Multinational democratic States: a reassessment

Alain Dieckhoff, December 2009


  • State
  • multinational state
  • diversity
  • minorities


International research conference « Post-crisis State Transformation, Rethinking the Foundations of the State », Linköping, 1-5 May 2009

In this article, Dieckoff makes a distinction between multicultural States and multinational states. While many states are both, multinational states share the particularity that they have incorporated previously self-governing and territorially concentrated cultures. The article further feeds into the questions), how to distribute power among different groups of people, the relationship between the State and nations and its different levels of identification.

Diversity is a political challenge to the State. Many States have sought to end the existence of their internal nations whether through forced assimilation, compelled emigration or outright suppression. These harsh measures have have tragic results and are clearly incompatible with democratic rules. Dieckoff is therefore interested in the political arrangements democracies have developed to deal with this diversity. To him openness to diversity is the only option, even if a multinational state’s stability cannot be guaranteed in the long run and if it cannot preclude, in extreme cases, secession. Factors that contribute to stability however are crosscutting cleavages which prevent the emergence of deep internal fault lines; a shared historical experience; the existence of a monarchy and a shared public culture that is firm enough to link the people together and flexible enough to preserve the autonomy of the various subunits. While shared common civil values are essential foundations for a democratic society, their general nature makes them unfit to become the sole unifying link within a multinational State. Factors like language, history, culture can very rarely be used in this political setting because they are nurturing internal divisions. While wars are often catalyst for national solidarity, they frequently sow seeds of division in multinational States.

Cultural diversity has two main roots in contemporary societies. When the plurality of cultures is linked with migration trends, we are facing multicultural societies or, to use Will Kymlicka’s words, poly-ethnic societies. National diversity is something else: “it arises from the incorporation of previously self-governing, territorially concentrated cultures into a single State” .

Dieckoff points out that there are two distinct features of national plurality. The first is one where a generally unitary State contains “national minorities” i.e. groups of people which are a minority in that State but whose kin-group is a majority in a neighbouring State. A typical case in Eastern Europe is the case of Romania and Slovakia which have important Magyar national minorities (linked, in various ways, with the neighbouring Republic of Hungary): those States should be defined as nation-states with national minorities.

The other feature of national plurality is the one where a State contains two or more nations (understood as historic/cultural communities). Only when States contain such internal nations should they be called multinational States. Examples of such internal nations are the Basque country, Catalonia and Galicia in Spain, Scotland in the UK, Flanders in Belgium, Quebec in Canada… and in the non Western World, Tatarstan, Chechnya in Russia, Tibet and the Uyghur region in China, “Kurdistan” in Iraq and many others.


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The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)