When the Portuguese colony of Macau was returned to China on Dec. 20, overseas European empires, with the exception of a few island colonies, came to an end. The imperial domains of Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, and the United States are not likely to be recreated.
This fact, however, does not signal the end of empires. Several continue to exist within borders: internal empires in which a single ethnic or religious group or region holds sway over others. Some, like Russia or Ethiopia, were formed by conquest over centuries. Others, such as Nigeria, Indonesia, or the Sudan, were created by the European imperial powers and preserved by the independence regimes. Today, the cohesion of each of these is threatened by demands for autonomy or freedom by subordinate entities. Separatist threats will be a fact of international life in the new century. These threats are already visible.
The independence of former Soviet republics has left the Slavs of Moscow presiding over a restless group of ethnic republics; Chechnya is the most dramatic example. In Indonesia - from Aceh in the west to Irian Jaya in the east, now renamed Papua to please separatists - the new president, Abdurrachman Wahid, faces demands for freedom from the Javanese-centered rule of Jakarta.
Nigeria, which suppressed Ibo aspirations in Biafra in the 1970s, still wrestles with the problem of creating a nation from disparate regional entities. Ethiopia is an empire of diverse identities. Memories of the 1980s revolt in Tigre province and of the independence of Eritrea in 1993 remain fresh.
Efforts by the Muslim government in Khartoum, Sudan, to suppress the Christian and animist peoples of the south continue. Disputes between India and Pakistan over Kashmir remain unresolved amid separatist impulses of the Sikhs. And the Nagas of Assam and China, with its challenges to authority in its Muslim west, are not immune.
One might assume that new communication technologies make it easier for a central government to retain control. But Internet and fax access also makes it more possible for separatist groups to organize.
As in Nigeria, inequality in the location of resources such as oil and gas within a nation leads inevitably to questions that spur separatist dreams: Why should an oil-rich province be deprived of the benefits of its riches to help sustain poorer regions?
Wide availability of arms increases the temptation to revolt against a central authority. Neither the Chechnyans nor the Achenese seem to lack for sources of weapons.
The worldwide Islamic network has provided both encouragement and support to fervent Muslim regions such as Chechnya, Aceh, and portions of northern Nigeria. But not all nations in which Islam is the dominant religion endorse such efforts; the government of Muslim Indonesia finds itself at odds with more militant groups.
The determination of the activist Islamic groups, however, gives them a power beyond their numbers.
The strains within internal empires also pose problems for the international community and for US foreign policy. Television coverage projects the horrors of internal conflicts into living rooms throughout the world, bringing demands for action, both political and humanitarian. International interventions to prevent or resolve internal confrontations or assist victims immediately raise problems of sovereignty.
Admonishing countries such as Russia to be civil to insurgents can backfire in more important bilateral relationships, and food aid is sometimes seen as helping revolutionaries. But the UN and the US with their global interests in stability cannot be indifferent to conflicts, such as Kosovo, that may infect wider areas.
Compared with the original 52 members of the United Nations in 1945, the present membership of 188 independent nations seems already large and, at times, unwieldy. Chances are that despite the efforts of sovereign governments, breakaways in the new century may increase that number.
*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of State for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society