18 February 2008

Secession, Independence and the Rights of Nations

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia over the weekend. Russia objected. The U.S. applauded, and the government has said that we will extend diplomatic recognition to Kosovo. Russia's objections are dismissed as further proof of the country's meanness. Inevitably the other shoe will drop and a Russian and a Serb will ask what became of the Confederate States of America?

Whether you consider America hypocritical depends on the details. Kosovo looks at first glance like a different case from the Confederacy. The Kosovars are a separte ethnicity from the Serbs, Albanians rather than Slavs, more Muslim than Christian. They look more like a subject people ruled by an alien power. You can't fit the Confederacy into this analogy unless you count "slaveholders" as a culture. In my own judgment, the Confederacy was a conspiracy of disgruntled politicians and plantation owners who were angry because they'd lost an election. They were also a threat to the entire Western Hemisphere due to their desire for new territory for plantations.

On that point, actually, there's room for an analogy to be drawn. In all likelihood, a major Russian objection to Kosovo's independence is a suspicion that the country might become another American base in the middle of what Russia regards as its sphere of influence. You might question Russia's right to have a sphere of influence, but they're entitled to geopolitical objections. They're as entitled to object as the Turks, Iraqis, Iranians, etc. are to their objections to an independent Kurdistan. To the extent that Americans don't recognize that their objections to secession were also influenced by geopolitical factors, their attitude toward Russia today would be hypocritical.

Recognizing another country's right to object is one thing, but allowing that country to veto another nationality's aspirations is another. But that being said, I remind myself that I've said in the past that world peace depends on universal respect for the sovereignty of nations. Does that mean that we have to give existing nations the benefit of the doubt in their disputes with secessionist elements? Those nations will always say that the disputes are internal matters, just as we did during the Civil War when we warned the European powers against intervening. Are nations obliged by a principle of comity to concede their fellow nations' perepetual sovereignty over all disgruntled minorities? Must Kosovo be condemned to the fate of the Basques, the Chechens, the Kurds, etc? My answer would be: not if they can free themselves. If they can defend their independence in a fair fight with Serbia, and if Serbia gives up the fight, then there's no reason not to recognize Kosovo. But what if it isn't a fair fight? What if Russia were to send troops to help Serbia suppress the Kosovars? Do we grant them a right to intervene because it's their sphere of influence? Or should other countries intervene against Russia to uphold the general principle of non-interference. Does world peace depend on acceptance of spheres of influence as well as the sovereignty of tyrants? And is it peace when a sovereign slaughters its subjects?

Try asking some of those questions the next time you see a presidential candidate. The answers ought to prove interesting.

5 comments:

Aleksu said...

Serbia (without any Russian help) was already taking care of business in Kosovo when the USA and NATO decided to side with the Kosovars. So, according to you, the Kosovars already lost their right to be independent.

crhymethinc said...

If an indigenous group of people are forced to join an existing country, they have the right to secede, just as a slave has a right to freedom. If a country willingly joins an existing group - say the client states of the USSR or even the states of the USA, then the people of that state should have a right at any point in the future to democratically decide whether the decision their forbears made was a good one. That is, they have a right to secede.

The confederate states had a right to secede, but they did not have a right to enslave other human beings. Since their secession was based primarily on their thwarted desire to create more slave states, then their secession was right, but not righteous.

Aleksu said...

Crhymethinc, you said:

If an indigenous group of people are forced to join an existing country, they have the right to secede, just as a slave has a right to freedom. If a country willingly joins an existing group - say the client states of the USSR or even the states of the USA, then the people of that state should have a right at any point in the future to democratically decide whether the decision their forbears made was a good one. That is, they have a right to secede.

So, this surely applies to the Basques doesn't it?

Samuel Wilson said...

As far as nations or nationalities go, the only rights they'll ever have are those they earn. None of them have a natural or "god-given" right to independence, for obvious reasons. The international community can't assert a universal right of every self-defined nation to political sovereignty without completely revolutionizing the existing world order. That doesn't mean you can't desire such a state of affairs, but it does require you to acknowledge the price that everyone will have to pay. Whether nationalism has been a force for good in world history is still subject to debate. Whether the world will be better off with an independent, perhaps ethnically-cleansed Kosovo or Basque Country is also debatable.

crhymethinc said...

Yes it applies to the Basques. It also applies to the Kurds, etc.