Who Gets to Have a State?

by Graham E. Fuller

The past two weeks have seen two referendums vote for national self-determination. The Iraqi Kurds voted for independence but the referendum was rejected by the central government in Baghdad. Then Catalans in Spain voted for their own independent state in a referendum similarly rejected by Madrid.

Such calls for an independent and separate state are nothing new in the world. Indeed, separatism is an integral part of the history of the world: peoples forever engage in a complex dance of conquest and liberation, separatism and unification. The Chechens’ 200-year bid for independence has been repeatedly crushed by Moscow. Ireland gained its independence in a struggle with the UK only in 1922. Yugoslavia (“South Slavia”) was in many ways a successful example of a unified multinational state of similar South Slavic peoples (except for the Albanian Kosovars) until it fell apart into seven independent states the early 1990s.

Each separatist movement has its own unique characteristics, psychology, history and timeline. The rebuff to Catalans and Kurds today can hardly be taken as the end of the story. Indeed, the world is replete with peoples still seeking a state of their own: Uighur Turks and Tibetans in China, Sikhs in India, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Igbos in Nigeria, even the province of Québec in Canada, Scots in the UK, Tatars in Russia–the list goes on.

So the question immediately arises: who, in the end, gets their own state? Or, put another way, who “deserves” to have a state of their own? A short answer is that no one “deserves” their own state, as such. Or, in an ideal world, perhaps everybody might deserve one. But nothing is automatic. Independence comes about through a combination of a people’s determination, sheer historical luck, happenstance, and the attitudes of great powers. At certain periods in history certain groups of people became powerful enough to create and defend their own state based on what they believed to be shared cultural bonds, such as the unification of Germany or Italy in the 19th century. Others dreamed of “pan”-ethnic states based on pan-Slavism, pan-Arabism, or pan-Germanism–movements that stirred brief passions but in the end came to nought. Still others stitched together vaguely similar tribal groupings to form a state like Libya (under the Italians), or Saudi Arabia.

Unity doesn’t necessarily require a shared language. India’s unity may have been put together by the British Empire, but many large Indian states had also risen and fallen in pre-British days, pulling together a diverse group of languages, cultures and religions. (The British likewise engineered the partition of India that created the modern state of Pakistan in 1947.) Interestingly, India as a hugely diverse religious and ethnic state faces very little separatist agitation today. Sikhs several decades ago fought for a separate state but their aspirations were crushed by the Indian army. Further afield, the diverse far-flung islands of the Indonesian archipelago were united by the Dutch Empire to create the modern state of Indonesia in 1945.

Still, it’s misleading to talk about “what people want” in so many of these cases. In the end, it isn’t usually “the people” who demand their own state, but rather individual ethnic leaders—sometimes referred to as “nationalist entrepreneurs”—who work to exploit or stir up popular movements for unity, or for separation. These “entrepreneurs” usually represent certain elites or classes who have a strong self-interest in forming an independence, or a separatist, movement, an aspiration not necessarily shared by all at the outset.

Success in achieving one’s own state also heavily depends on the attitudes of great world powers at the time. Great powers will oppose separatist movements that damage their interests (or those of their allies), but often support such movements if it will weaken an enemy state. Without the major intervention of the French—then sworn enemies of Britain—the US War of Independence probably would not have succeeded. Later the British worked to incite minorities in the Turkish Ottoman Empire in order to weaken and destroy it. The US worked to foment separatism in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and today works to get Ukraine and Georgia out from under the Russian sphere of influence. The US is currently happy to play the separatist game in Iran as a form of covert power play against Tehran.

Today the US happens to see an independent Kurdish state on Iraqi soil as inconvenient to its interests of the moment. But Israel, in keeping with its goal of keeping its neighbors weak, supports Kurdish separatism.

These diverse cases suggest just how random the luck of some peoples has been in working to create their own independent states.

There’s yet a tougher question: what constitutes “a people”— a highly subjective question. In simplest terms a “people” is no more than a group of people who at some point believe they constitute a distinct grouping–on historical, linguistic, cultural, or other grounds. Scholar Benedict Anderson actually described ethnicity itself as based on no more than an “imagined” community, a self-conceived, self-created sense of identity based on no purely objective criterion other than their own wishes. Thus some Israeli politicians have appealed to history to “prove” that the Palestinians are not really a distinct people. Tell that to the Palestinians. Indeed, however “imagined” Jewishness, Palestinianness, or Indianness may have originally been, they are no less real or passionate today for all that. Such “imagined identities” can ultimately lead people to kill or die for what they consider, at the moment, to be their “tribe” or ethnic group.

Nor is language alone always enough to guarantee feelings of community cohesion and solidarity. Three hundred million Arabs, if educated, all read the same language even though they speak in a variety of local languages or “dialects.” Arabs share some elements of common history and religion. Should there then be a single independent Arab state?  Some Arabs say yes, many others believe they are too diverse. And where the boundaries are to be drawn is often a question of power. China has many languages or “dialects” that are barely mutually comprehensible, although they basically share a common written language. So what would make Shangainese or Cantonese a “dialect” and not a language worthy of independence? Someone once suggested  that a “language” is no more than a “dialect with an army.”

The number of independent states in the world is still growing, but it is politics–domestic and international–that basically determines the outcome. The quest for an independent state today is often sparked by bad, incompetent or oppressive rule on the part of the dominant power group in the state. The Rohingya in Burma are only the latest sad victims of such a dominant Burmese ruling group.

Content and thriving populations, on the other hand, even minorities, don’t usually seek their own state unless the expected gains appear to be great–enough to justify war, destruction and death.

Traditionally strong states crack down harshly at any suggestion of separatism. Lincoln did so against the rebellious Confederate States in the American Civil War. China and India today, among other states, will not hear of separatism and move to crush it by force. Yet today many larger states, especially in the democratic West, have achieved some measure of wisdom or maturity in not applying armed force to prevent secession referendums, aware that repression will often only exacerbate separatist passions. Economic instruments are becoming the preferred weapon.

Indeed, such separatist referendums in the West do not necessarily even carry the day at the polls. Québécois separatists in Canada were defeated in two separate referendums, by small margins. Scottish separatists in the last referendum in 2014 did not quite gain a majority. But if London further mishandles the issue then next time Scottish separatists may win the day. No modern state can any longer convincingly use military force to effectively crush separatist movements forever.

So how many states should the world accept? Should any group that wants its own state be allowed to have it? Who will decide? In the end it is power relationships that decide.

One approach for the future might be to accept the idea, at least theoretically, that any community that wishes to have its own state should be able to have it. Thus newly independent peoples would hold their own “Saturday night” celebration of independence with their own national anthem, flag, passport, and postage stamp. But then there also comes a reckoning, a “Monday morning” to independence. A fledgling state has to get up and go to work. What kind of new political and economic relationships with its neighbors will it have? After all, its economy has to be viable.

Many aspiring would-be independent states might not be able to make the grade to survive on their own. Indeed, independence is not a casually assumed burden and is potentially fraught with peril and internal dissent. At some point such newly independent states might later decide to negotiate a new relationship with the former state of which it was a part, or with an adjacent state that offers to meet their aspirations as partners. But these new relationships this time around might be more freely negotiated between parties, rather than established by force, historical diktat or accident.

Sounds chaotic? Sure, but is not the present world with its constant wars and separatist movements already chaotic?  At least such a laissez-faire approach might set out a procedural road map for how various peoples or regions might consider and negotiate their future relationships—far more sensible than simple acceptance of historical domination by force. In the end there will be no other way to block such aspirations except through better policies. The burden of meeting local aspirations will thus fall upon the state to ensure its constituent elements are satisfied enough to remain in.

The future will be messy, but hopefully will be conducted under more peaceful and democratic procedures for autonomy or independence. But there are no guarantees.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Republished, with permission, from grahamefuller.com. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Yugoslavia did not “fall apart” but was destroyed to prove that NATO was still needed in the world and to start the interference once more of Germany which nine days after reunification supported and helped the pullout of Croatia from the country which was up to then success of unity.

  2. There is a middle ground; there are many autonomous areas in the world. But that wasn’t good enough for some Kurds and Catalans.

  3. Wonder why the author was scared of mentioning ‘Kashmir’ – one the rare cases to have multiple UNSC resolutions backing its claim, with UN doing nothing. He also completely ignores perhaps the most successful example / model of coexistence between those demanding separation and those insisting on their right to rule over them – Aland Islands!

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