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Archive for the ‘secession’ Category

I delivered this brief talk to a Model UN conference at Dartmouth on March 28. Here is the text of my remarks.
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My topic for tonight is “The Right to Self-Determination in International Law and Practice.” The right to self-determination is one of the most controversial concepts in international relations today. The government of Russia has cited it as a justification for its annexation of Crimea following a doubtfully free and certainly unfair referendum in that territory. The government of Catalonia has cited it in its effort to hold a truly democratic referendum on independence from Spain later this year. What does the right to self-determination mean in international law? And how well does international practice actually conform to international law?

The right to self-determination of peoples is found in the original United Nations Charter, which states among its purposes, “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.” The two original UN human rights instruments, the ICCPR and ICESCR, also guarantee the right of self-determination to “all peoples.”

But what is a “people”? That was left undefined. The UN developed a list of “non-self-governing territories” whose status was to be monitored. Originally, the right to self-determination for these territories was not meant to include a right to immediate independence. Article 73 of the original UN Charter merely provides that member states administering non-self-governing territories ensure their “political, economic, social, and educational advancement,” and assist the “progressive development of their free political institutions.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, anticolonial movements emerged in Africa and Asia to fight for immediate independence, and frequently faced stiff military opposition from their imperial masters. The major colonial powers gradually realized that they could not prevent many of their territories from claiming independence. Only in 1960 did the UN adopt the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.” This resolution affirmed that the right of self-determination meant that every non-self-governing territory was to have a chance to decide its own political status, whether integration with the metropole, a status of “free association” with the metropole, or independence.

The criterion for determining whether a territory belonged on the list for decolonization was that it be “geographically separate” and “distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it.” This criterion has come to be known as the “salt water test”: only if a territory is separated from its metropole by salt water does it have the right to self-determination under international law.

Clearly then, the right to self-determination under international law was never meant to be applied to secessionists in the classic sense. It was a tool for decolonization. This fact does not mean that secession is illegal under international law, only that member states of the United Nations are not required to give secessionist regions the opportunity to determine their own political status. Russia’s justification for its forcible seizure of Crimea is therefore wrong.

International law itself is merely the creation of the governments that happen to exist on the globe. It would be surprising if existing governments were to set up a legal framework for their own dissolution. The “salt water test” is morally arbitrary, and it does not seem to have any rationale in conflict prevention or reduction.

There is another concept of the right to self-determination: a moral concept. Last year, (more…)

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With the ongoing tension over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, now would be a good time to talk about the biggest myths people believe about the origins of secessionist movements around the world (even though Crimea is a case of irredentism not secessionism).

  1. Myth: Secession is contagious. Back in the 1990s, journalists worried a lot that the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Ethiopia heralded some broader worldwide trend toward the splintering of the state. Even some scholars indulged talk of our “neomedieval” future of microstates. Now, with secession referendums in Scotland and Catalonia on the docket, a secessionist party gaining support in Quebec, that online referendum in Veneto, and recent events in the post-Soviet space, I’m seeing similar questions about whether this is a new “trend.”

    Fact: Secession happens because of particular circumstances, not contagion. Scholars have looked at the evidence every which way, and in no case have they found evidence that secessionism spreads from country to country. The classic piece here is Ayres and Saideman (2000). I have also looked at the data in detail. The most one can say is that: 1) if a country has more secessionist movements, then any given ethnic group or region in that same country is more likely to become secessionist; 2) if an ethnic kin group in a neighboring country is secessionist, then an ethnic group is more likely to become secessionist (e.g., Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, & Syria); and 3) governments may worry somewhat about the precedents they establish when recognizing successful secessions (see Coggins (2011) – one example is Spain’s refusal to recognize Kosovo).

  2. Myth: Secession is an exercise of the right to self-determination enshrined in international law. Would-be secessionists sometimes point to the UN Charter’s statements on self-determination to argue that their central governments are legally bound to recognize their claims.

    Fact: The right of self-determination was never meant to apply to secessionists in the classic sense. The UN Charter did not originally affirm a right to self-determination as against existing states. Only in 1960 did the UN General Assembly pass a resolution authorizing independence for colonial peoples. Since that date, the UN has maintained a list of “non-self-governing territories” with a right to self-determination, that is, a right to determine their own status by plebiscite, whether independence or autonomy. Some of these, like Puerto Rico, have opted for autonomy. Still, the right to self-determination in the UN Charter and in international law was meant only to apply to cases of decolonization, and to cases of secession in which the right to colonial self-determination had not been recognized (as in East Timor, which Indonesia had conquered after its withdrawal from the Portuguese Empire). What counts as a colony? The “salt water test” applies: a territory is a colony/non-self-governing territory only if it is separated from its metropole by sea. According to UN Resolution 1541, a colony is “a territory which is geographically separate and is distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it.” This may be an arbitrary criterion from many perspectives, but it is the standard in international law.

  3. Myth: A distinct ethnic or cultural identity is what determines whether a region will host a secessionist movement. I cannot count the number of times I have seen Internet commenters casually assert that because Crimea is majority ethnic Russian, it must have a majority in support of joining Russia. The notion that a separate ethnic identity in a region causes secessionism there is widespread among laypersons.

    Fact: Although a separate ethnic identity is close to a necessary condition, the economic and political benefits of independence are what determine whether a region will host a secessionist movement. Plenty of ethnically distinctive regions do not host secessionist movements. In Belgium, Dutch-speaking Flanders is fairly secessionist, but hardly anyone in French-speaking Wallonia wants to secede. Flanders would benefit economically from independence; Wallonia would not. In India, hardly anyone in the Dravidian states of the south wants to secede, even though they are different linguistically, phenotypically (“racially”), and even religiously from the Hindi-speaking Hindus of the north who constitute the “ethnic core” of the Indian state. In the former Soviet Union, ethnocultural distance from the Russian majority was inversely related to strength of secessionism, with secessionism weakest in the majority-Muslim central Asian republics and strongest in the Baltics, Armenia, and Georgia. Not coincidentally, the central Asian republics were heavily dependent on Soviet subsidies.

  4. Myth: If every ethnic group had a right to secede, we would very quickly end up in a world with 10,000 independent microstates. This misconception is even common among academics.

    Fact: The vast majority of ethnic minorities around the world have no interest in seceding from their existing governments. This one is a myth for the same reasons that #3 is a myth. Even when we look solely at populous ethnocultural minority groups regionally concentrated in a historic homeland, of which the Minorities at Risk dataset counts 283 in the world, only about 38% of them have a secessionist movement of any kind, and most of those are small. Very few ethnonational minorities would vote for independence even if they were allowed to do so. In India, secessionists call for boycotts of federal elections. Yet in only one state with a secessionist movement, Jammu and Kashmir, do a majority of eligible voters actually fail to vote — and even in that state, my own research suggests a ceiling on secessionist support of about 20% of the population.

  5. Myth: Federalism is a good alternative to secession. Scholars and politicians in Western democracies often propose federalism or decentralization as a solution to secessionist pressures or conflicts. And indeed, a secessionist rebel group is unlikely to lay down arms without some kind of compromise on regional autonomy. But does federalism actually work well to prevent growth in secessionism?

    Fact: There is no solid evidence that decentralization reduces secessionism or the future risk of conflict, and federalism in the developing world is often very poorly designed. Will Kymlicka’s piece, “Is Federalism a Viable Alternative to Secession?,” is a useful starting point on this question. Even though Kymlicka is not an empirical political scientist, his comparative reflections on Canada and the U.S. get him a long way. The quantitative literature does not support any general relationship between federalism and ethnic conflict or secessionism, even though one can find individual pieces on one side or the other of this issue. The basic problem is that both secessionists and central governments face incentives to undermine federalism, and as a result, neither side will trust the other. Federalism is a particularly beside-the-point proposal in situations in which an ethnic minority faces off against a highly nationalistic and chauvinist ethnic majority, as in Sri Lanka, or in dictatorships in which constitutional bonds are particularly flimsy, as in Serbia under Milosevic or China today. Federal institutions will be unstable, and the ethnic minority will not trust them. Independence may be the only solution for preventing future conflict in such cases.

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Gazeta.pl reports that the majority of the Crimean parliament did not vote in favor of a referendum on independence, but that armed men prevented a quorum from attending, allowing a pro-Russian rump to pass the measure. (For my translation, I am relying on Jacek Rostowski on Twitter.) In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian crowds face determined Ukrainian nationalist, pro-Maidan forces.

Russia’s military occupation of Crimea should not be taken as evidence of autochthonous secessionism. Instead, Russia seems to be using a minority of secessionist diehards to serve as an excuse for, possibly, annexing Crimea de facto to Russia, in more or less the same way as it did with Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. The main differences between that episode and this one are that Abkhazia and South Ossetia had already established de facto independence, and Georgia initiated the conflict with Russia. Thus, Russia’s intervention in Crimea is a riskier gamble. It may indicate, however, just how threatened Russia feels by a future in which Ukraine joins the EU and perhaps even NATO.

Update: TAC’s Dan McCarthy plausibly argues that Russia would prefer to use its military control over Crimea as a bargaining chip to ensure a subservient Ukraine.

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That’s the title of a very good article by Princeton political scientist Carles Boix and J.C. Major. The article provides background to the Catalan self-determination movement but also discusses recent developments and the reasons for them. One takeaway is the enormous role that the Spanish government’s response to the last Catalan autonomy statute, essentially gutting it, played in provoking the growth of the independence movement. As I noted in a piece in Electoral Studies 10 years ago, when the central government spikes decentralization, secessionists strengthen, but when a referendum on independence or autonomy fails (the failure being internal rather than external in origin), secessionists weaken. The article also contains important information on what the Catalan government plans to do if the central government forbids it to hold a referendum, as seems likely. I won’t spoil it; just read the article.

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In the third and final part of my series summarizing my working paper, “Designing a Constitutional Right of Secession” (here are parts one and two), I examine the legitimate objections we can raise to a right to secede. Some of these other scholars have previously mooted, while others are apparently original. Regardless, I will argue that all of these arguments merely establish reasons to qualify the right to secede, rather than to abolish it altogether.

Strategic Demarcation of Territory

When secessionists can determine the territory subject to a referendum, they can include as much territory as they feel confident getting away with, while still winning a referendum. They may include territory dominated by opponents of secession, so long as the rest of the people living in the seceding unit can outvote them.

One way of dealing with this problem is to allow recursive secession: territories that oppose secession can themselves secede from the seceding state. Indeed, that may be a good idea, although it poses some risks: the central government could use recursive secession as an excuse to attack a secessionist state, and there will always be controversies about where boundaries should lie. What if secessionists don’t permit recursive secession? Simply banning secession altogether wouldn’t make sense as a response, since that would violate the rights of the many to safeguard the rights of the few.

A better solution is to limit the right of secession to top-tier geographical subunits of the state. Now, there are some problems with this solution as well. First, administrative boundaries may be morally arbitrary, just like
interstate boundaries. Second, relying on administrative boundaries to set the limits of regions that enjoy the right to secede gives central governments an incentive to manipulate administrative boundaries to dilute potential secessionist challenges. Third, allowing regions to secede along existing administrative boundaries may trap significant minorities within the new state. These are all very real problems, as Yugoslavia’s attempted recursive secessions demonstrate. The secession of Croatia trapped Serbs, and the secession of Bosnia trapped both Croats and Serbs. The Badinter Commission denied these groups a recursive right of secession, and therefore they saw their only option as war combined with ethnic cleansing to alter ethnic balances.

So the administrative-boundaries solution works best if there’s a good procedure for letting people decide to which region they will belong. There should be an easy way for people to secede by referendum and set up new administrative regions. It should also be easy to hold referendums in small areas on moving from one region to another. Had Yugoslavia followed these principles, Serb-majority areas of Croatia and Bosnia would not have been part of Croatia and Bosnia, respectively, at all, and there would have been no reason for war.

Even when there are no good procedures for making sure administrative boundaries line up with what people on the ground want, it is better to make existing regions the subjects of a legal right to secede than to allow secessionists or the central government to redefine the scope of the territory subject to secession without the agreement of the other side.

Irredentism

Irredentism refers to movements seeking to take territory from one state and give it to another. Irredentism needs to be regarded more skeptically than secessionism, because irredentism has often been a cause of war among states, including both world wars. Regional irredentists often instigate violence to try to draw in their “parent” state.

Legalizing irredentism by plebiscite would encourage states to meddle in each other’s domestic politics in hopes of boundary revisions. Instead, irredentism can usually be alleviated with generous autonomy, as has occurred in Aaland and South Tyrol. Where irredentism cannot be satis ed with autonomy, such as where the irredentist group is a minority in the disputed region (e.g., Northern Ireland), then a solution will be more difficult, and the states involved may not wish to rule out completely a future transfer of sovereignty. In most cases where a secessionist movement has irredentist potential (e.g., Nagorno-Karabakh), it is reasonable to impose a conditions on a right to independence that the new state will never be allowed to join its ethnic-kin state, that the new state will be demilitarized, and so forth.

Vague Referendum Questions

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The Government of Scotland has just released its 600-odd-page white paper on independence in advance of the September 18, 2014 referendum on the question. First Minister Alex Salmond and the rest of the pro-independence side have their work cut out, with the latest poll showing a 47-38% plurality in favor of “No.”

In part, the white paper aims to show that independence would not harm the Scottish economy. There is a debate between nationalists and the British government about whether Scotland would face a significant fiscal gap after independence. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says Scotland would face a long-run fiscal gap amounting to 1.9% of national income after independence, while the British government says Scotland would have to raise taxes 9% upon independence to fund the same benefit levels. Nationalists retort that they would change policies to save money. Nevertheless, like most political parties, they are only specific about the new benefits they plan to introduce after independence.

Still, there is good evidence that most Scots are not concerned about the fiscal issues relating to independence. After all, somewhere between 52 and 68% of Scots express support for either independence or “devo max” in polls. “Devo max” is a term used in the UK for full fiscal autonomy, under which Scots would pay no direct taxes to and receive no direct benefits from the UK government (everything would be negotiated between the Scottish and British governments). The strong support for at least devo max implies that Scots aren’t worried about suffering from a fiscal gap even when fully fiscally autonomous.

The dropoff in support from devo max to independence reflects that Scots are more worried about the foreign, monetary, and trade policy uncertainties attendant upon independence. A major bone of contention has been nationalists’ desire for a currency union. The “No” side insists that there is no guarantee the British government will accept a currency union. Salmond has said Scotland could repudiate its share of British debt if the British government didn’t accept a currency union.

The key sticking point in the currency union debate is that the nationalists desperately want Scotland to retain a say in the Bank of England’s monetary policy. Absent that desire, it would perfectly straightforward for Scotland to retain the pound. They don’t need a central bank: people, including the new independent government, could go on using the pound as usual. Indeed, a better threat than debt repudiation that Salmond could make would be for Scotland to abolish central banking, legal tender laws, deposit insurance, and financial regulation, and suck financial business out of London into Edinburgh. (A libertarian can dream, right?) But Scotland’s political culture is solidly left-wing, and any suggestion of going without a lender-of-last-resort wouldn’t fly with voters.

So as we have seen with previous referendums in Quebec, the “Yes” side will insist that all will go on as normal after independence: same treaties, same trade relations, same monetary policy. Meanwhile, the “No” side will play up the uncertainties. They won’t “talk down” Scotland, which would risk a backlash, but instead they’ll just keep saying “there are no guarantees” and attacking the nationalists’ plans as “unrealistic,” “uncosted,” and “amateur.” Steve Saideman notes that there is a tension between nationalists’ desires to “keep everything the same” and promise improvements after independence: secession is either meaningful or it isn’t!

The way to square the circle is that Scots want more left-wing policies than the British status quo on welfare rights, education, the environment, Europe, labor, and defense, but they also like the risk-pooling advantages of a larger state. They see no advantage in a new Scottish currency or a nonaligned foreign policy. Therefore, nationalists promise Scots what they want on the former set of policies while trying to assuage their doubts about the latter.

The figure below shows how Scottish nationalism has tracked left-right ideological change in the Scottish electorate, for UK general elections only. The blue line represents the vote share for secessionist candidates in Scotland: mostly Scottish National Party (SNP), but also Greens, Socialists, and some independents. The blue line represents the UK vote for center and right parties minus the Scottish vote for center and right parties (mostly Conservatives, but also UKIP, Unionists, and the like). In general the two lines correlate pretty closely; the only major exceptions are the 1979 and 1983 elections, when Scotland moved left relative to the UK as a whole, even as the SNP vote collapsed. Since then, the lines have correlated rather well. There is some reverse causation here, since the SNP is a left-wing party, but the fact that the nationalists have adopted a forthrightly left-wing platform tells us something. The bottom line is that Scotland’s move further to the left of the UK has helped promote the secessionist cause. (The spike in the 1974 elections was due to the discovery of North Sea oil, which the SNP politicized under the campaign slogan, “It’s Scotland’s Oil!”)

lefties & nats in scotland

Whether Scotland votes “yes” or “no” in the referendum will depend on how the pivotal voters trade off concern over future Conservative governance in Britain against the uncertainties of full independence. One reason why “no” appears headed for victory is that the Conservatives look set to lose the next UK election, and over the last two decades, Labour has looked like the natural party of government in Britain and has in fact moved British policy significantly to the left, at least on fiscal issues. Scottish voters have less to fear from union.

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In my last post on this topic, I argued for a right of unilateral secession on the grounds that: 1) legalizing secession would reduce the risk of violence on net, and 2) codifying a plebiscitary, unilateral right to secede would reduce uncertainty without any compensating disadvantages. In this post, I consider some common objections in the literature to a liberal right to secede and show why they do not overturn the case for a legal right of unilateral secession to be accomplished through democratic plebiscite.

1. Rights-Violating Secessionists

Counting heads is probably not the best way to determine the relative legitimacies of governments. If a region gets 51% of the voters to approve secession, but then the 51% decide to persecute the 49% minority, then secession would cause a net loss in freedom or human rights. Under these conditions, secession should be restricted.

In the abstract, the case for restraining rights-violating secessions is plausible, but it is unworkable institutionally. A legal provision allowing the central government to veto secession if the secessionists are likely to violate rights would suffer from the “biased referee” problem. Central governments will be tempted to use the provision as an excuse to ban all secessions. Similarly, secessionists will always claim to be liberal if they are required to do so, but that does not mean practices will not change once they achieve independence.

Some scholars have argued that the potential for rights violations by secessionists justifies a higher threshold in the referendum on independence (say, 55% rather than 50%+1). There are two problems with this argument: 1) the correlation between secessionists’ likelihood of violating rights and ability to get widespread support in a referendum is probably weak, and 2) this suggestion assumes that secessionists are more likely to violate rights than governments. If governments are more likely to violate rights, then a higher threshold will tend to prevent more morally desirable secessions than the morally objectionable ones it prevents.

In cases such as the U.S. Civil War, in which the central government is sincerely persuaded that a particular secession would be morally disastrous despite, let’s assume, a constitutional provision permitting it, then the government may be morally justified in acting extraconstitutionally to prevent the secession.

2. Nationalist Objections

Nationalists (more…)

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In this three-part series of posts, I will be blogging my new SSRN working paper, “Designing a Constitutional Right of Secession: Applying Normative Principles and Empirical Findings.” The paper defends a right of unilateral secession for any country in which the possibility of secessionist violence is non-negligible, or where central governments are already unwilling to suppress secession militarily.

In this post, I will explain the basic argument in favor of a right of unilateral secession, that is, a justiciable right of a region to secede by plebiscite without a right of veto for other parts of the country or for the central government. I argue for a moral duty on a government to implement a constitutional or legal right to secede, not for a fundamental, abstract, moral right to secede. The difference is important because real-world politics often makes it impossible to satisfy everyone’s moral rights. The case presented in the paper is for legally recognizing a right to secede even when secession would violate some individuals’ rights. Moreover, the argument is about domestic legal guarantees for secession, not international institutions. It may be desirable for a government to recognize a unilateral right of secession even when it is undesirable for international institutions to intervene to enforce such a right.

In the next post, I will address arguments against a legal right of unilateral secession that fail. In the final post, I will explain how a right of unilateral secession should be qualified and structured in a country’s constitution.

To make the argument, I start with a set of normative assumptions and a set of empirical findings. The normative assumptions are intended to be general enough that they can be widely endorsed by people of widely differing moral and political perspectives, who nevertheless share some basic commitments. I then consider how different “secession regimes” — that is, legal approaches regulating secession — can satisfy these principles, bearing empirical findings in mind.

Here are the normative assumptions, ordered lexically so that higher principles take precedence over lower ones:

  1. Maximize physical integrity rights for all. The range of potentially permissible secession regimes is limited to those that can plausibly satisfy this principle. Physical integrity rights include individual rights against extrajudicial killing and physical assault, torture, and illegal detention.
  2. Maximize other basic liberties for all. Among those regimes that can satisfy the first principle, only those that also satisfy the second principle are potentially permissible. Political philosophers disagree on what counts as “basic liberties” that any minimally just regime must satisfy. At the very least, these liberties include wide guarantees for freedom of speech, thought, conscience, association, and equality before the law. John Rawls (1999, pp. 197-9) argues that the “fair value of equal political liberty,” a right to security of personal property, and the right to free choice of an occupation or profession count as fundamental liberties. “Free-market fairness” advocate John Tomasi (2012) also includes the right to security of productive property and the right to own a business. And so on. To the extent that there is disagreement about what counts as a basic liberty, there may be disagreement about the range of potentially permissible secession regimes.
  3. Follow the principle of Pareto optimality. For any two regimes A and B and any two sets of citizens X and Y, if the consequences of the two regimes are such that X prefer one regime to the other, while Y are at least indifferent between the two regimes, then select the regime that X prefer. This principle rules out secession regimes that make some people worse off without making anyone better off, relative to some alternative regime.
  4. Satisfy all other moral principles. Differing moral foundations yield different moral principles. I avoid making claims about moral foundations, but these foundational views may yield further principles limiting the range of permissible secession regimes. Differing views on the nature and importance of distributive justice and economic growth can justify marginally different views on the appropriate secession regime.

I consider the principle of “no forced association” under this last heading. Libertarians, for example, often claim that governments may rule only with the literal consent of each individual under their rule. (Nozick famously disagrees.) Real-world politics always requires some individuals to be coerced. Prohibiting secession coerces some people into supporting a government to which they do not consent. But allowing secession also allows secessionists to coerce the anti-secessionists in their midst. It may be ideal for governments to rule only on the basis of unanimous consent — a question outside the scope of this paper — but in practice, they do coerce nonconsenters. So we have to figure out legal rules for secession in the world as it exists. I argue that the consent principle yields only a weak presumption in favor of allowing secession whenever a majority in the seceding region votes for it. Presumably allowing secession under such conditions will reduce the number of nonconsenters. But it won’t necessarily minimize the number of non-consenters or the number and severity of rights violations, as we shall see.

The generalizable empirical findings about secessionism are as follows: (more…)

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1) Polls continue to point to a significant “yes” victory in a future referendum on independence in Catalonia.

2) If the Catalan government backs down from a referendum, even if the Constitutional Court declares it illegal, as it certainly will, it will pay a heavy price at the polls. Therefore, it is locked into holding a referendum, unless it can negotiate a sufficiently advantageous fiscal settlement with the Spanish state. A negotiated settlement averting a referendum remains the most likely outcome, although p<0.5.

3) Some Catalans think the Socialist Party of Catalonia, which is linked with the main Spanish opposition party (PSOE) and has been trying to straddle the self-determination issue, will implode soon over the issue.

4) Catalonia and Spain may both be more viable as separate states than together. Spain's political economy is dysfunctional. Catalonia’s would not be (the largest Catalan party is centrist with some classical liberal elements). A functional state can carry a larger debt burden than a dysfunctional one. Therefore, the European Union might pressure Spain to accept a post-referendum settlement by which Catalonia is allowed to go free while taking on a disproportionate share of Spain’s debt. (On this point I am indebted to Jaume Lopez Hernandez of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.) This is the second most likely outcome.

5) Spain’s threat to arrest Catalan leaders and prevent secession by force is not credible. (Although some autonomists and secessionists in Spain insist that the central government would indeed send in the tanks.) Therefore, it is unlikely that the Catalan government will be deterred. A “yes” vote followed by suppression is the least likely outcome, even less likely than a “no” vote.

6) If the Catalan referendum is held, regardless of the result, it would set a powerful precedent for Basque nationalists. The precedent is not that secession is easy or desirable, but that the possible legal framework will be recognized. The Basque Premier backed down from holding a referendum on his “Ibarretxe Plan” for free association after threats of arrest and a negative vote in the Spanish Cortes. The reason why I argued, in this interview, that Ibarretxe should have gone ahead with the referendum is not so much that I endorsed the Plan itself (on which I am agnostic), but that I fear his backing down set an unfavorable precedent for the “right to decide,” which I do favor.

7) Nevertheless, even if Catalonia secedes, the Basque Country Autonomous Community is unlikely to follow, at least right away. Pan-Basque independentists are a powerful force and would insist on bringing along Navarre (and later the French Basque provinces). But Navarre would vote “no” in a referendum held today or at any time in the near future. No other region of Spain is likely to hold a referendum either, and thus there is likely to be no “harmful precedent” for secession or “contagion” from Catalan secession.

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Catalonia Update

The Monkey Cage is carrying an interesting update on the Catalonia situation from Duke political scientist Laia Balcells. Catalonia is heading to elections, called by the premier Artur Mas, from the Convergence and Unity (CiU) party, a moderate Catalan nationalist party on the center-right. The CiU has always favored a “right to self-determination” for Catalonia, but now they favor holding a referendum on independence, unless Spain agrees to a new fiscal pact giving Catalonia broader powers.

She lays out three possible post-election scenarios:

1. A secessionist process scenario: a combination of Catalan nationalist parties (e.g. CiU ERC; CiUERC+SI) obtains a majority of the seats. Mas calls for a referendum. Despite the fact that the referendum is not likely to be recognized by Spain, it gives democratic legitimacy to the self-determination process. The medium-term outcome of this path is highly unpredictable at this point: Rajoy is not Cameron, and the PP government is making threats to deter Mas from the referendum (e.g. declaring it illegal). Some members of the Spanish military have even mentioned armed intervention in Catalonia to defend the “inviolable unity of the Spanish State”. The EU, on its end, delivers ambiguous messages regarding the permanence of Catalonia in the union if there is a breakup.

2. A fiscal pact scenario: CiU obtains a majority of the seats. Mas makes a credible threat of a self-determination referendum to Rajoy, who concedes on an agreement that improves Catalania’s fiscal capacities. CiU then renounces its secessionist demands, and ERC and other minority parties remain as the only ones asking for independence.

3. A stalemate/centralization scenario: Catalan nationalists do not obtain sufficient support in the elections and things remain at a standstill. Mas has a hard time governing given the economic and political gridlock. This scenario would probably imply asking for another bailout to the Spanish state and new attempts at centralization. (Given the results of the polls, this is however the least likely scenario)

Let’s look down the game tree to see what is likely to happen.

I think we can rule out 3 as a likely scenario, if the polls are right. Apparently 57% of poll respondents now say they would vote “yes” in an independence referendum and only 20% no. That’s a dramatic increase in secessionist sentiment even over the last few months. Catalan nationalist parties have frequently won significant majorities in the past, and I see no reason why they would not in the upcoming election with the radical turn in Catalan opinion.

So what happens after the election if nationalists win a majority? I think it likely that (more…)

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Robert Farley of the University of Kentucky and Lawyers, Guns, and Money had a “diavlog” with me on bloggingheads.tv. We covered Pileus, the Conor Friedersdorf essay on why he can’t vote for Obama, libertarianism and foreign policy, and secessionism. This was my bloggingheads debut, and we hope to do more of these in the future.

(Embedding doesn’t seem to work, so here’s the link.)

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A pro-secession protest in Catalonia on September 11th brought out 8% of the region’s entire population, The Economist reports. Opinion polls have support for independence at about half of the electorate, possibly more. The moderate nationalists in power in Catalonia have even radicalized their platform. In the past, Convergence and Unity was a moderate nationalist, center-right party coalition dedicated to greater autonomy for Catalonia and a recognized right to self-determination. While refusing to rule out independence in the long run, they rejected secession as attainable or desirable in the near term. Now, they explicitly advocate eventual sovereignty (effectively, independence within the European Union).

In addition to Convergence and Unity, there has been, since the mid-1980s, a significant independentist strain within Catalan nationalism. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) has been the main exponent of this current. In the early 2000’s, ERC actually formed the regional administration along with the regional Socialists. They helped put together Catalonia’s new autonomy statute that, among other things, defines Catalonia as a “nation” rather than a “nationality” for the first time. (Yes, this sort of symbolism seems to matter to nationalist voters.) Over time, ERC support has been growing, and so has broader support for independence. Thus, this most recent outbreak is nothing new, rather the last expression of an upwelling of  “fed-up nationalism” that has been going on for at least a decade.

In one sense, Catalan nationalism is easily explicable as the (more…)

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For all the usual association of independence movements with violence and “separatism,” the fact is that secessionist movements in liberal democracies usually pursue their aims peacefully, through the democratic process, and central governments resolve not to use military force to prevent secession authorized by a democratic vote (imagine that!). Such is the case in Scotland, where a referendum on independence is to be held within the next three years.

Given that sending Her Majesty’s Armed Forces north of Hadrian’s Wall is simply not on offer, responsible politicians from all British unionist parties are starting to mull openly significant powers for Scotland. The Prime Minister himself has promised a semi-federal union for Scotland if they rejected independence, and business-funded think-tank Reform Scotland and Labour politician Alistair Darling are also on record as supporting substantial fiscal powers for Scotland. The reason such decentralization might be salutary is not only that it might preserve the union (if one believes that should be a goal), but that it moves the UK closer to the principle that each level of government should pay its own way: true fiscal federalism. Of course, for fiscal federalism to work as it ought, you need more than an autonomous Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland). You need English local governance to be comprehensively reformed as well.

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Secessionism

My first book, Secessionism: Identity, Interest, and Strategy, has been released by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Secessionism is the first comprehensive, empirical study of the causes and consequences of contemporary secessionist movements worldwide. It also has a normative component, as I interpret from the empirical results a case for “legalizing secession” in order to reduce the incidence of violence.

Anyone who orders the book before August 31, 2012 should do so at the press’ website and use the coupon code “SORENS12″ at checkout for 20% off.

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Scotland’s upcoming independence referendum has been in the news in Britain. The Scottish government wants to hold the referendum in 2014, but UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said that Westminster holds ultimate control over the wording and timing of any legally binding referendum and wants to hold the referendum sooner.

Another point of contention is whether the referendum question should include two or three options. The SNP government in Scotland is open to a three-question (status quo, independence, or “devo max“) referendum, while the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in the UK wants a two-question (in or out) referendum. The apparent worry from Westminster is that a three-option referendum could split the unionist vote and allow independence to win with a bare plurality (say, 40% for independence and 30% each for status quo and devo max). Here is a debate among British political prognosticators about what will happen.

The solution to the problem is simple: (more…)

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The South Sudan Liberation Army, apparently armed by the Sudanese government, has been attacking the government of the newly independent South Sudan. Some observations about these stories:

  • No one thought it would be rainbows and leprechauns for South Sudan after independence. It’s extremely poor, highly oil-dependent, ethnically diverse, adjacent to countries that are all in the grip of significant internal violence, and likely headed for autocratic rule. You couldn’t imagine a better set of conditions for insurgency.
  • Still, the violence in South Sudan is to date several orders of magnitude lower than that experienced before the 2005 peace agreement that ultimately allowed the country to secede from Sudan.
  • Perils of generalizing from a single case: what’s really causing the insurgency in South Sudan? The Sudanese government blames “rigged elections” – but civil war research on global datasets shows little or no relationship between democracy and insurgency. The weakness of the South Sudan state and the availability of external funding are probably the dominant factors.

*The phrase comes from a Carcass song. Never mind that the “archaic nescience” theory of ethnic conflict is completely wrong; it’s still a nifty turn of phrase!

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Few in power find it convenient to notice inconsistencies in their own conduct. Alas, but President Madison was no exception. Federalism and decentralization exist precisely because free constitutions should not depend on the good graces of those in office, but on the checks necessary to harry them back under the law.

Seeking the financial means to carry on his war, Madison did not appreciate New England’s opposition to his measures or her refusal to lend. As the enemy bore down from the north at various points along the Canadian border, Madison attempted to impose conditions on the New England militias, not trusting them, as he did the other states, to staff and command their own forces.

In these efforts, the fourth president was roundly rebuffed by the governors and legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. They correctly pointed out that the Constitution reserved to each state the right of officering her state militias: The president could certainly call those units into service according to the constitutional powers that authorized Congress to declare war, but he could not reorganize those units without a state’s permission. Unable to get his way, Madison refused to mobilize New England’s forces and subsequently refused to pay any expenses for her defense.

Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts organized and raised his own force of some 10,000 men at a cost of 1 million dollars, which was a considerable sum in that day. Facing such staggering costs and outraged by what they considered to be the unconstitutional and dangerous manner in which their region had been treated, the New England states elected to protest in the same spirit as they had done against the embargo, but this time they went a step further: Coordinated state action.

Under the inspiration of Harrison Gray Otis and Theodore Dwight (the brother of Timothy Dwight of Yale), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and several counties of New Hampshire and Vermont sent representatives to meet in Hartford Connecticut between December 15, 1814 and January 4, 1815. There they formed a list of grievances and a call for constitutional amendments, concluding with a threat to organize another convention should these proposals not be taken up by the other states in the Union.

The men who attended this gathering tried to moderate the more extreme elements calling for secession and outright resistance to the national government (see Justin Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. VII, Houghton Mifflin, 1888, p. 321 and notes) but the prospect of a convention sent shivers through the administration. It is not difficult to see why.

In “A Short Account of the Hartford Convention to which is Added an Attested Copy of the Secret Journal of that Body” (1823), Theodore Lyman, noted that Massachusetts was quite open about her aims, and “the sense of her citizens was at that time well known, and in relation to the Hartford Convention, she adopted without delay that course of conduct, of which an eminent example had been given less than half a century before, and which, in this juncture of affairs, was especially judicious, from the vast magnitude of the subject and occasion.” (p.8) That example was Madison’s own call at the end of the Annapolis Convention for the convention that followed in Philadelphia, which of course ultimately put an end to the Articles of Confederation.

When the Hartford Convention got down to business on its second day, it considered, according to the Attested Copy of the Secret Journal, the two constitutional grounds of New England’s grievances just mentioned: “The [unconstitutional] powers claimed by the executive of the United States, to determine, conclusively, in respect to calling out the militia of the States into the service of the United States; and the dividing the United States into military districts with an officer of the army in each thereof, with discretionary authority from the executive of the United States, to call for the militia to be under the command of such officer.”

The second grievance followed immediately after: “The refusal of the executive of the United States to supply, or pay the militia of certain States…on the grounds of their not having been called out under the authority of the United States, or not having been…put under the command of the commander over the military district.” These two grievances then formed the basis of the final and more damning constitutional conclusion that the national government had failed to meet its obligation as stated in the preamble “to provide for the common defense.”

In their protest the members stood on solid textual grounds. It was true that Section Eight of the First Article gave Congress the power “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States,” but it specifically reserved “to the states respectively the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

Did this “prescribed” discipline give Madison the right to reorganize the New England militias? It might have, but only if Congress had specifically formed such a policy, and had done so equally for all parts of the Union. The fact that President Madison asserted this as a matter of executive authority, and the fact that he applied that policy unequally to some of the states and not to all of them, violated both the spirit and the letter of the fundamental law. With these arguments before them, the delegates proposed their Constitutional remedies.

They called for consideration on the part of the states for amendments that would permit the state legislatures “some arrangement whereby the States may be enable[d] to retain a portion of the taxes levied by Congress, for purposes of self defence (sic), and for reimbursement of expenses already incurred, on account of the United States.” They then proceeded to request further consideration be given to certain other constitutional issues: To restrict Congress’ power to declare war; to restrain its power “to make new States, and admit them into this Union; to limit Congress’ power to impose embargoes and restrict commerce; to prohibit a president from the same state serving two consecutive terms; and finally, and perhaps most ominously of all, to eliminate the 3/5ths provisions of the Constitution “respecting slave representation, and slave taxation.”

This last provision underscored a growing cultural and political divide already evident between the northern and southern states. New Englanders had always felt aggrieved to some degree by the so-called 3/5ths compromises in the Philadelphia Convention. Already by this time, they saw it as a principal driver of western expansion, and the Southern states made little bones about their desire to move the peculiar institution westward, and to form an alliance with that region in opposition to New England.

Thus the Hartford delegates sought restrictions on admitting new states as well as the elimination of the South’s use of slaves in calculating her population numbers. It is interesting to note that at this point in time, the South’s rising star, J. C. Calhoun of South Carolina, was a strong nationalist defender of the War of 1812 and a proponent of a new national bank so that the general government could more easily finance such military ventures in the future. The irony of ironies is that this situation was about to change yet again.

As reported by Theodore Dwight, the Secretary of the Hartford Convention, in his later history of that meeting, the timing of the delegates’ report to Washington could not have been worse. It arrived just as news from England of the War’s end came along with the report of Andrew Jackson’s victory in New Orleans. While the war had not gone so well for America in general, the popular sense created by this juncture produced a patriotic fervor that was ill disposed to consider of the resolves of the Hartford delegates.

The commission attempted to quietly retire back to New England, but the popular reaction, especially among Madison’s Republican Party was to revile its proceedings as radical secessionism, and the reputation of that convention has labored under such a misapprehension ever since.

Far from secessionism, however, the Hartford Convention presented yet another means of interposition through coordinated state action, and to the degree that such coordination gathered more sustained attention (even if in the negative) from the other states, to that degree it succeeded. With the war’s end, Hartford’s issues became moot, but one could easily imagine what might have developed had the exigencies of war persisted.

The next stage of development in the ideas of interposition, however, would raise the stake higher, actually attempting what Jefferson had contemplated in the Kentucky Resolves: Nullification. Interestingly, the author of this approach was our leading nationalist of the 1810s. Calhoun had been a student of Theodore Dwight’s brother about a decade earlier at Yale. Timothy Dwight shared his brothers’ attachment to the reserved rights and powers of the states. Calhoun had resisted such thinking as his student, but when the issue of tariffs touched his own state’s interests in the next decade, he began to avail himself of Dwight’s understanding, coming to a deeper appreciation of the need to constitutionally restrain centralized power, but he did so with an interesting and novel twist that would have a profound impact on the popular perception of state’s rights.

And Calhoun’s solution would prove perhaps the most difficult and cumbersome of all…

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Risk-pooling in an era of frequent financial crisis is not as good an argument against Scottish independence as Tyler Cowen thinks it is. First off, bailing out is a policy choice to which there are alternatives. Second, financial governance matters. Who had a worse financial crisis in 2008: the United States (population 300 million) or Canada (population 35 million)? Which set of countries suffered more in the 1997 East Asian financial crisis: South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia or Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan?

Finally, the European Central Bank and leading European Union member states have shown that they are more than willing to pool risk with weaker members. The SNP favors joining the Eurozone in the event of Scottish independence. Even if the optimal size of nations has gone up with the increased risk of financial crisis, that does not mean that Scotland falls below the optimal size.

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As a neighboring, wealthy country of 35 million people, about as many as live in California, Canada certainly gets less attention from Americans than it deserves. Here are a few of my thoughts on the historic results of yesterday’s Canadian election and their broader significance.

  1. The results help point up the perversities inherent in single member district plurality electoral systems. The Conservatives won well over 50% of the seats with a touch under 40% of the vote, as the left-wing NDP’s surge confounded tactical voting for the candidates of the center-left Liberal Party in ridings where the latter was better placed to win. I would not be surprised to see attempts to unify the left in a single party, as eventually happened on the right between the Alliance and the Prog Cons.
  2. The secessionist Bloc Québécois was thrashed, losing 40% of its vote from 2008 (already a down year for the party) and over 90% of its seats. Apparently left-wing nationalists deserted the BQ in droves for the NDP. NDP leader Jack Layton successfully made the case that it was “safe” for left-wing Quebec nationalists to support an anti-nationalist party on ideological grounds. The BQ has tried to remain centrist in the Quebec context (slightly left of center in the Canadian context), but this attempt to appeal to Quebec’s left-right median opens them up to flank attacks.
  3. Some of my research shows that secessionist parties lose ground when the countrywide economy does badly, presumably because under such circumstances traditional left-right economic policy concerns take precedence with voters over constitutional questions. The effect is small and somewhat uncertain, but this may be part of what is going on. (It wouldn’t, however, explain the SNP’s approaching triumph.)
  4. A stronger reason for the decline in salience of the independence-unity spectrum in Quebec politics is the moribund nature of the sovereignty question. Another referendum is not on the cards for a long time to come, nor is any kind of comprehensive new-federalist settlement, so it is natural that at a certain point many moderate Quebec nationalists would stop voting purely on expressive grounds and start to try to exercise some influence over policy-making at the center. The BQ (and its provincial counterpart, the Parti Quebecois) will need to give voters reasons to expend their votes on them, when the other federal parties have essentially ruled out giving them a say in policy, either as part of a formal coalition or as part of a confidence-and-supply agreement. And the sovereignty question will not rise again until Quebec’s long-term relative economic decline (and growing dependence on federal equalization payments) is sorted.

Update: For further thoughts about what this election means for Quebec, check out Saideman’s Semi-Spew.

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On May 5, Britain votes in a referendum on a new electoral system called “alternative vote,” also used in Australia (polls show it going down to defeat), but in Scotland and Wales, there are also elections to the devolved parliaments. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which advocates independence for Scotland within the E.U., is heading up a minority administration with about 36% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament.

Now, a new poll shows the SNP opening up a big lead in the upcoming election, with 45% in the constituency vote and 42% on the party-list regional ballot. Since Scotland has a compensatory mixed-member system like Germany’s, the latter percentage is the better guide to the ultimate seat breakdown. If the SNP indeed wins north of 40% of the seats, they may have enough votes to authorize a secession referendum with the support of minor secessionist parties like the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists. Whether such a referendum could obtain the requisite 55% of the vote is doubtful, but such a step would be historic nonetheless.

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