US Views on Secessionist Movements
Modern scholars of civil conflict would not actually label the conflict surrounding the US Declaration of Independence as a “revolution.” Rather, on July 4th, 1776, more or less, the United States seceded from the United Kingdom in an “extra-systemic” or “extra-state” conflict. As modern taxonomies suggest, at least, a revolutionary conflict is characterized by citizens attempting to overthrow rather than break away from their government. For example, while they may have been expressed similar values of equality and liberty, the French and American “revolutions” were very different in that the French revolutionaries sought the overthrow the French monarchy while Americans wanted to cut ties with the English government.
After our own war for secession, however, American support for other global secession movements has been inconsistent. While other leaders from Simon Bolivar to Ho Chi Minh have taken inspiration from the American example, the US government has often struggled to balance sympathetic affinities towards secessionists with state interests and a desire for regional stability.
When perceived US interests have dovetailed with those of would-be secessionists, it’s been much easier for US leaders to come out openly in favor of rebel groups and to extend recognition to newly formed states. Although (out of a prudent desire not to antagonize Spain) the US did not openly support Latin American independence movements, it was quick to recognize the newly formed Latin American states and even extend US protection to those states with the since-oft-maligned Monroe Doctrine – a policy that happily wedded US revolutionary identity with the strategic benefit of keeping the European powers at bay.
When secessionism found its way to Europe in the subsequent decades the US was in an even better position to express its identity, without having to worry as much about the diplomatic or strategic fallout. President Monroe expressed his open support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, and later, in 1848, the Hungarian secessionist Lajos Kossuth, became a national hero in America for his efforts to break away from the Austrians.
Of course, when secessionism came to the United States, the federal government ultimately decided what had been justifiable for North Americans, Latin Americans, Texans, and oppressed European folk was not justifiable for white southerners. As was often the case to come, overriding strategic interest (in this case, preserving the country itself) was first rationalized, and then internalized, as the overriding moral imperative for northerners who, in many cases, may have spoken openly in favor of northern secession in earlier years.
After the civil war, the US government largely returned to positions that tacitly or overtly supported independence movements. Despite turning to imperialism itself in the Caribbean and Pacific, US support for the breakup of European empires continued unabated, culminating in Wilson’s 14 Points, which included provisions for the self-determination of peoples in the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the adjustment of Italy’s borders along national lines, and the independence of Poland.
During the Second World War, FDR pressed Churchill, largely behind closed doors, for a postwar order that would invariably result in the end of European imperialism. While there were undoubtedly strong US interests in reworking the global economic order, FDR, according to his son Elliott’s memoirs, his father saw the plight of colonial societies as analogous to that of Americans during revolutionary times and the new Bretton Woods order as a way of promoting development among peoples locked within imperialist economic arrangements.
The Cold War and the newly established American hegemony, however, permanently changed US views toward secessionist movements. There were no more cases of far-away movements that Americans could speak of as “firing” their “soul” as John Adams once wrote Thomas Jefferson on the matter of Greek independence. Although the US put the stake in the British Empire during the Suez Crisis of 1956 and tepidly supported global decolonization, it also opposed the communist nationalists of Southeast Asia and sided with status quo powers in areas like Cyprus and East Timor. After the early sixties, perceived strategic imperatives as well as the fear of a secessionist-type situation drawing in the superpowers and escalating into nuclear war, led the US to almost uniformly support the territorial status quo, with the permanent enshrinement of European borders codified in the Helsinki Accords of 1975 illustrating the norms of the new age.
While generally supportive of secessionist movements before the Cold War, and generally opposed during age of Mutual Assure Destruction, the question of which secessionist to support became an urgent issue during the nineties and continues up to the present. Shortly after the Cold War, the US found itself leading NATO bombing campaigns to prevent Serbs from seceding from the newly seceded Bosnian state while later bombing Serbia to force that country to relinquish the province of Kosovo. During the next decade the US vocally criticized Russia for its actions in Chechnya while supporting the Georgian government’s right to crackdown on South Ossetians. In the meantime, the US offered varying levels of encouragement or discouragement for secessionists in Eritrea, South Sudan, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Tibet, Kurdistan, and Sri Lanka, just to name a few – and, well, don’t get me started on the Eastern Ukraine.
In short, the current US stance toward secessionism is completely rudderless and open to justified criticism that the US only supports those movements that support its own political and strategic goals while opposing those that don’t.
Just like uniformly promoting democracy can lead to trouble, there will always be practical reasons to oppose specific groups seeking their own state (ISIS, for example). That should not, however, preclude Americans from generally supporting the greater exercise of self-determination by groups seeking it. Despite reservations, the US government in the early Cold War did generally support independence movements and was willing to pressure its allies to varying degrees to let go of nations that wanted to pursue their own path and destiny. We should return to this policy of judiciously promoting self-determination and be willing to risk irritating our allies in the process. Rather than supporting the preservation of existing borders and political arrangements in cases where US interests are tangential, we should remember our own roots this Independence Day, think how much our own secession meant to us, and not forget that we needed a bit of help to achieve it as well.