Hierarchical Identity: Cohesion and the nation-state

Identity and Organization

            The stability of government depends on the existence of binding identity.  In democracies, the underlying power structure of a national government follows a clear path from decentralized and local organization into progressively narrow ones that ultimately convey legitimacy to a central ruling authority.  As political organization is developed and stabilized at each level, it must be accompanied by a shared sense of identity to support it.  At the ground level, local communities can recognize their mutual material or political interests and organize accordingly.  However, the requirements for upward organization become more complex as each political level seeks to include a greater diversity of individuals.  At the highest stages of national and international cooperation, abstract identities are necessary to maintain cohesion where solely material relationships can collapse under pressure.  The maintenance of higher organization relies on the coherence of its identitarian component and the stability of this dynamic at underlying levels of government.

            Democratic legitimacy advances on the procedural organization of both population and government from local levels to the nation.  Beyond this, new identities are formed as the basis for international cooperation and participation in transnational organizations as they are deemed to represent a shared interest with other members.  International organizations can certainly be motivated by material or strategic interests like trade or military protection, but they remain stable only as long as they are believed to support national interests.  Frequently, organizations that purport material interests like the European Union or NATO simultaneously advocate a philosophical purpose in recognition of this need.  The more distant an organization is from local identity, the more necessary abstract alliances are to maintain them.  At all levels, the strength of organizational identity is challenged when decentralized components encounter an incongruence between their interests and the actual benefit they accrue from association.  The breakdown of agreement between identity and organization causes individuals to seek stability in the preceding level.  Separation from international bodies is relatively simple in ideological terms because groups are associative, and membership does not rely on the same social contract as does national identity (Fukuyama 2018b, 14).  The existence of a strong national identity, defined in domestic terms, makes it possible for memberships to be terminated and alliances renegotiated without further regression. 

            Challenges to identity at the national level can be much more difficult to overcome.  The value of national government is not self-evident in the face of material or ideological shocks that nations inevitably face.  Citizens seek stability in the cultural and philosophical justifications for national cohesion.  If they cannot find it in the ruling framework, then they will turn to alternative identities that may very well conflict with the state’s raison d’etre.  The existence of persistent identity at lower levels makes regime change a viable option to realign societal expectations with government, protecting a system from rapid decay.  If a unifying identity is absent or weak below this level, then competing ones will vie for supremacy, making the violence of rebellion and revolution more likely.  National identity serves an instrumental purpose in preserving stability and is a necessary component of state consolidation.  The simultaneous vertical consolidation of identity establishes the moral legitimacy of government and illustrates the inherent instability of the creation and imposition of identity from the national level downward.  If local and/or intermediary communities do not identify with the nation state as an extension of their decentralized selves, then they will seek to disconnect from it. 

            When developed organically, the predominant identities that justify nationhood and government legitimacy emerge from fierce competition between ideas and values.  The emotionality of this dynamic is more obvious during rebellion or nation-building, but even the gradual establishment of identity is an evolutionary process in which more evocative elements win out over others.  In addition, this is necessary to create lasting national identity wherein “irrational attachments” can be relied upon to maintain emotional investment in the state when “reason alone” would fail (Fukuyama 2018b, 11).  Similarly, the irrationality that supports nationhood is what makes its breakdown more devastating to its adherents.  Although not necessarily the case, ethnicity has been the primary source of identity in the development of nation-states (Kolstø 1996, 117; Muller 2008, 20-21).  Ethnicity is the foundational identity for most individuals, from which all of their norms and interpersonal expectations are derived.  Ethnic identity is intensely personal and permeates the most decentralized levels of society as communities associate with one another through shared cultural and linguistic frameworks.  If a vacuum emerges in governmental legitimacy, ethnicity commonly stands at the ready to fill the void.  The use of force can temporarily suppress decentralized identity, but a lapse in this control can open central government to rapid dissolution.  Lacking an alternative, political organization is likely to devolve to the highest level at which ethnicity underlies power.

Ethnic Identity and National Reclamation

            The convergence of state and ethnicity is likely in most contexts and inevitable without the existence of a more powerful civic identity.  Even if civic identity is the dominant source of national cohesion, its agreement with ethnic sub-identities is critical for maintaining solidarity during or after national crisis.  After the Cold War, the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union left its member states with the challenge of reforming national identity in the absence of the ideology that had long bound them.  By removing both the transnational authority of the USSR and any remaining confidence in the ideology that underpinned the Soviet Empire, states turned to the primary identity of their individual republics.  As a result, the contested stability of supranational and national Communist identity was replaced with the immediately available ethnic identities that had persisted throughout the USSR.  Importantly, the multi-state system was not sustained on ideology alone.  The post-war Union was held together by brute force as was quickly demonstrated with the violent suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution and other uprisings until the system’s collapse.

            The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a response to long-sustained and increasingly vocal expression of the disconnect between separate republican identities and subservience to the central state.  Economic stagnation and deterioration fed calls for independence as material needs could not be met, stressing the central identity beyond its ability to provide unity.  When the USSR was finally dissolved, the velvet revolutions that swept through much of its territory reflected the existence of powerful and cohesive identities to take on the reformation of the national organization.  Ethnonationalism served as a powerful force for the consolidation of internally stable states that were available to serve as the foundation for new political organization.  Not long after Czechoslovakia gained independence, it again divided along ethnic lines to reflect the uniqueness of the respective Czech and Slovak identities.  The peaceful transfer of power in central/eastern Europe was possible because the territories there retained high levels of cultural homogeneity even under decades of dictatorship. 

            The balkanization of Yugoslavia after the Cold War reflected similar circumstances, but developed much more violently.  Not far removed from the postbellum character of the USSR, Yugoslavia was reconsolidated under Tito’s leadership by 1945 and held together by a dictatorship under the banner of Communism.  However, the territory of its governance was originally organized as an academic experiment that explicitly sought to combine the ethnic identities of various southern Slavic groups.  The foundation of Yugoslavia drew its legitimacy as an ethnostate, entangling the practice of any form of government in the territory as an extension of the same.  The Communist political identity could not be separated from the artificial ethnicity imposed from Belgrade.  Conflict among decentralized groups was repressed under the governmental framework built to enforce the ideology of Yugoslavism, but its resurgence was practically inevitable once the veil of national identity finally came apart.  The identity-crisis was released amid revolution, and Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs engaged each other in ethnic cleansing and interstate warfare.

            Both of these empires collapsed when their overarching identities failed, but the spectacular difference in their dissolution is explained by the manner in which they approached ethnic realities.  The Yugoslav experiment attempted to redefine and centralize deeply held core identities, resulting in resentment that outlived the shape of the kingdom.  The new authority ignored the intensity with which groups self-identified into “absolutely incompatible” ethnicities and immediately enflamed the passions of nationalist groups who felt that they had been “denied the right of self-determination” (Hayden 1995).  By contrast, the Soviet Union “prided itself on being a multinational state” and permitted the expression of local identities to a far greater degree (Kolstø 1996, 119).  The active resettlement of ethnic groups following World War II further facilitated subnational cohesion in a way that was not performed in Yugoslavia (Muller 2008, 27).  Compared to Balkan state formation, Soviet states were able to fully recover their ethnic identities with relative ease as they concurrently settled their civic identity at the nation-state level.  The Soviet Union failed to fully control the ethnic identities of its members as desired and unite them under a broader federalized one to outlast the regime in place.  However, it granted them enough ethnic stability to transform into functioning states post-independence. 

Transnational Implications

            The successful establishment of identity at the national level moreover prepared the Soviet states to participate in transnational organizations.  The ascension of countries from Estonia to Romania into the European Union is distinct from their participation in Soviet membership in that it is wholly voluntary.  With the primary questions of national identity stabilized early on, nation-building in these countries was successful enough to permit the extension of national identity upward into broader context.  Their identification with a broader European identity is a logical extension of their ethnonational identity and forms a basis for continued participation in the EU.  Even amid dissatisfaction with many of the organization’s policies, and migration in particular, surging nationalism and Euroskeptic rhetoric in Poland and Hungary does not yet indicate that these states are interested in disengaging from the venue.  Despite their differences with policy, 72% of Poles and 57% of Hungarians report a favorable of the European Union as an institution (compared to 62% median; Wike 2019).  The sincerity of members’ identity at the national level makes the projection of national interests upward into transnational participation viable, even in unexpected circumstances.

            Using the same criteria for analysis, only Croatia and Slovenia have so far gained member status in the European Union.  This could partly be explained by weaker European identity, but other nations from the former Yugoslavia have made moves toward closer integration.  Among these, Serbia is an official applicant, and Bosnia and Kosovo have entered into associative status with the EU, making eventual membership more likely (European Commission 2019).  These states’ primary preoccupation was in the establishment of nation-state identity, conducted through war and genocide.  Violence delayed the development of civil nation-state institutions, and transnational participation based on abstractions could not be possible as long as territorial governance and identity were disconnected.  A state that has not established its own national purpose cannot negotiate its relationship with an external organization in anything other than material terms, hampering effective international cooperation.


            Civic and ethnic identity are virtually synonymous throughout much of the world.  Although it may be preferable to develop inclusive, transethnic identities, these are the result of cultural negotiations and exchanges that occur over generations.  When regimes fail abruptly, national identity must be recreated with some haste to minimize competition between formerly contained identities.  State formation in this context often lacks the underlying structure to support the development of sustainable non-ethnic civil identities, or the time to form them.  The severity of the gap between local and national identity aligns with the amount of redefinition that must occur to legitimize new government, and ethnicity provides a convenient basis for organization.

            The potential costs of organizing a society around ethnicity can be devastating, but ignoring the reality of these forces is not constructive.  Successful democratization requires the recognition of ethnic or other identities as they exist in society.  Facilitating their integration into the institutions of government provides spiritual capital for cooperation to the national level and is ultimately what determines the internal stability of nation-states.  It has never been enough to organize people solely along material interests, and complex states depend on common ideals and principles to remain united.  Beyond reinforcing state cohesion, nationalism underlies the success of international association.  The long-term cooperation of nation-states relies on their mutual confidence that they will be met with respect by their counterparts.  In an increasingly interconnected world, the importance of local identity is no less important in international affairs than it is at the national and subnational levels.


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Fearon, James D. and David Laitin. 2011. “Sons of the Soil, Migrants, and Civil War,” World Development 39 (2):212-20.

Fukuyama, Francis. Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2018): 140-162

Fukuyama, Francis. “Why National Identity Matters” Journal of Democracy; Baltimore 29(4), 2018: 5-15.

Hayden, Robert. “Serbian and Croatian Nationalism and the Wars in Yugoslavia” Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine; Cambridge 19(2), 1996.  Accessed online at https://www.culturalsurvival.org/

Kolstø, Pål. “Nation Building in the Former USSR” Journal of Democracy; Baltimore 7(1), 1996: 118-132.

Muller, J.Z. (2008). “Us and them: The enduring power of ethnic nationalism,” Foreign Affairs, 87(2):18-35.

Wike, Richard et al. “Europeans Credit EU With Promoting Peace and Prosperity, but Say Brussels Is Out of Touch With Its Citizens.” Pew Research Center.  March 19, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/