two solutions is sufficient without important investments in economic and political development.


 The article was published at e-IR on May 8, 2013 | © e-International Relations (e-IR)

Harris Mylonas got his Ph.D. at Yale University in 2008 and then joined the Political Science department at George Washington University as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 2009. He was also an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies in 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 academic years.


[1] Harris Mylonas, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[2] William H. Riker, The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, James D. Morrow, Randolph M. Siverson and Alastair Smith, “Political Institutions, Policy Choice and the Survival of Leaders,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), pp. 559-590; Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce; Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow. The Logic of Political Survival. The MIT Press, 2003.

[3] Eugen Weber. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976; Ernest GellnerNations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983; Smith, Anthony. 1986. “State-Making and Nation-Building,” in John Hall (ed.), States in History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 228–263; Rogers Smith. Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Memberships. Cambridge University Press, 2003; Keith Darden and Anna Maria Grzymała-Busse. “The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse,” World Politics – Volume 59, Number 1 (2006): 83-115.

[4] Connor, Walker. The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984Barry Posen. “Nationalism, the Mass Army and Military Power,” International Security, 18, 2 (1993): 80-124; Andreas Wimmer. Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[5] Charles Tilly (ed.). The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975; Charles Tilly.Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Charles Tilly and Wim P. Blockmans (eds.). Cities and the Rise of States in. Europe, AD 1000 to 1800. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

[6] Leo Gross. “The Peace of Westphalia, 1648-1948,” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1948), pp. 20-41.

[7] Boaz Atzili. Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2012.

[8] Förster, Stig, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson. Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–1885 and the Onset of Partition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[9] Livingstone, Grace. America’s backyard: the United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror. London; New York: Zed Books, 2009.

[10] Rogers Brubaker. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Ronald Grigor Suny. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford University Press, 1993.

[11] Andrew Natsios. Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2012.

The killing of the US Ambassador last week in Benghazi and the recent wave of attacks on NATO personnel by uniformed Afghan police and military highlight the perils of international efforts to build states and societies on foreign soil. Why is it that the people we arm and assist keep on turning those weapons against us?

The New York Times, CBSnews, Washington Postall reported on Sept 17, 2012 that the number of NATO personnel killed in Afghanistan by uniformed Afghan military and police is already at 51 this year, up from a total of 35 for all of last year. Approximately one in six of the NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year were killed by our local allies and trainees. And this only counts those who killed while in uniform. The attrition and desertion rate from the Afghan National Army and police forces is exceptionally high and many have joined the ranks of the Taliban.  If we consider the number of allied personnel killed by soldiers and police who have been armed and trained by coalition forces, the number is certainly much higher.

The US has wisely put the training of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) on hold for a month until it can improve procedures for vetting its recruits, but the problem runs much deeper.

In a symposium published recently in Ethnopolitics we debated the merits of international state-building efforts.  Our main lesson: There is more to state-building than simply expanding the ranks of the army and police.  Expanding the army and police may be state-building, but it might just as easily be insurgency-building if it is not preceded by systematic efforts to build loyalty and to carefully select recruits. If you are unsure of the loyalties of the recruits who you are training, it’s best not to train them at all.

Here is the link to our piece, which was followed by some responses (Erin JenneFotini Christia,Gordon BardosDavid Siroky & Yoav Gortzak) and our reply to their thoughtful comments.

Keith Darden and Harris MylonasThis post first appeared on The Monkey Cage (September 20, 2012).

There’s an everlasting link between soccer and stereotypical thinking about national identities.  This was widely in evidence once again during these last few weeks of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Examples range from the South African newspaper Sowetan suggesting that German international player Bastian Schweinsteiger has the “fearsome aura of Adolf Hitler” to the German Der Spiegel being overjoyed about the positive headlines about Germany in the English press. According to some English papers Germany had won the “Sympathy World Cup” and the team had created a new and positive image of the German people.

Now the World Cup reached its concluding climax with the final game between Spain and the Netherlands. This is a good opportunity for reflecting briefly on the strange but strong connection between football and ‘the nation’, or, in this case, between the world’s most popular sports event and nationalism. Especially in Germany (which is the focus of my contribution here), these phenomena have been so closely tied up with each other for such a long time that their relationship can now perhaps best be compared to a long but nevertheless functional marriage. In their teenage years they helped each other to become ingrained in the hearts of the Germans. Later, in 1954, after Germans for years had grappled with their shame over the crimes of the fascists during WW II, Germany’s World Cup victory provided their first real opportunity for linking national identity again with positive emotions. In the following decades football was the only societal context that allowed for the safe expression of intense feelings of nationhood. In most other contexts this was still frowned upon.

The importance of football for German nationhood became even clearer in the context of European unification and globalisation, which are processes that seem to have diminished the power of the nation-state. The 2006 World Cup, hosted by Germany, managed what generations of conservative policymakers had failed to achieve: it lifted the ban on patriotism. In a coup de main, it abolished the long existing taboo on displaying patriotic emotions. The notion of “German pride” became disconnected from the far right and entered mainstream discourse. Rather surprisingly, however, this did not lead to much euphoria among German far right politicians. These far right protagonists could not (or would not) identify with a German team that included players who came from immigrant families.

In 2010, too, the German team included such players. In fact, although in earlier times German teams had often included players with a family history in Turkey, Poland, or even Ghana or Brazil, the strategy of inclusion was never as apparent as in the 2010 squad, which included, in the starting eleven against Spain on Wednesday, six players whose parents had not been born in Germany. Some say that Mesut Özil has had a stronger effect on the integration of the Turkish population in Germany than most policy-making strategies so far. However, research about the effects of the composition of the World Cup team on attitudes towards minorities in Germany have led to contradictory conclusions. In 2007 Norbert Kersting, for example, examined representative data from a pre/post-World Cup census and concluded that xenophobia in Germany had indeed been reduced. Wilhelm Heitmeyer and his team, on the other hand, showed that the 2006 World Cup had led to a rise in what he calls “group based enmity”. They concluded that even if things had been framed in positive, non-exclusive terms, for many viewers the World Cup still had been about “us” against “the others”.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa has revealed yet another dimension of the Janus-faced character of football. Observers argue that it has intensified economic inequality and racial gaps in society. There are many poor, unemployed South Africans who have hardly had any profit from the World Cup. In fact, they have lost: hospitals have turned into media centres and huge amounts of the state’s budget have been spent on stadiums and infrastructure. This is money that hasn’t served to educate or feed or nurse anyone in the lower classes of the country.

Yet most people I spoke to during my recent visit in South Africa were euphoric about the World Cup. Yesterday’s edition of the Sowetan, which in pre-democracy times was one of the most important anti-apartheid newspapers, summarized the matter as follows: “What a glorious 31 days it has been!… Not even the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections were as electrifying. Important and epoch-making as both these events were, they were not as unifying as this World Cup seems to have been.” We can only hope that the end of the World Cup in South Africa won’t be marred by a rise in the number of xenophobic assaults against migrants from other African countries, as some have predicted.

In sum, one could perhaps say that the ambiguity of football is a familiar one: many things in life can be good as well as bad. But in the case of football, when it’s good, it’s also a lot of fun.

Sven Ismer is a research collaborator at the Freie Universität BerlinThe Cognitive and Affective Sociology Network.