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Modus Operandi


, Grenoble, julio 2010

Multinational State

The multinational state is a state containing national plurality in a particular form, where a national minority is only within that state forming a kind of internal state.

According to Alain Dieckhoff the term ‘multinational’ state is often used to cover too wide a range of states. The reasoning behind this is that if every country that contains more than one cultural or national group were considered to be a multinational state, almost every country would fall under this definition, thus robbing it of all meaning.

Dieckhoff distinguishes between two types of national plurality :

  • The first, where a state contains a minority whose co-nationals are a majority in a neighbouring state is not a multinational state, but a nation-sate containing a national minority.

  • The second is where a state contains two or more nations (or historic/cultural communities). It is these second, which contains ‘internal nations’ that Dieckhoff considers to be multinational states. Examples are Quebec in Canada, Catalonia and Galicia in Spain etc.

This internal national diversity can be problematic for a state to manage; they can be oppressed by a government wishing to project an image of national homogeneity (such as China with its Tibetan an Uighur internal nations). In democratic states (these examples are drawn from Western countries) this diversity is managed through territorial or non-territorial autonomy.

There is much question as to whether multinational states are viable or stable, as many of the factors that are considered to promote cohesion in non-multinational states such as language and history are more likely to cause divisions: “Openness to diversity is cardinal in multinational democracies but it must be counter-balanced by a shared public culture which supports the will to remain together. But here comes a major challenge: the unifying overall principle(s) should both be firm enough to link the people together and flexible enough to preserve the autonomy of the various subunits.” (1)


Belgium and Switzerland are examples of two European multinational states whose histories so far show in what forms a multinational state can be viable. Within Belgium the figure of the King seems to be valuable as a stabilising factor and a unifying symbol. Perceived to be removed from political conflict between the Walloon and the Flemish. However Belgium is undergoing a problematic trend where politics is starting to reflect the linguistic divide, with the result that events undergo different coverage in the different language media. The result is that Belgian society tends to operate in two isolated units that do not even share interests at the level of national politics. In Switzerland, which contains four language groups as well as a division between Catholic and Protestant has the advantage that these differences are crosscutting: the religious division does not match up to the language groups. This means that despite some times violent internal conflicts there are no deep internal fault-lines. This is also contributed to by the fact that within Switzerland people identify with their cantons, which do not all match up to linguistic or political differences.


  • Dieckhoff, A. (2010) ‘Multinational democratic States: a reassessment’ in Rethinking the state: Understanding the processes of post-crisis state transformation Bruylant: Brussels


  • (1) : Dieckhoff (2010) Multinational democratic States: a reassessment.

  • This concept definition was developed as a result of the work carried out in the international conference Post-crisis state transformation: Rethinking the foundations of the state in Linköping, Sweden held 1-5 May 2009. This conference was run by Modus Operandi in collaboration with the Université Pierre Mendès France (Grenoble, France) and the European Science Foundation.