Finally, we must be weary of status quo conservatism motivated by selfish concerns. Russia and China staunchly opposed Kosovo’s independence for the sake of their own quasi-imperial possessions, but did a sovereign government in Pristina really undermine Russia’s ironclad rule over Chechnya or China’s grip on Tibet? ~Parag Khanna

Last week I argued that an independent South Sudan would immediately have all of the problems of a failed state. The same already applies to many of the statelets and would-be statelets that Khanna mentions. While it may seem like a solution to certain problems, and while it is designed to flatter the preferences of Wilsonians everywhere, re-opening the question of territorial boundaries established in the post-war period promises to ignite new conflicts and revive old ones. Partitions might be done reasonably well or poorly, but there is no reason to assume that “velvet divorces” would be the normal outcome. It is a profoundly bad idea, and it is not made any better by the fact that Moscow and Beijing also object to it. The “status quo conservatism motivated by selfish concerns” protects weak states along with the strong: weaker states have their selfish concerns, too. It is the erosion of the principle of state sovereignty over the last twenty years that exposes weak states to the predations of major powers. If there is one thing more misguided than organizing foreign policy around “humanitarian” and democratist meddling in the affairs of other nations, it has to be the revival of the liberal nationalist conceit that there should be an independent nation-state for every group that wants one.

Before anyone goes rushing to endorse a new wave of separatism, we should consider the consequences of separatist movements in the last twenty years. The Balkan Wars of the 1990s were partly the product of the international indulgence of the principle of self-determination, and they were made worse by the inevitable complication that some people stuck on the wrong side of the new border were not permitted their own self-determination. Some of the newly-independent states were free to expel and kill their minorities en masse, and their patrons looked the other way, because they were fighting for their independence. The partition of Serbia was a horrible mistake, and the partition of Georgia that has followed in its wake has been an unfortunate, predictable result of creating new arbitrary national borders to replace the old ones. Eritrean independence, which was once viewed as a good example of a peaceful parting of the ways with Ethiopia, has become one more source of instability in the Horn of Africa. East Timor has proven to be one of the more harmless of the newly-independent states, but serves as a good example of how these “independent” states end up being failed-state dependencies that rely heavily on international support. Depending on how East Timor makes use of its large natural gas reserves, even those resources could prove to be a source of corruption and misrule. Even if most of the new states Khanna imagines prove to be little more than new East Timors, they would all still rank high among the world’s failed states.

Partitions cannot be separated from the ambitions and agendas of the major powers of the day. Some powers will want to bring the newly-independent states into their orbit, and their rivals will either try to block or find ways to sabotage those states. Instead of shielding weaker countries behind the principle of state sovereignty, Khanna’s proposal would open them up to something worse than the quasi-imperial domination of the status quo in China and Russia. Weak states would face threats of internal destabilization and separatist movements sponsored by their more powerful regional neighbors, and those neighbors would portray themselves as supporters of popular liberation movements. In some cases, they might use the cause of self-determination as a pretext for invasion. Naturally, the governments that feel threatened by separatism would be most inclined to portray the new enthusiasm for self-determination as another form of hostile interventionism, which is effectively what it would be. Needless to say, those who are most opposed to spheres of influence should be even more strongly opposed to this proposal than I am, since a proliferation of small, formally independent states offers many inviting targets for economic and political domination by major powers.

Update: If Joel Kotkin’s thesis is correct, and we are living “in the age of tribes,” endorsing a new wave of independence movements seems even more foolish, since many of these movements would be based explicitly on ethnic identity and the politicization of ethnicity through new enthusiasm for self-determination could be very destructive. However, while I don’t doubt the enduring importance of ethnicity and ethno-nationalism, I’m not sure that I find Kotkin’s presentation of this idea all that persuasive.