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Journal of Democracy 11.4 (2000) 169-173

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Books in Review

Nurturing Nationalism

Ghia Nodia

From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict. By Jack Snyder. W.W. Norton, 2000. 382 pp.

Contemporary attitudes toward democracy and nationalism have been shaped by the natural human propensity to draw a hard and fast line between good things and bad things. Democracy today is synonymous with political goodness, while nationalism--firmly associated with "ethnic conflict" and "ethnic cleansing"--is usually considered the embodiment of political evil. Therefore, nationalism and democracy are regarded as opposed, rather than linked, phenomena.

This view continues to hold strong despite the overwhelming evidence that democracy and nationalism tend to emerge together. Several scholarly efforts to elucidate the links between the two have not succeeded in changing the general perception. Now Jack Snyder, in his provocatively titled book From Voting to Violence, tries to make a stronger case for the proposition that there is a causal relationship between democratization and the spread of nationalism.

Snyder's argument proceeds by a series of logical steps. First, he makes a clear distinction between mature, consolidated democracies and democratizing countries. Mature democracies usually do not fight one another, and they are good at peacefully resolving internal conflicts. By contrast, emerging democracies are conflict-prone: The process of democratization enhances rather than reduces the probability of both international and internal (including ethnic) conflict. Compared to newly emerging democracies, authoritarian regimes also tend to be more [End Page 169] effective in managing ethnic plurality within their borders and more prudent in international relations. This is confirmed by numerous examples from the past two centuries of democratization.

Why is this the case? There are two leading hypotheses. One holds that democratization releases "ancient hatreds" that were suppressed by authoritarian regimes. Empirical evidence shows, however, that popular nationalism is usually weak before democratization begins. The correct explanation, according to Snyder, focuses on "elite persuasion": Self-interested elites, who feel threatened by the process of democratization but seek to retain political control, are the root of the problem. For them, nationalism is the best possible tool. It allows them to rule "in the name of the people," thereby gaining a claim to legitimacy, while at the same time avoiding "rule by the people"--that is, genuine democratic accountability. Elites use their ability to manipulate the media to impose a nationalist message upon their core constituencies. The degree of elite insecurity and the prospects for the success of nationalist propaganda are greatest in societies that are poor, that have weak political institutions, and that lack traditions of the rule of law and of high-quality professional journalism. In such societies, democratization provides fertile ground for nationalist demagogues.

Not all forms of nationalism are equally pernicious, however. When democratization occurs in a politically developed society, elites tend to adapt more easily, and hence a more inclusive civic version of nationalism develops (Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is the exemplar). Differing combinations of these two factors--elite adaptability in the face of democratization and the strength of political institutions--produce three other versions of nationalism, all of which tend to demonize minorities at home and/or to fight with their neighbors abroad. Snyder calls these "revolutionary" nationalism, "counterrevolutionary" nationalism, and "ethnic" nationalism; their exemplars are revolutionary France, pre-Nazi Germany, and pre-World War I Serbia, respectively. Most of the book is dedicated to analyses of these and other specific cases.

Snyder places great emphasis on the policy implications of different theories. The mistaken theory of "ancient hatreds" leads to such flawed prescriptions as ethnic separation, power-sharing between ethnic communities (consociationalism), or ethnic federalism. These measures "may needlessly lock in mutually exclusive, inimical national identities" (p. 36). Such options may become an inevitable "last resort," especially after large-scale ethnic violence has occurred, but "wherever possible, democratizing states should try to promote civic identities and guarantee rights at the individual level" (p. 40).

Snyder's most controversial contention is that the international community is wrong to push ethnically diverse and politically and economically underdeveloped countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, [End...