The Patchwork World: From State Sovereignty to Secessionism

by Matthew Cavedon

Writing in the New York Times this week, Roger Cohen took modern secessionist movements to task as reactionary forces in an increasingly global world. He has his argument backwards—secessionism is increasingly influential precisely because of modern interconnectedness.

“So much for globalization, the disappearance of frontiers in Europe, borderless cyberworlds, hyperconnectivity,” Mr. Cohen opines. “Tribal sentiments” are on the rise, as “random-atom angst sends people scurrying for new flags even as 800 million borderless cyberfolk unite in watching ‘Gangam Style’ on Youtube.” “The urge to throw up borders” flies in the face of contemporary reality, and is “an anachronism.”

Mr. Cohen is wrong. The ascendant localism in Scotland, Catalonia, and elsewhere depends on globalism. For the better part of the last two centuries, states in the West have governed in order to provide certain goods like trade, security, human rights, and movement in people and ideas. Centralized authorities were the only groups able to protect these things over areas larger than a single city or region. Borders got bigger so that life could be bigger.

Nowadays, states are less important than they used to be, especially in Europe where regional secessionist movements are strongest. International institutions are able to provide the same goods that states historically have, over an even greater space. The World Trade Organization settles commercial disputes for over 150 member states. NATO coordinates armed forces for nearly two continents. The European Union has created a single system for working, traveling, and accessing courts for 27 countries.

Where internationalism has done the most to reduce the importance of borders, secessionist movements that want to redraw them have the greatest likelihood of success. An “independent” Scotland or Catalonia would secede out of their current countries and immediately enter into the European Union, a body which already governs many aspects of their lives. A century ago, secessionism for such small countries would have seemed infeasible. But now that these regions can enjoy free trade with the rest of their continent, guarantees of protection from its militaries, and full participation in European (and global) culture thanks to the internet, do administrative and political borders really have to be drawn at the size of current parent countries?

Paradoxical though it might seem, the rise of continental governance has made local autonomy all the more possible. In a way, this hearkens back to the Europe of the Middle Ages, when the Empire and the Church served as the networks which held together countless little baronies, duchies, and principalities. It is also reminiscent of the British Empire, when the freedom of trade ensured by the Royal Navy made it possible for distant outposts like Hong Kong and Singapore to develop independently of their neighbors.

Over the next century as the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and other global institutions continue to grow in power and influence, it is possible that the world will become like old Europe. The nation-state may be the real anachronism, as world governing bodies prepare the ground for smaller, regional communities to take charge of many of their own affairs.

There is a caveat here, in that it is possible (and given the human desire for power, perhaps likely) that international institutions will drain the life out of localism instead. Arguably, that has happened in the other great meta-political community in the world today: the United States of America. Rather than providing space for localism to flourish, many people would argue that the federal government has turned the states into mere administrative divisions. If Europe and the world follow suit, then the world will be more smothered and less patchwork.

Then again, the United States has proven remarkably able to integrate new states into its fold, as Puerto Rico and Jefferson might discover in the near future. To the extent that it has reduced the importance of state borders, America has made it possible for fifty regions to coexist over three thousand miles. And that is where the American secessionists in the news of late have gotten it wrong—secession is likeliest and most desirable when new countries rise up into existing international orders. The United States is the closest thing to an international institution of which Texas is ever likely to be a part.

Modern European secessionism is not a reactionary run to blood and land. Global federalism, where regional communities organized within the international order supplant the historical functions of large nation-states, is a natural outcome of the new global era.

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