Understanding the secessionist surge

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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.

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.

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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.

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