March 02, 2022
Out of understandable frustration with their countrymen, Americans increasingly assert that if their own side fails to win the current domestic political struggle, the United States of America, history’s mightiest country, should (and/or must) break up into separate sovereign territories. After all, nobody gets on our nerves like our fellow citizens.
For instance, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury-News reviewed David French’s book about how California or Texas might secede, setting off a chain reaction of secessions, and concluded:
But by this Californian’s lights, the final results of French’s Calexit scenario don’t sound so bad. New England creates its own democratic nation. Millions of Americans relocate to places better aligned with their politics. And Californians seem happier.
Similarly, numerous conservatives have fantasized about carving out a Red America in the hinterlands.
But the war in Ukraine is a reminder that this impulse is unwise. When you believe that things can’t get any worse, it’s worth noting that, yes, they can, such as an outbreak of armored warfare. (And even that can get worse too, with the possibility of nuclear exchanges.)
In this column two years ago, I reviewed Frank H. Buckley’s book American Secession and listed the reasons that a territorial crack-up, like those undergone by the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s and China splitting into the mainland and Taiwan in the 1940s, would not cure what ails us.
This is especially true in the U.S. where political divisions don’t follow ancient ethnic or feudal lines, but instead reflect the cost of real estate, dividing each city from its boondocks, creating an impossible task for anyone charged with drawing a practical new map.
One ill I didn’t address then is that of foreign interference. Breaking up the USA into smaller states would open the door for massive meddling in the new minor countries by both overseas powers and local neighbors, as the chronicles of the ex–Soviet Union suggest.
Whether you blame poor Ukraine’s current agony most on Russia’s obvious aggressions or NATO’s subtle machinations is a matter of opinion, but the lesson is clear: If you can avoid it, don’t be Ukraine.
Historically, the worst landscape for your country’s independence is to be right in the middle of a vast flat plain, such as Ukraine and, perhaps unluckiest of all, landlocked Belarus.
In contrast, the happiest geography is to dominate your own large island country protected by oceans: for instance, England, Australia (“The Lucky Country”), New Zealand, Japan, and, most of all, the United States with its continent-spanning temperate zone.
During the Wars of the French Revolution, George Washington explained in his Farewell Address the high risk and low reward of foreign entanglements for us lucky Americans:
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?
In Washington’s time, the U.S. was already a large country, sprawling to the Mississippi River. By 1850, we had extended our dominion all the way to the Pacific, eliminating all foreign threats.
Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln stood for Union during the Civil War, having previously boasted:
All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.
Vladimir Putin has often regretted the smashup of his once-colossal Soviet Union:
Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.
For example, after the fifteen “republics” of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics broke apart on Jan. 1, 1992, many of the regions within the various new countries wanted out as well. If Kyrgyzstan gets to leave, why not small (but colorful) Chechnya too?
But that logic would open up Mother Russia to the rollback of Muscovy’s organizing principle since escaping the Tartar yoke: being the biggest bully on the block. On the Eurasian plain, a region without much in the way of natural defenses other than distance, size matters. The Russians succeeded by taking orders on the largest scale of anybody in Europe.
To drive home this point, the Kremlin wound up fighting two wars to retain the rambunctious Chechens within Russia. Putin then appointed an extroverted local, Ramzan Kadyrov, to serve as, in effect, his client King of the Chechens, rather like King Herod in the New Testament. Since then, the Russian taxpayers have paid lavishly to fund Kadyrov acting out his 1980s action-movie fantasies.
Meanwhile, the smaller ex-Soviet republics have been plagued by their own breakaway regions. These are often sponsored by Russia, such as Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea in Ukraine; Transnistria in Moldova; and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia.
For example, the old Soviet internal border between Georgia and Russia might have worked, except that it divided the highlander Ossetians. (Borders tend to be drawn along mountain ranges, which makes sense to the dominant lowlanders on either side, but not to the mountain men, who tend to be hard to govern in any case.)
After some fighting, Russia and Georgia signed an agreement in 1993 granting Georgia’s South Ossetia region autonomy. But then the Bush administration invited Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO in 2008. Emboldened, the Georgian government tore up the treaty, and sent its tanks into South Ossetia past the international observers, all the while hollering for the U.S. to rescue them from the inevitable Russian counterattack. Dick Cheney was enthusiastic about riding to the rescue of the bumptious Georgians, but Condi Rice and Robert M. Gates overrode him, and the Georgians had to suffer a brief Russian counterinvasion. (Note: The full story, like anything involving national disputes in this part of the world, is vastly more complicated.)
And in Azerbaijan, the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh led to a war in the 1990s and another one last year between the two ex-Soviet republics.
But, as Putin is finding in Ukraine, it’s not so easy to put Humpty Dumpty together again. Hence, American enthusiasts of going down the ex-Soviet path should think twice.