Archives for category: Self-Determination

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.


For almost two decades, the brief and comparatively not very intense violent conflict between Transnistria and Moldova has been ‘frozen’: the lack of violence has been matched by the lack of tangible progress towards a final, sustainable settlement. At times, there has been a flurry of activity, on at least one occasion the parties came tantalizingly close to reach status agreement, but for the most part talks between the sides, mediated by Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, and with the EU and US as observers, have produced very little. To be sure, there are about a half-dozen relatively concrete proposals which reflect a basic consensus on the parameters of a settlement (including most importantly special territorial status for Transnistria, power sharing, and international guarantees). There are also between 140 and 170 different bilateral agreements between the sides, but no-one knows exactly how many, what their legal status is, and which have been made obsolete by later agreements and/or by developments on the ground. What they all have in common, sadly, is that almost none of them has ever been implemented.

The question is, why? It is always tempting in such situations to allocate blame to the sides and/or the third parties involved. Often, Russia is singled out for its alleged obstruction, and while certainly no solution can be found without Russia, Russia cannot single-handedly deliver a solution either. The European Union is a relative late-comer in the process, it runs programmes to make Moldova more attractive for Transnistrians and help the country on its path to closer EU integration, but lacks, at this stage at least, a real strategy for what to do with the conflict. Transnistrians, in public, insist on their right to self-determination and thus independence. But most importantly, one has to recognise that the status quo over the past 19 years has been stable, tolerable for many, and profitable for some—not only in Moldova and Transnistria, but also in Ukraine and Russia, and among the many serious crises the EU has had to deal with since it became a more aspirational international security player, Moldova was hardly a major threat. In other words, there has been little desire on the ground to change things and no pressure from the outside to do so.

Is this a problem? It would not have been had there not all of a sudden been a push on the international level to make the Transnistria conflict a test case for EU-Russia security cooperation, the first collaborative effort between the two in a newly to be created EU-Russia Political and Security Committee, institutionalising the process begun some five years ago with the Common Space for External Security as part of the EU-Russia dialogue. For many in Brussels and Moscow, and to some extent Washington, such a test case is needed to enable Russia and the West to address jointly the real and more serious security challenges they both face, including in Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa and which neither side can handle on its own. To press home this point, in quick succession over the past months, senior British, German, EU and US officials visited the Moldovan capital Chisinau, including EU High Representative Baroness Ashton and US Vice President Biden, all making a point about the need and importance of resolving the Transnistria conflict. Yet, this external push is not the problem in itself, it is the lack of preparedness of the conflict parties and the publics on both sides to deal with it. There is little by way of a real understanding, let alone strategy, to manage not only the negotiation of a sustainable settlement but the rather difficult reintegration process that will inevitably follow after two decades of separation.

The challenge for Moldova and Transnistria is now to make the best of this situation. They will need to rely on international support in coming to the right settlement, one that can be sustained over time and makes things better for both sides. The challenge for the international community is to proceed with care in managing the complex dynamics of this process locally, regionally, and internationally. Meaningful security cooperation between Russia and the EU (and by extension NATO) cannot be achieved or sustained at the price of a solution for the Transnistria conflict that will do more harm than good. In this sense, meaningful European and transatlantic security cooperation is not just about improved cooperation, it is also about improved security.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK.  His website is


What no-one had doubted for quite some time became official on 7 February 2011 with the announcement of the final results of the referendum in South Sudan: a new independent state will emerge on the African continent, the first in over a decade since the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993. As clear as the vote for independence was, as formidable are the challenges lying ahead for North and South, as well as the international community at large.

Although Sudan’s president  Omar Hassan al-Bashir announced that he would recognise and accept the result of the popular vote in the South, a potentially violent border dispute is looming over Abyei, where voting in a parallel referendum on whether the region is to remain with the North or join the South has been suspended amid heavy fighting between local tribes. Talks between North and South on resolving the impasse over the resource-rich area have stalled. Even if North and South are not dragged into a full-scale war, instability in Abyei and a lingering dispute will hardly be conducive to a smooth transition to independence for the South and constructive post-independence relations with the North.

Yet, this is not where the challenges of independence stop. The South faces a major economic development problem. Rich in oil, mineral resources and teak, it is poor in infrastructure and heavily dependent on trade with the North. The South lacks even the most basic infrastructure from a road network and electricity grid to a sewage system, public healthcare and running water even in the main towns, mostly due to a long war between North and South that started in the 1980s, exacerbating an already obvious development gap.  Lack of investment is partly responsible for food shortages, too, with food processing plants out-dated and unable to cope with even local demand despite an otherwise productive agricultural sector in a generally fertile environment. Simultaneously there is a local skills shortage making development dependent on foreign investment not only in terms of money.

Heavy reliance on oil is a typical blessing in disguise. It generates significant for the Southern government which can be reinvested into developing a broader-based economy. Yet the only major export route is a pipeline through the North, with refineries in the South far and few between. The fact that about 85% of Sudan’s current oil production is coming from the South is, despite a variety of wealth-sharing agreements in place, a frightening prospect for the North where around 90% of export-generated GDP is from oil. China is a major stakeholder in most existing contracts in Southern oilfields, and will thus be heavily affected by any attempts to untangle current contracts by the time that the various wealth-sharing agreements expire in July 2011. This will be particularly tricky in relation to three so-called producing blocks that straddle the new North-South border, involving not only contract management, but ownership of infrastructure, responsibility for staff, and potentially incompatible tax systems. Combined with an expectation that Southern oil reserves are likely to begin running dry in about 15 years, the typically costly investment in oil infrastructure may not be forthcoming as quickly and comprehensively as hoped, unless North and South agree on forming a joint venture, which is, however, rather unlikely.

An equally significant challenge is fiscal in nature—the future of the Sudanese currency, the pound since 2007 when the then still unified country dropped the dinar. With its value reduced over the past four years by over 10% against the US Dollar, it is not clear what plans North and South now have to resolve the currency issue, and alongside it questions of national and foreign assets and debts.

A range of other economic, developmental and humanitarian issues, quite often deeply entangled, are also on the agenda for the next five months, including water and grazing rights for nomadic tribes along the border between the now two countries. They include citizenship and the rights of northerners in the south and southerners in the north—a perhaps overly simplistic shorthand for the very complex ethnic, religious and cultural identities that cut across physical and tribal boundaries.

As can be expected in any post-civil war situation, security challenges remain high. As part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, joint units were created between North and South, and these must be separated now, including their equipment. Recent violence caused by a mutiny within one the ‘integrated units’ lead to more than 50 people killed and could be an ominous sign of things to come.

Apart from challenges between North and South, each also faces their own domestic political challenges. In the North, fighting in Darfur has intensified again and a question mark hangs over the progress, and possibly future, of the Doha peace talks between Khartoum and the western movements. Tensions in eastern Sudan could also rise again and destabilise the North, quite apart from the so far short-lived popular protest movement which might gain renewed momentum depending on how the situations in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan develop.

The South, too, has its own political problems. The near-unanimity of the pro-independence vote, genuine as it may have been, glosses over a highly diverse social, ethnic, religious, and cultural make-up. An interim constitution has been in place since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, but is, like most of the provisions dating back to 2005, due to expire in July when the South is expected to declare its independence officially. It does not bode well for the democratic future of the new state that a committee charged with amending the existing constitution and creating a permanent one excludes opposition parties and civil society organisations.

Politicians in the North and South clearly have their work cut for them over the next five months to manage the process of separation, as do those in the region and the wider international community. The challenge is to make a success of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, not in order to create a precedent for secession as a mechanism to settle civil wars, but to prevent the two countries from being dragged into another war with all its nasty consequences for the civilian population and regional stability in this volatile part of Africa.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK. His website is