Review: Roeder’s Where Nation-States Come From

Why do some nation-state projects succeed in achieving sovereign independence while most fail? It is this puzzle that Philip Roeder’s Where Nation-States Come From: Institutional Change in the Age of Nationalism purports to answer.  He argues that although many elite political actors lay claim for their “nation” to collective self-determination rights, the projects that most often succeed are those that benefit from territorially and communally defined institutions of governance.

Control of these segment-states bolster elites’ capacity both to govern independent of the common-state and to develop political-identity hegemonies that privilege the legitimacy of their projects over those of competitors not derived from segmented state structures. Drawing from extensive field work in Tartarstan, archival research in Russia and other Soviet successor states, and large-n statistical tests, he constructs a compelling argument firmly in the institutionalist vein emphasizing the central role of pre-secessionist segment-state institutions in determining the success of nation-state projects.

While Roeder is very likely correct that states divided into institutionally competent and politically semi-autonomous administrative regimes are more likely to fragment along institutional territorial lines than those lacking such partition, his argument is limited in three principle ways: First, it is unclear whether Roeder’s analysis is necessarily one of nation-state formation as opposed to more neutral federal dissolution in the context of common-state weakness.[1] Second, if the national element is indeed central to his theory, the claim that segment-state authority precedes “ethnification” of the nation is problematic.[2] Finally, Roeder’s assertion that the relationship between international norms and the sovereign independence of former segment-states is entirely spurious is significantly overstated.[3]

In the opening sections of his study, Roeder goes to significant descriptive lengths to demonstrate that segmented states and institutions are empirically different than other institutionally divided entities such as federal or consociational states. In particular, he asserts that states with segmented institutions “contain juridically separate communities of peoples who purportedly have special claim to that jurisdiction as a homeland,” as a compromise with the “simple logic of the nation-state: one people, one state.”[4] By selecting segmental institutions over federal arrangements which divide territory irrespective of communal membership or “corporate” partitions which provide common-state representation of communal groups absent particular territorial entitlements, state-builders lower start-up costs of administering previously self-governing units through co-optation, tame nationalist divisions through institutional accommodation, or weaken the power of a potentially predatory center.[5] The unfortunate cost of these choices, however, is the institutional empowerment of elites in their bids to centralize and consolidate authority at the expense of the common-state. Where the common-state weakens, segment-state elites are uniquely positioned to co-opt greater sovereign authority and, in extreme cases, to seek sovereign independence.[6]

However, these motivations for and potentially fragmental consequences of segmental state incorporation do not differ significantly from those of federal states. While federal units are not necessarily divided along communal lines, a rather substantial literature already exists which suggest parallel logics for the selection of federal institutions and the dangers of imbalanced partitioning of political power absent ethnic communal considerations. This is abundantly clear from the early work of William Riker who argues that more peripheralized forms of federal organization are much more likely to disintegrate than those with stronger political centers, to the more recent writings of Alfred Stepan, Edward Gibson, and de Figueiredo, McFaul, and Weingast, who are all principally concerned with the potentially disintegrative consequences of devolving significant autonomous institutional capacity to the federal periphery.[7] For Roeder to prove that it is nation-states that are produced by dissolution of common-states rather than more neutral civic states, he must demonstrate that it is the “national” character of segmented institutions rather than their mere segmentation which leads to successor state ascendency.

A growing body of scholarship has suggested that federal institutions constructed explicitly along ethnofederal lines are significantly more prone to instability and disintegration than their “civically” partitioned cousins.[8] Like Roeder, these authors argue that where exclusive national identity becomes the source for segment-state political unity, engagement with the common-state center becomes increasingly difficult. When crises erupt at the political center which weaken its credibility as a source of state authority and patronage to segmental elites, incentives to maintain unity are diluted by domestic electoral incentives to resort to nationalist jingoism and the availability of alternative resources gained by elites through the pursuit of separatist agendas. Consequently regional interests and preferences diverge making interactions between the center and periphery increasingly zero-sum.[9] While not unique in his emphasis on the pitfalls of institutionally empowering ethnic titular elites, Roeder does go further than his colleagues in exploring the purported origins of national identity. He argues that nationalism emerged as a politically salient discourse only after the privileging of particular titular groups with the control of segment-state institutions.[10] Unfortunately this is where his understanding of segmented states becomes problematic.

In defining segment-states as territorial units constituted explicitly around “juridically separate communities of people,” his assertion that nationalism is endogenous to the segment-state is difficult to sustain.[11] If the definition of a segment-state presupposes the existence of a national identity, however nascent, it seems necessary that some semi-coherent collective identity among some portion of the territory’s population must have existed prior to its incorporation into a larger common-state. Conversely his weaker but perhaps more central claim that groups pursuing nation-state projects who enjoy the control or sponsorship of segment-state institutions are much more likely to succeed in achieving sovereign independence than those whose projects lack such institutional frameworks is hardly disputable.[12] Ultimately, his circular definition of the segment state can only be taken as causally unproblematic if he can demonstrate that prior to deep institutionalization, common-state elites were able to use segment-state institutions to readily manipulate nascent titular identities.

Highlighting the failure of pan-Turkic nationalist projects like Turkestan and the ascendance of Kirgiz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek identities conforming to the borders of the region’s newly divided titular republics in the 1920s among other significant examples of border and identity manipulation, Roeder goes a long way toward substantiating this approach.[13] Yet his contention that during the 1930s, “When it was convenient to create or elevate differences within nationalities, Moscow could do this with abandon,” is notably challenged by the experiences of some titular republics where transfer of territory and arbitrary reassignment of group identity from one titular republic to another led to significant popular oppositional mobilization and occasionally violence.[14] This was particularly true with regard to Armenia in the nineteen teens and twenties in response to Moscow’s decision to assign the majority-Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh to neighboring Azerbaijan.[15] That such active oppositional nationalism existed in such a small minority of these nascent titular republics, however, does not critically challenge Roeder’s thesis.

More problematic is that although the Soviet Union dissolved neatly along the boundaries of the former Union Republics, this did not prevent titular groups within successor states from laying irredentist claims on neighboring territories or minority groups within these republics from pursuing separatist agendas. The still unresolved statuses of former autonomous republics and oblasts like Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdnestria, each the subject of irredentist claims by Armenia and Russia respectively, among others question whether it is truly segment-state institutions that generate national identities. Indeed, if segment state institutions were the primary cause of ethnic identity and empowerment, titular elites or masses in either the home state or the external segment should not necessarily identify with one another in a meaningful political fashion. That Karabakh Armenians continue to identify as Armenians and Armenians in the Republic of Armenia continue to claim Karabakh Armenians as their kith and kin and both seek political unification suggests that the obverse is equally or more plausible; prior cohesive ethnic identity and collective empowerment may be the reason these groups were awarded territory in the first place. In all of Roeder’s discussions regarding political-identity hegemony as a necessary precondition to segment-state accession to independent nationhood, he fails to present a titular state case in which elite failed to achieve that hegemony. This could be due to their control of segment-state institutions but this argument can only be strongly sustained if the existence of prior elite, if not collective, titular solidarity is disproven.

Of final concern is Roeder’s contention that his thesis demonstrates that the correlation frequently drawn in the international relations literature between norms of self-determination and territorial integrity and the achievement of sovereign independence by former segment-states is spurious.[16] He insists that the withholding of international recognition for successor state independence has rarely blocked or reversed de facto independence and that almost all states that have achieved independence were previously segment-states. Although allowing that norms of sovereign territoriality have been important in limiting great power efforts to construct alternatives to the nation-state in colonies and dependencies and in disincentivizing states which have lost territory to newly recognized states from reclaiming that space, he largely denies that norms had much prior causal power in determining which segment-states achieved independence.[17] Roeder’s focus on domestic political developments and institutional structures as the most important cause of segment-state succession contra international ideational forces certainly lends itself more readily to argument based on careful analysis of micro-level causal mechanisms. Indeed it is a lack of understanding of and engagement with these processes and politics which has frequently weakened second-image reversed theorizing.[18]

This reliance on domestic factors, however, requires the implicit argument that it is institutional capacity which is to be credited for segment-state achievement of sovereign independence. This contention is quite useful to explain why only the former Union Republics achieved independence and not Autonomous Republics, Oblasts, or Okrugs, but the argument performs substantially less well when applied to former colonies and dependencies. It is true that almost every case of decolonization in the twentieth century has been characterized by the rise of indigenous elite to control the very institutions abandoned by imperial powers over precisely those territorial boundaries which defined the former colony or dependency. Yet to argue that these states achieved independence in large part because of their capacity for governance is utterly fallacious. A host of literature focused on the African colonial experience makes clear that rather than build a firm basis for future sovereign statehood, the colonial state was designed explicitly to weaken the possibility of effective central administration, promote underdevelopment, and ensure dependence on external patronage.[19]

While the prior existence of governing institutions and defined territory substantially determined the shape and form of postcolonial states, in most cases we cannot explain their independence as a primarily domestically driven outcome. Colonial units were simply too empirically weak to be considered viable candidates for sovereign statehood by classical positive criteria. Rather, argues Robert Jackson, decolonization was the result of a radical shift in international norms whereby independence “became an unqualified right of all colonial peoples: self-determination. Colonialism likewise became an absolute wrong: an injury to the dignity and autonomy of those peoples and of course a vehicle for their economic exploitation and political oppression.”[20] That these colonial era units might be loosely structurally similar to the segment-states with which Roeder is concerned tells us very little about why they achieved independence. Indeed, if imperial powers continued to have the capacity to administer these territories, however dysfunctionally, and indigenous elites lacked the material means to govern independent of external sponsorship, a normative argument appears to be necessary to understand these outcomes. That new states took on the shape and rough institutional form of their predecessors is in this instance as much a product of domestic institutions as it is a result of international insistence on the preservation of the territorial integrity of existing political units.[21] Having acknowledged the weakness and low administrative capacity of colonial units, the conjunction of an a priori right to self-determination and a norm of sovereign territorial integrity, which Roeder dismisses so readily as both unnecessary and spurious to sovereign independent outcomes, appears to be critical to understanding the emergence of post-colonial states.

In the end, Where Nation-States Come From is a fairly convincing account of why some political-territorial units succeed over others in seceding from larger common-states thus becoming nation-states in their own right. Certainly Roeder’s analysis of the centrality of preexisting institutions in determining separatist outcomes provides important anecdotal lessons for policymakers seeking long-term stability in ethnically divided states. Although his work falls short in its over-specification to “nation-state projects”, inadequate engagement with pre-existing communal politics, and friction with norm-based accounts of sovereign territoriality, it opens new avenues for research particularly in terms of situating institutional outcomes in broader normative and ideational political contexts whether local or international.


Bunce, Valerie. “Federalism, Nationalism, and Secession.” In Federalism and Territorial Cleavages, edited by Ugo M. Amoretti and Nancy Bermeo, 417-40. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2004.

Caparaso, James A. “Across the Great Divide: Integrating Comparative and International Politics.” International Studies Quarterly 41, no. 4 (December 1997): 563-91.

Chorbajian, Levon. The Making of Nagorno-Karabagh : From Secession to Republic. Houndmills Basingstoke Hampshire ; New York: Palgrave, 2001.

de Figueiredo, Rui J. P., Jr., Michael McFaul, and Barry R. Weingast. “Constructing Self-Enforcing Federalism in the Early United States and Modern Russia.” Publius: the Journal of Federalism 37, no. 2 (2007): 160-89.

Gibson, Edward L. “Boundary Control: Subnational Authoritarianism in Democratic Countries.” World Politics 58, no. 1 (2005): 101-32.

Gibson, Edward L., and Tulia G. Falleti. “Unity by the Stick: Regional Conflict and the Origins of Argentine Federalism.” In Federalism and Democracy in Latin America, edited by Edward L. Gibson, 226-54. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Gourevitch, Peter. “The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics.” International Organization 32, no. 4 (1978): 881-912.

Hale, Henry E. “Divided We Stand: Institutional Sources of Ethnofederal State Survival and Collapse.” World Politics 56 (January 2004): 165-93.

Hall, Peter A. “Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain.” Comparative Politics 25, no. 3 (April 1993): 275-96.

Herbst, Jeffrey Ira. States and Power in Africa : Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton Studies in International History and Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Jackson, Robert H. Quasi-States : Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World. 1st paperback ed, Cambridge Studies in International Relations. Cambridge England ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Moravcsik, Andrew. “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics.” International Organization 51, no. 4 (Autumn 1997): 513-53.

Riker, William H. Federalism: Origin, Operation, Significance. Lb Basic Studies in Politics. Boston: Little Brown, 1964.

Roeder, Philip G. Where Nation-States Come From : Institutional Change in the Age of Nationalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Skalnik Leff, Carol. “Democratization and Disintegration in Multinational States: The Breakup of the Communist Federations.” World Politics 51, no. 2 (1999): 205-35.

Stepan, Alfred. “Toward a New Comparative Politics of Federalism, Multinationalism, and Democracy.” In Federalism and Democracy in Latin America, edited by Edward L. Gibson, 29-84. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Tillin, Louise. “United in Diversity? Asymmetry in Indian Federalism.” Publius: the Journal of Federalism 37, no. 1 (2006): 45-67.

Young, Crawford. The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Zacher, Mark W. “The Territorial Integrity Norm: International Boundaries and the Use of Force.” International Organization 52, no. 2 (Spring 2001): 215-50.

[1] (Roeder 2007, 26-27)

[2] (Roeder 2007, 34)

[3] (Roeder 2007, 36)

[4] (Roeder 2007, 12-13)

[5] (Roeder 2007, 43-46, 53-63)

[6] (Roeder 2007, 83-87)

[7] (Riker 1964; Stepan 2004; Gibson and Falleti 2004; Gibson 2005; de Figueiredo, McFaul, and Weingast 2007)

[8] (Skalnik Leff 1999; Bunce 2004; Hale 2004; Tillin 2006)

[9] (Roeder 2007, 164-65)

[10] (Roeder 2007, 26)

[11] (Roeder 2007, 12-13, 27)

[12] (Roeder 2007, 81)

[13] (Roeder 2007, 123-25)

[14] (Roeder 2007, 156)

[15] (Chorbajian 2001, 36-38)

[16] (Roeder 2007, 34-36)

[17] (Roeder 2007, 36-37)

[18] (Gourevitch 1978; Hall 1993; Caparaso 1997; Moravcsik 1997)

[19] For instance, see (Jackson 1993; Young 1994; Herbst 2000)

[20] (Jackson 1993, 85)

[21] (Zacher 2001)

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