Secession: An Historic Struggle Between Central and Local Control

November 8, 2017 Updated: November 8, 2017

Secession rarely succeeds.

The realities are cruel. Secessionists are romantic, poorly armed and led. Central governments are realistic, well-armed, and uninterested in losing parts of their geography, resources, population, and so on.

Hence, there are more bloody than “velvet” divorces.

The cogent example for United States citizens is the Civil War. Although current sociopolitical preferences want to emphasize that it was fought to free African-American slaves from bondage, a more powerful motivating force was to “preserve the union.”

In a manner that now is difficult to internalize, a democratic and republican “union” was a revolutionary concept without historical precedent and of relatively recent creation (“four score and seven years ago.”) It was the “union” (“now and forever; one and inseparable.”) that drove the Union forces.

Despite some calls to “let the erring sister go” and the countervailing logic of “states’ rights,” Northern citizens deemed national unity worth shedding blood, and indeed, 750,000 Americans died in the fighting.

Consequently, perhaps traces of memory even a century old prompt little U.S. sympathy for secessionist movements.

And during the past generation, there has been a virtually unending string of minority populations that have sought independence from central governments. In no particular order, these include Ibos in Nigeria; Bosnians, Serbians, Slovaks, and Croats from the shards of Yugoslavia; Papua New Guinea; Sudan/South Sudan; Bangladesh (formerly West Pakistan); Malaysia and Singapore; Sri Lanka, and so on.

And, reviewing global circumstances, there are certainly candidates for division: Belgium in an always unhappy union of Flemish and Walloons; India, comprising 29 states and seven union territories with 22 “scheduled” languages; Russia where hunks of the old USSR have already secured independence; and even China where long distances between outlying provinces and differing languages prompt whispers of separation (not just in Tibet).

But the most proximate cases are three: Canada (Quebec); Iraq (Kurdistan); and Spain (Catalonia). Although spread around the world with no common borders, they share some common themes: longstanding senses of injustice against the central government; coherent borders; solid economics; and linguistic unity. Abstractly, they qualify to be independent countries.

Quebec. Quebec’s sense of grievance is longstanding. Originally settled by France, it was “conquered” by Britain and, with the formal creation of “Canada,” argued that it was one of two founding nations deserving special recognition/privilege. English Canadian domination of Quebec’s economics and politics ended with the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s-70s, culminating in election of a pro-sovereignty government in 1976. Subsequently, in 1985 and again in 1995, Quebec sovereigntists sought authority through a Quebec referendum to separate from Canada.

Each time, they failed, and while sovereignty remains the preference of approximately 35-40 percent of the population, it is no longer the driving politico-cultural force of the previous generation.

Kurdistan.  Approximately a month ago, we examined Kurdistan’s circumstances. We noted that Kurds had sought fruitlessly for over a century to unite Kurds in Iraq as well as surrounding countries (Iran, Syria, Turkey) but the current military success of Peshmerga fighters against ISIS had freed many traditional Kurdish territories. Thus when on Sept. 25, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani held a referendum on independence for which there was 77 percent turnout and about 93 percent voted “yes,” it appeared as if Kurds had strengthened their position with Baghdad.

Epoch Times Photo
Iraqis Kurds celebrate with the Kurdish flag in the streets of the northern city of Kirkuk on Sept. 25, 2017 as they vote in a referendum on independence.

The Iraqi central government, however, struck back quickly; seizing major areas of “Kurdistan,” notably the oil-rich Kirkuk. Kurdish resistance was minimal; Barzani resigned; and (once again) the Kurds are far from independence.

Catalonia. Longstanding tensions between Madrid and Barcelona came to a head over Catalan demands for greater autonomy. A particularly confused October saw a referendum (that Madrid declared illegitimate); a parliamentary vote declaring independence; an independence declaration by Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont; a riposte by Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy dissolving Catalonia’s parliament and arresting its leadership (at least those he could catch), while calling for regional elections on Dec. 21. For his part, Puigdemont fled to Brussels, announcing he would resist extradition, and calling for democratic resistance to Madrid’s takeover.

A woman holds the Catalan flag as hundreds of thousands of people marched on July 10 in Barcelona in support of the Catalan region's statute of autonomy. (Josep Lago/Getty Images)
A woman holds the Catalan flag as hundreds of thousands of people marched on July 10 in Barcelona in support of the Catalan region’s statute of autonomy. (Josep Lago/Getty Images)

Technically, problems appear tractable: a lighter touch by Madrid; more central government funding; greater protection for the Catalan language; and symbolic recognition of Catalonia as a “nation” are among the suggestions.

Fortunately, there has been no bloodshed, so a December election could rally those Catalans preferring continued association with Madrid.

What today’s secessionist movements demonstrate, however, is how difficult it is to implement Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self determination of peoples. And, more often, the cynical corollary, that every little language doesn’t deserve its own state prevails.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.