Thursday, May 14, 2020

American Secession—Easier Said than Done


For the Symposium on Timothy William Waters's Boxing Pandora: Rethinking Borders, States, and Secession in a Democratic World (Yale University Press, 2020) and F. H. Buckley's American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup (Encounter Books, 2020).

In our recent book, Democracy and Dysfunction, Sandy Levinson (writing in 2015) proposed that if Donald Trump won the 2016 election, California and other western states might break away and form a nation of Pacifica. I explained that I thought the idea very unlikely:

I think that there is very little evidence that any part of the country would attempt to secede—much less actually achieve independence—if the Republican Party gained the presidency and both houses of Congress, as it did only a decade ago during George W. Bush’s administration.....[E]ven if the Pacific states wanted to leave, it is simply not feasible for a superpower like the United States to permit a potentially hostile country to form on its western border, especially if that country would retain a powerful military and any degree of nuclear power. I think it is safe to say that, at least at this point in its history, the United States will not consent to the exit of any state from the Union. Of course, this may change in the future, but it would be under very different circumstances—when the United States was so debilitated that it was no longer a major world power and could no longer enforce its will within its own borders....

Reading Frank Buckley and Tim Waters' books helped me clarify views I have long held about secession, especially secession in the United States. In particular, I have long thought that the question of secession, at least in the United States, and probably in many other places as well, is as much a question of geopolitics and national security as a question of human rights and international law. That is not because I don't believe in human rights and international law, but rather because I think that there is much more to secession than these important considerations.

One could say that mine is an "externalist" approach to secession in more than one sense of the word. First, I am less interested in the legality or constitutionality of secession and more focused on the conditions that make workable secession a likely prospect. Second, I am less interested in whether secession would be a good idea in the abstract than in the kinds of security concerns that could make secession feasible or take it completely off the table. (Hence my response to Sandy in 2015).

This makes much of what I have to say irrelevant to Tim Waters, because he is primarily concerned with what international law requires or should require. So Tim could easily respond that we are simply talking past each other. I join issue a bit more with Frank Buckley, because he offers a policy case for secession, although at the end of his book we learn that he prefers devolution to secession.

Buckley suggests that the U.S. would not repeat the violence of the Civil War if a state or region tried to break away. But I don't think that anyone who considers the long arc of American history can have that degree of confidence. The United States and its people have a long record of using violence to get their way. And for reasons I shall describe shortly, there is nothing about a Secession 2.0 that suggests that it would be peaceful. Quite the contrary. In case you haven’t been paying attention to American history, Americans are not an especially peaceful people.

Moreover,—and this will turn out to be a recurring theme—we can’t really discuss secession involving a nuclear power without paying attention to nuclear weapons—who has them, who gives them up, and who makes sure they give them up. More about this later.

I begin with two historical examples. It is no accident that the first dozen or so Federalist Papers argue for union not on the basis of human rights or popular sovereignty, but on grounds of realpolitik. Publius argues that if the Articles of Confederation dissolved into a number of confederacies on the North American continent, this would lead to constant wars and jockeying for power. Recurrent wars would lead each confederacy to become increasingly militaristic to defend itself. Increasing militarism, in turn, would lead to authoritarianism and the end of republican government. Moreover, the existing European superpowers—Britain, France and Spain—would constantly play the different confederacies off against each other (and against the Indian tribes), exacerbating the confederacies’ tendencies to war and mutual self-destruction.

It is also no accident that when Abraham Lincoln lays out the case against secession in his First Inaugural Address, he invokes geopolitical reasons as well as legal and constitutional ones. If the South separated, the American continent would feature two large heavily armed countries sharing a long undefensible common border and likely to fight continually over the continent's natural resources. This would be a recipe for disaster. Or as Lincoln puts it:

Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

Although the geopolitical and technological situation is quite different than it was in 1787 or 1861 (there were no nuclear weapons in those days, for example), and international laws of war have displaced nineteenth century rules, the basic kinds of questions that should concern us have not changed.

I use these two examples to suggest that in predicting whether secession will be peaceful or violent, successful or disastrous, we should focus on two kinds of questions.

First, we must consider how the new entities (call them the leaving and remaining states) will regard each other after the attempted breakup. Will they fight each other, jockey over resources, or ally with different foreign powers? Will one or the other have nuclear weapons?

Second, we must consider the role that other countries—superpowers (including the E.U.), regional powers, and bordering states will play both in the secession and in its aftermath. They can use their power and influence to nip secession in the bud. They can actively encourage or support secession (for example, by recognizing the breakaway state), and they can offer security guarantees to smooth the transition. Alternatively, they can stir up secessionist movements for their own benefit, or unwittingly create a power vacuum, leading to great bloodshed and suffering.

Consider three kinds of cases. In one case, regional and superpowers prevent secession from occurring because they regard it as a threat to their interests. In the second, they acquiesce in or allow secession and provide security guarantees and mediation to forestall violence and keep the peace. In a third set of cases, powerful nations stay out of the controversy and let the combatants fight each other, or they actively encourage secessionist movements in order to sow chaos for their strategic advantage.

Viewing the question this way, it becomes clear that secession is not simply a question of internal disputes within a state. Rather, secession is very much a question of the relation of other countries—and especially regional and superpowers—to the state where a secession movement occurs. In this sense, the success of the Revolutionary War very much turns on assistance from a rival superpower, France, and the Southern failure in the Civil War turns on the ultimate decision by Great Britain not to throw its full weight behind the Confederacy.

The presence or absence of security guarantees and/or mediation to keep the peace are especially important when the seceding and remaining state share a border that is difficult to defend (very often the case); and when the seceding state retains military weapons and resources that it might use to threaten or attack the remaining state. If a regional power or a superpower can guarantee security and smooth the process of separation or its aftermath, a peaceful secession can be achieved. For this to happen, however, these foreign powers must find it in their interest to facilitate a peaceful secession, rather than to watch the violence unfold from the sidelines or to play one side off against the other.

This helps explain the relatively peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. The E.U. and the U.S. did not want wars among the former Soviet Republics, especially because several of the new countries had some of the former Soviet Union's nuclear arms. America and Europe's interest was in encouraging peaceful transfers of power and making sure that only one country—Russia—held on to the former Soviet Union's nuclear weapons. That is why the E.U. and the U.S. gave security guarantees to Ukraine, for example, in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia could also break up peacefully because neither had nuclear weapons of their own. Both the E.U. and the U.S. wanted a peaceful transition. Moreover, after years under Soviet domination, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia wanted to “return to Europe,” and both eventually joined the E.U.. If Scotland ever secedes from the U.K., there is a pretty good chance that it can be done peacefully. Both the E.U. and the U.S. have good reasons to ensure that if it such a breakup occurs, it is peaceful and consistent with their interests. And because the existing U.K. has nuclear weapons, some of which might be in Scotland, the U.S. and the E.U. have every reason to keep the peace. (They might insist, for example, that British nukes move out of Scotland and into the remaining parts of the U.K.)

The breakup of the former Yugoslavia is a reminder that secession movements sometimes blow up badly and that what other powers do matters. Slovenia left relatively peacefully, but sadly, the same was not true of Croatia. The U.S. and its NATO allies let the opposing sides in the civil war fight for a long time, and finally intervened only after horrific suffering and bloodshed had already occurred.

Other countries are not only interested in whether the leaving and remaining states have nuclear weapons. They may also be very concerned with the new countries’ future alliances. Canada and Quebec could peacefully part ways in the future because both remain under the umbrella of U.S. national security and NATO. But if the U.S. or Canada believed that a newly independent Quebec would tilt toward China or Russia, the separation would be very difficult to achieve. Canada would only allow Quebec to secede peacefully if there were firm guarantees that Quebec's foreign policy would be tied to Canada's (and the United States and the E.U. would insist on similar guarantees). The French might quickly recognize an independent Quebec, but even the French would recoil at the thought of a Russian or Chinese ally on the border of Canada and the U.S., and the U.S., I suspect, would never stand for it.

Buckley uses the example of Canada to suggest how a country, guided by its court system, can peacefully move toward secession. But he neglects the fact that Canada can be so peaceful (and indeed, has to be peaceful) because the United States provides crucial security guarantees and has an interest in making sure that its neighbor to the North doesn’t cause too much trouble for the U.S. (Canada has given up its nukes and relies on the U.S. for protection from nuclear attack.) A civil war in Canada in today's world is simply not in America’s interests. But the guarantees that the U.S. provides to Canada would be absent if the U.S. itself were breaking apart. The Canadians would not be able to serve the same stabilizing function for us that we serve for them.

With this in mind, consider a potential breakaway of Pacifica or the Southern states. First, the new countries will share a long common border that, like in 1780 and 1860, is still difficult to police and defend. (Perhaps Pacifica can build a wall and make the U.S. pay for it?) Second, each country will have nuclear weapons. Third, there is no superpower that can broker a peaceful settlement between the two sides. That is because the U.S. itself is the only superpower who could credibly do this, and it would be in the process of breaking up. If you doubt this, imagine the reaction among various constituencies in the U.S. if China, or Russia, or even the E.U. offered to broker a deal, including, of course, concessions in our nuclear weapons stockpiles. Once again, you can’t reasonably talk about American secession without talking about nukes—including who keeps them, who gives them up, and how the deal gets enforced.

Now imagine that the Southern confederacy is a Trumpist regime that tilts toward Russia, or that Pacifica makes the obvious trans-Pacific alliance with China, while the rest of the U.S. stays in NATO and remains allied with the E.U. This is a very dangerous situation indeed. China is looking for ways to cut its major competitor down to size; Russia has demonstrated that it has few qualms about stirring up trouble in the U.S. How much more trouble could these countries stir up under these circumstances?

For all of these reasons, I think that the U.S. would use force to stop a secessionist movement. Secession would threaten its national security just as it did in the 1780s and 1860s. The U.S. will not allow either Pacifica or the South to leave without a fight.

But, you might say, Pacifica would never ally with China, and the South would never ally with Russia. After all, the folks in Pacifica and the South are Americans!  Well, after secession they wouldn’t be part of the U.S. any more. They would be rivals with the U.S. for political and economic dominance in the region and the world.  Moreover, throughout its history America has allied with all sorts of unsavory characters when it thought it could gain a strategic or economic advantage. The good folks in Pacifica and the South will ally with China or Russia—or threaten to do so—if they think that it will gain them an advantage over the U.S..

One last point. Buckley suggests that it will be relatively easy to divide the U.S. up into new countries. But I am not so sure. The United States is increasingly an archipelago of blue cities in red rural areas. Unless you think that Israel's division of the West Bank is a political success, and I don't, it’s very hard to see how you could split up the country when its primary divisions these days are between urban and rural areas.

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