The winding path to multi-ethnic democracy


At the end of the cold war there were two popular but competing speculations on where history was headed. One came from Francis Fukuyama, from a 1989 article and then 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama argued that with the end of the cold war there was no powerful ideology left to compete with liberal democracy, and as such nation states were all headed down that path. In reaction, another view came from Samuel P. Huntington from a 1992 article and then 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington argued that while ideological conflict was indeed ending, nation states will move on to (or technically revert back to) cultural and religious conflict. At first Fukuyama seemed to win out, but later after 9/11 Huntington has become more popular. I am solidly in the Fukuyama camp, but wanted to do a slight mash up on the two ideas.

Huntington argued that the world was divided into “major civilizations”: Western (blue), Latin (purple), Japanese (bright red), Sinic (dark red), Hindu (orange), Islamic (green), Orthodox (light blue). You can get the idea quickly from the wikipedia picture below.


Huntington’s not completely wrong about the importance of culture and religion in conflict, but I think Fukuyama is more right in terms of what the future holds. Fukuyama says that yes we’ll still have plenty of conflict, but all countries are moving toward liberal democracy faster or slower. And nation states remain powerful enough to be the dominant actors in conflict, not civilizations aka culture and religion. So we’ll see conflict as non-democratic countries transition to democracy, plus some “typical” conflicts (environment, trade, immigration) between existing liberal democracies. And while conflicts between liberal democracy may get heated, they tend not to escalate to war.

The mash up here is that there are many paths to liberal democracy, and one of the most important factors shaping your path depends on whether your start with an ethnic nation state (say Japan) or a multiethnic state (say India). Long term globalization will push not just toward liberal democractic states, but toward multi-ethinc liberal democractic states. Call the alternates Path 1 and Path 2.

Path 1: autocratic ethnic > democratic ethnic > democractic multi-ethnic 

Path 2: autocratic multi-ethnic > democractic multi-ethnic 

As speculation, I’d suggest that path 1 is more natural. You can rely on tribal loyalty and solidarity to get the democractic ball rolling. You don’t have clash of civilization problems inside your state. Path 2 is harder to get off the ground. Democracy when you start out multi-ethnic can lead to genocide if you are not careful. The most common solution is something like Pakistan, where some of the ethnic minorities partition and split out of the original country. You’ll also have corruption and all kinds of problems in getting a multiethnic state pulling together.

But on the flip side, as globalization become ever more important, the poorly functioning multiethinic democracies have a strategic advantage. They can handle immigration and globalization since they’ve already dealt with the “clash of civilizations” inside their own country. They are globalization ready. So long term path 2 countries may win out even though at first they do poorly.

To test out this idea, I pulled a couple of the largest countries in wikipedia and took a look at how ethnically mixed they are, then did some comments.


Maybe just a quick comment on a few countries farther down the population list. Japan’s stagnation and Europe’s struggles with their growing Muslim minority could easily fit into the democratic ethnic struggling with globalization frame. The prediction of this thesis is that multiethnic countries that are struggling today will have a longer term lift off once they get over the hump of getting democracy and rule of law pulled together. And that single ethnic countries that seem to lead today will start to struggle under the burden of globalization later on. Obviously this is just one narrow frame on how to forecast possibilities  So case by case it could go all kinds of ways. But it’s an interesting way to think about things. We’ll see how it turns out.

Categorized as Politics

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

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