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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .


Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity
Will Kymlicka

(Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2007) 320 pp, HB, 20.00, ISBN 978-0199280407

The virtues of civic republican nationalism, based on undifferentiated and homogenous citizenship, in which minorities are either forcibly assimilated or discarded, are no longer a model to which nation states should aspire. Increasingly this model of a modern, centralised and homogeneous Westphalian state is being contested and replaced by newer multicultural models of the state and of citizenship.

For Will Kymlicka, this change in the relations between nation states and its ethnocultural minorities that has increasingly occurred across the globe during the last 40 years is a ?veritable revolution? (3). In fact, the inability of a state to recognise and deal with ethno-national cultural diversity and minority rights in a satisfactory fashion is a strong indication that a nation is unfit to be a member in good standing of the club of liberal democracies. Will Kymlicka?s most recent book, Multicultural Odysseys, seeks to analyse how and why this ?revolution? has occurred, its uneven global dissemination and to pinpoint the moral dilemmas which have accrued as a result.
Investigating how and why multicultural forms of governance have become increasingly hegemonic in recent years, especially in the ?west?, Kymlicka discards the oft-rehearsed criticism that multiculturalism is the result of anti-Enlightenment tendencies which gravitate towards cultural relativism. Instead, Kymlicka persuasively asserts that multiculturalism is in fact very much part of a universalising project borne by the human rights revolution. The advancement of multicultural norms, Kymlicka argues, rather than giving a green light to ethnic chauvinism and endowing groups with cultural rights that usurp individual human rights, are predicated precisely on promoting and upholding the rights of individuals guaranteed by international law.

This leads to Kymlicka?s central thesis: that the dissemination of liberal multiculturalism is being carried out by a host of International Organisations (IOs), ranging from the EU, UN, UNESCO and even the World Bank. These organisations have charged themselves with formulating and sharing best practices for multiculturalism and codifying international norms embodied in declarations of minority rights. These norms can have tangible effects in terms of promoting multicultural governance; for instance, post-communist countries wishing to join the EU are now required to demonstrate their commitment to minorities prior to successful entrance. Neither is liberal multiculturalism a project borne of western and neo-imperialist hegemony a tool for advancing the geo-political interests of the most powerful western states. Western states are deeply divided over the merits of minority rights. Kymlicka argues that IOs, including western states, have become increasingly amenable to liberal multiculturalism because contrary to previous expectations that group rights would inflame ethnic conflict or it would counteract the glue needed for social cohesion, it can actually constructively manage ethnic instability and even provide the basis for new forms of nation-building.

Kymlicka?s strongest suit is his political science rather than his political philosophy. Analysing why some states seem to be more acquiescent to forms of liberal multicultural governance than others which continue to rely on the Westphalian, civic republican model, especially ex-communist states from the former eastern bloc and so-called post-colonial states, Kymlicka argues that the important variable is not notions of nationality based on blood and soil, but existential questions of security. While minorities in the west, especially sub-state minorities in EU states, are no longer seen as a threat to national security, post-communist and post-colonial states often have sub-state or indigenous minorities within the state who are perceived to either wish to secede or desire its overthrow. This situation creates poor conditions for liberal multiculturalism to prosper.

Notably, there are omissions from Kymlicka?s analysis, especially Northern Ireland, which he admits is ?difficult to categorize? (70). In other words, places in which sovereignty is the root of conflict rather than issues of pluralism are ill fitted to the discourse of liberal multiculturalism, even though the dispensations of the Good Friday Agreement in many ways are informed by the issue of minority and group rights.


Dr. John Nagle, INCORE, University of Ulster



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