Dividing Divided States

Dividing Divided States provides a detailed guide to recent secessions, from the partition of India to the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia. This careful and straightforward study looks at the core issues likely to confront newly seceded states: people, natural resources, and state resources.

Dividing Divided States

Gregory F. Treverton

2014 | 248 pages | Cloth $49.95
Political Science
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. Citizenship
Chapter 2. Refugees and Security
Chapter 3. Pastoralists

Chapter 4. Oil and Infrastructure
Chapter 5. Resource Revenue Funds
Chapter 6. Water

Chapter 7. Assets and Liabilities
Chapter 8. Currency and Financial Arrangements



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In the early 1990s, the weary senior director for Europe on the U.S. National Security Council used to kid his colleagues by saying, "Why don't you get going? I've presided over the creation of lots of new countries in my area over the last few years. What have you been doing in your areas?" The flood of new states set loose by the end of communism and the Soviet empire has slowed to a trickle, but it is a continuing trickle. The vote for independence in southern Sudan in January 2011 is the latest instance of a new state but surely not the last. The appendix presents a list of secessions since 1900.

Framing Secession

Secession is a region formally withdrawing from a state or federation to become a separate state. Some care with terms is in order: Formally, the seceding region is not a state until it is recognized as such by the international community, but since in all cases the seceding region aspired to be a state and was ultimately recognized as such, the book sometimes uses the term "seceding state" for regions withdrawing. The resulting states, both old and new, are regarded as the "successor states." If a region seceded, the original state is referred to as the "continuing state," a status that bears particularly on dividing national resources, like international memberships and assets. If the original state dissolves, there is no continuing state.

This book is intended as a guide to those interested in policy formulation on secession—students and practitioners alike. Secession involves not just the states and regions immediately concerned. Neighboring states may have been affected by spillover conflict and surely will harbor some refugees. The ripples of those spillovers may reach other states as well. States outside the region, like the United States, may feel their security concerns are invoked, and, in any case, they will be looked to as sources of aid and perhaps honest brokering. International organizations will also be important in those roles, and the international financial institutions are likely to be quite directly involved in negotiations over assets and liabilities.

The book does not reach judgments on whether or when secession is a good idea. Nor does it treat many of the issues in international law surrounding secession, such as recognition of new states, about which there is a vast literature. Rather, the policy premise of the book is that if secession is going to happen, better that it be done well—and that doing it well is likely to be facilitated by an awareness that other secessions have confronted similar issues and an understanding of how they handled them.

Still, secessions arise from a stew of nationalism, ideology, long-simmering conflict, artificial borders, changed geopolitical circumstances, and money. States secede for several reasons, all of which will continue to impel secessions. And plainly, how secessions come about will matter when it comes to making policy decisions. Most of the secession cases we draw on were, like Sudan, the result of long-festering dissatisfaction on the part of groups defined by some combination of ethnicity, nationalism, and religion, groups trapped in states whose borders had been drawn pretty arbitrarily by empires, colonial powers, or federations—ranging from the Austro-Hungarian, Soviet, and Ottoman Empires to the European colonial powers.

In only several of the cases we analyze did the secessionists fight on their way to independence, as was the case in Sudan, though in many violence was touched off by the secession itself—most brutally in Bosnia's ethnic cleansing. In numbers, by far the most secessions in the last quarter century issued from the slow collapse of an artificial multinational empire or federation—the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

Perhaps because so many of the secessions were due to the demise of the Soviet empire, many scholars emphasize money as critical. For one, "few regions have the structural requirements for the development of a secessionist movement," which seems, in Africa, truer of the resulting state than of the secessionist movement. Another scholar argues that "separatism results from varying mixes of sheer economic interest and group apprehension." Supporting this argument, one study found that secession movements within the Soviet Union were most strongly motivated by economic concerns, while another argued that "it is the richest, rather than the poorest, ethnic regions which are the most eager to secede since they have the most to lose should they be exploited by other groups that control the state."

One synthesis analyzes secession movements through a cost-benefit analysis lens that does capture some of the ideological underpinnings of secessionism as a type of "membership benefit." This approach moves beyond the arguments that focus almost exclusively on economics. It provides a way to include material considerations in the analysis but takes into account the passions of ideology and nationalism that arise in secessionist cases.

Some of the seceding states—the Baltics, Croatia, Slovenia—did so on powerful economic grounds. However, others, mostly in Africa but also including Bosnia, impoverished themselves in the name of identity or ideology, though they sometimes thought they would be better off after independence. South Sudan's leaders made that argument, however unwisely.

In the end, how well a secession goes also depends on a number of factors beyond the seceding region's control. The amicability of the parting plainly is crucial (though resting too much on the assumption that comity will continue can also be dangerous, as it was for Ethiopia and Eritrea). And it did seem the case for many of the issues we examined that richer (or more powerful) states in any secession were both better able to prepare for separation and more able to set the terms of that separation. Some of these wider issues are picked up in the concluding chapter.

The book's premise is that secessions will continue to occur. A betting person probably would look hardest at Africa, where so many artificial borders remain. Europe is also an interesting case. The European Union in the 2010s is in parlous condition. Yet if it holds together, even as a free trade area and not a currency zone, it could provide economic incentive to secession. Within Europe, Catalonia doesn't need Spain, nor perhaps does Dutch-speaking Flanders need Belgium.

The book's purpose is to learn tentative lessons about how dividing states have handled the particulars in their own divorces, from oil and water to security, citizenship, and assets. That purpose is a humble one. The more we dug into the cases, the clearer it became that no one previous experience could provide an easy template for future secessions. Nor can the lessons be more than suggestive, for the number of cases relevant to any given issue is limited. But even though every circumstance has its own particularities, some understanding of the way previous secessions handled the array of issues that most seceding states are likely to confront can help serve as an antidote to the feeling that the problems are entirely new. If the previous cases do not offer pat prescriptions, they do offer lessons to consider along the way, both suggestive and cautionary.

The cases and issue analyses that compose this book were prepared over three years for Humanity United as part of a kind of Track II—nonofficial—diplomatic effort in the run-up to the vote on secession by South Sudan in January 2011. We found, however, that most of the lessons had relevance far beyond Sudan, and the materials have been "de-Sudanized" to make them useful to other regions contemplating secession. While much of the Sudan-specific material has been omitted, Sudan is a kind of background case throughout. That is especially the case for the chapter on citizenship and the concluding chapter, both of which use the Sudan case to illustrate more general questions, like the sequence and timing in which issues should be handled.

One issue that didn't arise in Sudan and thus is not treated here is borders. The African Union estimates that fewer than a quarter of Africa's borders are delimited and demarcated, so borders are an issue for all African states, not just seceding ones. Whether undefined borders become a crucial issue in secession will turn on whether something of value, like oil or water, lies along an undefined border. That was not the case for Sudan. Rather, for the Sudanese and surely for other secessions, what was an issue was rather defined border regions, like Abyei, that contained people divided in their loyalties.

Note on Method, and Guide to Chapters

The next eight chapters present cases and crosscutting issue analyses for the core issues that many seceding states are likely to have to address; they arose in Sudan, but some set is likely to arise in any secession. Those issues are grouped loosely in three clusters—people, natural resources, and state or national resources. The first cluster includes citizenship, refugees, and security, and what are called "pastoralists," people who regularly move in pursuit of water and grazing land but who, after secession, may find that their traditional movements now cross newly etched international borders. The second includes oil and infrastructure, and water, while the third comprises assets and liabilities, and currency and financial arrangements.

The people issues begin with citizenship, the subject of Chapter 1, a highly sensitive issue, perhaps the core one over which the parties have argued, even fought. For this issue, it seemed less helpful to have full case studies than to lay out the range of issues involved in citizenship and the variety of arrangements states have conceived to deal with it, along with some case examples.

Division is virtually certain to produce refugees, who are almost always vulnerable and thus dependent on some means of security. Displaced persons sometimes are rendered stateless and are at risk of becoming bargaining chips in a broader conflict between old and new countries—the subjects of Chapter 2.

Chapter 3 turns to the question of pastoralists. This issue was crucial in the case of South Sudan but may not be relevant in regions of the world other than Africa. Yet it will arise in some form in other secessions as well, all the more so as climate change lengthens the migrations of pastoralists.

The natural resource issues begin with oil and accompanying infrastructure. Resources are a curse in secession because they are not distributed evenly across the original and would-be seceding state. Oil and gas are a special problem for two reasons, and Chapter 4 examines both of them. One is that while the resource pools are fixed in space, those pools may straddle the boundaries of new states. Second, oil and gas need to be moved toward market through expensive infrastructure, infrastructure that may pass through what becomes with division another country.

Chapter 5 takes up a rather different oil (and other natural resource issue): how to avoid the "resource curse." At best, resource earnings can distort economic development in the short run; at worst, they can become something to fight over. In the long run, there is concern over equity across generations: how can future generations benefit even after the oil reserves are exhausted? The chapter discusses a variety of funds nations have created, both to smooth out revenue fluctuations when resource prices change and to preserve resource wealth for future generations.

The next chapter discusses the challenges that arise when secession produces new claimant(s) on existing water resources, most often river basins. That requires negotiating shares, along with ways to enforce them and handle disputes.

Chapter 7 turns from natural resources to national ones. Dividing assets and liabilities between an old, diminished state and a new, perhaps jubilant one will surely be an emotional issue. Many fixed assets can fairly be allocated to the (new) state in which they exist, but movable assets will be contested, as will ways to share any existing debt burden, all the more so if a visible fraction of the debt was incurred to finance projects that now seem disproportionately housed in one of the states. Military assets are particularly important, hence contentious.

Currency, the subject of Chapter 8, seems an easier matter: as a symbol of sovereignty, shouldn't a new state have its own? That logic is often unstoppable but can be dangerous, for currency is in fact connected to banking and economic policy. Not surprisingly, secession cases among richer countries produced better outcomes on this score.

The final chapter lays out conclusions. The case study chapters concentrate on the specifics of dealing with the issue in question. Yet looking across the cases and issues also sheds light on the broader, contextual factors that sculpt any secession. The conclusions reflect on those, using the Sudan case as one in point. For instance, sequencing matters—what is important to try to do early and what can be deferred?—and leadership are critical. The leaders of the parties need to have the stature and credibility to do more than issue grand pronouncements; they need to be able to make painful compromises, and make them stick.

Reframing issues can make them more tractable. Yet, the contextual factors that help most—above all trust and amicable relations—are likely to be in the shortest supply. In that sense, the knowledge that other secessions have handled these issues—and the lessons suggested along the way—can help boost trust.

Each issue (except citizenship) is treated in a broadly similar way, and each chapter follows a similar structure. Once we decided which issues were important, we looked for cases in which the issue had been handled, well or badly, ideally in cases that ranged across different regions of the world. We present each case using a similar template—first a brief statement of the issue and the outcome; then a longer discussion of the course of the dispute or discussion; then finally an assessment and discussion of the possible lessons from the case. We have also looked across cases for comparisons and lessons.

As a policy guide, the chapters in this book present the results of the process in a somewhat reverse order. If this were a purely academic book, it would lay out the cases, then present the lessons. Here, though, to make it easy for busy policy-minded readers, we present the lessons that resulted from looking across the cases first, in most cases ending with a table to illustrate those lessons graphically. The cases then follow, and readers who are intrigued or dubious or simply want more can sample the cases as they see fit.