Multinational States and Political Influences


By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College

Political institutions shape nationalism every bit as much as nationalism shapes politics. Thus, it’s essential to examine political institutions, and the role they play in managing—and maybe even alleviating—ethnic conflict. Nationalist aspirations are a powerful force for separatism, and when coupled with economic aspirations, the consequences can lead to strife, even in an industrialized democracy.

Belgium flag pinned on a map to show Belgium.
Belgium is a well-functioning, multiethnic democracy. (Image: beast01/Shutterstock)

Belgium: Multiethnic Democracy

Belgium, like Switzerland, is a relatively well-functioning, multiethnic democracy. It’s primarily divided between Dutch speakers in the north (in Flanders) and French speakers in the south (the Walloons).

And the language politics of Belgium is crazy complicated. The country is divided into various regions, each with its own government and considerable local autonomy. And the constitution stipulates that ruling coalitions in the federal parliament must have equal representation from both communities.

Even the political parties in Belgium tend to be divided into Flemish and Walloon factions. So, there are twice as many political parties as there might otherwise be.

But part of the reason Belgium functions as well as it does is precisely because of the complexity of its institutions.

National Identity

One of the main fears associated with national identity is that it’s so easily turned into an exclusionary principle. But in Belgium, that largely doesn’t happen, in part because the political institutions are pretty good about representing all of the constituent language groups.

For example, like Switzerland, Belgium is federal in nature—which is to say that decision-making is decentralized, and local regions have a lot of autonomy. Both countries have institutions that represent the various regions as regions, rather than in proportion to their populations. They have laws that guarantee each language group a certain amount of representation, regardless of what their numbers or distribution might suggest. Even just the fact that the street signs are in German in Zurich, and French in Geneva contribute to making Switzerland Switzerland, and not Sarajevo.

In other words, the political institutions in Switzerland and in Belgium put limitations on the majority’s ability to get what it wants. The institutions enhance minority representation, and thereby protect minority rights, even if those same institutions slow down government decision-making.

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Role of Wealth

There’s one final reason why Belgium and Switzerland make multinationalism work, and so much of the developing world does not—and that’s wealth. It’s simply easier to be fair with the distribution of public goods when the state has more public goods to distribute.

And this is why it’s so puzzling to see a resurgence of nationalist separatism in some of the world’s advanced, industrialized democracies; for example, in Catalonia (in Spain).

Flags of Catalonia and Spain  with scars in between to show conflict.
The Catalan region of Spain is richer than the rest of the country. (Image: Borka Kiss/Shutterstock)

In much of the developing world, nationalist movements are fueled by poverty and oppression, and by the legacy of colonial rule. But, far from being poor, the Catalan region of Spain is actually richer than the rest of that country. Situated in the northeast corner of Spain, Catalonia accounts for 16% of Spain’s population (and just 6% of its territory), and yet it generates more than 20% of Spain’s wealth.

But Catalonia is part of Spain, and so a lot of that wealth benefits Spain as a whole. But if Catalonia were able to do it alone—if it was an independent country, or even if it just had more autonomy than it currently does—then the distribution of Catalonia’s wealth would be up to Catalonia.

That alone is a powerful incentive for Catalan independence, and a powerful explanation for why the rest of Spain is so resistant to it.

Role of Political Institutions

However, institutions don’t always tell the whole story. Behind every set of well-functioning laws, there’s often a halo of norms and traditions that help the law reach places where it couldn’t otherwise go.

These informal rules are often unspoken, and as a result, they’re often ignored—not just by the people who live under them, but by political scientists analyzing the situation. In any case, it’s important to stress that, in addition to well-functioning political institutions, democracies also rely on trust and reciprocity, and on the expectation that the rules will be fairly applied and enforced.

This helps us understand why ethnic diversity so often devolves into ethnic conflict, especially in the developing world. These are often places where political institutions were simply imposed on local populations by imperial overlords, with little regard for local history or culture. Formal political institutions are important, but they also have to be consistent with local conditions and traditions. Needless to say, this wasn’t always a priority for the imperialists who colonized these places.

Catalonia certainly has a distinct national identity, and even a history of being oppressed—particularly under Spain’s former dictator, Francisco Franco. But if one follows the money, one can see that there are powerful economic incentives for national sovereignty, in addition to the historical ones.

Politics behind Decisions

Politics is the way we make group decisions when people in the group want different things. So, if the Catalan minority in Spain has different interests from the majority, they might do well to make themselves the majorities of their own independent states. Then, they’ll get exactly the public goods they want, rather than having policy imposed on them by the dominant ethnic groups with which they live.

However, Spain has a lot of clout and a lot of power on the international stage, and Catalonia might lose some of that if it seceded.

But that’s what makes nationalism so appealing, so powerful, but also so dangerous.

Common Questions about Multinational States and Political Influences

Q: What ethnic groups is Belgium divided into?

Belgium is a multiethnic democracy. It’s primarily divided between Dutch speakers in the north (in Flanders) and French speakers in the south (the Walloons).

Q: What is understood by Belgium being federal in nature?

Belgium being federal in nature means that decision-making is decentralized, and local regions have a lot of autonomy.

Q: What is the role of wealth in making multinationalism work?

Wealth is the reason Belgium and Switzerland make multinationalism work, and much of the developing world does not. This is because it is easier to be fair with the distribution of public goods when the state has enough public goods to distribute.

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