Secession and its outcomes

A conversation with Robert Schaeffer that Quebecers should read

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

METTA SPENCER: Back in September of 1991 we reviewed your book, Warpaths: The Politics of Partition (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990). Since then it has become even more relevant, with the secessionist wars in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, and with the prospect of secession in Canada. I think that everybody in the world ought to read your book, but since not everyone will, I'd like to discuss your findings.

ROBERT SCHAEFFER: Okay. The book looks at what has happened in countries that were divided by the great powers after World War II, such as Korea, China, Vietnam, India, Palestine, Cyprus, Germany, and Ireland, which was divided after World War I. The intellectual questions were: Why did they decide to divide these countries? Was partition a good idea? Did it work? What were its consequences? The main reason for partition was to try to settle disputes between contending political parties that wanted state power on their own. In Korea there were Communists and non-Communists; in India there were Hindus and Moslems. When the war ended and independence seemed likely, instead of awarding state power to one group or the other, the great powers decided to split the difference and award state power to both by dividing those countries in two. They thought that partition would solve the problems between these contending groups, which would then leave each other alone.

SPENCER: Famous last words!

SCHAEFFER: Exactly. Instead of solving problems, partition actually created three major problems that the people who divided these countries had not expected. First, partition was enormously disruptive socially. It led immediately to widespread migrations between two countries. For example, tens of thousands of people migrated across the new Irish borders. In Korea and Vietnam, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, migrated across the borders very rapidly. Seventeen million people migrated across the Indo-Pakistani borders in a six-month period, in history's fastest migration. Many people, fearing for their lives, fled across the borders. Others were told by the governments, "You should live where you're supposed to"--Communists in the Communist part, capitalists in the capitalist part, Muslims in Pakistan, and Hindus in India. People left behind families, businesses, and the graves of their dead ancestors. These migrations often led to war between migrating groups, so that millions of people died in the violence. None of the people who divided these countries expected that people would move in such large numbers.

But even so, large numbers of people stayed behind. For example, there are as many Muslims living in India today as in Pakistan. In Israel, many Arab Palestinians remained and when Israel occupied the West Bank in Gaza, Israel incorporated even more Palestinians. Many Catholics stayed in Northern Ireland, and many Protestants in the South. So there were large residual minorities living in these countries that were divided. The second major problem of partition was that most of the governments in the divided states tended to discriminate against people not their own. In Communist countries they discriminated against capitalists. Communists prohibited the formation of political parties, threw opponents in jail, refused to let them serve in the army, and so on. In countries divided along ethnic lines, the government typically prohibited minorities from serving in the civil service. They refused to let them speak their languages, practise their religion, serve in the army, or vote. Where they did let them vote, they tried to gerrymander the electoral ridings. This discrimination antagonized these minority groups, who have friends in neighboring states.

SPENCER: Does discrimination get worse after partition than it was before?

SCHAEFFER: Generally it does. If you look at the Koreas, both North and South, they were run by dictatorships that discriminated against everybody, but especially against certain groups. In North Korea, they obviously discriminated against capitalists more and in the South against the Communists. The minorities experienced greater disadvantage, had friends and relatives next door who sympathized with their plight and supported them. That nationalized the political struggles in each country.

SPENCER: So what previously had been a civil war turns into an international war.

SCHAEFFER: Right. A good example would be Korea. The Communists in the South began to rebel against the leadership there. They drew in the Communists from the North so that what was essentially civil war became international. The same with North and South Vietnam. It actually started as a local or domestic civil war but expanded.

That leads us to the third major problem of partition: Most of the states did not like the way that they were divided or the fact that they were divided at all. If you look at their constitutions, most of them claim the right to rule the other half of the country. For example, the South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese constitutions make overlapping territorial claims. So do each of the Irish, German, Chinese, and Taiwanese constitutions. Often they tried to resolve the problems of migration, discrimination, conflicts over who gets what, by going to war with each other. The history of divided states is bad with regard to war: the Korean war, the war between North and South Vietnam, a number of different conflicts between Taiwan and China, three major wars between India and Pakistan, and five Arab-Israeli wars.

SPENCER: Wars over the disputes about which they'd been fighting before separation was imposed as a "solution"?

SCHAEFFER: There had been conflicts in most of these regions but most were rather small conflicts involving guerrillas or riots in the streets. But once they became states, and they purchased tanks and airplanes, their wars became big. The exception is China, which had a really big war between the Communists and Nationalists before division. Partition actually reduced that conflict--mostly because the Taiwanese were set up across a body of water, the Taiwan Straits, which made them hard to get to. Otherwise, the Chinese probably would have managed to go on fighting.

SPENCER: Weren't the Taiwanese held in check by the U.S.?

SCHAEFFER: Yes, and the Chinese communists were also held in check. Once these new "sibling" countries get involved in local wars, they usually have superpower friends that want to assist them, or try to keep them from fighting. Many of these wars led to superpower intervention. The United States was involved in Korea, Vietnam, China, and, without sending troops, in Middle Eastern wars and in India/Pakistan.

When the superpowers get involved, one way that they try to end these conflicts is by making nuclear threats. The United States, for example, threatened China in the 1950s over the issue of the Korean War and also the conflict between Taiwan and China. But that didn't solve the problem. China was scared that the United States might use nuclear weapons and that the Soviets wouldn't protect them. The Chinese concluded that it would be in their best interests to develop nuclear weapons of their own--and they did. China then developed nuclear weapons, which Mao said would "boost their courage and scare others."

But China didn't scare the United States so much as it scared India--with whom China had a war in the early '60s. China scared India into developing nuclear weapons of its own. The trouble was that, when India developed nuclear weapons, it scared China not so much as it did Pakistan, with whom India has had several wars. The Pakistanis say they're developing nuclear weapons to boost their courage and scare India. But because they called their weapon an "Islamic bomb," they make Israel and other countries nervous.

When you start making nuclear threats, there's a chain reaction of threat and response. Nuclear weapons threats have led to nuclear proliferation. Most of the major proliferators are countries that have been threatened by superpowers or, like India, by another country that has nuclear weapons.

SPENCER: Fascinating.

SCHAEFFER: That's the Western chain-reaction of proliferation. There's another one coming from Soviet threats during the 1956 Suez War. The Soviet Union threatened Great Britain, France, and Israel, which were trying to keep the Suez Canal and expecting the United States to tell the Soviet Union to buzz off. When the United States didn't, they began to worry about their own security. Those events led to the development of nuclear weapons by the British, French, and also the Israelis. The French assisted the Israelis to develop their nuclear program. Israel developed nuclear weapons to boost their courage and scare the Soviet Union. But of course they don't scare the Soviet Union terribly, but they did scare their neighbors, Syria and Iraq. Syria never developed nuclear weapons, but biological ones. Iraq went ahead and began to develop nuclear weapons.

SPENCER: The Syrians have biological weapons, you say?

SCHAEFFER: It's unclear whether they have them now or not, but that was their goal: a cheap, dirty alternative to nuclear. Iraq, of course, has had a long-standing nuclear program, which did scare Israel--but also scared Iran. Iran was actually the first country to bomb Iraq's nuclear facilities. They didn't do a very good job so the Israelis finished them off, but Iraq kept going at it, and they were attacked again, this time by the United States, during the GulfWar. The point is that the Iraqi nuclear program, though designed to deal with the Israeli threats, also threatened Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. So again you have this unanticipated chain reaction of threat and proliferation.

So partition has led to war and to the development of nuclear weapons by countries that have frequently gone to war with one another. India and Pakistan now both have nuclear weapons. About a year or so ago they were on the verge of another war over Kashmir. If they do go to war, the consequences could be devastating. That is an unanticipated consequence of partition.

SPENCER: I know of researchers who say that new sibling states are less democratic and economically weaker than before their partition. Do you agree with that?

SCHAEFFER: Economically they are generally weaker than they would have been, but there are exceptions. With outside assistance, South Korea and Taiwan did develop and maybe they are perhaps better off. But not Vietnam.

SPENCER: One hears about Czechoslovakia, that the Czech side is benefiting by casting aside the poorer Slovakia.

SCHAEFFER: In some cases downsizing benefited one but not the other--Taiwan, say, but not China.

SPENCER: In Russia everybody now recognizes that breakup of the Soviet Union was an economic disaster. There's move to reconstitute it, leaving out the Central Asian republics that would be a drag on the economy.

SCHAEFFER: The early partitions did not have so many economic effects but they did have social disruptions because of the migrations. Contemporary partitions create some migration too--notably across the Soviet Union--but the greater disruption is economic. They are breaking up centralized power structures, as well as train lines and supply relationships that were economically integrated. The British Empire didn't integrate economies as much as the Russians.

But you also asked whether secession results in less democracy. Generally it does. Conflict with their neighbors makes the successor states a little crazy. Officials go into bunker mentality--a military mode of dealing with these problems. The two Koreas both became dictatorships for a long time. However, Southern Ireland is a fairly democratic country. Also Israel--for the Israelis but not the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank. India is a pretty democratic country for some people, but not for people in Kashmir and Punjab. So you have democratic states with civil wars along their borders.

Is that all attributable to partition? It partly reflects political ideologies and events preceding partition. The Communists in North Korea, North Vietnam, and China stayed as they were before partition. Separation was not the reason for dictatorship there. On the other hand, the long-lasting dictatorships in South Koreas and Taiwan probably reflects the fact that they were divided. Since the partition of Czechoslovakia three years ago, there has been a rise of authoritarianism in Slovakia. Some Soviet Republics have become authoritarian or have reverted to it.

SPENCER: You wrote Warpaths before the new wave of partitions began. Would you now qualify your conclusions?

SCHAEFFER: A couple of things need to be looked at more carefully. The book was about partitions: countries that were divided by others--by the U.S., the Soviet Union, the British, the United Nations, the French, or the Chinese--not by the people. China's the closest case of dividing by itself, but that probably wouldn't have lasted had not other people stepped in, to make sure it was divided. Germany was divided by the superpowers

With the new secessions, the process is entirely internal. The United States and France didn't divide the Soviet Union; that was done by the people of its republics. If people participate in the decision to divide their countries, then one would expect a better outcome.

SPENCER: Yes, but they weren't split by consensus.

SCHAEFFER: No, but there was more participation. After World War II, in almost no case was there a popular vote over whether to divide the country. Lately--in Slovenia, Croatia, and the Baltic Republics and in the Ukraine--there were referendums. Not everyone got a chance to vote and many refused to participate in those referendums. The whole Soviet Union did not get a chance to vote on the prospects for the Baltic States, nor was there a nation-wide Yugoslav election. That's not to say there should be a nation-wide election but it does mean that some people didn't participate in a decision that affected them in important ways. Anyway, the current divisions may have somewhat different consequences from the ones that are decided by outsiders. For example, I spoke with people from Czechoslovakia before partition in 1992. They said, "We're civilized people, and we can come to the decision rationally. It willbe okay." And indeed, there have been fewer problems than you might expect.

SPENCER: But they didn't get to vote. They would have voted it down. That's what my Czech and Slovak friends say.

SCHAEFFER: I would agree with that.

SPENCER: As a matter of fact, polls in the USSR show that 70 or 80% would have voted against a break-up.

SCHAEFFER: That'll be a problem. All I was saying is that there is greater participation than before. In most of the recently-divided states you do see some of those problems with migration, social dislocation, discrimination against minorities and, in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, the outbreak of war. That is what you would expect to result from partition, as I suggested. But I'm not sure that partition invariably leads to conflict and war. Why it doesn't is not partition invariably me. We don't know why the Czechs and Slovaks haven't had much antagonism--or, for that matter, that they won't have problems in the future. Sometimes these things take some years to develop.

SPENCER: The Hungarians in Slovakia probably got the worst end of the deal.

SCHAEFFER: It could turn out to be a Slovak-Hungarian problem rather than a Czech-Slovak problem. Anyway, people can't say, "Okay, if we just do it like the Czechs, we'll avoid all these problems." That's how the people in Quebec often talk: "Well, we can be just like the Czechs and the Slovaks."

SPENCER: English Canadians would probably accept their fate as secession proceeded, but I don't think the Indians in Quebec would.

SCHAEFFER: The Indians are important, and also the residual minorities. There is a large English-speaking Canadian population in Quebec, and there are French-Canadians in other provinces. There could be a big migration of English Canadians out of Quebec, or even Francophones into Quebec. This could be disruptive. People may become angry, especially if they don't have a say in the matter.

The best example of full-party participation has been in Puerto Rico. There have been a number of referendums culminating in Puerto Rico remaining a commonwealth within the United States rather than opting either for statehood or independence. Voting was open, free, and fair, with wide-scale participation. There was no boycotting by the people who would be affected. There was a question whether Puerto Ricans in the United States should be allowed to participate, andpeople had very different feelings about this.

Another problem is that the Puerto Ricans have had several referendums and they have voted for commonwealth. The problem is, that these votes don't seem to settle anything. The people who lose keep saying, "We're going to vote until we get it right." That raises questions of constitutionality because if the fundamental nature of government is always under review, it is hard to establish constitutional government.

SPENCER: I wish the United Nations would set up a commission to look into the international law regarding partition, instead of handling it on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis. We need uniform guidelines and criteria. I would like to see them establish the principle that all parties to the secession must consent to it before it can be recognized by the international community. That would include all minority groups who would be affected. And I think the U.N. should then take charge of the partition, to make sure that it is peaceable and that human rights are protected. If all parties who are affected, including all minority groups, were required to consent to the partition, then secession could take place only with consensus. There would be much less danger.

SCHAEFFER: It certainly is important that as many people as possible participate and have a real voice. And it is important to assign responsibility for settling the problems, such as migration and discrimination, that almost always arise after a partition.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995, page 12. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage