Civil War

The New World, Largely Same as the Old One

By Steve Saideman

My friends on Twitter got a bit outraged yesterday over this New York Times speculative piece on the possible new maps in the future. When I first glanced it, I was pretty dismissive since it runs through eleven hunks of territory quickly, making quick guesses about which ones will break apart and which ones will join together. I am a jack of all trades, master of none kind of guy so I cannot (and, my readers will thank me, will not) go into great depth on any one of these cases. I will leave that to the Comparativists who have heaps of knowledge about specific cases.

However, since the trades of which I am jack (no, that makes little sense to me as well) are secession and irredentism — the fission and fusion of countries* — I can make some general comments and then skip through the cases briefly. First, secession is damned hard: countries resist losing pieces of themselves (see Monica Toft‘s work). There are many lessons to draw from South Sudan, but one of them is secession takes decades — six of them or so, and South Sudan is hardly swell today.

* Fission and fusion?  Why did I only now realize that should be on my business card: my business is fission and fusion!  Not quite as good as “I deal in lead” but pretty good.

Second, irredentism, the amalgamation of one piece of one county with a piece or an entirety of another, will find resistance even perhaps from the folks related to the desired region. As my book with Bill Ayres avers, xenophobia can serve as a key restraint on irredentism. Imagine, if you will, a successful effort at reuniting a lost hunk of territory and people with a homeland. The practical and political effect is much like a huge wave of immigration, and who wants that these days?

Third, precedent setting in this area is wildly over-rated. The various federations of the former Soviet space broke apart not because of inspiration from each other but due to the common stresses of democratization and the timing of provincial elections in relation to the national ones. Incentives and institutions matter — domestic ones, that is. The key here is also confirmation bias; potential separatists (secessionists and irredentists) will learn the lessons they want to learn and ignore the rest. Is my situation like Slovenia or Bosnia? Many lessons to learn, which ones will be the ones that people glom on to?

Ok, now let’s run through the list quickly because I have to teach today and because other folks know more about the cases:

  1. Mali? The folks behind Mali’s breakup have more enemies than friends. Is their independence sustainable?  This is not yet clear, but I think Vegas has set the odds on continued independence at 4 to 1.
  2. Belgium splits up. Maybe. The EU as a destination for the pieces is less attractive than it was a few years ago, but the differences between Flemish and Walloons fester. Belgium is perhaps most likely to break up but also the most likely to do so peacefully as well. On the other hand, Newton was right about inertia.
  3. Congo splinters? We have been thinking about the Congo breaking up since 1960. The first case study in the aforementioned book on the IR of secession is on Katanga and its effort secede way back when. My Africanist Twitter pal is most skeptical, and she does research, so I will leave it at that.
  4. Somalia‘s breakup confirmed. Somaliland has been de facto independent for about twenty years, so this is not a new revision of the map, just recognition of reality. But recognition may or may not come anytime soon, as Somaliland has few fans despite being far more functional than Somalia. The African Union may just keep on mismanaging this situation, raising some costs to the first recognizers. To be clear another lesson from my work, one of the key ones, indicates recognition sooner than later: countries are not that deterred from supporting secession elsewhere despite their own separatist challenges at home. Somaliland’s problem is not the vulnerability of others but its own lack of allies. Anyone who has ties to Somaliland also has ties to Somalia, except at the clan level, which makes it hard to find best friends out there.
  5. Alawites go solo. I expect the endgame of Syria not be a breakup but potentially mass killings of those seen as complicit with the regime: the entire Alawite community, whether that is fair or not (not). The folks who win in Syria are not going to let their former oppressors escape, especially if they take the coastline along with them. Choosing to be landlocked? No.
  6. Arab Gulf Union? To quote 30 Rock and Tim Goodman, whuck? (WTF).
  7. Kurdistan? Independent? Maybe, maybe not. But it would just be a piece of Iraq, not with the rest of the Kurds in a greater Kurdistan — Turkey has way too much equity in that fight.
  8. Greater Azerbaijan? Since when has anyone thought that Iran will implode? Azerbaijan may have a friend in Turkey, but it has an enemy in Armenia that continues to hold onto Azerbaijan’s territory. The only successful post-Cold War irredentism has been (well, besides Germany) Armenia. So, before Azerbaijan aims at Greater Azerbaijan it will continue to obsess about what it has lost.
  9. Pakistan falls apart? Sure. The country is incredibly messed up, but a Pashtunistan is not in the cards. The Pashtuns may be able to agree on some things, but on a single country incorporating parts of both Afghanistan and Pakistan? Nay. There are other identities and cleavages that present challenges to a single country for all Pashtuns, plus many on the Afghan side of the border are not fond of Pakistan. How about Baluchistan? Pakistan has showed plenty of will to crush these folks, so even a Pakistan in decline would would make Baluchistan very hard to accomplish.
  10. China gobbles up Siberia? Jeez, now the speculation is completely absent of any real trend. Yes, Russia is big and China is powerful, but China will have many other fish to fry. Over-expanding in this direction might suit Jack Snyder, but is not likely at all.
  11. Yes, Korea may unify some day, but I am not sure the South Koreans are looking forward to this, and isn’t reunification something we have been expecting more or less for twenty or thirty years? North Korean rulers have managed to succeed one another and have managed to repress their country quite effectively. It might change, but it might not.

Of course, I have just ruthlessly speculated about a heap of places that I don’t know that much about, just like these NYT writers. But my guesses are informed by much work in the general dynamics of secession and of irredentism. Of course, if there is more of this stuff, that would be good for me — it might lead some folks to buy my books. Ok, read them. Ok, ok, maybe just cite them?

Cross-posted at Steve Saideman’s personal blog.


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