Culture and the vanishing of states


Can cultural intelligence also prevent this?

Sjaak Pappe, BAA MA, E-mail:

Topics that will be covered 

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a nation-state?
  3. Research and statement
  4. How states vanish, The Example of the USSR 
  5. Is there a (cor)relation between the examples of vanishing states and culture?
  6. Can culture management prevent states from vanishing?
  7. Summary, conclusion and a suggestion for a solution framework and further debate

Keywords: Nation-State, Culture, Vanishing States, Implosion of Nations, Culture and Government Policies. 

  1. Introduction

Why do states vanish? The what and or how of nation-building is influenced by culture. But why and or how states vanish may also be influenced by (their or other’s) culture. Can the deployment of cultural dynamics also help prevent states from disappearing or stop nations from conquering others? This article explores the possible (cor)relation between dissolving nations and their culture, based on a limited literature study. It will draft some ideas on how culture might help prevent states from disappearing. This given the actuality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This article is, therefore, about how the USSR vanished and how Putin wants to restore the Old Russian Empire, which is more than the USSR because he more or less despised the latter’s political system. He went back to the leadership of one man instead of the leadership of the Communist Party committees. He wants to become the new ‘Czar’.     

A recent special of the Culture Impact Journal has focused on how nations are built and whether this “how” has a (cor)relation with the national culture(s) involved. I initialy decided to explore it from another angle: why do states vanish and whether there is a (cor)relation between national culture and the “why” and “how” of the dissolving process. However, with the invasion of Russia in Ukraine, I changed my mind. 

The new principle  of my article became that all citizens should have the right to have their own safe state without the need to fear that their nation will vanish because of interference by other nations. That right should be assured by respecting local national culture’s values.

Because people are more loyal to culture than to strategy, it’s the most important inhibitor and enabler of change in collective human behavior, attitude, and beliefs. Therefore, let’s assume that enhanced cultural competencies, especially cultural awareness, -sensitivity and -empathy, competences and cultural situational leadership of heads of state, diplomats, militaries, and parliamentarians, will lead to more effective diplomatic and military operations, which will ensure more strategic, safe states than nowadays is the case. The norm should be: the world community assures states don’t vanish (unless a failed state) or get retrieved and that conquering of other states is not done. 

We know that culture is the key influencer of collective human behavior, however in addition I have still made a small literature study to understand why and how nations vanish. Also, I will try to scan whether culture’s consequences are more or less visible in the vanishing process. Primarily, I have studied the work of prize-winning researchers and writers Davies, Fazal, and Diamond. 

I will start by describing a nation-state. Furthermore, I will describe how I studied the work of different writers. I will summarize why and how nations die and explore any correlation with culture. Next, I will explain my doctrine of why leaders should apply diplomacy inspired by nature. I will close off with recommendations for further research and policies.      

  • What is a nation-state?

First, what is a nation-state? It is “a sovereign state of which most of the citizens or subjects are united also by factors which define a nation, such as language or common descent” (Oxford Dictionary). Another definition is broader: “A nation-state is a political unit where the state and nation are congruent  . It is a more precise concept than “country” since a country does not need to have a predominant ethnic group” (Wikipedia).

“A nation, in the sense of a common ethnicity, may include a diaspora or refugees who live outside the nation-state; some nations of this sense do not have a state where that ethnicity predominates. In a more general sense, a nation-state is simply a large, politically sovereign country or administrative territory.” (Wikipedia). The concept of a nation state as we know them nowadays has been developed mainly from the 19th century onwards. Before that, nation-states did not exist, but they were mainly (conglomerates of geographically spread) kingdoms, empires, duchies, counties, and city-states. They were most of the time not established in one specific territory, but mostly geographically dispersed.

  • Research and statement

Second, I explored how states vanish through a limited literature study. For that, I used, amongst other things, first, Norman Davies’s research on the history of fifteen forgotten European states. Secondly, I also studied the work of Tanisha M. Fazal and thirdly, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond to gain insight into how states disappear. 

Is there a correlation between culture and how a state vanishes or in the vanishing of a state as such? If so, can managing cultural dynamics prevent states from vanishing? This is because every nation has a right to exist if its citizens desire to. 

  • How states vanish – the example  of the USSR

In order to be clear, with ‘vanishing’ I don’t mean ‘revolution’ nor ‘regime-change’ nor ‘system-failure’. Revolution and regime change refer to events where the social order or government is overthrown but where the territory and population remain intact. System failure refers to political organisms that lose the capacity to function effectively but, most of the time, don’t collapse completely. A field of study of recent decades is failed, or better,  failing states, which actually refers to system failure. Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria top this list. In this article, I write about states that cease to exist. Many scholars describe extinction as a ’natural’ process for nations; they rise, flourish, decline, and become extinct. To illustrate that, alone Europe lists no fewer than 207 extinct states in its past. It is a definitely underestimated issue.         

Most scholars nowadays agree that external, internal, voluntary, and involuntary factors are all visible in the vanishing of nations and that dual schemes no longer suffice. At least five mechanisms appear to be at work: implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation and ‘infant mortality’. The ultimate factor is war. Let me explain. 

Fazal has proven in her research that when states disappear through conquest geography is the main reason. States that vanish are, in most cases, buffer states. Big geopolitical powers, like the US, Russia, China, and India, prefer buffer states between them in order to maintain a balance between them. By offering EU and NATO membership to these buffer states, like Ukraine, Georgia, and before that, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Russia feels threatened. This disregards the fact that Russia, at a certain moment, even requested to become a member of NATO. Remember that also the US assured itself that communist, socialist, or even left-liberal regimes didn’t get a chance to develop in the buffer zones of the US. They financed and organized revolts against democratically chosen regimes (the list is very long). Geography is also the main reason why states are not conquered. If a country comprises, in general, rough terrain and strong ethnic groups, they are very hard to conquer. Afghanistan and Vietnam are the best examples (Fazal).          

After WWII the norm became (conferences of Jalta, Potsdam): no more conquering, no more war. But it was unilaterally declared by the US and supported by the Western World. Russia (Stalin) agreed but felt insecure about this process because the agreement was that Eastern European countries should get the right to organize democratic elections. Hence, amongst other reasons, the ‘Cold War’ started. This is because buffer states had the potential to be ‘conquered’ by Western democracies. Putin continued this vision and has already spoken about this unilateral doctrine several times, also in public. Russia wasn’t really involved in drafting, organizing and leading the doctrine of ‘no more war’. But Western leaders didn’t listen and or didn’t get the message. This may be influenced by the fact that ‘collectivistic’ Putin brings his message indirectly. He doesn’t want the US to determine when war is allowed and when not. 

The problem is that in the eyes of many people, the EU and the US haven’t contributed to the improvement of the livelihood of their societies and the welfare of their citizens. They see their citizens primarily as consumers, and workers to be directed by centrally developed laws (EU) or little control (US). Instead of increased welfare for citizens (political), power holders and wealthy people became more distant, more powerful, and richer. EU and US citizens feel unheard. Hence, extreme right movements can flourish because they supposedly ‘listen’ to the common people and have simple solutions for all problems: find a scapegoat (e.g., immigrants), restore old ‘ethnicities, values and norms’, and all will be solved. Russia has built on this doctrine via fake news and hacks.            

  • Is there a (cor)relation between the examples of vanishing states and culture?

In this article, I write about the most actual example where internal factors were key: the Soviet Union, which is often said has ‘imploded’, despite that also outside pressures has been present. The reason seems to me to be cultural. All cultures within the Soviet Union, except the Baltics, are in the assessment of Geert Hofstede, very hierarchical and have an extreme high need for certainty. So, there is an emotional need for power to be centralized and for a strict ‘father figure’ at a distance to be in charge (Wursten). Also, big changes in political, economic, social, and/or technological ecosystems are not valued, even blocked, if needed by law or violence. A catastrophic malfunction of the center occurred, and the vacuum was created. The constituent republics of the Union disengaged and continued into uncertainty-avoiding states led by autocrats, except the Northern-European-oriented cultures of the Baltic States. The whole was destroyed. The political system had been developed around the centralized dictatorship of the Communist Party and the command economy. As soon as Gorbachev lost his ability and will to command, because of his Perestroika and Glasnost doctrine, all Party structures came to a stop. This is the main reason why the Soviet Union collapsed, in my opinion, and that of a lot of scholars (Davies). Fifteen republics were pushed into the step beyond mere ‘system failure’. For the Baltics, it was the easiest. They were occupied and annexed in 1940. But they were never fully integrated because of their differences in culture, but also amalgamation takes a long time, often generations. ‘Only’ fifty years later they could ‘escape’ due to the vacuum, with great effort, gasping, but intact as before the conquering, proving that cultural values are stable because they are passed on from generation to generation and that symbols, role models and their power structures, rituals and practices change (Hofstede). 

Gorbachev’s doctrine of Perestroika and Glasnost didn’t fit the culture of the USSR. He wanted to go back to the idealogic source of Lenin for just political, economic, social, and technological reasons, by the way. The USSR was in a bad state. He wanted more socialism, more delegation to the people’s republics, and more democracy while maintaining sufficient central power, although getting rid of what he called unimportant tasks. But these tasks kept the bureaucracy, needed for central power, intact. Ending the ‘Cold War’ was another strategy of Gorbachev. But that was one of the main reasons for the existence of his socialist nation. He tried to change the ‘cultural ecosystem’ of his country via a guided revolution. 

That is factually impossible, certainly within the time frame he had in mind. Most revolutions in history have brought changes but never in the ‘cultural ecosystem’. Symbols, role models, rituals, and some practices may change, but the cultural values are unchangeable. They drive the basic unwritten rules of the ‘social game’. The behavior of Vladimir Putin doesn’t really differ from that of the Imperial Czars and communist ‘Czar’ Josef Stalin. Another example that may raise some eyebrows is the French Revolution. It’s always promoted as the big turning point in Western democracy. I seriously doubt that. That process started already in the Renaissance and gradually developed into the present-day Western democracies, which certainly played their role. But let’s look at France nowadays and the famous slogan ‘Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood’. Freedom is, to a certain extent, true because the French are individualistic people. Brotherhood is already more difficult to realize, especially because of the individualistic culture and the high power distance. There is a Brotherhood, but mainly within the school system in groups, like the Grand Ecoles. Finally, Equality is, in my opinion, ‘window dressing’ or in other words it’s an identity policy in my humble opinion. The French still have their ‘Sun King’, namely the President. He has much more power than any other president around the world in democratic societies. When you look at French society, it looks from a distance like a collection of ’Solar Systems’ or chaos, unclear where the structure is, but when a sun within the system starts to shine, it’s clear who assures everybody’s existence, like on our Earth, the Sun. In France that are the people that are in the top leadership roles. 

Certainly, when one considers that the USSR republics’ cultures were and still are  extremely hierarchical, collectivistic, and very, very insecure, change is extremely challenging. A change process in such a culture follows different lines. The top power holder’s opinion is all important. This figure allows for opinions about new ideas informally and indirectly. The top leader needs to have trust and respect. He emphasizes the fear of failure and emotional buy-in (Wursten). Already Stalin stated that the USSR was threatened. He transformed the country in less than two decades from a backward, largely peasant country into a modern power with considerable industrial and military potential. He was certainly driven by the Communist Ideology and partly by memories of the humiliating defeat of the Great War. But when he launched his program for five-year plans and collectivistic agriculture in 1929, he said: ‘If we don’t transform this country in ten years, our enemies will destroy us.’ It’s scary, similar to what Putin does and says, isn’t it?    In corporate business, one often says ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, a term first ascribed to Peter Drucker, and most business leaders respect this principle. However, Gorbachev neglected the innovation and change management principles of this paradigm. By the way, when I write ‘culture’ I mean the unwritten rules of the social game that are internalized for centuries and applied by the majority of sixty to seventy percent of a nation’s citizens and leaders.   

The example of the USSR is painfully actual, given Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine and earlier on Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, and Syria. He wants to restore Greater Russia and maybe even more: he wants to destroy all (surrounding) democracies, or at least the ones in his ‘buffer zone’. Besides his personality, which maybe a ‘dark triad’ (a term from psychiatry) of psychopathy, narcism, and manipulation and the bad state of the economy, his personal cultural “programming” could impact his strategy. As stated earlier, Russia has a culture of strong hierarchy, collectivism, femininity, extreme need for certainty and long-term orientation. 

Putin’s collectivistic side probably experienced the loss of face when the USSR disappeared, and the West discounted its leadership and took advantage of the chaos. The to-be-expected reaction of a hierarchical, collectivistic, and uncertain state leader: revenge in a silent, informal, and indirect way. Chaos must be controlled and banned. He is patient and apparently has a long-term orientation, meaning he became focused on the future when he came into office in 1999. He was willing to delay short-term material or social success or even short-term emotional gratification in order to prepare for the future. He values persistence, perseverance, saving and being able to adapt.

I am of the opinion that Western leaders, under the ‘supreme’ leadership of the US, have contributed to or even enabled this situation but also didn’t see it or even ignored it. “This situation” includes Russia partly conquering of neighboring states, Russia’s support of autocratic regimes (Syria), and the upcoming extreme right (violent) movements in the EU and US. Let me explain another example which is similar to the USSR. 

The Federation of Yugoslavia, which fell apart after Tito’s death in stages between 1991 and 2006, displayed many similar features to those in the USSR. The main difference is that Serbia, claiming the central power role under the leadership of Miloševic, tried to keep the Federation together with, amongst others, brutal military campaigns. But the ‘spirit was already out of the bottle’ and the more he raged against the other Balkan nations, the more they alienated from Serbia, including their most faithful partner, Montenegro. Here, the word ‘explosion’ might be more suited than ‘implosion’.  

  • Can culture-based politics and diplomacy prevent states from vanishing? 

Hopefully, you, as a reader, can agree with me that Gorbachev neglected his country’s ‘cultural ecosystem’. He should have stayed in power as a ‘benevolent, strict father figure at a distance’ in a guided, centrally controlled ‘democracy’.

Western countries should have realized that Putin was losing his buffer states, the countries that would stay impartial between the big power blocks, the EU/USA, NATO, and Russia. But always with the risk that either power block may ‘conquer’ buffer states. That has happened in the surrounding states of Russia. That’s why Putin started to re-conquer areas.

Informal and indirect negotiations with Putin in order to ensure that he would not lose face could have been successful but only when done with ‘Byzantine Diplomacy’. That means playing the waiting game but with the ‘iron fist’ of clandestine violent actions if talks don’t lead to quick results or even warfare or threat of strong armed forces ready. But Western nations should have been doing this from the beginning of Putin’s reign and not be naïve as they have been in the past decades.   

To illustrate this strategy, hereby is an example of how Russia operated in the eighties toward terrorists in the Middle East (Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1986).   

 “The Jerusalem Post said the Soviet secret police last year secured the release of three kidnaped Soviet diplomats in Beirut by castrating a relative of a radical Lebanese Shia Muslim leader, sending him the severed organs and then shooting the relative in the head.”

‘……with a warning that he would lose other relatives in a similar fashion if the three remaining Soviet diplomats were not immediately released. They were quickly freed.’  

‘And this is the language Hezbollah understands’

  • Summary, conclusion and a suggestion for a solution framework and further debate

In this article I wrote about why and how nations vanish, especially about the factor ‘implosion’ in relation to Russia and Ukraine – the other reasons I have left apart for the sake of the length of this article and because culture is the dynamic that also influences these reasons.

Hopefully, I have giving enough insight to the reader that culture is ‘the puppet master’ that can cause nations to vanish but also that can prevent the disappearance of states. Cultural values are so powerful because they are mostly unconsciously passed on from generation tot generation. They are the unconscious useful corner stones for people to survive in social settings.     

I do understand why big power nations prefer buffer states between them. However, this is contrary to my vision (doctrine if you want)  that people in all nations should have the right to choose the system, relations, and cooperation partners they want. 

Let me introduce therefore a new term: Culture-Based Interventions for Strategic Safety (C-BISS). The core of this strategy is culture-based defense and -diplomacy. The term is not the same as Cultural Diplomacy which is a more broader concept that also plays a role in efforts for nations’ security but mainly through soft actions around artistic and knowledge exchanges.

What is Cultural Diplomacy? Two definitions: 

“Cultural Diplomacy may best be described as a course of actions, which are based on and utilize the exchange of ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture or identity, whether to strengthen relationships, enhance socio-cultural cooperation, promote national interests and beyond; Cultural diplomacy can be practiced by either the public sector, private sector or civil society.”

“Cultural diplomacy is a type of public diplomacy and soft power that includes the “exchange of ideas, information, art, language and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding”. The purpose of cultural diplomacy is for the people of a foreign nation to develop an understanding of the nation’s ideals and institutions in an effort to build broad support for economic and political goals. In essence “cultural diplomacy reveals the soul of a nation”, which in turn creates influence. Though often overlooked, cultural diplomacy can and does play an important role in achieving national security efforts.”

Definition of Culture-Based Interventions for Strategic Safety (‘C-BISS’): 

In order to secure the long term existance of nations, interventions like interference of hostile plans, arbitration and mediation, breaking of enemy alliances, besieging (potential) conquerors and or (para)military (clandestine) actions, all shaped by applying the ‘unwritten rules of the social game’ are allowed towards nations where goals, objectives and/or strategies are developed to have another or their own nation to vanish. 

The key challenge is: Who or what will assure this? The UN is not powerful, authoritative and influential enough for that role. A secret global network of vigilantes that execute tyrannicide would be a solution. But that only happens in fantasy novels and movies. But non-democratic, clandestine actions will have to part of the tactics unfortunately (like Harari writes). Else, powerful agressors will be blocking any legal action. 

It might be a very small-scale modest idea to organize a low key global debate platform under the flag of Culture Impact, just like the Dutch Nexus Institute does on Cultural Diplomacy. 

List of academic books and articles that discuss the phenomenon of state disappearance and its underlying causes that I partly used as inspiration and sources to write this article and which is a recommended reading list.


  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari, 2018.
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond, 2005.
  • Culture and Organisations, Software of the Mind: Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival, Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov, 2010.
  • Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, Noam Chomsky, 2006.
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond, 1997. 
  • Humankind, A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman, 2021.
  • Perestroika, Our Hopes for our Country and our World, Mikhail Gorbachev, 1987.  
  • State Death: The Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation, Tanisha M. Fazal, 2007.
  • The 7 Mental Images of National Culture: Leading and Managing in a Globalized World, Huib Wursten, 2019.
  • The Vanishing State: Historical Perspectives on State Failure, edited by I. William Zartman
  • The Vanishing State: The View from the Ground” by Christian Leuprecht and Joel J. Sokolsky
  • Vanished Kingdoms, The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, Norman Davies, 2011.
  • Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty”, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, 2013.


  • Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. “The Rise and Decline of General Laws of Capitalism.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 29, no. 1 (2015): 3-28.
  • Chua, Amy. “World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.” New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
  • Englehart, Neil A. “Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.” Polity 39, no. 2 (2007): 287-288..
  • Hegre, Håvard, Tanja Ellingsen, Scott Gates, and Nils Petter Gleditsch. “Toward a Democratic Civil Peace? Democracy, Political Change, and Civil War, 1816-1992. American Political Science Review 95, no. 1 (2001): 33-48.
  • Rotberg, Robert I. “Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators.” In State Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror, edited by Robert I. Rotberg, 1-30. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003..