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Bien-Pensant Attitudes Toward Separatism

As long as I’m reading Daniel Larison, he asks a very good question: why should anyone in America care about Scottish Independence?

The answer is certainly, “they shouldn’t,” with the possible exception of Americans with strong Scottish roots or recent immigrants from Britain, who might reasonably be expected to have strong feelings about important internal developments in the Old Country. But clearly people in our political class do have such opinions. Why?

In general, bien pensant attitudes towards separatism are favorable when the breakaway region appears to be suffering under some kind of oppression, and unfavorable when the breakaway region appears to be trying to get out of its collective obligations. So: independence for East Timor and South Sudan and Kurdistan all have been popular among the editorializing crowd, both right and left. And nobody was upset by the Czech-Slovak “velvet divorce” because the poorer Slovaks clearly favored it.  On the other side of the ledger, peaceful movements for independence in Flanders and the Italian Piedmont are generally considered “bad” by these same editorialists because these are rich regions trying to break away from the poorer parts of their countries.

When the evidence is ambiguous, the reactions are ambiguous as well. Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland can all make very credible claims to having suffered historically at the hands of a central government that is to some degree foreign. I know plenty of people who are not Scottish but who kind of like the idea of Scottish independence, and that has everything to do with a kind of Scottish romance derived from 19th-century novels (and Mel Gibson). But Scottish independence is motivated in part by a desire for sovereignty over what’s left of the North Sea oil; Catalonia is wealthier than Spain generally (and Spain generally is hurting badly in the wake of the financial crisis); and Quebec has won so many Constitutional concessions to avert separatism that continued separatist sentiment strikes many as frankly ungrateful. And editorialists were far from unified in their support for Slovenian and Croatian independence. On the one hand, these regions were breaking away from a state increasingly dominated by an oppressive Serbian nationalism. On the other hand, they were identified as the oppressors in World War II, and they were still relatively well-off compared with the Serbs they sought to separate from. Support for the breakup of Yugoslavia only really hardened in the West when the Bosnian civil war got going.

As for the Post editorial: my view is that, to the extent that we want a Europe that can be a viable partner in foreign policy, we should stop opposing the development of a common European defense outside NATO; and to the extent that we don’t care whether we have a viable European partner, why should we care what they do? Either way, NATO is an increasingly anachronistic framework within which to think about European collective security, and a completely inappropriate framework for dealing with issues that don’t fit under that mandate. Scottish independence might, in some small way, make that clearer, but even that is doubtful.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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