Warpaths: The Politics Of Partition

by Robert Schaeffer, NY: Hill and Wang, 1990. Reviewed by John Feffer

By John Feffer (reviewer) | 1991-09-01 12:00:00

Nationalism and self-determination are often represented in international relations as moral opposites. Nationalists are portrayed as inflamers of ugly prejudices, advocates of imaginary ethnic homogeneity. From neo-Nazis and rampaging skinheads to apparatchiks and redneck patriots, nationalists appear under various banners, wrap themselves in assorted flags and use the rallying cry of "nation" to mask their own self-serving agenda. Self-determination, on the other hand, has a noble ring: the politically downtrodden struggling for basic democratic rights through unavoidable military force (El Salvador's FMLN/FDR), delicate political negotiations (Poland's Solidarity) or sheer moral authority (India's anti-colonial movement). Instead of working on behalf of any given interest group, such movements target social injustice and shape their struggles according to enlightened political principles.

Actually, nationalism and self-determination are seldom so easily separated from one another. Movements for self-determination, for instance, often appeal to a mythic national community and then, upon gaining power, serve only a particular segment of the "nation." Is Sajudis working for Lithuanian self-determination or simply trying to re-create a Lithuanian nation at the expense of Russian and Polish minorities? Is the Croatian move away from Serbian domination within Yugoslavia a manifestation of rabid nationalism or a legitimate demand for self-determination? Are Palestinian calls for a separate state based entirely on principle or do they also involve some notion of a Palestinian nation?

In Warpaths, Robert Shaeffer attempts to go beyond this problematic distinction between "good" self-determination and "bad" nationalism. By examining a specific question of political history-divided states in the twentieth century-Schaeffer raises intriguing questions about independence movements, the nations they collectively imagine, and the states they hope to form.

Schaeffer, demonstrates, for instance, how the British divided their former colonies (Ireland, Palestine, India) as they gradually lost international influence between the two world wars. Partition was a convenient way of replacing direct imperial administration. Later in Vietnam, Korea, and Germany, partition expressed the superpower dualism of the Cold War. The first partitions came along ethnic and religious lines; the second set along ideological ones.

When evaluating partition, however, Warpaths becomes more controversial. No one could possibly deny that the division of states has caused horrors: the mass population transfers between India and Pakistan, the ongoing bloodshed in Ireland, the Berlin Wall. Were Schaeffer simply to blame such failures on the specter of nationalism, Warpaths would probably excite little interest. But he argues that the recipe for disaster came from two unlikely partners-Lenin and Wilson-and the rogue ingredient was none other than the sainted principle of self-determination.

The budding U.S. and Soviet superpowers cleverly used the concept of self-determination to thrash declining colonial empires, notably Britain and France. Both the U.S. and the USSR appealed to egalitarian values to establish their respective countries as first among equals. The U.S. under Wilson's strategy sought world domination under the League of Nations. The USSR followed Lenin's path of global power through the Comintern.

When World War II sealed the fates of both the nineteenth century empires and their twentieth century German and Japanese would-be successors to the world throne, the U.S. and USSR could finally occupy the positions for which Wilson and Lenin had laid the groundwork.

Self-determination became a tactical ploy in the Cold War game, with both superpowers using the struggles for national independence to their own ends. The Soviets, for instance, supported Vietnamese self-determination only when it served specific foreign-policy purposes ; unwilling to disrupt the delicate post-war balance of power, the USSR refused in 1945 to recognize Ho Chi Minh's government. The U.S., meanwhile, squelched Guatemalan self-determination in 1954 because U.S. business interests proved more important. Cold War pressures turned Lenin's and Wilson's internationalism into the most vulgar superpower manipulation.

Partition served its colonial and then its superpower patrons well. Ethnic or ideological divisions could satisfy demands for self-determination, facilitate colonial withdrawal, or strengthen a mutually beneficial balance of power. Best of all, the "enlightened" partitioners could blame any resulting turmoil on unruly nationalists. Yet, however geopolitically convenient, partition only accentuated the problems it was intended to solve. Where division was intended to decrease ethnic rivalry, such rivalry only increased (e.g.. between India and Pakistan). Where division was intended to avoid superpower military confrontation, the conflict was merely shifted to other levels (e.g. a tripwire confrontation along the DMZ in Korea). Furthermore, negotiated divisions often have encouraged secessionist movements, setting into motion what might be called Zeno's paradox of partition: the splitting of a nation in half and then in half again and again as each ethnic group demands its own autonomy. India produces Pakistan which produces Bangladesh, and further subdivisions in Kashmir and Punjab provinces loom in the future; Yugoslavia threatens to unravel into six or even more separate countries; the USSR may soon splinter into dozens of hostile factions.

As history then, Warpaths chronicles the all too common story of failed diplomacy. Were partition simply diplomacy's Maginot Line, we could sit back and laugh at the follies of hapless leaders past. Yet, secession and partition remain popular solutions
from Quebec to Lithuania to the West Bank and Gaza. And here Schaeffer states his provocative conclusion: Demands for self-determination must be tempered in order to prevent the greater evil of partition.

Shaeffer looks for alternatives to partition in the work of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Lincoln upheld majority rule while guaranteeing minority rights by constitution, King struggled for minority rights within an integrationist framework. But Schaeffer's prescriptions fail to convince, despite the combined authority of Lincoln and King. For partition is not the only diplomatic solution that has visibly failed in the twentieth century. Its counterpart, forced integration, has also led to tremendous loss of life, for example when Ethiopia federated Eritrea in 1951 and then annexed it in 1962. Eritrean independence was simply postponed and a bloody civil war ensued. A similar arrangement in India, Cyprus, or Ireland could conceivably have caused more bloodshed than did partition. Self- determination has been manipulated in various Machiavellian ways by both greater and lesser powers, but it remains a principled defense against the arrogance of the state.

Without pressures from below generated by movements for self-determination, states tend to construct intolerant and provocative foreign policies and domestic programs of compulsory assimilation.

Schaeffer's Warpaths argues successfully that partition brings on a chaos of ethnic rivalries. But forced integration may lead to persecution by an overarching state. Is there a third diplomatic solution? Can the principle of self-determination be preserved, and the excesses of nationalism tempered? Schaeffer doesn't provide answers, but many of his points are well-taken. Building walls, as he makes clear, solves nothing.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1991

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1991, page 26. Some rights reserved.

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