In 2011, South Sudan became the 193rd United Nations member state. Its secession from Sudan was unique in modern history in that a newly drawn border divided an existing nation-state – something the international order resists. Can the example set by South Sudan ever be replicated? Yes, and perhaps soon: wars in the Middle East are creating conditions under which new nations might emerge. The global powers that usually conspire to stymie independence movements might be ready to radically redraw the map. And the map must be redrawn. In most of the Third World, former colonial borders drawn by Europeans divide ethnic and religious groups into separate states, or force others into uneasy power-sharing, stoking civil conflict. The world’s independence movements confront the unfinished business of colonialism.
UN enlargement since 1945 has been mostly through colonies winning independence. Its post-war explosion in membership came with Europe’s decolonisation of Africa and Asia, as existing colonies were mostly converted into independent states. But the borders rarely changed after that. Biafra’s failed war to secede from Nigeria in the 1960s killed millions and was so traumatic that the African Union has blocked every attempt to modify the borders European monarchs drew all over Africa in the 19th century (except for South Sudan). Similarly, when Europeans divvied up Ottoman territories at the end of the First World War, the new borders disregarded where Kurds and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, or others actually lived. The superpowers of the 20th century feared that redrawing borders would destabilise the region and affect the flow of precious oil. So borders remained frozen along lines that made sense only to imperialists operating thousands of miles away.
Many independence movements are fringe causes unlikely to sway majorities, as in Bavaria or Alaska. Others, such as Quebec or northern Italy, have lost their former political momentum. Even where there is a separatist majority, repressive governments stifle separatist majorities, as in Myanmar or Indonesia. Beijing’s policy of settling Han Chinese in Tibetan and Uyghur regions robs restive minorities of local majorities. It is rarely, if ever, in a country’s interest to let go.
During the Cold War, aspirant nations became pawns of superpower politics. The Soviets supported rebels within United States-allied states – such as Turkey’s Kurds and Israel’s Palestinians – while the US backed separatists in corners of Communist-leaning countries, such as Katanga in the Congo and Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians.
Perversely, this same superpower-dominated international order made independence almost unattainable. In today’s standoff between Russia and the West, as before, UN rules are the sticking point. UN recognition as a state requires only a majority in the General Assembly (GA). But to become a voting member state, an applicant needs approval by all five nuclear powers on the Security Council: the US, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia. Take Palestine. Its 1988 declaration of independence from Israel was symbolic, since Palestinians controlled no territory. When the 1994 Oslo Accords gave a new Palestinian Authority limited powers in the West Bank and Gaza, a ‘State of Palestine’ became something concrete. By 2012, nearly three-quarters of UN members recognised it, but the US and the UK wouldn’t budge. In the GA’s 138-9 vote on Palestinian admission, the only ‘no’s were the US, Israel, and close allies such as Canada. Even NATO members such as the UK and the Netherlands abstained – revealing growing sympathy for Palestine as Israeli atrocities mounted, and as the atrocities that made a Jewish state necessary in the first place seemed less and less the responsibility of modern Europeans. So Palestine stagnates as a UN ‘non-member observer state’. The US will not recognise it until Israel does – which seems more remote than ever.
The Palestine standoff is counterbalanced by that over Kosovo. In 1999, amid Yugoslavia’s ruins, Serbia’s massacres in its Kosovo province brought NATO bombers to the rescue, kicking out the Serbs and putting Kosovo under UN administration. Western countries recognised Kosovo in 2008, as have, by now, 108 of 193 UN members, but Russia, Serbia’s ally, brandishes its Security Council veto. Russia and Serbia share pan-Slavic myths of former greatness and feelings that Westerners have cruelly whittled away their empires. Kosovo was always less about saving Kosovars – after all, there are massacres as frequent, and there are hundreds of captive nations – than about Russia’s geopolitical ambitions.
Russia has responded with its own mini-Kosovos – puppet regimes within Western-leaning former Soviet republics – Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and of course eastern Ukraine. Russia says their aspirations are as legitimate as Kosovo’s, but the West’s UN vetoes keep them in limbo as well. This balance and tilt between Russia and the West keeps people captive within outdated borders and the emergence of new nations seems unlikely in the near future.
In the Middle East, however, the game is changing. The institutional aversion to new nation-states might be a casualty of the devastating civil wars in Libya, Iraq, Yemen and, worst of all, Syria. Recall what made the anomaly of South Sudan possible in 2011: Sudan’s dictator Omar al-Bashir, convicted in absentia for crimes against humanity, was harbouring terrorists and massacring citizens. Unusually, the whole international community was content to see this one state dismembered and robbed of its southern oilfields.
Today, on a much larger scale, refugees flood Europe, and a separatist ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), declared in a cross-border Sunni Arab heartland, is showing it can export terrorism anywhere. Ethnic and sectarian conflict is erasing the borders imposed after the First World War. No one knows how much bloodshed it will take, but any of the following might emerge as fully recognised states: the Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey; Syria’s Druze, Yazidis and Alawites; Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis; and Palestine itself. Superpower tit-for-tat could achieve some of it: if, say, the US recognises an Assad-run Syrian enclave in exchange for Russia tolerating a pro-US Kurdistan. Or perhaps the UN will convene a grand remapping conference as the only alternative to the power vacuum ISIS currently fills.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, the US president Woodrow Wilson’s flawed plan to extend the principle of self-determination beyond Europe sidelined peoples such as the Armenians, the Kurds, and the Jews and Arabs of Palestine, leaving them grievances to nurse for generations. The post-Second World War decolonisation, by contrast, didn’t even try: Europeans left half the world to make do within explosively arbitrary borders. Soon, the world could tie up these loose ends and move toward a system of nation-states that honours peoples’ national aspirations, but only once we set aside the taboo against drawing new borders.