Daniel Larison

Scotland and Separatism in Europe

Jonathan Foreman rattles off a number of implausible and far-fetched scenarios for what will happen after a ‘yes’ vote. Along with some other utterly ridiculous things, he imagines that separatist dominoes would start falling all over Europe:

A “Yes” vote for secession would also set in motion a whole series of political crises across the continent and further afield.

As I’ve said before, it’s not obvious that this is necessarily such a terrible thing if it happened, but how likely is it? There are a few reasons to doubt this scenario. If Scotland votes to break away, it will have done so in no small part because the political leadership in London was oblivious to the possibility that the referendum might turn out that way. Future bids for independence will not be underestimated in the same way by other central governments, and independence movements probably won’t be permitted to hold binding votes in the first place. Viewed this way, a ‘yes’ vote might inspire separatist parties, but it would also alarm central governments and encourage them not to agree to a vote on independence. The ‘Yes’ campaign has done as well as it has in part because it was able to take a complacent, clueless government in London by surprise, and that isn’t going to happen again no matter how the vote turns out. Another reason to doubt that there will be a “whole series of political crises” breaking out in the wake of a ‘yes’ vote is that each country’s conditions and political traditions are different.

Not all separatist parties are going to be able to make a persuasive argument that their regions would succeed as new states, and not all governments are going to be quite so ineffective in making appeals for continued national unity. More to the point, some states specifically outlaw the possibility of regional independence, so there are major barriers in other countries that didn’t exist in this case. Political elites in other countries may also learn from London’s mistakes, and they could offer greater autonomy to their discontented regions as Cameron now realizes he should have done all along. On top of all this, Scotland might find itself running into stiff opposition from some current EU members when it applies to join, which will presumably also have the effect of discouraging voters in other countries from following their example. Of course, that is the point of threatening to block or delay Scotland’s membership, as Spain has so bluntly done over the last few months.

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Scotland and the “Forces of Chaos”

Steve Forbes panics over the possibility that the U.K. will break up:

The referendum on whether to break up the United Kingdom has ramifications that go far beyond the specific futures of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is no exaggeration to say that it will fundamentally affect the course of Europe, the US and, indeed, Western civilisation [bold mine-DL].

It won’t do any such thing. Forbes’ warning may be the most comically alarmist one on this subject that I have seen all year. If Scotland votes ‘yes’, it will be very important for itself and the rest of the U.K., and there may be some consequences in other parts of western Europe involving other separatist movements, but it isn’t going to have much of an effect outside of that. The peaceful dissolution of the U.K. isn’t going to “encourage all the forces of chaos, terrorism and aggression.” That doesn’t even begin to make sense. Which terrorists exactly would be encouraged by the outcome of a popular referendum? What aggression will it inspire? Forbes doesn’t offer many specific examples of what would happen. At one point, he repeats the nonsense claim that the rest of the U.K. will lose Britain’s permanent seat on the Security Council, but there is no chance that will happen. Stewart Patrick explained this earlier in the week:

The near-certain outcome, if the Scots unwisely choose to go it alone, is that the authorities in Edinburgh will immediately recognize the UK government’s UNSC claim. A newly independent but closely integrated Scotland has everything to lose and nothing to gain by disputing the UK’s permanent seat….Perhaps more surprisingly, the attitude of the remaining permanent four UNSC members will be identical: they will quickly recognize the rump United Kingdom as the state entitled to permanent membership.

Forbes also worries that Moscow will exploit the result to justify what it has done in Ukraine, but this concern is misplaced. Russia may pretend that its sham referendum in Crimea is comparable to this one, but that just underscores how obviously phony their pretensions to promoting self-determination are. If Moscow intends to continue stirring up Russians in neighboring states, it is going to do that regardless of the outcome of today’s vote. No doubt there will be some attempt to use the example of Scotland in “whataboutist” arguments about other issues, but we shouldn’t mistake this kind of trolling for being the cause of actions by Russia or anyone else. Other separatist movements will probably be given a psychological boost, but that isn’t likely to change as much as Forbes fears. For all the concern over precedent, what has happened in the U.K. this year seems to be extremely unusual and would be difficult for other separatist movements to replicate with the same success. In any case, it’s not obvious that the success of other peaceful separatist movements in Europe would have to be such a bad thing for European politics.

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The Horror of Being a Normal Country

Douglas Murray is horrified by the prospect of less interventionism after a ‘yes’ vote:

Debating some of this yesterday with a Nat on Sky it was put to me that one benefit of independence might be that Scotland could become a kind of Switzerland. Perhaps that is what the Nats are after. But that idea is what upsets and angers me most [bold mine-DL]. There is always a question of what we want to be in the world. And I know what the Scots Nats appeal to. It is the same thing petty nationalists the world over appeal to – the parochial, the inward-looking, the idea that we can avoid the world and believe that the problems of the world are not our problems. In fact everything they appeal to is precisely the opposite of what has made the Scottish people and the Union great. It seems to me that it would be an unspeakable tragedy if at the end of centuries of leading the world – and even, on occasion, let’s not forget, saving the world – the end-point of Britain was to be a hybrid of the Balkans and Switzerland.

I don’t know whether an independent Scotland would definitely become a “kind of Switzerland,” but it is revealing that this possibility so thoroughly appalls and angers some unionists and their hawkish sympathizers outside the U.K. If Scotland were able to become a “kind of Switzerland”–prosperous, well-governed, free, neutral, at peace with its neighbors–it would put the lie to every alarmist argument from the unionist side, and it would undoubtedly be a good thing for people living in Scotland. It would mean that Scotland was a normal country that tended to its own affairs. That doesn’t necessarily mean “avoiding the world,” but it does mean not going out of one’s way to start wars or unnecessarily join ongoing conflicts on other continents. It takes a very strange mind to imagine this and conclude that it is a tragedy.

Bret Stephens holds a similar view:

More often, small countries are merely insignificant countries; petty in their politics and limited in their horizons. Think of Slovenia, Slovakia and soon, perhaps, Scotland.

In other words, small countries can often be normal, reasonably successful countries. They don’t aspire to reorder other nations’ political structures or dictate terms to foreign governments, and so their horizons are said to be “limited.” However, all that this means is that they aren’t indulging in ideological crusades or yielding to a constant temptation to interfere in other people’s business. They are minding their own business, and for some people nothing could be more horrifying.

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Cruz’s Bogus “No Greater Ally” Claim

I was reading Mollie Hemingway’s latest comments on last week’s Cruz/In Defense of Christians incident, and I was struck by these lines:

And then there are plenty of legitimate reasons that Christians might not find Israel to have been the best ally [bold mine-DL]. For one thing, it’s not really the job of Israel to be an ally to Christians in the region, except insofar as the alliance [bold mine-DL] works for all parties.

There were many things wrong with Cruz’s performance last week and his subsequent attempts to spin that deplorable performance as an act of courage, and many of them have been ably described by Rod Dreher, Michael Dougherty, and others. I agree with almost everything these critics have had to say, and I’ve made some of the same points earlier, but I want to say a little more about the misuse of the term ally in this discussion.

Cruz provoked some people at the summit last week by asserting that Christians in the region “have no greater ally than Israel.” That isn’t true by any reasonable definition of the word ally, but by itself one could dismiss it as a pandering throwaway line that a conservative Christian would use to reconcile his “pro-Israel” hawkishness and his faith. If Cruz wants to pretend that this is true for his own reasons, he can do so, but it’s important to understand that there is no such alliance. An alliance implies more than just having common interests or common enemies. It also requires active and mutual support, and there is simply isn’t any of that. Nor would we expect there to be any. Cruz’s error was in believing that such an alliance exists and in assuming that Christians in the region were somehow at fault for not acknowledging something that doesn’t exist. Israel and Christians in the region may have some of the same enemies, but that doesn’t mean that an alliance exists between them, so it is ludicrous to suggest that Israel is their ally, much less their best one. The bigger problem with what Cruz said was that he asserted something demonstrably false as if it were undeniably true and then went on to denounce anyone that disagreed with the falsehood as being filled with hate.

Americans frequently throw the term ally around without much care or thought as to the obligations that real alliances entail. It is used indiscriminately to refer to everyone from the pettiest client state to traditional treaty allies, and it is often applied to governments and groups that don’t deserve it because it creates the impression that the U.S. has more support in various parts of the world than we really do and it allows Washington to pretend that we have more at stake in various conflicts than we actually have. Sometimes it is used, as Cruz used it, to raise a government for a degree of solidarity and support that is imaginary. Indeed, American politicians often overpraise the least useful clients for their contributions to make these relationships seem more valuable and important than they are. So when one of these politicians says that a government that doesn’t do anything significant to help you and your people must be acknowledged as your greatest ally, it is entirely appropriate to object to the lie and to call out the person saying it for trying to mislead you.

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Is Scottish Independence Bad for America?

David Frum makes a thoroughly unpersuasive case that the U.S. has much to lose from Scottish independence. He concludes with a preposterous attempt to pin some of the blame on the Obama administration in the event of a ‘yes’ vote:

In February 1995, Bill Clinton traveled to Ottawa to speak in favor of Canadian unity. “In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts that tear nations apart, Canada stands as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity, and mutual respect,” Clinton told the Canadian Parliament. The U.S. president was a more popular figure in Quebec than that province’s own politicians, and his words likely contributed to the narrow margin of victory of the ‘No’ side in Quebec’s second and final secession referendum later that year. President Obama has played no equivalent role in the debate over the survival of America’s close ally, the United Kingdom. If the ‘Yes’ vote prevails on September 18, Obama’s omission should be remembered in the postmortem assignment of blame for a potential disaster for the peoples of Britain, Europe, and the Western alliance.

First, the “potential disaster” isn’t anything of the kind. The rest of the U.K., NATO, and the EU will continue to function just as well (or just as poorly) as ever. The U.K. was already being held back from a very activist foreign policy by its fiscal priorities and the public’s aversion to involvement in new foreign wars, so the separation of Scotland would have less of an effect than at almost any time in the last thirty years. Whatever problems NATO and the EU may have, including Scotland in these organizations won’t be a serious problem for either of them. NATO is already filled with small countries that don’t pull their weight. One more or less won’t make any difference. Both organizations may make it difficult for Scotland to join for individual members’ own reasons, but in that case Scotland wouldn’t be contributing to their dysfunction for years to come.

There is a real possibility that Scottish independence makes the exit of the rest of the U.K. from the EU more likely, but there is also a possibility that an electorate exhausted by the aftermath of the Scottish referendum will have no desire to go through an equally involved process of disentanglement from the European Union. Besides, it’s not obvious that the U.S. would be worse off if people in the rest of the U.K. decided to leave the EU. Whether that decision is in the best interests of the rest of the U.K. is another question, but I would think that the U.S. and U.S. businesses would be able to adapt to a new arrangement without too much difficulty. The truth is that the American “stake” in this decision is not all that great. Independence would be a significant change in the U.S. relationship with London (and Edinburgh), but it isn’t something to fear or to panic over. To the extent that a slightly diminished U.K. makes it less likely for the U.S. to drag it into new and unnecessary foreign adventures, that will probably be better for both America and the rest of the U.K. than the current so-called “special” relationship.

As for Obama’s “omission,” it’s worth remembering that the president quite unnecessarily weighed in on the subject when he was last meeting with Cameron. Even that small intervention was probably a mistake, but it was one that didn’t matter much either way. A more concerted effort from Obama wouldn’t have helped the unionists, since a more forceful American intervention in the Scottish debate would have offered the SNP the perfect opportunity to exploit popular discontent with U.S. foreign policy and the relationship with London to their advantage. No matter which way Scotland votes this week, it can’t be blamed on (or credited to) the U.S., and U.S. interests won’t be significantly harmed either way.

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Scotland and Illegal Wars

Gideon Rachman is opposed to the breakup of the U.K., which is fair enough. However, he uses some strange and irrelevant arguments to make his case:

Yet the Scottish referendum campaign has been conducted as if the rest of the world stops at London. There has been almost no discussion of foreign affairs – apart from the nationalists’ inane refrain that a morally superior Scotland will not have to join in “illegal wars” [bold mine-DL]. The nationalists also insist that an independent Scotland will get rid of nuclear weapons. (Ukraine did just that, when it became independent, and now bitterly regrets it.)

The fact that Rachman considers that refrain to be “inane” is telling. On the foreign policy issue that typically matters most to voters in every country–whether and when their government chooses to go to war–the pro-independence side is offering a clear rejection of at least one kind of military intervention overseas. It is taken for granted that the U.K. probably will continue to participate in new foreign wars of both the legal and illegal variety in the years and decades to come, and that would happen whether people in Scotland support those wars or not. Rachman’s problem with this pledge doesn’t seem to be that it is false of misleading (as many other claims from Salmond and his allies are), but that it is likely to be fulfilled.

In fact, the commitments to stay out of illegal wars and to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons are probably the two most (only?) credible promises that the nationalists have made during the campaign. Which illegal wars does he think Scotland will feel compelled to join in the future? Why would it? Rachman can’t really explain why either of these positions is wrong, so he throws in a reference to Ukraine to make us think that something terrible will happen to a non-nuclear Scotland. Set aside that Ukraine couldn’t have afforded to keep a nuclear arsenal even if it wanted one, and overlook that possessing a nuclear arsenal wouldn’t have done Ukraine any good in the current crisis. How is Ukraine’s experience in any way relevant to what’s being debated in Scotland? Obviously, it isn’t. What exactly does Rachman think is going to happen to Scotland once the nuclear weapons have been removed? Probably nothing that anyone needs to worry about, but he wants to create an impression of danger where none exists.

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Is the Idea of Scottish Independence Baffling?

esfera / Shutterstock.com

Niall Ferguson is predictably against Scottish independence, which isn’t particularly interesting. However, there was something he said about American views of the referendum that deserved a short comment:

Even to the millions of Americans whose surnames testify to their Scottish or Scotch-Irish ancestry, the idea that Scotland might be about to become an independent country is baffling [bold mine-DL].

I am part Scots-Irish on my mother’s side, and I don’t find it the least bit baffling. It isn’t up to me or any other Americans what happens later this week, but it would be extremely easy for me to understand if a majority voted for independence on Thursday. Nothing could be easier to understand than the desire of a people to try to get more control over how (and by whom) they are governed. This impulse never seems to baffle anyone when we see it in other parts of the world.

Western policymakers and pundits are normally too enamored of the benefits of partition, secession, and the creation of new states when it applies to states that they don’t like or that they view as intractable problems. Iraq isn’t stable? Maybe we should split it up into sectarian and ethnic enclaves, regardless of what the people living there might want. Sudan suffers from a protracted civil war? Let’s create a new, automatically failed state as part of the “solution.” Ukraine is politically divided and dysfunctional? Maybe we should cut it in half! Over the last few months, advocating for an independent Kurdistan has suddenly become popular again, as if that weren’t potentially very dangerous and explosive for the entire region. But when there is a popular movement to establish a new state peacefully and it affects a Western country that they know well, it suddenly seems mystifying and bizarre. “Why would anyone want to do that?” they ask. Self-determination and national independence are supposed to be what nations somewhere else want. People living in modern Western democracies are supposed to have outgrown that sort of thing.

If anything, I would think that Americans would generally have a better appreciation than most for why people would want to establish an independent state in spite of the very real costs and economic disruptions that could come with it. After all, the promise of independence for Scotland isn’t that the country will definitely be more prosperous or successful (it may not be), but that the people living there will be able to govern it in a way much closer to their preferences than they can now. That can be worth a lot more to people than sticking with a status quo that may be easier and safer in the short term.

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Israel and Public Opinion

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Dan Drezner draws attention to some of the more remarkable results from a new survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was surprised by how limited the public’s support for Israel was, and cites the results:

64 percent of Americans say they prefer not to take sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

53 percent of Americans oppose sending U.S. troops to defend Israel if it is attacked by one of its neighbors.

More Americans prefer cutting economic and military aid to Israel than increasing it (although the plurality is fine with the status quo).

As the survey report notes, this is consistent with earlier surveys from the Chicago Council, and it’s also in line with other surveys of Americans’ views on what U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine ought to be. There is always a significant minority that definitely wants the U.S. to side with Israel in the conflict, and there are always twice or three times as many that want the U.S. to remain neutral. That is, the overwhelming majority probably thinks that the U.S. should be acting as an “honest broker” in the conflict by not openly backing one side against the other, and yet that has never been the reality of U.S. policy towards these two nations. The 20-30% is the constituency for the Israel policy that the U.S. has had over the last few decades, and the broad majority of Americans doesn’t and never has endorsed the overwhelmingly one-sided policy that receives the backing of almost all elected officials in Washington. It doesn’t surprise me that most Americans don’t want to send U.S. troops to defend Israel, since according to some surveys most Americans don’t consider Israel an ally.

Some “pro-Israel” hawks will cite polls showing greater sympathy towards Israel relative to the Palestinians as proof of Americans’ supposedly profound attachment to the country, but being sympathetic towards another nation and supporting a policy of extensive support for its government are and always have been very different things. More than most kinds of policy, foreign policy often does not reflect what the public wants. Since there are relatively few Americans that make these issues a priority in their voting, elected officials are more likely to pay attention to what the loudest, most activist, and best organized Americans have to say on a particular issue. On most of these issues, it is safer for an elected official to ignore the voters’ preferences and stay on the right side of the activists for a given cause.

That is the point that many critics of the U.S.-Israeli relationship have made for years: the current policy is not simply an expression of what most Americans prefer, and a policy that was more representative of the preferences of the majority would look dramatically different from the one that we have. It’s not that “powerful interest groups have somehow hoodwinked the American public” into endorsing the current policy, because most Americans don’t want the U.S. backing Israel to the hilt, but that these groups have successfully pushed for a policy that is more or less reflexively supportive of most things that Israeli governments do. Likewise, they have created political incentives for elected officials without strong views on the subject to take even more aggressively “pro-Israel” positions than most Israelis do. That 20-30% may not speak for most Americans, but they are typically more organized, more interested, and more committed to their position than the broad majority that doesn’t want the U.S. to take a side because they don’t particularly care one way or the other. That is part of the explanation of why their position prevails in the policy debate: there is scant organized opposition to it.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

What Scottish independence would (and wouldn’t) mean. Angus Roxburgh reflects on what it means to be Scottish and why he will vote for independence next week.

How do you kill an idea? Alex Massie comments on why unionists have done such a poor job of persuading Scots to vote against independence.

Being Scottish and British. Massie also explains why he’ll still be voting ‘no’ next week.

The effects of Scottish independence on the rest of Britain. Adam Taylor considers the many things that would or could change after the September 18th referendum.

Obama’s “dumb war.” Rosa Brooks lists the reasons why the new war in Iraq and Syria fits the definition of being a “dumb” war.

Authorization for the use of a military forever. Robert Golan-Vilella explains why the 2001 AUMF doesn’t authorize the new war against ISIS.

How the U.S. made ISIS a threat. Zachary Keck makes the case that U.S. attacks on the group are responsible for its targeting of Americans.

Ted Cruz crashes the In Defense of Christians summit. Jonathan Coppage reports on Cruz’s ridiculous display at an event focused on Christian persecution.

Catalans wants independence, too. Der Spiegel reports on the upcoming Catalan independence referendum that Madrid refuses to recognize.

Moving Argentina’s capital. Filipe Campante considers the downsides of relocating the capital from Buenos Aires.

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The American Conservative: Realism and Reform

The American Conservative has been an indispensable outlet for the ideas and arguments of dissident and traditional conservatives for the last twelve years, and it continues to offer a vitally important and necessary alternative to movement conservatism and its tendency to subordinate conservative principles of wisdom, prudence, and restraint to the needs of partisan loyalty and ideological obsessions. Since its founding, the magazine and its website have been the principled voice of conservative opposition to the many follies of the Bush and Obama eras and the reliable defender of local communities, constitutional government, a broad distribution of power and wealth, and the causes of liberty and peace.

Over the last year, TAC has been a consistent critic of reckless and ill-conceived military interventions in Syria and now again in Iraq and Syria. Earlier this summer, we co-hosted a successful conference promoting a foreign policy of restraint, and we continue to warn against the folly of wars of choice. TAC is a valuable resource for all Americans that want to rediscover a foreign policy conservatism that is dedicated to securing the national interest without being wedded to perpetual war. TAC has been promoting the cause of reforming and improving the foreign policy debate in the Republican Party and in the country as a whole since its inception, and our arguments are more necessary than ever as the U.S. has begun a war in Iraq and Syria that will continue for years to come.

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