How nations come together

By Andreas Wimmer – Why do some countries fall apart, often along their ethnic fault lines, while others have held together over decades and centuries, despite governing a diverse population as well?

Why is it, in other words, that nation-building succeeded in some places while it failed in others?

The current tragedy in Syria illustrates the possibly murderous consequences of failed nation-building.

Some old countries (such as Belgium) haven’t come together as a nation, while other more recently founded states (such as India) have done so.

There are two sides to the nation-building coin: the extension of political alliances across the terrain of a country, and the identification with and loyalty to the institutions of the state, independent of who currently governs. The former is the political-integration aspect, the latter the political-identity aspect of nation-building.

To foster both, political ties between citizens and the state should reach across ethnic divides.

A comparison between Switzerland and Belgium, two countries of similar size, with a similar linguistic composition of the population, and comparable levels of economic development, provides an example.

In Switzerland, civil society organizations – such as shooting clubs, reading circles and choral societies – developed throughout the territory during the late 18th and first half of the 19th century. They spread evenly throughout the country because modern industries emerged across all the major regions, and because Switzerland’s city-states lacked both the capacity and the motivation to suppress them.

In Belgium, by contrast, Napoleon, as well as the Dutch king who succeeded him, recognized the revolutionary potential of such voluntary associations, and suppressed them. more>

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