News Flash: Bolivia Opts Out of Nation-Statehood

by Peter Spiro

As of early 2009, it’s officially the Plurinational State of Bolivia.  (Okay, news travels slowly to Philadelphia; perhaps to your town, too?)  That may seem like a technical change, but Stanford geographer Martin W. Lewis makes the case that it gives the lie to the very concept of nationhood as we conventionally understand it:

The idea of the nation-state has become so powerful that it has blurred the distinctions between its component elements, impeding understanding and communication. Certainly most people in the United States consider all countries to be nation-states. In common parlance, “nation-state” is actually a redundancy, as “nation” has devolved into a mere synonym for country or sovereign state. This slippage is neither new nor specifically American; it is encoded in the very name of the world’s premiere global organization, the United Nations, as well as that of its predecessor, the League of Nations. But with Bolivia going out of its way to declare its non-nation-statehood, more precise terminology becomes necessary. Referring to contemporary Bolivia as a nation or a nation-state is simply wrong; that is exactly what the Bolivian government has proclaimed itself not to be. . . .

The nation-state ideal is attractive in part because it is so simple. Things would surely be easier if the world were actually divided into unambiguous units that were at once nations, sovereign states, and countries.

The appeal is not just in the simplicity.  The nation has generated and justified the state.  Once the two are decoupled, it’s not so clear why things should be organized as they are.  Of course even with the decline of the nation, we’re still left with the state, even in Bolivia.  Count it a legacy institution.

12 Responses

  1. Geez, news on South America does travel slowly in the US!

    Anyway, I thought you could be interested in reading Bolivia’s new (well, “2009 new”) Constitution, which can give you some hints as to what they mean by “pluri-national”.

    I’ve translated some important parts (but bear in mind some words are kinda “untranslatable”). I hope its of your interest:

    Art. 1.- Bolivia is constituted as a Unitary Social State of Communitarian Pluri-National Law, free, independent, sovereign, democratic, inter-cultural, descentralized and with autonomies. Bolivia is founded in plurality and political, economic, legal, cultural and linguistic pluralism, within the country’s integrating process.
    Art. 2.- Given the pre-colonial existence of the original-peasant indigenous nations and peoples and their ancestral domain over their territories, their self-determination is guaranteed in the framework of the unity of the State, which consists of their right to autonomy, self-government, culture, recognition of their institutions and the consolidation of their territorial entities, according to this Constitution and the Law.
    Art. 3.- The Bolivian nation is conformed by the totality of Bolivian men and women, the original-peasent indigenous nations and peoples, and the inter-cultural and afro-bolivian communities that, jointly, constitute the Bolivian People.

  2. Peter,
    IMHO, ‘nation’ and ‘state’ have been separate concepts at least since one guy tried to use the former concept to annex a few other states, circa 1939. And the idea that states reflect nations isn’t so straightforward outside the US: I am not entirely sure that Scotland, Wales and England are not in fact separate ‘nations’ (they at least feel they are).
    Not that these are easy things at all, but it seems to me that using the word ‘nation’ in international law is simply not done anymore, and the Bolivian change isn’t really changing much… The name of the United Nations is quite irrelevant, because nations can (and are) united through the medium of states cooperating with each other. States are the way we structure and organize the world, which comprises many more nations than there are states.
    The ‘more precise terminology [that] becomes necessary’ according to Lewis already exists. The first pages of J. Crawford, The Creation of States, are a classic place to look at to shed some light on these complex issues.

  3. An thought-provoking topic – Thomas Franck explored the same issues regarding the concepts of nationhood and statehood in the first couple of chapters of ‘The Empowered Self’ to provide the contextualise the rest of the book. Worth a read.

  4. Thanks for the comments.  I agree with Francesco that there may not be much new here, but there is at least something symbolic about Bolivia’s name change (although the helpful translation from AGD appears to indicate that there is still some conception of “the Bolivian people”, which might equate to something like a “nation”).  Tom Franck’s book was pathbreaking, though I think he attributed more to individual autonomy than might be justified (we can’t just choose to be this or that — we have to be accepted as members first).

  5. Peter,
    Yes, I agree with you completely; the book is definitely ‘aspirational’ – whether the degree of individual autonomy that Franck envisages is possible is realistically attainable is questionable. However, I don’t think anyone would doubt the merit of many of the individual ideas as alternative means with which to critique or interpret the manner in which the global community orders itself, even if the thesis as a whole is a bit ambitious.

  6. SBR, Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for ambitious theses!

  7. Oh, no, sorry, I didn’t mean to imply anything to the contrary, I was merely agreeing with you, apologies if I came across otherwise!

  8. Thanks for your post. I think the constitutional and other courts will surely spell out what these, to my opinion not only symbolic, changes mean. Although not familiar with Bolivia but after all a little more with neighboring Peru (which has a quite similar societal configuration I suppose), I would suggest that these changes will have considerable impact on the society. The generally strengthened self-confidence and self-awareness of the indigenous population (linguistic pluralism, as emphasized in Art. 1of the Constitution, is particularly important here I think) which is, among others, expressed and reaffirmed in these changes of the Constitution will, I imagine, shape the future of Bolivia and even have effects on its neighbors. (I will ask the people when I’m visiting Peru and Bolivia in february.)

    What the idea and practice of a “plurinational state” will actually mean for Bolivia is, of course, difficult to predict. In any event, it’s a very exciting development that this country is taking. And, by the way, it’s not too late to comment on it since the “plurinational” experiment (in Bolivia – and elsewhere!) is probably only beginning.

    I would defenitely be glad about some more information and insights from Peter or OJ readers who are more familiar with Bolivia before and after the “plurinational” Constitution.

  9. Ethiopian constitution also recognizes the sovereign rights of “nations, nationalities and peoples” to self-determination including up to secession. It even goes further than the Bolivian constitution in deconstructing the concept of nation-state.

  10. The Ethiopian constitution also recognizes the sovereign rights of “nations, nationalities and peoples” to self-determination including up to secession. It even goes further than the Bolivian constitution in deconstructing the concept of nation-state.

  11. Response…
    The United States has treaties with various Indian nations and tribes that exist within the United States.  Brierly recognized the difference between an “nation” and a “state” in his book, The Law of Nations.  For more on nations, tribes and other actors in the international legal process, please see

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