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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- The Misuse Of Multiculturalism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 27 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Nationalists in several post-communist countries are currently invoking the American concept of multiculturalism as part of their strategy to deprive national minorities of autonomous political institutions.

And because these majoritarian nationalists are casting their policies in terms of an American model, they have intellectually disarmed both domestic liberal groups and Western governments that many might have expected to protest such actions.

Thus, a doctrine that was elaborated to protect or even enhance ethnic identities in the United States is now being used with striking success against ethnic and national minorities in countries like Romania, Russia and Serbia.

This unintended consequence of the use of American multiculturalist ideas in these countries has been pointed out by Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka in the current issue of the U.S. journal "Dissent."

Kymlicka argues that the misuse of multiculturalism has arisen not because that approach is wrong -- he approvingly quotes the observation that "we are all multiculturalists now" -- but rather because American theorists have neglected to consider its limits.

First, according to Kymlicka, many American advocates of multiculturalism have chosen to define what they seek for ethnic minorities in explicit contrast to what they say are the demands of minority nationalism.

They juxtapose what they praise as the open, fluid and voluntary conception of multiculturalism in the United States, one based on an immigrant society, to what they criticize as the closed, static, and compulsory nature of minority nationalisms in non-immigrant societies.

And not surprisingly, they tend to see any demand for autonomy by a minority nationality as a step that threatens not only to the integrity of the state and its borders but even more to the possibility of a civil society with democratic freedoms.

But such a view fails to reflect two important realities:

On the one hand, many minority nations, particularly those long oppressed, seek autonomy precisely because they want to create a free civil society.

And on the other, national groups in multi-ethnic countries not created by immigration but rather by conquest inevitably find themselves in a very different situation than do those groups in countries like the United States which were.

Second, they failed to take note of the ways in which the United States along with other Western countries are not only multicultural but also multinational.

Kymlicka devotes particular attention to the failure of American multiculturalist theorists to discuss the existence of real nations within the United States: the Puerto Ricans, the Chanoros of Guam, and the American Indians.

As has been true elsewhere, the United States has pursued a very different approach toward these groups than toward other immigration-based ethnic communities.

Like other Western governments, the U.S. earlier tried to suppress them and only later provided them with autonomous institutions. And this shift toward what is effectively a multinational federation domesticated nationalism and protected individual rights.

Had multiculturalists recognized that accommodating minority nationalism was also part of the "American reality," Kymlicka argues, they and the U.S. would have been better able to cope with the situation in many post-communist multinational states.

And third, they have confused the question of the definition of the borders of a political community with that of how the community within those borders will govern itself.

Because many American multiculturalists so sharply contrast their approach with that of minority nationalism, Kymlicka notes, they have tended to assume as well that minority nationalism, even if satisfied, will inevitably be intolerant of civil liberties.

Not only is such a judgment ahistorical -- many multinational states with ethnic autonomies have effective civil societies -- but it fails to note that nationalism, once having defined the borders in which politics take place, may be liberal or illiberal.

And because of these problems with American multicultural theory, Kymlicka says, the United States and many other Western democracies have had great difficulty in objecting to what many majoritarian nationalists have done in the post-communist states.

Had American multiculturalists acknowledged these limitations, Kymlicka concludes, the transition to democracy in multination states of Eastern Europe would have been "smoother" and the danger from majoritarian nationalism much less.