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 and have offered assistance to Western powers fighting the Islamic State (or ISIS). Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia in the early 1990s, has worked quietly but effectively with countries trying to curb piracy in the Gulf of Aden. And in Catalonia and Scotland, independence movements have long opted for referendums and negotiations rather than unilateral declarations.

This good behavior has gone largely unrewarded. Amid the war against ISIS, Turkey and the United States have moved swiftly to tamp down talk of an independent Kurdistan. No country has recognized Somaliland’s statehood. And the Spanish government declared Catalonia’s independence referendum illegal and ignored the result. Meanwhile, the newest member of the club of states, South Sudan, won international recognition despite flagrantly violating international law and human rights during its struggle for independence.

This contradiction presents secessionists with a dilemma: Should they believe what they are told is the best path to statehood or what they can see actually works? In recent decades, they seem to have closed their eyes to the gap between rhetoric and reality. But the ability of

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