One of the most common motifs in world politics has been fragmentation along sectarian lines. Since the Biblical breakup of Solomon’s kingdom to now in South Sudan, nationalistic, ethnic, and cultural divisions express themselves through movements for secession: the breaking off of one part from a sovereign, whole state entity.
In 1900, there were 57 nations, about 30 percent of the present-day total. Although much of the subsequent growth came through decolonization and international mandate, secession has also played a significant role. Secession movements created Croatia, Slovenia, Namibia, Eritrea, East Timor, Montenegro, and Kosovo, among others, over the course of the last two decades. Currently independent republics, these products of secession owe their success both to the resolve of local ethnic nationalists and the graces of countries that let them go.
In a global system where borders rarely change in delineation, parsing the role of secession is no simple feat. Although the nation-state remains the fundamental unit of international relations, the importance of regional integration on one hand and devolved local autonomy on the other has complicated the conventional view of how political power is distributed. While we may not be seeing a rush of international recognitions of new states, local autonomy and other measures have created opportunities for self-rule at unparalleled levels.
Birth of the International System
Today, across Europe, Africa, and Asia, the push for separation by groups continues to prevail. Despite only cursory changes to the arrangement of the United Nations General Assembly since the early 1990s, wide arrays of entities continue to agitate for self-determination and separation from existing states. Accordingly, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, an NGO based in The Hague, lists 53 members, representing a broad range of ethnic separatists from Abkhazia, in the Caucasus, to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in the Ganges River basin.
A prominent argument in favor of secession remains that the creation of multi-national alliances and international systems of governance has created a climate favorable to secession. Until the mid-twentieth century, geopolitical power belonged almost exclusively to states or, later, Cold War alliances, oftentimes driven by coercion. Since the evolution of the European Economic Community into the formidable European Union, such regional associations as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union have taken up the cause of collective sovereignty on the continental level.
Decentralization is the Name
In parallel, new expectations of governance have encouraged a wave of devolutionary processes across the developed world. In the wake of Spain’s 1978 constitutional transition, a gradual process has moved the Iberian nation from a centralized autocracy to a federal democracy. In Catalonia and the Basque Country, home to robust separatist movements, Madrid dictates little civil authority. Likewise, within the United Kingdom, a Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament mete out legislation in the constituent nations they nominally govern.
According to Parag Khanna, director of the Global Governance Initiative at the New America Foundation, this shift in the arrangement of power proves a catalyst for secession. Citing historical examples, he asserts that “the formal achievement of secession, and then self-determination, usually follows from policies of decentralization.” Although he cautions against the uncritical assumption that ethnic federalism must necessarily lead to secession, Khanna argues that the new paradigm of devolution has served to enable the possibility. In cases like Kurdistan, where an ethnic minority is “not too keen to remain within the federal unit,” regional autonomy appears to prefigure the arrival of full national sovereignty.
Forces that Stop Change
More skeptical observers maintain that measures of local autonomy and regional integration successfully quell calls for separation. Since the onset of local autonomy in Spain’s Basque Country, the mass movement for secession led by ETA, the armed Basque separatist movement, has slowed to a trickle. Khanna explains that, counter-intuitively, “[concessions of autonomy] are often used as mechanisms to ensure some kind of federal union,” exemplified by the cases of Quebec and the Basque Country.
Furthermore, integrating forces might overwhelm the interests of local and ethnic separatists. Jerry Muller, professor of history at Catholic University, contends that “insofar as the European Union takes over the function of the traditional nation-state, it diminishes the ongoing attraction of separating from the nation-state.” To the credit of his argument, not a single state has seceded from an E.U. member nation since the organization’s inception.
Economics of Change
Beyond the role of power in secession debates, the issue of economics looms large. In a financial sense, the separation of a polity into two amounts to the separation of one market into two. Indeed, Muller notes that “many issues of ethnic tension,” the raison d’être of most secessionist movements, “have to do with the flow of various revenue streams.” The critical importance of resource sharing in the mediation of secessionist conflicts rings truest in the developing world. In newly minted South Sudan, set to declare official independence in July, secession has succeeded “on the understanding that [petroleum] revenue streams to the South will continue to flow to the North,” Mueller claims. In the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, a lack of consensus over the sharing of oil revenues has hamstrung efforts toward full sovereignty.
In the developed world, the economics of secession tends to follow a regular and static pattern. Muller contends, “areas attracted to secessionism are the wealthier regions of a larger nationstate that regard the rest of the state as an economic drag.” Accordingly, poorer regions of a state are unlikely to agitate for separation from the system upon which they depend. As such, contemporary European secessionist movements prevail in comparatively wealthy regions like Scotland (rich in offshore petroleum), Catalonia, Basque Country, Bavaria, and Northern Italy. Despite the attraction of shedding the baggage of the poorer regions, the benefits of total separation are difficult to parse. Muller insists that while these movements “will be an ongoing specter, [secession is] unlikely to become a reality.” In real terms, the benefits of belonging to the seamless market of a large nation-state outweigh the principle of moving from extended autonomy into outright independence.
While there may be general trends in secessionism towards increasing local autonomy, the future for political movements remains unclear. The very forces impelling Greenland to independence appear to be limiting the Basques to federal autonomy. For the new proliferation of secessionist movements, only a few potential states appear on the horizon, and unlikely ones at that. Parag Khanna argues in Foreign Policy, “The way to create a peaceful and borderless world is, ironically, by allowing ever more nations to define themselves and their borders.” Whether or not policymakers will take him up on that claim, however, seems increasingly unclear.
Joshua Lipson ‘14 is the Staff Director