National self-determination was a key engine of twentieth-century geopolitics, driving the creation of many new countries after the two world wars, and again after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, rather than correcting imperialist aberrations, most of today’s attempts at statehood pose a threat to global or regional stability.
MADRID – A rather capacious interpretation of the right to statehood, along with various political and economic forces, is now destabilizing many regions of the world. In just the past few weeks, the regional governments of Catalonia in Spain and Kurdistan in Iraq have held unofficial independence referendums. And in Cameroon, separatist groups in the English-speaking region of Ambazonia have unilaterally declared independence from the country’s French-speaking regions.
Meanwhile, Scotland has been weighing whether to hold another independence referendum, so that it can remain in the European Union after the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the bloc. And dozens of other regions with powerful secessionist forces – including Flanders in Belgium, Biafra in Nigeria, and Québec in Canada – are watching events closely from the sidelines.
National self-determination was a driving force of twentieth-century geopolitics, underpinning the creation of many new countries after the two world wars, and again after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, it had just 51 member states; today, it has 193. But the road to independence is usually bloody, violent, and long, as Africa’s experience with civil war and ethnic conflict shows. The peaceful breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, and of Norway and Sweden in 1905, were the exceptions to the rule.
By the twenty-first century, most of the historical aberrations that colonialism and Soviet imperialism had imposed on the world map had been addressed, and the global push for self-determination seemed to be losing steam. Whereas almost 30 new countries were established between 1981 and 1997, only five have emerged since 2000. With globalization came cultural, political, and economic homogenization, and the perception that regional distinctions no longer mattered. The world had entered into what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called an age of “post-national identity.”
The reemergence of secessionism today is thus unexpected; but it should not be surprising. In many instances, direct democracy has replaced military force as its primary instrument. Even Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 could be said to have originated from a referendum. From mature democracies such as the UK to struggling democracies like Iraq, self-determination is fueling new forms of micro-nationalism, some more legitimate than others.
Given the many dormant and active secessionist movements around the world, irredentism cannot be dismissed as an artifact of the last century. If anything, it will likely play a defining role in this century’s geopolitics, too. Project Syndicate commentators’ analyses of recent events in Spain, Iraq, and elsewhere provide an indispensable resource for comprehending why – and whether and when secession is a legitimate demand.
The Right to Statehood
National self-determination, Harvard University’s Joseph Nye explains, “is generally defined as the right of a people to form their own state” – a right “put on the international agenda in 1918” by US President Woodrow Wilson and further enshrined in the United Nations Charter of 1945. But, while the concept is straightforward in principle, realizing it in practice is not, because, as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, observes, “There is no universally accepted set of standards” to apply to “leaders and populations seeking to leave one country and establish their own.”
Nation-states are the mainstays of the international system, so their fragmentation invariably raises fears of global or regional destabilization. But, as Princeton University’s Peter Singer points out, “Widespread human rights violations, either caused or tolerated by a national government, can give rise to what is sometimes called a remedial right to secession for a region’s inhabitants.” In these cases, which could include Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan in 1971 or Kosovo’s NATO-backed declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, “secession might be justified as a last resort, even if it imposes heavy costs on the rump state.”
On the other hand, if there is no evidence that a cultural or ethnic minority is being oppressed, secession can happen only through a negotiated, consensual, and lawful agreement between the departing population and the state they are leaving. In tiny Liechtenstein, the constitution actually allows individual municipalities to secede from the union. And in 2014, notes Robert Skidelsky of Warwick University, “British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to permit a referendum on independence” in Scotland, so as to “maintain governability” there after the Scottish National Party (SNP) captured a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011.
Still, these are exceptions. The vast majority of national constitutions do not allow for secession. For example, in 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Canadian government would be obliged to negotiate with Québec if the province’s voters expressed an unequivocal desire for independence through a referendum; but it also established that Québec has no right to secede unilaterally. And in some countries, including Turkey and Spain, the principle of territorial integrity is explicitly enshrined in the constitution.
As such, notes former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, “a referendum on secession” in Spain “cannot legally proceed without crippling the constitutional order that the country has built over the last 40 years, since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.” And besides, Palacio is quick to point out, the Spanish constitution aims “to protect the human rights, culture, traditions, languages, and institutions of the ‘peoples of Spain.’” Owing to this constitutional pledge, there is now “a complex body of law granting regional autonomy, including, in particular, for Catalonia, with significant powers having been transferred to the Catalonian regional government.”
Deciding Who Decides
Catalonia’s independence referendum on October 1 was not just unconstitutional; it was also undemocratic. The Catalan regional government adopted a “disconnection law” without allowing for a proper debate on the implications of independence. Worse, it did not even set a minimum threshold for participation in the referendum. The result has been a de facto dictatorship of the minority. “Only 43% of Catalonia’s population voted in the referendum,” observes Shlomo Ben-Ami of the Toledo International Center for Peace, a result that “even Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, a supporter of statehood, has questioned as a foundation for a unilateral declaration of independence.”
The current situation in Catalonia – where the regional government’s president, Carles Puigdemont, has now both declared and “suspended” independence – points to a central paradox of self-determination. Even an undemocratic and unconstitutional vote can have enormous political implications if its protagonists portray it as an expression of the “popular will.” Still, as Singer observes, while a referendum is indeed “a form of persuasion aimed at the government of the existing state,” it can be considered persuasive only with a “large turnout showing a clear majority for independence.” Accordingly, nobody should expect Spain to let Catalonia go. In Ben-Ami’s view, “It is now highly probable that the central government will invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows it to take direct control of Catalonia.”
Even if a super-majority of Catalans had voted for secession, a fundamental question would remain. As Nye asks: “who is the ‘self’” in national self-determination? The answer, he says, may depend on where and even when people make their determination. In the 1960s, when “Somalis in northeastern Kenya” sought independence, they “wanted to vote immediately,” whereas Kenya, which had been “formed by colonial rule from dozens of peoples or tribes” sought “to wait 40 or 50 years while it reshaped tribal allegiances and forged a Kenyan identity.”
“Another problem,” according to Nye, “is how one weighs the interests of those left behind.” Consider the example of oil-rich Scotland, whose departure would cause substantial economic damage to the rest of the UK. It stands to reason that all Britons, not just the Scots, should have their say about Scottish independence. And Singer reminds us that this is precisely what happened “when the people of eastern Nigeria decided to secede and form the state of Biafra in the 1960s.” Given that “Biafra included most of Nigeria’s oil,” other Nigerians “argued that the oil belonged to all the people of Nigeria, not just the eastern area.”
A legitimate secession, then, is not just a matter of establishing an appropriate “self” and complying with constitutional and international norms. It also must “not jeopardize the viability of the rump state or the security of neighboring states,” Haass writes. For Volker Perthes of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, the security of neighboring states is a particularly relevant concern in the Iraqi Kurds’ bid for independence. “Kurdish independence could encourage demands for autonomy in the Sunni-majority provinces bordering Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia,” he writes. And by “removing the third constituent element – besides Shia and Sunni Arabs – of Iraqi politics,” it could exacerbate that country’s dangerous “sectarian polarization.”
But others would reject such a priori assessments of the Kurdish situation. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy believes that a “Kurdish nation-state will be a ‘shining city on a hill,’ a luminous lodestar for the lost sons and daughters of Kurdistan, and a source of hope for all of the world’s dispossessed and displaced.” Similarly, Ben-Ami contends that a Kurdish state would not just have “a real chance of thriving,” but could also “combine natural-resource wealth with a tradition of stable and pragmatic governance, thereby creating a sustainable democracy” in an otherwise volatile region.
Indeed, for Haass, economic and political viability should be another prerequisite for secession, given that the world already has enough failed states destabilizing their surrounding regions. In 2011, the South Sudanese were morally justified in carving out their own state after decades of brutal oppression. But South Sudan’s political and economic institutions were so fragile that within three years the country had plunged into civil war. The South Sudan conflict has displaced more than two million people, frustrating expectations that, as Charles Tannock, a member of the European Parliament, put it in January 2011, “An independent South Sudan would force the West to confront established orthodoxies about Africa.” In particular, South Sudan’s experience tends to confirm “the belief that countries like Somalia and Nigeria are more stable whole than they would be in two or more constituent parts.”
The Importance of Recognition
As it happens, such orthodoxies can have a significant bearing on the viability of newly formed states, because a state’s economic and political soundness crucially depends on whether or not its independence is internationally recognized. Unrecognized states, lacking both a say in global decision-making and access to international markets, almost always collapse. That is why, ten years ago, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher feared that a failure to provide Kosovo with “access to sovereign lending from the World Bank or the [International Monetary Fund]” could spell trouble, not just for Kosovo but also for the EU, with which “Kosovo’s fate is intertwined.”
But the international community has become increasingly averse to accepting new members. Given that, as Nye points out, fewer than a tenth of the world’s countries are culturally homogeneous, an internationally sanctioned secession anywhere could encourage secessionists everywhere. As Raju Thomas of Marquette University warned in 2007, “to allow Kosovo’s independence would demonstrate that violent secessionism works.” That being the case, he concluded, “the world ought to get used to seeing the Kosovo ‘strategy’ applied elsewhere.”
Echoing this point, Palacio urges world – and especially European – leaders to “resist Catalan separatists’ calls for international mediation.” She cautions against entering into any form of dialogue that would validate the Catalan government’s circumvention of the Spanish constitution. “Nothing less than the future of the rule of law and constitutional democracy in Spain – and elsewhere – depends on it,” she insists. After all, on a continent with 250 regions defined by cultural, ethnic, or historical identities, a successful push for independence in Catalonia could trigger a domino effect, creating a Europe of mini-states where decision-making is even more difficult than it already is.
Of course, whether other countries decide to grant diplomatic recognition to secessionists ultimately depends on those countries’ own self-interest more than any moral or legal principle. So, it is not surprising that other European leaders, worried about their own secessionist movements, have deemed the Catalan crisis a domestic issue for Spain to resolve. Likewise, even if the 2014 Scottish referendum had passed, the pro-EU Scots most likely would have ended up outside the EU, because Spain would have had no choice but to veto Scottish membership in order to deter Catalonia from following suit.
Even in the case of the Kurds, who clearly deserve a state, most governments’ instinct is to demur. Under US President Donald Trump, Ben-Ami observes, the US has opposed the Kurdish independence referendum on the grounds that it would “destabilize Iraq,” and it has ended “military support for Syria’s anti-government rebels.” Of course, never one for consistency, Trump has also proved willing to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, even though it constituted, in the words of Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, “a serious and dangerous violation of international law.”
The Sources of Secessionism
The political fragmentation fueling recent independence bids around the world is occurring for a variety of reasons. In the Middle East and Africa, secessionism is being driven by struggles against autocratic oppression, and by appeals to distinctive local identities. In the former republics of the Soviet Union, self-determination movements are largely a manifestation of great-power politics, with a revanchist Kremlin fomenting irredentism in Crimea, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. And in Western Europe, regional movements for statehood wax and wane largely in response to structural and cyclical economic forces.
In Western Europe, wealthy regions such as Catalonia and Flanders are fed up with subsidizing their poorer neighbors; and their resentments have grown only stronger in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Writing in 2008, Ian Buruma, now the editor of the New York Review of Books, warned that Belgium was close to falling apart, owing to a resurgence in the kind of ethnic-nationalism that “post-war European unity was designed to contain.” French-speaking Belgians may have “started the European Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century,” he notes. But “they are now living in a deprived rustbelt in need of federal subsidies, a substantial amount of which comes from taxes paid by the more prosperous, high-tech Flemish.”
Skidelsky surmises that the Scottish referendum, too, was propelled by the financial crash and the ensuing Great Recession, which helped the SNP secure its parliamentary majority. But one should not pin European secessionists’ bitterness on the financial crisis alone. Structural factors such as globalization and the European integration process have also played an important role. According to Buruma, the EU, by actively promoting “regional interests, has weakened the authority of national governments.”
Harvard University’s Alberto Alesina made a similar point nearly 20 years ago: deeper economic integration, including the removal of trade barriers, reduces the costs of independence, and undermines the rationale for large jurisdictions comprising heterogeneous populations. “With free international commerce,” according to Alesina, “ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups can find it more convenient to secede, if they do not have to bear the costs of finding themselves within an economy and a market that are too small.”
Earlier this year, in an article for Foreign Affairs, I pointed out that Catalans and Scots understand this logic perfectly. They both want to trade freely within the European single market and, at the same time, unfetter themselves from the centralized control of their respective national governments. Needless to say, this is the opposite of what the EU’s founders intended. They believed that a common European market, currency, and identity would dilute national sovereignty from the top down. They did not foresee a bottom-up threat to existing nation-states. Today, European leaders face a dilemma: by pushing harder for political and economic integration, they are more likely is reinvigorate regional secessionism.
The Way Forward
With global and local forces continuing to drive micro-nationalism, it is likely that some region will unilaterally secede – either peacefully or violently – in the near future. A sovereign Kurdistan, in particular, is no longer a far-fetched idea, and would finally disrupt the artificial Sykes-Picot order that the British and French created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
But, unlike in the post-colonial area, newly formed states probably won’t find much support today. On the contrary, most governments will use every means at their disposal, from economic boycotts to military force, to preserve national unity. Authoritarian regimes will repress secessionist groups, as one can now see in Cameroon with Ambazonia and in Nigeria with Biafra. And in well-established democracies, central governments, operating under constitutional mandates, will smoothly intervene to prevent territorial disintegration, as is now happening in Catalonia.
Still, repressing secessionist groups should be a last resort, especially for Western governments. Ideally, it need not come to that: governments should intervene long before voters become radicalized. As Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, notes, as long as central governments retain control of fiscal and monetary policymaking, as well as oversight of defense and foreign policy, they can appease would-be supporters of secession through financial transfers, special tax arrangements, or devolved powers.
When voters have reached the point of electing separatists, as in Catalonia, Flanders, or Scotland, central governments should consider renegotiating the terms of the relationship, such as by granting greater autonomy. More to the point, Victor Lapuente Giné of the University of Gothenburg reminds both sides in the Spanish dispute that they are facing “what political scientists call a social dilemma: either side gains from selfish behavior unless the other side behaves selfishly, too, in which case both sides lose.” A divorce, after all, would be costly for both Catalonia and Spain.
More broadly, Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens calls on the EU “to develop a new type of sovereignty, one that strengthens cities and regions, dissolves national particularism, and upholds democratic norms.” For Varoufakis, the “ugly crisis” in Catalonia should be regarded as “a golden opportunity to reconfigure the democratic governance of regional, national, and European institutions, thereby delivering a defensible, and thus sustainable, EU.”
One way or another, national self-determination will play an important role in the history of the twenty-first century, just as it did in the twentieth century. To ensure that it doesn’t again become a source of disruption and destruction, governments should seek to tame it in advance. They can pay now, or they – and others affected by secession – can pay much more later.
Edoardo Campanella is a Future of the World Fellow at the Center for the Governance of Change of IE University in Madrid.