One of the defining challenges in the 21st century has been how to balance demands for independence by certain peoples with the sanctity of national borders. Just in the coming days alone, two regions with distinct identities, Catalonia in Spain and the Kurdish area in Iraq, plan to stage referendums on independence. The outcomes are uncertain, especially in whether they can keep the peace. Yet they may help set a measure of the meaning of “self” in that 20th-century notion of self-determination.
The two votes are an echo of demands by several countries for more sovereignty to protest the perceived effects of global or regional institutions that were set up to purposely impinge on national sovereignty. Britain, for example, is now negotiating an exit from the European Union. On Tuesday, President Trump spoke at the United Nations about taking back American sovereignty from international bodies that the United States set up. Turkey, meanwhile, is pulling away from its ties with NATO and Europe.
The idea of the nation-state is only a few hundred years old, born out of Europe’s religious wars that resulted in a need for secular rule within set geographic boundaries. Nation-states are a step up from being ruled by a dynasty, clan, cleric, or tribe. For many people in the past two centuries, the formation of a nation-state was a way to escape a colonial empire.
The biggest issue in starting a new state is whether it can be done without violence. The Islamic State group killed thousands in attempting to form a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. South Sudan was split off from Sudan in 2011 and has not seen peace since. Kosovo was forcibly split from Serbia and declared independence in 2008, but Serbia still has not made peace. Russia took Crimea by force in 2014 after Ukraine moved to join the EU and remove itself from Moscow’s orbit.
Yet East Timor did separate with relative peace from Indonesia in 2002. And Britain allowed Scotland to vote on separation in 2014, a tolerance that may have led the Scots to vote against leaving.
In many of these cases, people were redefining the object of their collective love. Is it a shared ethnicity, history, language, religion, or geography? Is it to escape historical discrimination and violence? Or do they see unity in higher ideals, such as equality and democratic governance?
For ethnic Kurds in Iraq, the issue is mainly a historical desire for homeland denied them after World War I when European powers divided up the Middle East. But they also now feel like third-class citizens in Iraq, deprived of an equitable sharing of power and resources. Catalonia feels it is culturally distinct from the rest of Spain and that it has not been given its due in the economy.
In both places, however, there is little assurance a new independent entity would be better governed. Internal political squabbles in both places could be as intense as those with the mother countries.
Nation-states still serve a peaceful purpose but they are challenged by shifting identities. Global technologies, such as smartphones and social media, bind people across borders, blurring old identities of race, ethnicity, or religion. More people demand basic rights and inclusive governance, which are universal in their appeal. Often such higher aspirations help prevent a national divorce. They set an identity that embraces diversity rather than one that fears it.
People will always seek to define a “we” that helps them find unity under a protective government. The coming votes in Kurdish Iraq and Catalonia might provide lessons on the best way to find that social harmony. The best “self” for any people is to choose peace and harmony with one’s neighbors.