Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.1 (Spring 2009): Book Reviews: "Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity" by Will Kymlicka [Full Text]

Mar 26, 2009

Multicultural Odysseys: Navigating the New International Politics of Diversity,
Will Kymlicka (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 320 pp., $50 cloth, $28 paper.

Ann Towns (Reviewer)

In Multicultural Odysseys, Will Kymlicka skillfully accomplishes a number of analytical tasks—not only extending his wellknown and widely respected defense of a liberal conception of multiculturalism to all states of the world, but also asking causal questions about why liberal multiculturalism is spreading internationally, and why diversity policies do or do not take root in different parts of the world. He contends that multiculturalism emerged as an international issue among liberal Western states (rather than a domestic issue within individual states) in the early 1990s, primarily in response to the perceived security threat of escalating ethnic violence in the postcommunist and postcolonial world, but also in response to the apparent success of multiculturalism within Western countries. International organizations (IOs), including the United Nations and some of its specialized agencies, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have since become a major conduit for the promotion of multiculturalism, and their activities are thus the book's main focus.

Kymlicka claims that IO efforts can take root in states where two conditions have been met: (1) individual liberties have been secured by reliable human rights protections, and (2) states have been freed from geopolitical fears as to how multiculturalism will affect national security. The absence of these conditions, rather than "the persistence of pre-modern identities and attitudes of 'tribalism' (in Africa/Asia) or 'ethnic nationalism' (in post-communist Europe)," explains the failure of liberal multiculturalism to take root in certain parts of the world (p. 20). Kymlicka’s main concerns are that IOs do not always take seriously the risks that liberal multiculturalism can pose to individual liberties and geopolitical security, and that IOs promote multiculturalism unevenly and arbitrarily. The book concludes with some brief suggestions for how to turn the promotion of liberal multiculturalism into a coherent legal and political project that addresses the security concerns of individuals and states (for example, a sequencing strategy, with distinctive minority rights provisions taking effect as the underlying conditions are established).

For an author with a background in political philosophy, this book is a courageous move into the world of social science. International relations scholars in particular should be grateful that Kymlicka is willing to make the move, as he makes several important contributions to the study of world politics. First, the book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on why and how new state policies emerge and spread around the world. While scholars concerned with international policy diffusion largely concede that international norms are important, they rarely ask probing questions about what these norms are, or how the standards are understood and legitimated. Kymlicka, in contrast, devotes a significant part of his book precisely to these questions. He contends that the norms of multiculturalism promoted by international organizations are fundamentally liberal in nature, shaped and constrained by the ideals of human rights. The principle of "equality between groups" (assuring that all individuals have equal access to the group-based cultural goods necessary for individual autonomy) is confined by the principle of "freedom within groups," which ensures that other fundamental individual rights are not violated, including "gender equality, religious freedom, racial non-discrimination, gay rights, due process, and so on" (p 93). What he sees and approves of is IOs' advocating for a quite constrained form of multiculturalism, one that is premised on the acceptance of certain liberal values and practices.

Kymlicka’s investigation of the substance and scope of the concept of multiculturalism adopted by IOs thus also opens promising avenues for further inquiries. Can liberalism in practice really be conceived of as a coherent package of compatible rights? Are IOs simultaneously advancing multiculturalism, gender equality, gay rights, religious freedom, and so on? How do IOs adapt and interpret such abstract concepts as "gender equality" in their promotion of multiculturalism, and with what effects? Can we exempt international practices by states considered liberal from our understanding of what liberal is?

In addition, the focus on the meaning of norms opens space for asking whether a liberal conception of multiculturalism is what IOs should be promoting globally. Asking this question is important for such fields as international relations, which generally insist on distinguishing "fact" from "value," thereby avoiding any engagement with the ethical assumptions and implications of social scientific studies. Not surprisingly, Kymlicka is unapologetic in his defense of liberal multiculturalism. Although he expresses misgivings about how IOs go about their advocacy and about the prospects for success around the world, he is unwavering in his conviction that liberal multiculturalism is ultimately a good thing everywhere. This unambiguous moral stance is not just refreshing, but also makes it easier for those engaged in legal and political decision-making to grapple with and evaluate the merits of the book.

Kymlicka’s firm commitment to liberalism and liberal multiculturalism, however, simultaneously poses some challenges for his causal analyses. Like most other studies of international policy diffusion, Multicultural Odysseys promotes the assumption that all good things start in the "liberal West." Since Kymlicka shows little interest in asking whether there may be other viable models and conceptualizations of multiculturalism around the world, the narrative of progress starting among liberal Western states and the IOs they influence becomes true by default. One might also ask whether the author’s strong faith in the liberating nature of liberalism may have contributed to the book's underemphasis on the colonial and postcolonial activities of liberal Western states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and their effects on ethnic conflict.

In a brief treatment (pp. 257–62), Kymlicka seems to suggest that the active manipulation of ethnic relations by Western states is a historical rather than contemporary practice. The main problem today is instead presented as one of selective support for minority rights, such as when the United States "strongly condemned Iraq under Saddam Hussein for its mistreatment of the Kurds, yet turned a blind eye to the mistreatment of the Kurds in Turkey" (p. 259). This is a strangely benign reading that ignores a multitude of recent cases in which Western states have adopted policies that would knowingly shore up the oppression of certain ethnic groups, such as U.S. and British support for the apartheid regime of South Africa in the 1980s and French support of the genocidaires in Rwanda in the 1990s. If one considers such cases, Kymlicka's claim that "conspiracy theories" (for example, p. 258) are the source of the resistance to and distrust of IOs—where these Western states are so influential—seems misplaced; and his presumed link between liberal Western states and support for minority rights also becomes questionable. Nonetheless, Kymlicka's seamless integration of ethical, causal, and policy-directed questions is no small feat, resulting in a project of intense interest to a wide range of scholars and policy-makers in multiple fields.

—ANN TOWNS The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. She is the author of the forthcoming book Women and States: Norms and Hierarchies in International Society.

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