Multiethnic states, whether they are empires of diverse nationalities like the former Soviet Union, former colonies like Nigeria and Indonesia, or conglomerations of native and immigrant peoples like Canada and Brazil, share a history of ethnic and political tension that sometimes threatens to spiral out of control. Recent history has seen several such states implode, including Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Others, like Czechoslovakia’s component parts, have parted ways more peacefully. Still others—Russia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sudan—struggle along with occasional, often violent bouts of separatism. Iraq, too, is a multiethnic state. Its newly approved constitution has raised questions about its ability to hold together in the face of ethnic and religious tensions. Cfr.org’s Claire Calzonetti asked Robert D. Kaplan, a prominent international journalist, correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and author of several books on international affairs including Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History, to explain why some multiethnic states succeed where others fail.
Do multiethnic states typically fall apart?
No. In fact, the U.S., Canada, and Singapore are all examples of successful multiethnic states. I think when we use the term multiethnic states, what we’re really talking about are multiethnic states in a third world or underdeveloped, weakly governed environment. Or, a multiethnic state that’s been governed by some autocratic ruler and is in process of change away from autocracy. When we worry about "will it fall apart", it’s those situations we’re talking about.
Do you see a relationship between economic development and the success of a multiethnic state?
I would say more institutional development. I don’t judge governments as much by whether they’re democratic or autocratic as much as I judge them by how well-governed they are institutionally. And, to make a long story short, I think multiethnic states can make the transition from autocracy to liberal regimes provided the groundwork is laid. Slow is fast. Slower transitions tend to be better than overnight cold-turkey ones.
Are there examples of that?
Yes. What is a bad cold-turkey transition from autocracy to democracy is a multiethnic state? Russia. Had the ex-Soviet Union had a few years of [Soviet President] Mikhail Gorbachev’s capitalist-trending, lite-authoritarianism, rather than go overnight from a hard soviet state to [President] Boris Yeltsin’s democracy, I think the average Russian would be better off today. Had Gorbachev’s transition lasted a decade longer, I think it would have been better for everyone. Another bad example, of course, is the former Yugoslavia, which did not have the advantage of a slow transition, really. It went from a very calcified Communist system to the breakup of the state. And the breakup of the state was facilitated by an election that brought to the floor very nationalist, ethnically oriented leaders. Now, a good transition, a better transition that went unnoticed was, I think, Romania. Because after [Romanian dictator] Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown, Romania did not go overnight into a full democratic system. It had about six or seven years of a neo-Gorbachev regime under President Ion Iliescu, who basically governed like a reformed Communist rather than a democrat. I think that slow transition drastically reduced the possibility of ethnic war between ethnic Hungarians and Romanians. And now Romania is really moving ahead. It’s making progress. Iliescu was president again but he was a different kind of person than he was the first time. And that goes totally unnoticed. Most people think Romania was just more backward and racist. I don’t believe so. I think it was a sure transition.
What else do you see as other preconditions helpful in keeping a state together?
Obviously economic development. But something else is important. It’s that when all the major problems in a state have been agreed upon—like what the borders are, which ethnic group, if any, controls what territory, and what resources—then you can have the luxury of a weak democracy and all new democracies are by definition weak. They tend to be run by minority governments and inexperienced politicians, which are often badly in need of money and finances, which lead to corruption. Once the major issues have been settled, the country has the luxury of a weak democratic system that can then debate what it can consider to be major issues but in fact are minor issues, like the budget and things like that. The real major issues, the borders and ethnic relations, have already been settled.
What methods do governments use to hold states together? Has federalism or centralism proved a better way of governing?
In general, to me, one of the definitions of real democracy is decentralization, not having too much power in the center. I think that if you look at places that are either bad democracies or not democracies at all, you get overly centralized systems. So, if that’s the choice, federalism or strong central government, I would say federalism. But remember that it’s not always that easy. Take Turkey for example. The Kurds are not just in the southeast, you have huge Kurdish concentrations in the major cities in the west, Izmir and Istanbul. So, it’s not just a matter of federalism. What it is a matter of is getting tax payers’ money and real power outside of Ankara all around the country. That is the real test of democracy: Can it become weaker in the center and stronger at the edges?
What other methods do governments use to hold states together?
Well, they use force. And that is something we want to use as little of as possible. But force is still—remember, if there is no authority, there is no freedom for anybody. So, a central government has to be willing and able to use force and its force has to be respected if there is going to be any sort of civil society.
Can the United States as a superpower do anything to hold multiethnic countries together? Is there an example of a time when the United States has had a good effect on a multiethnic country?
I think every situation is different. It really is. If I remember correctly in the former Yugoslavia, we believed that the state should and had to be held together. Had we believed that the state was past holding together, we might have gotten involved at a much deeper level earlier on in negotiating the terms of the breakup, it would not have led to civil war. However, there are other instances where you don’t want the state to come apart. You want to keep it together. Again, slow transitions either way tend to be more peaceful. In Iraq now, everyone is saying that if the state breaks up it means the failure of United States policy. I think they’re missing something. If the state breaks up suddenly in the near term, that means the failure of United States policy. But, if it’s a result of democratization over the next ten years, if Iraq were to become more and more federalized, weaker and weaker at the center, and more and more on the ground in three separate entities and it happened gradually and peacefully, it would not be a failure for United States policy. In a future Middle East, I think we’re going to see, like in Europe, more regions and less strong, hard, overly centralized states. So, a quarter century from now, Iraq being in effect three region states where it could happen organically and peacefully would be a fine solution.
What is the likelihood of that?
I don’t know. I simply don’t know. I am encouraged by the events of the last few days, the elections very much. But who knows what next week will bring?
What are the implications for Iraq?
Any future of Iraq means a much less centralized state than the one under Saddam [Hussein]. Saddam’s state was like those in Eastern Europe before [Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin died, before de-Stalinization commenced in the mid-1950s. And anyone who looks at what individual east European states in the late forties and early fifties knows what I’m talking about—a level of central control to such a degree it was like a vast prison yard. So we are going to get a weaker center which mathematically translates into more power for Kurds and Shiites. That we can assume. The question is, How do we help that, how do we make that more of a soft landing for the Sunnis? I think a soft landing here is really what we’re looking for, a gradual weakening of the center that doesn’t lead to outright civil war. Which, we have not seen yet. And I think that if Nobel Peace Prizes were given to people who actually deserve them, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani would have won it this year for the incredible restraint he’s shown in the face of a lot of violence and provocation.
Are religious differences tenser than differences in ethnicities, or vice versa?
It’s hard to generalize. Rather than give you a stock statement, let me use the example of Pakistan, which is really central to this whole discussion. Pakistan is kind of a nuclearizing Yugoslavia in the making, meaning it’s divided up by ethnic groups that are regionally defined. In other words, they’re not all mixed together, they live in separate regions. And, Islam has been used to try to create a kind of unifying ideology for the country the same way that Communism—[Josip Broz] Tito’s Communism attempted to be a unifying ideology for Yugoslavia. And I think that Islam as a unifying ideology for Pakistan will not work and has not worked.
Do you have examples of successful multiethnic states vs. those who are unstable?
No, because a place that may be successful in one decade may be unsuccessful in the next and vice versa. All this is in flux, I don’t like to say that these are successes, these are failures. Well, some successes we know, like Singapore is multiethnic and a success. But remember Singapore is not a model because it’s small. It’s a city-state; it doesn’t have territory to govern. Singapore is just an exception; it’s not a model for anything.
What is the difference between multiculturalism, melting pots, non-racialism, assimilation, etc.?
I think these are all just words. And we’ve become prisoners of language in many senses. If you look at the old city of Jerusalem, you have Armenians, Arabs, Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, you have Jews. I don’t know that they all liked each other, but for periods in recent history they’ve gotten along. So, it’s not necessary that people like each other, it is necessary that they get along and that there is some kind of adjudicating process that is considered legitimate that they all respect.
What about the future of Russia?
Russia went from extreme authoritarians to extreme democracy. I think Russia’s destiny is to be something in between. While we are uncomfortable with President Vladimir Putin because of his autocratic tendencies, I think Russians are much more comfortable with him than they were with Yeltsin. We did not have to live under the chaos of the 1990s, they did. So I think Russia is gradually working its way to some sort of a mixed regime. Depending upon which way it falls, it could be more noxious or less noxious.