Nation Building: Why Some Countries Come Together While Others Fall Apart

by Andreas Wimmer. 2018. Princeton University Press

Key words: nation-building, ethnic diversity, state capacity
Summary by Margaux Dandrifosse – IBEI


Micro-summary: Successful nation-building happens due to pre-existing inclusive political institutions and national identification.

Summary: In this book, the author investigates the puzzle of why certain ethnically diverse countries were able to create solid and resilient nation-states while others have broken down. To do so, he examines the underlying factors behind a successful nation-building in ethnically diverse societies.

This book sits within the political science literature and makes a significant contribution to the scholarships on nationalism and ethnic conflict. The author finds little support for the theories according to which democratization, economic development, or the absence of a colonial experience lead to nation-building. Rather, he argues that states in which there already exists inclusive political institutions and national identification are more likely to democratize, feature good governance and economic growth, and less likely to experience ethnic polarization or civil wars. Accordingly, the main argument presented is that successful nation-building occurs in states which have, over generations, built inclusive institutions in which minorities and majorities are equally represented through multi-ethnic coalitions. This is achieved when 1) political integration and alliances run throughout the whole territory and transcend ethnic divisions and 2) when identification with the national institutions reaches across all ethnic groups and is stronger than particular ethnic, social, or class identities.

Nation-building occurs through three long-term historical mechanisms. First, when a state has developed alongside large networks of civil society organizations, such organizations spread throughout the territory and across groups. They gather individuals around interests, rather than ethnicity, enabling the state to mobilize political coalitions and leaders across different ethnic groups. This argument is demonstrated by comparing the successful historical case of Switzerland to Belgium. Second, states which are able to provide public goods efficiently and equally across regions and groups acquire cross-ethnic legitimacy, thereby fostering national ownership and identification. To illustrate this process, the effective and equalitarian public goods provision in Botswana is compared to clan-based resources allocation in Somalia. Third, states which have historically promoted a shared nationwide language reduce the costs of transcending ethnic boundaries, and fuel equal political opportunities, multi-ethnic alliances, and national identification. This is exemplified by looking at the Chinese common written language as compared to linguistically fragmented Russia. Lastly, the author claims that the capacity of states to provide public goods equally and promote a national language, and thereby achieve successful nation-building, largely depends on the degree of centralisation of the pre-colonial state, directly related to its bureaucratic quality. The book concludes by providing policy-recommendations. It emphasizes the inadequacy of Western interventionism aimed at democratization and regime change to build national cohesion in foreign countries. Rather, it advocates long-term capacity building of national institutions and state ownership of public goods provision.

Follow-up: The book has been critically reviewed by Vera Tolz and Eliot Green, which has given rise to a lively debate with the author, mainly over the selection of case studies. Moreover, Andreas Wimmer has published a short article in 2019 “”Why Nationalism Works: And Why It Isn’t Going Away”. It builds on the argument of this book to claim that nationalism is a positive force in societies which have historically established inclusive institutions, while it is related to conflicts in countries with exclusionary power centers. In 2021, the author has also participated in an innovative article on the possibilities to quantitatively measure national and ethnic identity.

Relevance for the SECUREU Project: Wimmer’s argument provides a conceptual lens to analyze how the EU’s performance in nation-building may have influenced the contemporary rise of xenophobia and the securitization of minorities in Europe. Are those phenomena resulting from the failure of European integration to build inclusive political institutions and civil society organizations, equally provide public goods, and promote language homogeneity? Moreover, it points out to the EU’s North-South and West-East inequalities as potential illustrations of the failure of European nation-building and as an important basis to understand the securitization of minorities. Lastly, it suggests that the differences in xenophobia, right-wing populism, and minorities’ securitization among EU member-states may be explained by the countries’ varying degrees of success in building inclusive institutions.