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Go Your Own Way

Why Rising Separatism Might Lead to More Conflict

Demonstrators in support of Catalan independence in Barcelona, Spain, November 2017. Albert Gea / REUTERS

From the Mediterranean coast of northern Spain to the island states of the South Pacific, secessionism is on the rise. In 1915, there were eight movements seeking their own independent state. In 2015, there were 59. One explanation for the increase is that there are now more countries from which to secede. But even taking that into account, the rate of secessionism has more than doubled over the last century.

Yet even though more groups are trying to break away, fewer are resorting to violence. Because secessionists wish to join the exclusive club of states, they pay close attention to signals sent by major countries and organizations that indicate how they should behave. So far, those signals have discouraged them from resorting to violence (and made them more careful to avoid civilian casualties if they do) or unilaterally declaring independence. Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria, for example, have largely avoided killing civilians

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