Rejecting diversity, and racial and religious equality: The scary message behind secession movements

Countries look to reorganize along ethnic and religious lines -- which is bad news for pluralism and progress

Published September 23, 2014 6:35PM (EDT)

It was only 20 years ago that the academic Benjamin Barber wrote "Jihad v. McWorld," his vision of how, with the Cold War long past, the emerging century, our century, would be dominated by two post-national forces: a vast multi-national corporate wave and the concurrent development of “jihad,” his shorthand for the blood feuds and revived religious identities that would match “McWorld” blow for blow.

For the decade and a half after the book, Barber looked very smart. American businesses fought to identify themselves as universal enterprises, changing their names and logos to sound less American and look more global while they targeted emerging markets in Europe and Asia. At the same time came the growth of long suppressed ethnic expressions, especially the Islamic traditionalism that asserted itself as a disruptive force worldwide. One thing appeared certain: the old fashioned nation-state, established at Westphalia in 1648, was going the way of the dinosaur.

Today, well, Barber doesn’t look quite as good. For here we are in 2014 and while ethnic and religious identity remains a powerful force for social cohesion across the world, it is showing itself by calls for, of all things, new homogeneous states. Even with the defeat of Scottish independence this past week, there is no denying that after 300 years of union, nearly half of all Scots expressed a desire to go it alone, part of a world-wide trend towards new, ethnically- and religiously-defined nations that few, especially Barber, foresaw.

Another vote looms now in Catalonia, which has a November date on a motion to secede from Spain; in Crimea and eastern Ukraine ethnic Russians have asserted their wish to break from Kiev; and even peaceful Belgium may be ready to split along lines dividing Fleming from Walloon. In Iraq, too, the Kurds and Sunnis are both pushing for autonomy from the Shia.

But, given the recent history of Islamic terrorism, the most surprising force for statehood may well be the bloodthirsty and barbaric ISIS  which identifies itself not as a disrupter of national identity – the way that al-Qaeda has – but as the leader of a new caliphate. ISIS, take note, stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  (Of course, theirs is no modern political state – the peace of Westphalia was characterized by a respect for sovereign borders and religious tolerance – but ISIS is no mere organization operating in the shadows, either; it lays claim to territory, has a visible leader – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – and has cobbled together an army of impressive size and power.)

This universal urge for secession revives an argument that has followed democracy since its inception: how far can self-determination be taken before it becomes a force for state annihilation, restoring Barber’s thesis? We Americans have our own history with this issue. In 1861, when seven states seceded from the Union to protest the election of Abraham Lincoln, they claimed a right to self-determination that became, essentially, the contest of our Civil War.

The rebel states insisted upon the “absolute right of local self government,” claiming this as the “primal and leading idea” of our founding. Lincoln countered by saying that the Constitution disallowed such an action, that it had been established to ensure perpetuity of the national government. The states were not sovereign; the people of the entire United States were. Indeed, as Lincoln argued in his first Inaugural, secession, when allowed, only set a dangerous precedent, for once one state becomes two “a minority of their own will secede” from the newly formed state “whenever a majority refused to be controlled by such minority” and so on and so on until there is no government to speak of. The secessionist principle, taken to its extreme, would result a state of “one”; in other words, anarchy.

Lincoln won that battle, but our history with this subject has always been mixed; even today, the right to secession remains an inconsistent element of our foreign policy. In 1995, Bill Clinton, citing Lincoln, sided with Boris Yeltsin in declaring that Chechnya had no right to secede from Russia; then, a few years later, Clinton joined a NATO bombing raid to assist Kosovar Muslims in their ultimately successful campaign to split from Serbia. Naturally, then, when Russia acted to annex Crimea earlier this year, Vladimir Putin deflected Western criticism by citing Kosovo. “For some reason,” he complained, “things that Kosovo Albanians…were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are not allowed…[O]ne wonders why.”

Ironically, this modern day trend towards secession casts a dark light on another principle dear to Americans.  In seeking to re-organize along ethnic and religious terms, the world is in effect rejecting pluralism, diversity and racial equality. Scot divides from Brit; Catalan from Spaniard; Russian from Ukrainian; Sunni from Shia. All the post-Cold War excitement about an end to ideology, about an Internet democratizing the globe, about the end of frontiers – all of that now seems like little more than a naïve expression of historical optimism.  How interesting. The more the world goes forward, the more it also seems to go in reverse.

By Todd Brewster

Todd Brewster is the author of "Lincoln's Gamble." He has worked as an editor at Time and Life, and written for Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post and the New York Times, among other publications. With Peter Jennings, he co-authored "The Century" and "In Search of America." Follow him on Twitter at @ToddBrewster.

MORE FROM Todd Brewster

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American History Civil War Iraq Isis Jihad Vs Mcworld Scotland Secession Syria Todd Brewster Vladimir Putin