America the breakup artist

US support for partition movements is opening a can of worms.

Sovereignty and territorial integrity are sacred concepts to every nation. Without them, the basis for international relations crumbles. That's why it's so troubling that the United States is in effect stimulating a partition movement across the globe.

Washington's encouragement of Kosovo's split from Serbia, its consideration of a possible Sunni-Shiite-Kurd spatial separation in Iraq, and its vigorous support for Taiwan demonstrate America's penchant for promoting – or at least sanctioning – partition.

Such policies are a product of America's "freedom agenda." Promoting democracy worldwide often means supporting efforts for greater independence and self-determination. But taken too far, Washington ends up embracing partition – and opening a Pandora's box.

The good news is that the US has an opportunity to correct course in South America. Just this past Sunday, Bolivians in two states voted overwhelmingly for autonomy measures. The vote echoes the result from a similar referendum recently in the eastern state of Santa Cruz.

Proponents see it as upholding autonomy. The government deems the ballots illegal and separatist.

The US strategic signal should be clear and loud: Partition is neither good nor welcome in the Western Hemisphere. It should also make clear that autonomy is not the same thing as secession.

In Bolivia, the argument for autonomy – which is positive – is accompanied by an undercurrent of partition. Washington should not legitimate this undercurrent. Instead, it should work diligently in favor of eventual autonomy. Thus, close diplomacy with Bolivia's neighbors, such as Argentina and Brazil, is crucial.

In the past 50 years, the world has seen an avalanche of new nation-states. Not South America. From the mid-19th century, through the 20th century, only one new state formed there: Panama in 1903.

Nevertheless, there is growing concern in South America about the possibility of secession in the Andean Ridge (Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia) as well as in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay).

An uneven globalization process has weakened the state, broadened the economic gap between the haves and have-nots, aggravated social tensions, and eroded national identity.

What's more, amid this the emergence of a vigorous ethnic agenda with the partial collapse and replacement of traditional elites is generating a new phenomenon in the region. It's one that encourages geographic fracture, political division, and symbolic self-rule.

The White House must search for key partners in South America to face the complex and conflicting social demands that are pushing several countries to state disintegration and geographical dislocation.

It is important for the US to indicate that it understands that regional, cultural, and ethnic autonomy breeds prosperity, equality, and security. Secession, on the other hand, often leads to the opposite.

In Bolivia, conflict management, economic commitment, and precautionary political involvement will be more effective than unilateral, last-minute force deployment and military intervention. Both the US and Bolivia's neighbors should make more material, political, and symbolic efforts to promote unity.

During the cold war, the partitioning of countries was ideologically based: two Germanys, two Vietnams, two Koreas, two Yemens. Today, it has become both ethnically and geopolitically motivated and rationalized.

The US message in favor of secession may generate unpredictable consequences that could, in turn, affect its own security. To keep Pandora's box closed, the US and the rest of the West need to practice pragmatism, not ideology; unity, not partitioning.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is a professor of international relations at the Universidad de San Andrés, in Buenos Aires.

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