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Membership Has Its Privileges: The Changing Benefits of Statehood

Tanisha M. Fazal, Ryan D. Griffiths
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/misr.12099 79-106 First published online: 1 March 2014


We argue that system-level international changes have made secessionism more attractive since 1945, and that this is one of the reasons for the recent proliferation of aspiring states. Using original data on secessionist movements between 1816 and 2011, we document that secessionism became significantly more common after 1945. Whereas much of the existing literature explains secessionism by pointing to local or unit-level factors, we contend that security, economic, and normative changes at the international level have effectively increased the benefits of independence, without a commensurate increase in the costs. We use interviews with representatives of new states, secessionist groups, and international organizations to provide empirical support for these claims. We conclude by considering three extensions of our argument: (i) Does the nature of the changing international environment affect the way in which secessionists attempt to achieve their goals? (ii) What future changes might amplify or depress this trend? (iii) Who are the specific people benefiting from statehood, and can their position within a would-be state help us understand the nature of secessionism today?

One of the most striking trends of the post-World War II era has been the proliferation of states in the international system. In 1945, there were 64 states. In 2014, there are nearly 200. How can this threefold increase in membership of the international system be explained?

One explanation for the increased number of states in the system refers to the supply of statehood. Here, anti-imperialist norms and economic strains on imperial metropoles made colonial powers more willing to give up ownership of polities and territories. And in part because imperial powers felt these pressures simultaneously, little in the way of trading away a colonial possession to another power occurred in this era.

But history suggests that instances where governments sought to let go of a territory in the absence of a secessionist or independence movement are exceedingly rare. Thus, it must also be the case that the demand for secession has risen in frequency in the post-1945 era. Indeed, secessionism has become common across all types of polities—within those that have yet to gain independence, within those that have recently won independence, and within those that have been independent for quite some time.

In this article, we identify international conditions that have changed to make secession more attractive. We argue that the concomitant (and related) rise of a norm against territorial conquest and multilateral organizations that support this norm have provided a safe haven of sorts for newly independent states. Newborn states today, like Montenegro, can gain membership to organizations such as the UN; this membership affords some protection against external predation, more so at least than was afforded to new states in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, such as Morocco (which entered the international system in 1856, and became a French protectorate in 1911) and Czechoslovakia (which entered the system in 1918, but was famously conquered by Germany during World War II). We also argue that today's new states enjoy a host of economic benefits unavailable to their predecessors. Eligibility for IMF loans and UN aid, for example, provides a financial safety net for newborn states that may be economically insecure. Related, the widespread internationalization of the norm of self-determination provides some legitimacy to the aims of secessionist groups and, further, lends them a language of appropriateness. We use an original data set and interviews with representatives of international organizations, secessionist groups, new states, and relevant NGOs to illustrate these points.

In making this argument, we draw principally from the literature on neoliberal institutionalism and, to some extent, constructivism. Specifically, we argue that international institutions, in reducing transaction costs and resolving commitment problems for the states that create them (Keohane 1984), become appealing to non-members and, ultimately, make statehood itself more appealing by showcasing the potential benefits of membership in the international community. In addition, we argue that much of this institutional architecture rests on and is reinforced by a norm against territorial conquest that makes independent statehood more attractive because it makes the world safer for all states (although not necessarily for their citizens). But we also draw upon the literature on regime complexity (see Drezner 2009), which we see as a descendant of neoliberal institutionalism, to suggest that this proliferation of institutions and the attendant benefits tempting would-be secessionists can generate perverse incentives and unintended consequences.

Our argument is a contribution to the literature that emphasizes the impact that a changing international environment can have on conditions inside states (Gourevitch 1978; Hironaka 2005; Kalyvas and Balcells 2010). While our discussion of the impact of the norm against territorial conquest in particular borrows from this literature, prior scholars have used this norm to explain the duration of civil wars and the emergence of weak states, but not the emergence of secessionist movements themselves. We also fill a gap in the existing literature by marrying the perspectives employed by scholars of secessionism and those of international recognition accorded new states. Fabry's (2010) and Coggins' (2011) excellent studies of the politics of recognition both focus on the strategies of the recognizers. Following Jackson (1990), Fabry argues that the evolving practice of international recognition has seen a decoupling of empirical and juridical sovereignty. Today, formal recognition is linked to the right of self-determination of certain groups. But recognition itself is proffered by existing states, and doctrinal change comes from major or middle powers. Coggins' argument likewise focuses on great powers, suggesting that great powers recognize those states whose independence serves their interests. But neither Fabry nor Coggins examines the proclivities of groups to push for secession.

The large literature on secessionism (Beissinger 2002; Collier and Hoeffler 2002; Toft 2002; Kolsto 2006; Jenne, Saideman, and Lowe 2007; Roeder 2007; Hale 2008; Siroky 2009; Walter 2009; Carter and Goemans 2011; Cunningham 2011; Graham and Horne 2012) focuses on exactly this question, pointing to factors such as nationalism, exploitation of natural resources, and strategic gaming amongst movements and governments as drivers of secessionism. But few or none of these factors can explain the rapid rise of secessionism visible in the international system over the past 60 years or so. Indeed, the factors discussed in the literature on secessionism are typically treated in an ahistorical manner, and scholars of secessionism tend to look at characteristics particular to the movements themselves, rather than at how members of these movements view the international arena. Our argument is that systemic changes have made independent statehood a more desirable commodity. We thus combine a focus on secessionist movements with an analysis of changing international factors that, we believe, has produced an increase in secessionism over time.

One of the most promising approaches to explaining increased secessionism emerges from the literature on the size of states, which proceeds from the premise that national borders are endogenous to system-level parameters (Alesina and Spolaore 2003). According to this conception, there is a tradeoff that comes with state size. Large states are generally better at defense because they have more land and a bigger population, and they can reap the benefits of having large internal economies of scale. In contrast, the attraction of small states is that the locus of decision making can be moved closer to one's own preferences. Thus, the average size of states should respond to changes in systemic factors. When conquest is common and the global economy is sparse, we ought to see big states. Conversely, when conquest is rare and the global economy is robust, we ought to see smaller states that can focus more on issues of local preferences rather than national defense and the perils of economic autarky. Although this approach presents a calculus for explaining the increased demand for secessionism—changing systemic conditions have effects on the local demand for independence—the work thus far has been mostly formal and lacks a specific understanding of what kinds of shifts in the international system could produce these parameter changes.

Our theory extends this approach by specifying the microdyamics of internationally driven secessionism. To state that political borders are endogenous to system-level constraints is intuitively compelling, but it misses the trees for the forest. Who are the actors responding to these international factors and how do they interact? The two relevant actors in the dynamics of secession are the central governments of sovereign states (metropoles) and the potential secessionist regions inside those states (Bartkus 1999; Toft 2002; Walter 2009). To gain independence, an aspiring nation must get the consent of their metropole or else take their independence, establish autonomy, and acquire the recognition of other metropoles.

Importantly, both types of actors respond to changes in the international system. In a relatively benign, highly globalized world, one might expect that metropoles will be more amenable to secession as large territories and large internal economies become relatively less important. A number of scholars have examined how international conditions incite states to expand (Doyle 1986; Abernethy 2000), but more recent work has begun to study how changes in the international system can yield patterns of contraction (Lake and O'Mahoney 2004; Spruyt 2005; Gartzke and Rohner 2011; Griffiths 2014). System-level factors can also influence actual or potential secessionists. This would be the demand side of secession, and the argument here is that secessionist leaders factor in international conditions when they choose whether to seek statehood, the methods they will employ to obtain it, and how they expect their fledgling state to fare after becoming sovereign. Jackson (1990:196) claimed two decades ago that sovereign states behave like a club where “membership has its privileges.” We agree with this claim and add that the demand for club membership has increased along with the benefits.

The remainder of this article proceeds in five parts. First, we use original data to examine patterns in secessionism between 1816 and 2011 and document its rise in the post-1945 period. Next, we review domestic-level explanations for secessionism to assess whether they can account for the change in the rate of secessionism. We then discuss the benefits available to new states in the pre-1945 era. We also consider three possible extensions of our argument regarding: possible changes in the mode of secessionism; future parameter shifts that could further alter the benefits of statehood; and a normative discussion of these systemic changes, asking who benefits most from the privileges of membership—political leaders or ordinary citizens? Our conclusions follow.

The Rise of Secessionism

The proliferation of sovereign states in the post-1945 period constitutes an important historical turning point. The global trend until the early twentieth century was toward fewer and fewer states, with an increasing average state size. This process of aggregation was the result of frequent conquest, accession, and political unification (Lake and O'Mahoney 2004; Griffiths 2014). This trend reversed itself in the mid-twentieth century as a period of state aggregation gave way to one of fragmentation.

Parallel with the explosion in the number of sovereign states has been a proliferation of secessionist movements. We define secession as the formal withdrawal from an established, internationally recognized state by a constituent unit to create a new sovereign state. Secessionist movements are groups of people within a state that actively seek to break away from the larger country and obtain independence. We identify 403 secessionist movements between 1816 and 2011 using Coggins' definition: the movement must last at least one week, include at least 100 people, lay claim to a territory no smaller than 100 square kilometers, possess a flag, and declare independence (Coggins 2011). The logic behind these criteria is that the secessionist movement must be above a certain size and that the group in question actively seeks their independence by choosing a flag and by making their intentions known to the international community. Importantly, this set includes both the successes—for example, Estonia, Cameroon—and the failures—for example, The Confederate States of America, Baluchistan.

Although this conception of secessionism is consistent with much recent research (Pavkovic and Radan 2007; Goldsmith and He 2008; Armitage 2010; Coggins 2011), it does differ from other views that restrict the label to violent, illegal, or non-colonial cases. We defend our definition on several grounds. Methodologically, it provides a base category of aspiring nations before they are awarded independence or denied it. In practice, international law has attempted to limit sovereign recognition to cases of consent, decolonization, and dissolution, but such designations are often political, ex post, and difficult to incorporate into a systematic analysis (Fabry 2010:13). For example, despite the fact that Buganda had been an independent kingdom in the nineteenth century, it was denied independence by the British in 1960, two years before the larger territory of Uganda became sovereign. As Jackson states, the international community limited sovereignty to colonial units rather than accommodate all colonized nations. In doing so, it consigned the Karens, Sikhs, and Bugandans—and many others—“to the ranks of the abandoned peoples by the transformation of colonial frontiers—which never recognized them—into international boundaries” (Jackson 1993:122). Rather than treat Buganda and Uganda as completely different phenomena that belong in different data sets, we begin with a set of secessionist movements that all meet the same criteria.

One reason that including colonial secessionist movements in lists of secessionist groups is common scholarly practice is that colonialism is, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder. For example, Indonesia has been called an empire (Cribb 2001:302). Groups such as the West Papuans, Acehnese, and South Moluccans frequently frame their secessionist struggles in anti-colonial terms, and this type of framing is common among secessionist groups beyond Indonesia as well. In other words, “one person's ‘colony’ is another person's national territory,” and vice versa (Goldsmith and He 2008:593).

Although practices surrounding recognition influence secessionist behavior, their very ambiguity and uncertainty lead many to try for independence. For example, many secessionists (for example, the Lozi and the Karenni) in the early post-1945 period cited self-determination and decolonization in their appeal to the international community, but they did so before the emphasis on colonial units became the rule of thumb (Ratner 1996; Shaw 1997; Crawford 2006). Some groups contested these decisions by pointing out that colonial boundaries were non-static and that it was vague and unfair as to what should and should not count. This argument helped in the Eritrean case, but it did not help Bougainville in the 1970s and it has not helped Somaliland.

A similar logic applies when considering the independence of the Soviet Republics. Although we recognize that specific factors made Lithuanian independence possible in 1991, we contend that all secessionist efforts either fail or succeed for particular reasons. Lithuania declared independence on three occasions during the twentieth century—in 1918, 1945, and 1991—and we code three secessionist movements accordingly. Some may regard Lithuanian independence in 1991 as a case of dissolution, but many secessionist movements like Chechnya and South Ossetia were denied independence at the same time that Lithuania was recognized. We include these cases in the same data set and argue that designations like dissolution are not a proper guide for sorting instances of secessionism. After all, Somaliland is denied that same recognition by its sovereign and the African Union even though Somalia is far more dissolved than the Soviet Union was.

As Figure 1 illustrates, secessionism was significantly more common after World War II. Between 1816 and 1944, the average number of secessionist movements per year was less than nine, in contrast, the average number after 1945 has been 51, more than a fivefold increase. Even when secessionism was less common after 1945—when there were only 38 movements in 1952 and 1957—the number of movements was still higher than every single year prior to 1945. As of 2011, there were 55 active secessionist movements. That the number of movements has generally increased over the post-1945 period, even as the number of sovereign states has increased, speaks to a high rate of secessionism: new movements are springing up to replace those that succeeded in gaining their independence.

Annual Number of Secessionist Movements (Colonial and Non-Colonial)

Figure 1 is a stacked line graph that divides all movements into colonial and non-colonial cases depending on whether the secessionist region is separated from the larger state by at least 100 miles of water or foreign territory. Roughly 69% of the secessionist movement years involved non-colonial, or geographically proximate cases. As Figure 1 demonstrates, colonial demands for independence peaked in the early postwar period and dwindled to only a few cases by the mid-1990s. In recent decades, secessionism movements have formed in regions not traditionally associated with colonialism.

Figure 2 graphs secessionist movements by their starting dates. This graph reinforces a visible trend in Figure 1, which is that secessionism was a relatively rare event until after World War I, when the number of movements spiked at 37 in 1918 and 1920. This dramatic increase provides evidence for what Erez Manela has called the “Wilsonian Moment,” a brief surge in nationalist ambitions that was fired by Woodrow Wilson's proclamations on self-determination (Manela 2007). However, as Manela writes, these aspirations were short-lived for most of these groups once they realized that the international community was unwilling to honor self-determination in full. Indeed, the vast majority of these nations were denied independence, often violently. As a result, more than half of the movements of 1918 died out, and this, along with the low replacement rate, explains the Interwar trough that we see in Figure 1. Secessionist movements in the post-1945 period have also lasted longer with an average of 13 years, versus a mean of 8.2 years in the Interwar period and 8.6 years prior to 1918.

One of the more telling trends is the rate of secessionism. Figure 3 combines our data on secessionism with Philip Roeder's data on segment states—“juridically separate communities of people who purportedly have special claim to that jurisdiction as a homeland”—to calculate the actual number of movements divided by the potential number. The resulting trend line running from 1900 to 2000, the years for which Roeder provides data, is consistent with the previous graphs. The average rate in the post-1945 era has been 40%, four times the pre-1945 mean. And according to these data, secessionism is not declining; the highest rate was 75% in 2000, the last year in the series.

The data reveal a rise in secessionist activity over the course of the twentieth century. There was an initial spike following World War I, providing evidence for the Wilsonian Moment. But the majority of these movements died out, most through violence, and such aspirations were partly contained over the next two decades. After World War II, the demand for independence rose once again, only this time there was no significant downturn in secessionist activity like the one in the Interwar period. Rather, secessionism has generally increased over the post-1945 period, especially among non-colonial, or geographically proximate, peoples. In fact, our calculation of the rate of secessionism indicates that potential secessionists are increasingly choosing to make a bid for independence.

Existing Arguments on Causes of Secessionism

The traditional approach to explaining secessionism is to focus on local factors. Given that the object of explanation is the demand of a group for sovereign independence, it makes sense to begin with the conditions of the particular group and its relationship with the larger state. Explanations like these often focus on economic grievances and ethno-national differences. Recent research suggests that secessionism becomes more likely when groups feel economically deprived or exploited, when elites can emphasize identity issues in the pursuit of political and economic goals, and when these groups possess linguistic and/or cultural differences with the majority population of the state (Collier and Hoeffler 2002; Hale 2008; Bazzi and Blattman 2012). Other scholars have examined the bargaining dynamics between center and periphery, and draw attention to the effects of divided separatists and foreign patrons (Jenne et al. 2007; Cunningham 2011; Graham and Horne 2012). Additional work focuses on conditions within the larger state and suggests that secessionism becomes more likely when the state is weak or predatory, and that independence movements often come in waves as minority groups support each other's attempts to secede (Beissinger 2002). However, as Toft (2002) and Walter (2009) argue, secessionist waves should actually increase the chances of conflict as central governments now need to demonstrate their willingness to prevent secession and avoid issues of precedent setting and the danger of uncontrolled fragmentation.

Another approach is to focus on the political–administrative structure of the state itself. Here, scholars argue that the construction of internal administrative units of an ethno-national nature create the building blocks for future states (Bunce 1999; Roeder 2007; Carter and Goemans 2011). These units are “states in the making”; they provide a setting for identity formation, the articulation of corresponding greed and grievance issues, the means to mobilize, and the possibility of receiving international recognition.

While the above explanations capture important elements of the overall story, a major weakness of their inside-out, or unit-level, approach is that it has difficulty explaining increased levels of secessionism across time. To our knowledge, there is no research showing—and no reason to expect—that unit-level factors like state predation or ethnic discrimination have increased over time. For example, there is no reason to conclude that ethno-national and/or linguistic cleavages have become more common after 1945. Data on new grievances (based on post-1940 observations) do not exhibit any clear trends in the post-1945 era. Research that emphasizes administrative structure—that is, states in the making—suggests that the number of potential states has declined since the mid-twentieth century (Roeder 2007). Similarly, authoritarianism is a widely accepted predictor of grievance, but on average, countries have become more democratic since 1945.

At first blush, the prevalence of weak states suggests an interesting counter. Several scholars have argued that weak and failed states have become more common, and the defining feature of these states is the deterioration of the state's ability to maintain social order (Rotberg 2004; Hironaka 2005). One could combine this system-level trend with unit-level explanations to argue that the increased number of weak states is increasingly generating the conditions for secessionism. We accept this explanation but point out that it is consistent with our argument that the norm against conquest has increased the benefits of statehood. At the same time that this norm has made statehood more tantalizing to would-be secessionist groups, it has also challenged the traditional view of a selection mechanism in world politics (Jackson 1990; Zacher 2001; Fearon 2004b; Krasner 2004; Fazal 2007; Atzili 2012). Thus, the norm disadvantages many new states in at least two respects: it creates an environment where few challenges are posed to these new states that might encourage them to become stronger (Bean 1973; Tilly 1990) while, simultaneously, creating incentives for subnational groups to break off and form their own states.

Related, another choice for explaining the larger trend we observe is to point to nationalism. The argument here would be that increased nationalist impulses around the world have generated secessionist pressures. We acknowledge the role of nationalism but emphasize several points. First, potential nationalists do not mobilize or make their bid for independence in a vacuum. Their actions are influenced by events elsewhere around their country and around the world. We argue that minority nations since 1918, and especially since 1945, have been inspired by an international normative order that valued self-determination. Some groups might have attempted secession in the absence of that order, as some did in the nineteenth century, but many of the less committed groups would have decided otherwise. Second, nationalist behavior is influenced by not only ideological but also instrumental factors. We contend that secessionists are well aware of the material benefits that sovereignty brings, and that these benefits have combined with system-level norms to make secession more attractive. Importantly, we do not point to contagion or demonstration effects as the primary mechanism driving the rise in secessionism visible in Figure 1.

Like Saideman (1998), we agree that domestic factors, particularly local grievances and ethnic differences, remain critical predictors of secessionism in individual cases. One can have little doubt, for example, that the presence of natural gas, coupled with perceived discrimination by the central government, has fueled Acehnese separatism (Aspinall 2007; Morelli and Rohner 2010). Moreover, given the many potential secessionists it faces, it is intuitive that the Indonesian government would fight to keep its state intact (Toft 2003; Walter 2009). What our analysis adds to this case is a counterfactual embedded in a period effect: Would the Acehnese have formed and fought for secessionist goals in an earlier era, when the prospects for physical and economic survival as an independent state would have been much lower? While we are not able to analyze this counterfactual fully, our prediction is that, knowing that international recognition would prohibit Indonesian predation and that they could easily plug into a global economy for natural gas extraction made secession considerably more attractive for the Acehnese in the early 2000s as compared to past eras. In other words, ideological and material changes at the international level have served as important background conditions for the global rise in secessionism.

The Changing Benefits of Statehood

Given that there is no clear expectation that the above unit-level explanations for secessionism would change over time, it makes sense to examine a different level of analysis in searching for causes of the rise of secessionism. We argue that changes in the post-1945 international system have created or enhanced incentives to gain statehood.

Our argument is both structural and rationalist. We begin with Alesina and Spolaore (2003), who claim that state size is endogenous to system-level parameters. Alesina and Spolaore, however, do not take the next step of identifying which factors could decrease the prevalence of conquest and increase globalization, nor do they specify how potential secessionists respond to changing international conditions. We find answers to these questions in the literature on liberal institutionalism (Keohane 1984; Keohane and Martin 1995) as well as norms (Goldstein and Keohane 1993; Finnemore 1996; Wendt 1999). We argue that institutional, economic, and normative changes beginning in 1945 have altered the strategic environment in which aspiring nations evaluate the costs and benefits of secession. In the pages that follow, we explain how these structural changes incentivize secessionists, and we provide preliminary evidence for our argument from personal interviews. At the same time, however, we depart from many institutionalist and constructivist positions by pointing out some of the unintended, even perverse, consequences of these structural changes. In this respect, our argument also enters the debate on regime complexity (Davis 2009; Drezner 2009), where we stake out a middle position that sees both positive and negative consequences stemming from the proliferation of formal international institutions that has characterized the post-1945 era.

Below, we first discuss the benefits to sovereignty in the pre-1945 era. We then focus on changing conditions in the post-1945 period: those that enhance the security of new states and those that shore up their economic infrastructure. We then discuss the role of the self-determination norm and its relationship to the evolving international-recognition regime. We finish by detailing some of the costs to statehood, arguing that while these costs may outweigh the benefits for some groups, they are less likely to do so in modern times.

The Benefits of Statehood Prior to 1945

In contrast to the post-1945 era, the benefits of membership in the international system prior to World War II were both fewer and less attractive. Although the so-called first era of globalization in the late nineteenth century should have reduced the need to possess large internal economies, it does not appear to have had that effect. Indeed, the high global trade levels of the late 1800s were largely concurrent with the new imperialism and the rush by core states to acquire territory. Secessionism levels were quite low during this period and it is not clear what effect, if any, systemic factors had on the local demand for independence. It might well be that in earlier times, concerns over post-independence security often reduced the demand for sovereignty. For example, in 1909, Thomas Masaryk, the future President of Czechoslovakia, argued for increased Czech autonomy rather than full independence by saying: “We want a federal Austria. We cannot be independent outside of Austria, next to a powerful Germany with Germans on our territory” (Stern 1910:60).

The extensive foreign-aid regime that exists and is available to virtually all states today did not exist prior to 1945. Thus, access to aid was by no means an automatic benefit of statehood in the pre-1945 era. As Carol Lancaster shows, most pre-World War II aid was limited to humanitarian relief, technical assistance (from the United States to Latin American countries), and colonial development (Lancaster 2007:25–26). Krasner (1999) discusses the variety of sovereign lending schemes available across a broad swath of the pre-1945 era, but not all states had access to this type of lending, constraining as it was. Similarly, although bilateral and even multilateral alliances existed prior to 1945, membership was not automatic; between 20% and 40% of states were in alliances during the nineteenth century, as compared to 80% by the mid-twentieth century (and beyond). Security benefits for new states were therefore highly contingent on having an interested great-power patron at their back.

The Interwar years are an intriguing period for this study. Secessionism did increase after World War I and some 16 sovereign states were born between 1919 and 1938, including Ireland and most of the English dominions, several countries in the Caribbean and the Middle East, as well as Mongolia, Luxembourg, and Afghanistan. Many of these states were semi-sovereign prior to the creation of the League of Nations (which effectively formalized their independence). But while the creation of the League of Nations after World War I introduced an international institution meant to protect all member states, including the newest ones, the benefits of membership were mostly symbolic. It does not appear that the various organs and commissions of the League acted as incentives to seek sovereignty.

In general, there were few formal or informal benefits for new states in the institutionally thin environment of the 1920s and 1930s. The narrative of secessionism at this time focuses largely on internal grievances and the plea for self-determination. Our analysis shows that during the Interwar period, particularly in the first few years, the introduction of the norm of self-determination and its attendant vocabulary corresponded with a rise in secessionist fervor. From only six secessionist movements in 1910, the global tally increased to 37 in 1918. The connection between the arrival of the norm and the spike in secessionism has been made quite persuasively by other scholars. Armitage contends that Wilson's ideas not only inspired a significant number of stateless nations to declare independence, they also shaped the content of the declarations: “during this moment, individualistic accounts of rights gave way to movements for the rights of nations and peoples” (Armitage 2007:109). But Manela writes that while the “Wilsonian Moment” fired the imagination of aspiring nations, disillusionment followed once it became clear that the lead states had no intention of honoring claims to self-determination if they “ran against their own interests” (Manela 2007:5). The Interwar period thus provided a partial glimpse of the years to come; the principle of self-determination was affecting the demand for secession, but in the face of metropolitan resistance and in the absence of the security and economic benefits of the post-1945 era, that demand faltered.

Changes in the Security Environment for New States

The list of states that no longer exist is a long one (Tilly 1975:38–39). State death was a common feature of international politics for centuries (Fazal 2007). Territorial conquest, often leading to the disappearance of states from the map of the world, was a normal event.

This trend seems to have been reversed in the past 60 years, however. Instead of state death (via conquest, at least), we are more likely to see state birth. Fazal (2007) notes only two violent state deaths in the post-1945 era (South Vietnam and Kuwait), while the Correlates of War counts 140 state births in the same time period (Sarkees and Wayman 2010).

We argue that two related and reinforcing changes in international security have contributed to this switch: the rise of an international norm against territorial conquest and the concomitant emergence of multilateral institutions that codify this norm and often include in their charters a commitment to protect the territorial integrity of their members. While not always attaining the status of defensive alliances, membership in these organizations affords a level of protection to new states in the post-1945 era that was not available to their predecessors. For example, according to one of our sources close to South Sudan's independence process, “One reason UN membership was important for South Sudan was because it would enable South Sudan to operate on an equal footing with Sudan in discussions at the UN Security Council on peace and security issues, including on the issue of violence in the volatile regions on both sides of the new border.” States appear to have been able to develop international institutions to gain some traction on the commitment problems that previously led to frequent conquest, thus creating more favorable conditions for the survival of new states.

Although the origins of the norm against conquest precede World War II, we suggest that the norm gained the most traction in the international system after 1945. Indeed, the overall path of the norm is similar to that of the parallel norm of self-determination. Advocates such as Woodrow Wilson pushed hard for the creation of a rule that would protect weak states against territorial predation (Knock 1992; on norm entrepreneurs, see Florini 1996). But without a powerful sponsor—that is, the United States—the institutionalization of the norm foundered in the Interwar period.

Following World War II, however, several circumstances combined to vault the norm against conquest to international prominence. First, key—and powerful—norm entrepreneurs, such as FDR, had been very much in support of the norm against conquest. Unlike Wilson, Roosevelt was in a strong position both at home and abroad, one that allowed him to promote the norm. Truman continued FDR's legacy in this respect, albeit with slightly different motives. Second, the recent example of the instability wrought by the Axis powers' territorial conquests helped convince other states of the value of a rule against seizing other states' territory by force. Indeed, they even seriously contemplated creating an international court whose main crime would be the violation of states' territorial integrity (Katzenstein 2012). Third, the emerging dynamic of the Cold War created additional incentives to adhere to the norm. Rather than carving up the world by trading territory, the two camps of the Cold War carefully delineated spheres of influence, and sometimes provided material and ideological support for independence efforts in the opposite sphere. Upsetting this balance by engaging in territorial conquest ran the risk of a third World War, one that would be nuclear. And fourth, the norm was supported by the emergence of a series of multilateral organizations that pledged to protect the territorial integrity of their members. Thus, the norm against conquest rested upon several supports in the post-1945 era.

Given the very low rate of territorial conquest of entire states in the post-1945 period, it does appear that the international system has become a safer place for states—especially militarily weak states, which newborn states are wont to be. The average national material capabilities score for states in the year they enter the international system doubles in the 10 years following their entry into the international system, and the capabilities of states born after 1945 are an order of magnitude lower than those born prior to 1945 (Singer 1987). A world in which noticeably weaker states need not worry about conquest makes the other benefits of statehood appear that much more achievable. Potential secessionists can take the norm into account when considering what type of resources they must marshal in order for their (would-be) state to survive. Particularly if secession is achieved peacefully, the norm against conquest effectively lowers the costs of statehood, as government resources do not have to be as focused on military defense as in the past. The costs of secessionism/secession are even lowered for violent secessionist movements, which often adopt insurgency tactics during wars for independence. Given that interstate defenses are more typically based on the possibility of conventional warfare, insurgent secessionists are less likely to anticipate having to pay for force transformation (but see Kalyvas and Balcells 2010). In sum, the norm against conquest lowers the costs of statehood for secessionist groups, thereby lowering the barriers to entry to secessionism.

As suggested above, the norm against conquest is reinforced, not only by powerful sponsors in the international system, but also by the multitude of security-minded organizations that include a commitment to the norm (in one version or another) in their founding documents. These organizations range from defensive alliances to broad, multipurpose, multilateral institutions. For example, Article 5 of the NATO Charter reads: [A]n armed attack against one or more [members] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all [members] and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Likewise, Article 3(3) of the OAU Charter obliges each member to have “Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each State and for its inalienable right to independent existence.” Most important, of course, Article 2(4) of the UN Charter states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Whereas past efforts to prohibit territorial conquest, such as the League of Nations, were clearly ineffective in tying states' hands, the oft-criticized (and perhaps rightly so, on normative grounds) architecture of institutions like the United Nations have seen much greater success on this score. Membership in these and similar organizations encompasses virtually every state on the globe today.

These types of organizations create security benefits for all states that are members. Their newness, however, produces a particular incentive for would-be secessionists in the era of these institutions. Prior to the emergence of such organizations, new states were often born into a very hostile world, one with few available allies and friends. Today, by contrast, new states often gain immediate admission to organizations where fellow members are pledged to protect the new state's sovereignty. Indeed, admission to institutions such as the UN is often considered to be a criterion for membership in the international system, and admission to the UN itself is frequently predicated on admission to regional security organizations.

One possible critique of this argument is that, while a norm of border stability might make statehood increasingly attractive for would-be secessionists, it also ought to make the goal of statehood extremely difficult to achieve. Thus, the norm could have countervailing effects both theoretically and empirically. Here, it is important to clarify that our view of the norm is that it is principally a prohibition against territorial conquest—conquest is clearly illegal. As such, it offers security against external predation for new states, but is not dogmatic about secession from existing states. In contrast, “secession is neither legal nor illegal in international law, but a legally neutral act the consequences of which are internationally regulated” (Crawford 2006:290). As we discuss later, the manner of that regulation influences secessionist calculations but, interestingly, secessionist groups themselves often invoke the norm against conquest as justification for their cause. For example, the Government-in-Exile of the South Moluccas maintains that the South Moluccas have been annexed by Indonesia and, as such, have a pre-existing right to independence.

Changes in the Economic Environment for New States

In addition to a new security infrastructure undergirded by the norm against conquest, the post-1945 era has witnessed the rise of a new economic system that provides significant benefits to states born in the post-World War II era. While some of the economic changes—such as an emphasis on free trade—are not new (but rather a matter of degree), others are in fact unique to this era. Specifically, the emergence of international financial institutions such as the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund has reduced transaction costs in ways that have bolstered both free-trade and financial-aid regimes (Goldstein 1998; Hicks, Parks, Roberts, and Tierney 2008; Milner and Tingley 2010). Moreover, institutions such as the IMF and the UN are tasked with assisting developing (which often equated to “new”) states, and this assistance has led to the transfer of a great deal of resources to new states in ways never before seen in the international system.

One of the biggest suppliers of economic benefits to member states is the IMF. Founded in 1944, the primary purpose of the IMF is “the creation of a framework of international economic cooperation … to avoid a repetition of the disastrous economic policies that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s.” To achieve this goal, it offers two types of loans to members: (i) concessional loans, disbursed from the IMF's poverty reduction and growth facility as well as the IMF Trust Fund; (ii) non-concessional loans, disbursed from credits provided by IMF members. Concessional loans, then, are typically based on poverty and need, while non-concessional loans are based on a country's credit with the IMF. Full benefits are given to new members, and no distinction is made between new states and, say, original signatories to the IMF.

Such benefits are clearly attractive to new and aspiring states. One source at the Embassy of the Republic of Kosovo in Washington, DC, stated that accession to the IMF (and the World Bank) in 2009 was beneficial for the state's economic development efforts. Similar comments were made by representatives of the breakaway republics of Nagorno-Karabakh and Somaliland, de facto states that would like to become members of the IMF.

An analysis of IMF loan records is revealing. Among the 14 new states (all born after the end of the Cold War) that received disbursements from the IMF, the average combined (concessional plus non-concessional) loan over the post-Cold War period is more than $113 million (in 2008 USD). Ukraine received the largest average disbursement in a single loan category over this time period, with an average of just more than $495 million in non-concessional loans; Belarus was second, with an average of $140 million in non-concessional loans.

Additional sources of aid not available prior to 1945 include disbursements from UN agencies. Upon gaining independence in 1971, for example, Bhutanese “discussions with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) culminated in a 1973 agreement under which $3.3 million in aid was promised over a 3 year period, while another $6 million has been obtained from UNICEF, the World Bank Food Programme, and other UN agencies.” The most recent UN members typically received between $1 and $6 million dollars of annual aid from UN agencies in the year following their membership; in some cases, such as that of East Timor, this aid comprised nearly 2% of gross domestic product. UN membership is also helpful to South Sudan “because it facilitates the establishment of a peace consolidation and state-building mission in the new country.” A similar point was made by Myra Patai, the Director at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Cook Islands: UN membership would open the door to a number of potential economic partnerships, both multilaterally and bilaterally.

One institution we have not yet discussed in this context is the European Union. Of all the regional and global economic international organizations existing today, the European Union appears to provide the biggest gain for its members. And indeed, newborn European states are quick to apply for EU membership, although gaining membership is a longer road. The European Union is viewed as an extremely important organization to join by European proto-states such as Catalonia, Scotland, and Flanders. A representative of the Kosovo Embassy claims that the prospect of EU membership is highly significant, both symbolically and in terms of the financial benefits that would follow. An important individual benefit of EU membership for Kosovo's citizens would be the right to be able to travel freely in Europe; currently, the difficulty of obtaining visas makes traveling very difficult for Kosovars. The European Union is acutely aware of the benefits it may confer upon those aspiring states within its orbit and has been sensitive to the politics of those groups. For example, even though the membership process is likely to take years if not decades, the European Union established a mission in Kosovo prior to Kosovo's independence and continues to help develop Kosovo's political institutions.

Another source of assistance is foreign aid. Once Eritrea seceded in 1993, it quickly received millions of dollars in economic aid from both multilateral and bilateral donors. Similarly, Bangladesh also received a large amount of aid after its secession in the early 1970s. But interestingly, Bangladeshi leadership simultaneously observed the loss of some British aid that had been dedicated to its former territory of Pakistan; because Bangladesh was now a separate state, it could no longer draw on that aid.

Yet another benefit available to today's new states is an international economic system characterized by relatively free markets. As discussed before, a robust liberal economic system can obviate the need to have a large internal economy. Small states such as Singapore can effectively plug into the global economy and leverage their comparative advantage. Of course, such benefits did exist in the late nineteenth century during the so-called first period of globalization when trade levels were quite high. But that was also a time when conquest was more common. The Autonomous Region of Bougainville is scheduled to have a referendum on independence sometime before 2020. When asked about a post-independence economic plan, former President James Tanis stated that with Bougainville's considerable mineral wealth, it could use export revenues to help develop the new country. The notion that a local power might attempt to conquer the territory once it was sovereign was not a concern.

Access to the benefits of the global economy turn to a large extent on sovereign recognition. According to Robert Avetisyan, Permanent Representative of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the United States, his government cannot currently conduct formal relations with other governmental entities, and that exclusion matters to a surprising degree. For example, states that lack formal recognition also lack a postal identity and cannot have correspondence or goods mailed directly to their state. Unrecognized states have difficulty securing foreign direct investment, which is “typically conditional upon guarantees of insurance and arbitration” (Englebert and Hummel 2005:415). Agencies such as Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) and Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) only provide insurance to investors that work with recognized sovereign states.

For the leaders of Somaliland, a de facto state within a larger failed state (Somalia), the benefits of state membership are both tantalizing and yet hard to obtain (Bryden 2003). Rashid Nur, Somaliland's representative to the United States, points out that the absence of an international identity increases the difficulty of access to international markets for trade, and obtaining insurance on freight. Moreover, without an internationally recognized central bank, Somaliland is forced to use foreign accounts and secondary financial markets. Even relations with private banks are hindered because institutions in, say, the United States, typically need approval from the US Treasury, which does not recognize Somaliland. Sovereign membership in the international system has clear economic benefits.

South Sudan faced similar limitations prior to gaining independence in the summer of 2011. Private sector investment has been viewed as critical in Juba but, prior to independence, such investment was limited to the fairly non-controversial realms of humanitarian and infrastructural aid, while more lucrative investment was funneled through Khartoum. A recognized, independent state of South Sudan “doubtless provides comfort” to eager investors from the Gulf States, Turkey, Brazil, and China, mindful of protecting both their investments and their personnel. With independent statehood achieved, South Sudan has become a much more attractive environment for international investors, particularly in the oil sector.

Self-Determination and the International Recognition Regime

Concomitant with the increased security and economic benefits of statehood was the rise of a norm that placed greater emphasis on the self-determination of stateless nations. The formal infusion of the norm into the international system is usually credited to Woodrow Wilson, who stated that “all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them” (Cobban 1969:75–84). As we discussed above, the norm is thought to have been a significant cause of the secessionist fervor after World War I. And the importance of the norm increased after World War II once it became fully entrenched as a core theme in the United Nations Charter.

In our interviews regarding Kosovo, Somaliland, Western Sahara, South Sudan, and Catalonia, among others, virtually every representative listed self-determination—“the ability to direct one's own affairs”—and, frequently, democracy, as key motivators for statehood. The role of these norms in the process of seeking—and achieving—statehood can be conceived of in a few complementary ways. It could be, for example, that members of these groups have truly internalized these norms and see their cause as right and just in these terms. It could also be that the belief that the international community—the purveyors of international recognition—holds some store in those principles suggests to these groups that appealing to these international norms will increase a group's chances for recognition. Although one cannot truly know a secessionist's motivations, we suspect that both factors matter: groups reference self-determination both because they believe in it and because they know that the international community is sympathetic to the ideas it represents.

Of course, invoking the right to self-determination does not automatically open the door to independence. Access to the benefits of sovereignty requires recognition from the club of states, but such recognition is a constitutive process subject to an evolving set of rules (Jackson 1990; Osterud 1997; Fabry 2010; Paquin 2010; Coggins 2011; Ker-Lindsay 2012; Sterio 2012). The clearest route to recognition is through consent of the metropole, but that path is quite political (Coggins 2011; Sterio 2012). The community of states is keen to maintain the home state veto, but in practice, states are sometimes pressured to give consent—for example, Khartoum was pressured to recognize South Sudan (Kolsto 2006; Graham and Horne 2012). Consent, it seems, can come after a long conflict and international intervention (Paquin 2010). Or, as the potential referenda in Scotland and Catalonia suggest, it could happen democratically. James Tanis, former President of Bougainville, stated that one of the reasons they committed to the 2001 Peace Agreement was the promise of a future referendum on independence. An overwhelming vote for independence in the eyes of the world might pressure Papua New Guinea to give its consent, or risk a renewed conflict against a determined Bougainville.

The self-determination norm has provided rhetorical ammunition for secessionists since the end of World War I, and it seems to have genuinely inspired many of these groups (Armitage 2007; Manela 2007). At the same time, the club of states has established practices and rules to screen its applicants. We contend that the resulting recognition regime is a moving target, one that is midway between an open door to self-determination, which would result in more secessionism, and a completely closed door, which would result in less.

The Costs of Statehood

There are, of course, potential costs to statehood and, in particular, from moving from secessionism to statehood. The first of these costs is institutional. New governments must establish a working financial and judicial system, along with the other trappings of statehood.

Second, the choice to seek an independent state will be set against the benefits of inclusion in the current state. Although the Cook Islanders have a constitutional right to secede given a two-thirds majority vote, the desire to do so is low given that their highly valued New Zealand citizenship would be jeopardized. For groups that benefit from inter-regional transfers, the choice of secession ought to be less attractive, and this is given as one of the reasons why the Central Asian Soviet Republics were less keen on independence than other regions, especially the Baltics (Bartkus 1999:42). Just as this dynamic occurs across regions, it also plays along class and sectoral lines inside societies. Some of the key opponents of Quebec's independence in 1995 were business leaders who calculated that their financial interests were best served in a continued federal arrangement with Canada (Bartkus 1999:40).

Third, humanitarian aid can create similar interests in the midst of an ongoing secessionist civil conflict (or even during the life of a secessionist movement prior to secession). Unlike international governmental organizations that tend to channel resources through the central government, relief agencies often operate at a very grassroots level, setting up shop and focusing attention and resources on specific underserved communities. Once a conflict has ended, humanitarian workers from NGOs may be more likely to depart the area. Related, King (2001) documents a thriving black market in secessionist regions such as South Ossetia and Transnistria, one that would disappear were these polities to gain international recognition. Thus, while secessionism may benefit individual citizens, successful secessionism may be less attractive for some.

To summarize, there are costs to independence that potential secessionists must consider. We maintain, however, that the benefits of sovereignty in the post-1945 period have increased without a commensurate increase in the costs. These dynamics produce new equilibrium conditions where a greater percentage of potential secessionists will have an incentive to secede. The benefits of statehood will not always outweigh the costs, but we argue that they are more likely to do so in modern times.

Secessionism's Future

If we are correct that the increased benefits of statehood have motivated a greater number of potential secessionists to seek independence, then several questions arise. First, does the nature of the changing international environment affect the way in which secessionists attempt to achieve their goals? Second, what future changes might amplify or depress this trend? And third, who are the specific people benefiting from statehood, and can their position within a would-be state help us understand the nature of secessionism today?

Changing Modes of Secessionism?

We have argued that the end to which secessionist movements aspire—recognized statehood—has increased in value. What, then, should we expect in terms of the means used to achieve this end? Is the road to statehood covered in velvet or stained with blood? This issue raises a set of empirical questions as well as a normative conundrum.

As statehood becomes more valuable, we might expect that secessionist groups will be increasingly willing to use extreme means—such as organized violence—to achieve these ends. And indeed, according to Walter (2009:3), secessionist conflict remains “the chief source of violence in the world today.” But even if most civil wars are secessionist, this does not mean that most secessionist movements employ violence.

In fact, the current politics of recognition discourage the use of violence by secessionist groups. As discussed above, the international community has developed guidelines for what independence movements qualify for the right to secession. That right holds for regions that meet the criteria for decolonization, but that set is diminished and its existing members usually prefer to maintain their autonomous, but non-sovereign status (for example, Bermuda). The right holds for regions in a state that is classified as “dissolved,” such as the Soviet Union, but these ex post designations are unpredictable and hard to incorporate into a strategy of secession. Currently, the most promising route to secession is by consent, but our understanding of the conditions under which metropoles will give consent is lacking. One view holds that consent is more likely in binary states like Belgium, where precedent-setting concerns are absent (Walter 2009). Another view argues that internal administrative lines matter because they allow for clean separations (Carter and Goemans 2011). Yet another claims that it is not the administrative boundaries that matter but rather how such jurisdictions are classified and ranked; the Soviet first order units like Armenia stood a better chance than second order units like Chechnya (Griffiths 2013). A final view maintains that consent is more likely in democracies where secessionists can appeal to liberal norms and seek an exit through legitimate institutional channels (Alesina and Spolaore 2003; Goldsmith and He 2008).

Our research indicates that secessionists are well aware of the rules of sovereign recognition. As the benefits of statehood become increasingly tied to nonviolence, these factors could become especially salient for secessionist movements. Regions like Catalonia and Scotland are clearly cognizant of the fact that their secession must be consensual and legitimate; Catalonia proclaims that independence can only be won through the democratic process, and the Scottish Nationalist Party has been negotiating with Prime Minister David Cameron over the specifics of a 2014 referendum on independence. Secessionist groups treat international law strategically, often hiring outside diplomats (Kosovo, Somaliland) and/or developing a corps of international lawyers (Nagorno-Karabakh). Membership in organizations like the UN and IMF is given by fellow members who are keenly aware of the rules. But for all secessionists—including those that play by the rules—denial is common.

For this reason, plenty of nations have fought their metropoles, often earning a de facto status, only to be denied recognition (Pegg 1998; Kolsto 2006; Graham and Horne 2012). This variation in the strategies employed by secessionist movements raises at least three questions. First, why do some secessionist movements employ violence while others do not? Although this question has been addressed in previous scholarship (Diez, Stetter, and Albert 2006; Walter 2006; Cunningham 2013), it has not been considered in light of the claim that the benefits of statehood have increased over time. Indeed, to our knowledge, no prior scholars have considered how changes in the benefits of statehood and the international-recognition regime have affected the strategies employed by secessionist groups. Second, under what conditions is violent secessionism successful as compared to nonviolent secessionism? Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) find that, although nonviolent campaigns are generally more effective than violent campaigns, this does not hold true for secessionist campaigns. Recent examples such as East Timor and Bougainville suggest that sequencing violence and nonviolence may be crucial; groups may be able to attain a certain degree of publicity for their cause via the use of violence that can then be converted into international support once violence has been eschewed and a nonviolent campaign is adopted. And third, even though the understood rules of the international system should not reward violent secessionism, is it in fact the case that the benefits of statehood are tied to the mode of secession?

Depending on the answers to these empirical questions, one possible consequence of the changing benefits of statehood is that, while secessionism will increase, the use of violence by secessionists will decline. Secessionism might become more peaceful, but also more persistent, populating an area of not-quite-international relations with a growing number of would-be states eager to work with and through international institutions. And indeed, as Figure 4 shows, the percentage of secessionists using major violence (defined here as passing the standard threshold of 1,000 battle deaths) has declined significantly over precisely the time period we examine.

Percent of Secessionists Using Major Force

The requirement of statehood to attain benefits presents a normative conundrum for the international community. Punishing states born of violence for the mode of secession by denying or delaying benefits may encourage other secessionist groups to employ nonviolence but, as per Chenoweth and Stephan (2011), nonviolence may not be the most effective means of attaining statehood. Focusing on the changing benefits of statehood thus brings the familiar tension between norms of sovereignty and self-determination into specific relief, perhaps suggesting that it would be wise for the international community to develop new modes of diplomacy with secessionist movements. Such a strategy would require walking the tightrope of violating state sovereignty while trying to offer humanitarian aid.

Exogenous Shocks and Parameter Change

Could further system-level changes affect the frequency of secessionism and willingness of sovereign states to provide independence? In our view, economic and security changes in the international system could increase or decrease the attractiveness of secession. The collapse of the global trading system and/or an increased incidence of territorial conquest could, to invoke the literature on the size of states (Alesina and Spolaore 2003), gradually select for bigger states and make sovereignty and secession less desirable.

Another potential change pertains to the international legal debate surrounding secession. Change here might come in two general ways. First, the obligation placed on existing states to assist self-determination efforts could increase. Prior to 1945, recognition was typically granted on a de facto basis, and self-determination was regarded as a negative right: nations were free to become independent by their own effort and without external intervention (Fabry 2010:12). But in the post-1945 period, self-determination has been regarded as a positive right in which the international community has a duty to assist nations that qualify for the right to secede. One long-running debate centers on whether recognition should be given to breakaway regions whose governments are failing to supply basic functions and/or violating the human rights of the nation in question (Fearon 2004a; Pavkovic and Radan 2007:199–205). Advocates argue for this right to secession on ethical grounds and point out that its institutionalization ought to condition the manner in which states interact with secessionist regions. But critics claim that there is a moral hazard problem here insofar as secessionists may now have incentive to provoke their government into behaving badly (Fearon 2004a; Kuperman 2008). Such moves in international law could effectively alter the strategic environment in which secessionists operate.

Second, the type of territories that qualify for secession may change and thereby broaden or reduce the set of potential states. The legal principle of uti possidetis juris—or “as you possess,” has guided recognition since at least 1816 (Fabry 2010). In general, the principle holds that the borders of new states should adhere to their preexisting administrative boundaries, and thereby reduce the potential for disagreement over where new lines should be drawn. But in practice, the application of the principle has changed subtly over time. For the states emerging from the Spanish Empire in the early 1800s, its use was meant to forestall potential disagreements over territory between states. But for the countries that arose from decolonization, the principle was used less to delineate territory between states than to disqualify secessionist claims within states. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the use of the principle was pushed one more step to accept only first-order administrative units (union republics) and exclude second- and third-order units within the Soviet administrative structure. The track record and protean nature of the principle suggests that it could find additional applications in the future. It also demonstrates the iterative manner in which international law both reacts to events on the ground, and, at least until the next big event, defines the legal environment for aspiring nations. At present there is too little overlap between the philosophical and international legal discourse on secession, which explores the theoretical consequences of different legal frameworks (Ratner 1996; Shaw 1997; Buchanan 2004; Wellman 2005; Crawford 2006), and the empirical analyses of international relations scholars, who are in a position to evaluate these frameworks more systematically.

Who Reaps the Benefits of Membership?

In order to explore fully the consequences of the rising benefits of statehood, it is important to know to whom these benefits accrue. After all, understanding who benefits the most from statehood can help us uncover the microfoundations of secessionism. We identify two main areas where the benefits of statehood have changed: improved security from external predation and increased availability of economic aid for new states. Both changes should be particularly attractive to political elites whose concerns about military defense can be allayed while national treasuries are plundered. If this is in fact the case, the nature of secessionist movements—those that are grassroots-based as opposed to those that are leader-based—may inform the character of states that emerge from successful secessionism.

Turning first to the benefit of increased security from external predation, consider a hypothetical state born into an era where the norm against conquest is absent or weak. Leaders of this state would have to concentrate resources and effort to protecting the state against external attack. As an example, the Central American states, which became independent in the late nineteenth century with the collapse of the United Provinces of Central America, fought four wars with each other in the space of 30 years. By contrast, leaders of states born into an era where the norm against conquest is strong, and supported by global and regional international organizations, have less to fear in terms of external attack. They can channel state resources elsewhere. Benevolent leaders might channel resources to social services and infrastructure. If we assume (as most of the literature on leader tenure in political science does—see for example Chiozza and Goemans 2011), however, that leaders primarily care about retaining power, resources may be more likely to be directed to internal repression than improving the lives of citizenry. Such leaders also may be incentivized to plunder state resources for their own gain. Plundering along these lines, when coupled with internal repression, is more likely to lead to state failure (Rotberg 2004; Zartman 2005) than to an improvement in the quality of life for the citizenry at large. Boaz Atzili notes, for example, that Mobutu Sese Seku declined to strengthen the Zairean state so that he could preserve his own power and extract resources for personal gain, and also because he did not require a strong military to defend the state's international borders (Atzili 2006/2007:156). Furthermore, the norm against conquest that facilitates this situation also may prevent a positive resolution, as neighboring states are prohibited from taking territory from the failed state, even if doing so would improve the lives of its citizens (Jackson 1990; Herbst 2000).

The second major benefit of statehood discussed in this paper stems from increased economic opportunities available to new (indeed, all) states in the post-World War II era. For example, international aid is explicitly meant to funnel down to individual citizens, but it first must be channeled through the government. Thus, sovereign recognition opens up the possibility for the redirection of aid into patronage networks (Reno 2001:198; Englebert and Hummel 2005:415). Organizations such as the IMF have strong anti-corruption oversight policies but these policies are notoriously difficult to implement, and critics have pointed to policy slippage and the misuse of funds (Stiglitz 2002; Moyo 2009). The potential for misuse turns to some extent on the type of loan; programmatic aid is harder to track than project aid and thus easier for leaders to siphon off without being detected (Smith and Vreeland 2006; Winters 2010). What we might expect on this front, though, is that particularly corrupt leaders seek aid from sources with reputations for poor oversight of graft and corruption. For example, leaders of resource-rich new states might seek bilateral aid from countries more concerned with building a pipeline or mining ore than with assisting farmers in the countryside. The new benefits of statehood may be more likely to be directed to the pockets of predatory leaders than to those of struggling citizens.

State leaders can also market their sovereignty in the modern global economy. Even prior to gaining independence, South Sudan had leased a tenth of its farmland to foreign producers. Liberia famously leased its “flag of convenience” and as of 2005, some 35% of all oil tankers, as well as Carnival Cruise Lines, operated under the Liberian Flag. The gains in government revenue were estimated at $20 million (Englebert and Hummel 2005:415). Thus, sovereign recognition can provide state leaders with external revenue sources.

If, indeed, the new benefits of statehood operate in the manner described above, the privileges of membership may accrue primarily to state leaders. Knowing this, would-be leaders have stronger incentives to push for statehood than do individual citizens. This perspective lends support to the “elite manipulation” approach to ethnic conflict, where (all else equal) nationalities are molded to fit the needs and desires of high-level leaders seeking to govern their own state. The ease of manipulation may be reduced in democratically driven movements, as in Scotland and Catalonia, where a lively media can inform voters. But many contemporary movements, especially those engaged in armed struggles with their states, lack such transparency. Thus, what appear to be normatively positive changes in the international landscape—norms against coercive territorial transfer, more funds available for development assistance—may in fact generate unintended consequences that do more to harm than help the prospects of individual citizens in poor, newborn states today.


Krasner (1999:7) argues that “International legal sovereignty has been almost universally desired by rulers … recognition provides benefits and does not impose costs.” While we generally agree with this sentiment, we suggest that the benefits of statehood have been increasing, while the costs—at least, for rulers—have not seen a similar increase. The shifting norms and new institutions of the post-1945 world have created strong incentives for secessionism. The benefits of statehood are on the rise. This trend is reflected in the growing number of secessionist movements over the past half century. Indeed, the role of norms and institutions here is symbiotic. International norms such as the norm against conquest are cornerstones of institutions such as the United Nations. Membership in these institutions protects new states, and affords them the opportunity to signal their commitment to these norms. This is the apparent reason for Rwanda and, possibly, South Sudan, joining the British Commonwealth.

Whether there are costs of these benefits remains to be seen. Does having such a large population of states make international diplomacy less manageable or perhaps less meaningful for most states? Do citizens of new states truly benefit from having achieved nationalist goals?

The result of this cost-benefit calculation notwithstanding, there is little reason to expect that the current tide of secessionism will recede. These groups are attempting to navigate an international legal no-man's land, and their tenure in doing so should be expected to be quite long, especially if they believe (possibly correctly) that the set of tools that might be most effective in gaining independence from their metropole—political violence—will undermine their ability to acquire sovereign recognition and enjoy the benefits of statehood. At the same time, because these groups are so eager for recognition, they may be especially likely to respond to the suggestions of the international community; this no-man's-land therefore provides an opportunity to shape the future of would-be states. Thus, scholars of international relations may wish to devote additional attention to the politics of secessionist groups in light of the many benefits of statehood. Likewise, policymakers and practitioners—both those within states and those within international institutions—may do well to devise new means of managing the international, and subnational, relations of secessionist movements.


  • Carnegie Corporation


  • Authors' notes: For valuable comments and suggestions, we thank Mikulas Fabry, Gary Goertz, Stephen Krasner, Jason Sharman, Thomas Volgy, and the editors and anonymous reviewers of International Studies Review. This research was partially funded by a Carnegie Corporation Grant no. B8473.

  • Contemporary examples include New Zealand and the Cook Islands, Denmark and the Faroe Islands, and the Netherlands and the Dutch Antilles (Sharman 2013).

  • Czechoslovakia's sovereignty was restored in 1945.

  • Because ours is not a systematic empirical study, our method for selecting interview subjects was not governed by principles of research design. We contacted as many representatives of new states and major secessionist movements as possible, and interviewed those who responded. We also spoke with representatives from some of the major international organizations that are purveyors of some of the benefits of statehood.

  • Also see Jackson and Rosberg (1982).

  • For a similar argument see Sterio (2012).

  • Nicholas Sambanis uses a market metaphor when he describes these two types as the demand and the supply side. He defines the demand for sovereignty “as an organized effort to increase political power and representation relative to the center of political authority or, alternatively, to attain greater administrative and legislative independence from the center and greater control over the territory in which a group demanding sovereignty lives.” He defines the supply side as the “government's reaction and the international community's norms regarding self-determination” (Sambanis 2006:199).

  • These averages pass a difference of means test at the 99% confidence level.

  • This is the threshold that Coggins (2011) uses in her data. Note that it is smaller than the 150-mile threshold used by the COW data set on colonial possessions. See Colonial/Dependency Contiguity Data, 1816–2002. Version 3.0. Online: http://correlatesofwar.org. A lower percentage of cases would be designated as “colonial” were we to use the COW threshold.

  • These are rough averages given that a portion of the movements overlaps into two periods.

  • Roeder (2007:12).

  • These averages pass a difference of means test at the 99% confidence level.

  • The Minorities at Risk data set identifies 52 new groups in the 1950s, 84 in the 1960s, 14 in the 1970s, one in the 1980s, and 53 in the 1990s (Minorities at Risk Project 2009).

  • The mean Polity score for the period covering 1816–1945 is −2.3. The mean Polity score for the post-1945 period is 0.11 (Marshall, Jaggers, and Gurr 2012). Also see Marshall and Cole (2011:10). Building from Kohli (1997), Snyder (2000), and Mansfield and Snyder (2005), an alternative (but untested) hypothesis would be that secessionism increases during periods of democratic transition, potentially creating waves of secessionism.

  • Tomz (2007) provides an excellent analysis of historical sovereign debt, but does not look explicitly at change over time.

  • Data taken from the Alliance Treaty and Obligations and Provisions (ATOP) data set (Leeds, Ritter, Mitchell, and Long 2002).

  • Interview with Andrew Lewis of Independent Diplomat. July 20, 2011.

  • For similar arguments see Wendt (1999); Zacher (2001); Atzili (2006/2007, 2012).

  • Englebert and Hummel (2005) argue that the power of the border-stability norm is relatively stronger in Africa and that helps explain the secessionist deficit there. An extension of this argument is that regional variation in the rules and practices regarding sovereign recognition should influence the incentives of aspiring nations and therefore correspond with regional variation in secessionism. We note, along with Englebert and Hummel, that Latin America also possesses a secessionist deficit. The role of the border-stability norm in this deficit is unclear.

  • Author's correspondence with Willem Sopacua, Vice-President of the Government-in-Exile of the Republik Maluku Selatan. An academic treatment of this case references the decisions of Dutch courts recognizing South Moluccan sovereignty, and argues: “If, as stated in these judgments, the RMS was a state when it proclaimed its independence in 1950, the use of force by Indonesia to subsequently annex it was illegal. This could be seen as the use of force by one sovereign state against another and a violation of the prohibition of the use of force as espoused in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter” (Higgins 2010:173).

  • http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/exrp/what.htm#created. (Accessed February 8, 2010.)

  • The funds for the Trust come from voluntary contributions and receipts of gold sales.

  • Information taken from authors' interviews.

  • In an attempt to mitigate any effects of the Cold War on IMF lending, we focus primarily on loans received by states that gain independence after the Cold War. While the relevant comparison groups for these states are unclear, we can at least learn the average size of loans received by these states, to see whether it is a significant amount as compared to zero (which is, clearly, what states would receive in an era preceding the creation of the IMF).

  • Rose (1977:90–92).

  • Data taken from World Development Indicators.

  • Interview with Andrew Lewis of Independent Diplomat. July 20, 2011.

  • Interview with Myra Patai, November 20, 2012.

  • Interview with Anna Arqué, Head of International Relations for Welcome Mr. President … to the Independent State of Catalonia. July 26, 2011.

  • Authors' Interviews. May 11, 2011 and July 7, 2011.

  • Interview with James Tanis, October 12, 2012.

  • Author's Interview. March 29, 2011.

  • Author's Interview. April 1, 2011.

  • Interview with Andrew Lewis from Independent Diplomat. July 20, 2011.

  • Independence did not immediately solve all issues around investment in South Sudan's oil sector, as an agreement with the north regarding ownership and use of oil pipelines was not resolved until a year after South Sudan became independent (Gettleman 2012).

  • Interview with Anna Arqué, Head of International Relations for Welcome Mr. President … to the Independent State of Catalonia. July 26, 2011.

  • The Eritrean case exemplifies this point very clearly, and perhaps stands as a counter-example to our argument. Upon gaining independence, Etritreans were more resentful than welcoming of international institutions like the OAU and UN, viewing them as having done nothing while a historic injustice was perpetrated against their people and homeland (Wrong 2005:358–61). That said, Eritrea does benefit from membership in these institutions, receiving nearly $45 million in aid (nearly 8% of its gross domestic product) from UN agencies within a year of independence.

  • Interview with James Tanis, October 12, 2012.

  • Finnemore (1996) offers several examples of state bureaucracies created to conform with international notions of statehood.

  • Interview with Mike Mitchell, former Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Immigration for the Cook Islands, November 20, 2012.

  • Denial, though, typically takes place prior to an application as groups, eager to avoid a public rejection, probe their audience and assess their chances. As a result of such pre-selection, no application to the IMF has ever been rejected.

  • This normative position is known as Just Cause Theory or Remedialist Theory (Buchanan 2004). Some advocates interpret sections of the UN Charter as evidence that the territorial integrity of states is not protected in cases where a distinct group is “shut out from, or grossly abused by, a country's central government” (Fabry 2010:166). This potential door for secession is often referred to as the “safeguard” or “saving” clause in international law.

  • New states routinely appear in the bottom half (that is, most corrupt) of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index with, for example, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, and Kyrgzystan all receiving scores under 2.5 (on a scale of 10) in 2006, while East Timor received a score of 2.6. http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2006. (Accessed September 23, 2011.)

  • The Economist. “The Surge in Land Deals: When Others Are Grabbing Your Land.” May 7, 2011.

  • Author's Interview. July 20, 2011.


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