LET MY people go! For millennia this has been one of humanity’s most stirring cries. People want to rule themselves, not be ruled by others. Their patriotic ardor gives independence struggles an air of nobility. In recent weeks, breakaway movements in Kurdistan and Catalonia have moved closer to confrontation. Nationalists in both places want to break away from what they say is repressive rule and form their own country.
Idealists feel instinctive sympathy for these movements. They should not. In the century since Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the doctrine of self-determination, it has proven more destructive than liberating. Causes like Kurdish independence from Iraq, and Catalonian independence from Spain, destabilize an already turbulent world without bringing much benefit to anyone.
Both causes have recently scored important advances. Millions of Kurds and Catalans voted in independence referendums organized by local leaders. Both referendums were illegal under national law. Inevitably, both produced overwhelming majorities in favor of independence. Both the Iraqi and Spanish governments rejected the results, and vowed not to permit secession. Tensions have continued to rise. Kurds are fortifying what they consider their borders, while nearby countries rattle sabers and impose economic sanctions. Catalan rhetoric is increasingly defiant, leading one senior European Union official to warn, “The situation is very, very disturbing. A civil war is planned in the middle of Europe.”
The Kurds, numbering some five million in Iraq and perhaps 35 million in the greater Middle East, are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. In recent years, Kurdish fighters have proven to be valuable battlefield partners against ISIS and other militant groups. Now they are claiming what they believe is their just reward. An independent and landlocked Kurdistan in a volatile neighborhood, however, would be more likely to cause trouble than calm it. Neighboring countries with Kurdish populations, determined to limit separatist movements in their own territory, have resolved to do whatever necessary to prevent the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan. Those countries — Iran, Syria and Turkey — may now join Iraq in a new anti-Kurdish and possibly anti-American partnership. That could set the stage for another Middle East conflict.
The case for Catalan independence is even less persuasive than the Kurdish case. Kurds can at least make a claim that rises above history: their current national government, in Baghdad, is brutal and corrupt. Spain is the opposite, a fully functioning democracy governed through well-developed systems of both national and European law. Catalonia is the richest of all Spanish regions. Its seven million people enjoy far-reaching autonomy. Tribal passion, not economic or political oppression, fuels the drive for Catalan independence.
President Wilson set this ill-fated historical train into motion almost exactly 100 years ago. World War I had just ended. The Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires lay in ruins. In the new world, Wilson proclaimed, “national aspirations must be respected. People may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self-determination is not a mere phrase; it is an imperative principle of action.”
Wilson’s advisors were horrified. “When the President talks of ‘self-determination,’ what unit has he in mind — does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” Secretary of State Robert Lansing wondered in his diary. “The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives.”
That prediction has been more than fulfilled. Wilson decreed independence for Christians in Europe: Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks, and Romanians. He denied it to Egyptians, Koreans, Indians, Vietnamese, and Chinese. All exploded in violent anger. Wilson was shaken. “When I gave utterance to those words,” he said 18 months after pronouncing the doctrine of self-determination, “I said them without knowledge that nations existed which are coming to us day after day.”
Secessionist wars may be justified in cases of unbearable injustice, as in Bangladesh or East Timor. More often, in places from Nigeria to Bosnia to Sri Lanka, their main legacy is immense suffering. Nationalist passion is easy to stir because the primal appeal of ethnic or clan identity is often more powerful than attachment to a nation-state. Promoting ethnic-based states, however, is a path to trouble. It is no accident that when the Organization of African Unity was founded in 1963, its leaders agreed to accept the unjust and often irrational borders bequeathed to them by colonialists. To have done otherwise would have guaranteed endless conflict. When Africans violated this rule — in 2011, after Americans pushed them to break Sudan in two — the result was civil war, slaughter and mass displacement. The catastrophe of South Sudan is an eloquent and timely argument against independence movements.
Today the most visible secessionist movements are in Kurdistan and Catalonia. If their demands are met, others will follow. Ethnic “grand bargains” are a better path. National governments should accept diversity and devolve power, but not allow their countries to be ripped apart. A wave of national breakups would weaken an already shaky world order.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.