Tag Archives: state

Scottish Autonomy and the Problem of National Sovereignty

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond (left) and British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) sign an agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

Earlier this week, the British and Scottish governments reached an historic agreement that would see Scotland hold a referendum asking voters to decide whether Scotland would become an independent country or remain as part of the United Kingdom. Numerous issues are at stake, not least of which is control of the estimated 20 billion barrels of oil and natural gas located under the North Sea.

There is good reason to think that British Prime Minister David Cameron is making a strong political move. While the Scottish National Party has polled well in recent elections, the idea of Scottish independence is much less popular than the party which supports it. A recent poll found that only 34 percent of Scottish voters supported independence, while more than half believed Scotland’s economy would suffer if it declared independence.

What's Braveheart got to do with it?

What’s Braveheart got to do with it?

The referendum will take place in 2014, coinciding with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, where the Scots, under the leadership of Robert the Bruce, famously defeated English forces led by King Edward II. Interestingly, the strongest level of support appears to come from those Scots who came of age in the mid-1990s, when the film Braveheart popularized the Scottish struggle.

The move towards a referendum on Scottish independence raises one of the classic challenges of global politics: the problem of national sovereignty. The idea of national sovereignty links the concepts of state (the physical territory) and nation (the people who inhabit that territory and share a common sense of belonging). Within a country, the idea of legitimacy links the people and the state through the concept of sovereignty. The right of the state to exercise power, according to political thought since the Enlightenment, is rooted in the social contract. Since the end of World War II, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, the legitimacy of nondemocratic states has been strongly questioned.

The problem, of course, is at what level such popular consent takes place. The historical patterns of development has resulted in international legal boundaries between states which rarely correlate neatly with the common identity of those who inhabit those states. Indeed, it is relatively rare for the geographic boundaries of the political entity of the state and the cultural/ethnic entity of the nation to correlate much at all. Yet the tidy nation-state represents the ideal type of international relations.

Far more common are multinational states, countries in which multiple nations often compete for control of the state. Nigeria is perhaps the most well-known example. There, more than 250 ethnic groups—the three largest of which comprise about two-thirds of the population—compete for power. One of the most important legacies of colonialism in Africa was the creation of lasting political boundaries that bare little correlation to the politics on the ground, often undermining the sovereignty and legitimacy of the post-colonial state.

The status of the United Kingdom is similarly complicated by its history. There, four distinct “countries” are united. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland exist as “countries within a country.” Over the past twenty years, political authority has increasingly devolved from the unitary state. Political power has been decentralized away from London and towards regional governments. Independence in Scotland would represent a dramatic culmination of that (admittedly much slower) historical trend.

And other groups might be watching. Around the world, there are countless groups who identify themselves as stateless nations. The Palestinians are perhaps the most well-known, but others include the Basques in Spain, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Uighurs in China, the Hmong in Southeast Asia, and the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey

What do you think: Should Scotland declare independence? What would the political, economic, and social implications of such a move likely be? And how would Scottish independence affect the claims of other nationalist groups seeking independence, such as the Basques, Tamils, or Kurds? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

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The Politics of States and Nations

Members of the Somali Parliament Meet at the Mogadishu Airport.

Members of the Somali Parliament Meet at the Mogadishu Airport.

Monday marked the first official meeting of the Somali Parliament in more than two decades. The new parliament replaces the internationally-backed transition government, which had been forced to meet in neighboring Kenya due to political unrest in Somalia. The new parliament is not necessary a democratic institution. Its members were selected by clan chiefs and tribal leaders under rules laid out by international observers. It is hoped that the new institution will be more stable and less vulnerable to corruption than previous governments.

The status of the Somali government does raise some interesting questions, illustrating the challenges of understanding states, nations, governments, and sovereignty in global politics. Recall that in international relations, a state is normally defined as a territorial entity with both a population and a government. Ideally, that government should possess sovereign control (supreme decision making authority) and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within that physical territory. Canada, the United States, and China are all examples. Each has a government capable of making legitimate and binding decisions for a population in a given territory.

However, in many cases, the ability of the state to make such decisions becomes less clear. In the case of Somalia, for example, the internationally-recognized government was not even able to operate within the boundaries of the country. Its authority was contested by warlords and pirates, who claimed supremacy over specific regions of the country. Even today, the reach of the Somali government is largely confined to the capital, Mogadishu, and the ability of the government to enforce its decisions is contingent on the African Union peacekeeping forces in the country.

This illustrates the contested nature of sovereignty in global politics. While the formal defining of sovereignty is easy to state in theory, its application in practice becomes much less clear.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Somali government is able to meet in Somalia at all is a clear indication of progress. For too long, the country has effectively been lawless, leading to domestic conflict between warlords and international tensions as pirates attack international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden.

Nations, States, and the Independence of South Sudan

Celebrations marked the birth of South Sudan in Juba, the new country's capital.

South Sudan became an independent state today, six months after its people voted in a referendum to break away from Sudan and form their own country. You can watch videos of the festivities here.  The north and the south have fought two civil wars in Sudan, with the latest (ended by a peace agreement in 2005) claiming over two million lives. The international recognition of South Sudan will confer upon its government juridical (legal) sovereignty–the recognized right to rule within a defined territory without external interference. But empirical (actual) sovereignty is something different–the government’s ability to control its territory and maintain independence from outside interference.  Often a government possesses juridical but not empirical sovereignty (consider Pakistan’s inability to control its tribal areas) or empirical sovereignty without international recognition (Taiwan).  It appears that South Sudan may have a shot at both types of sovereignty, although there remain internal ethnic divides and unresolved disputes with Sudan over the south’s oil resources and territorial boundaries in the regions of Abyei and South Kordofan that could tempt the north to intervene and undermine South Sudan’s sovereignty.

With the independence of South Sudan from the Republic of Sudan, both countries become closer to meeting the ideal of a “nation-state” than they were before.  The north is predominantly Arab and Muslim, whereas the south is black, Christian, and Animist.  Reflecting the sentiment of many in South Sudan, a man celebrating the country’s birth carried a hand-painted sign that read “From today our identity is southern and African, not Arabic and Muslim.” Political scientists use the term nation to describe a group of people who have a common identity.  Usually this group shares a history and such characteristics as culture, religion, and language, but the common identity–a sense of “we-ness”–is the most important attribute.  In contrast, the term state refers to a political entity (a government) that controls a defined territory and population.  Many states are actually multinational (Sudan before the south broke away would definitely qualify), and frequently nations are split between several states.  This is particularly common in Africa, where imperial powers created boundaries based on their colonial interests rather than the realities of where ethnic and tribal groups lived.  Nation-states only exist where the nation and the state coincide (examples would include Japan and Egypt), and these are the exception rather than the rule worldwide.  Of course, a mismatch between political boundaries and ethnic or cultural boundaries is a frequent cause of conflict.  In the case of Sudan, the Arab and Muslim north’s political and economic domination of the south reinforced the these identity boundaries and helped to produce today’s new political and territorial boundaries. Financial Times blogger Gideon Rachman suggests that this redrawing of boundaries could even be the wave of the future:

“A peaceful partition would also obviously have implications for the rest of Africa. It is a commonplace that many of the borders inherited from the colonial era make little sense. But there is understandable anxiety about the potential for conflict, if African borders start being withdrawn. If the division of Sudan demonstrates that this can be more or less peacefully, it may not be that long before the world has 200 states.”

Cell Phones and the Developmental State

Cell Phone Use in Africa

Image Courtesy Further and Faster (http://paab.typepad.com/furtherandfaster/digital/)

Foreign Policy often has some phenomenon reporting. One of the most recent stories starts off with a thought provoking question. “What percentage of cell phone accounts are in developing countries?”

A) 25%
B) 50%
C) 75%

The answer? C) 75%. That’s right. By 2009, 3 billion of the world’s 4 billion cell phone subscriptions were in the developing world. The reasons should be clear. Cell phones provide ready access to the rest of the world, allowing farmers to learn about forecasted weather conditions, allowing producers to access global markets to determine prices, and allowing families spread across the rural-urban divide to communicate readily. They go some way to leveling the information asymmetries that are a prime market failure, especially in the developing world. Cell phones may not be the panacea for economic development in the global south, but they certainly help rural residents to level the playing field.

The challenge, of course, is that the dramatic expansion of cell phone usage int eh global south is predicated on the failure of the state to deliver on the expansion of infrastructure to the rural communities of the global south. Like the much heralded solar power revolution in rural Africa, the proliferation of cell phones simultaneously represents both the empowerment of some rural residents in the global south and the abandonment of others. If the government is no longer responsible for ensuring access to infrastructure, some in the global south will never have access. Cell phones help to address this imbalance, but cannot overcome it.

The Politics of Nationalism and Identity

A fascinating discussion on the politics of citizenship in Africa is taking place on the SSRC’s African Arguments blog. As described by Sebastian Kohn,

Millions of people in Africa are stateless. Some because their births were never recorded, others because they belong to the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. Civil conflicts in Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and numerous other countries have been fuelled if not created by pernicious citizenship policies that sever the link between certain parts of the population and the state. The politics of statelessness and citizenship discrimination in Africa are complex and potentially explosive.

While certainly important in the context of the struggle for political power and resources, this debate is certainly not unique to the African continent. The French government is currently in the midst of a three-month series of meetings to “reaffirm the values of national identity and pride in being French.” The discussions were prompted by the rise of the far-right French nationalists, who objected to the increasing multiculturalism of French society.

Citizenship (and national identity more generally) has long been a contested political concept. Identity politics can be used in a progressive, inclusive sense. But far more often identity politics are used to exclude certain members of the polity from participating in the body politic. In the context of post-colonial Africa, this is particularly problematic because the borders of state [glossary] and nation [glossary] bear little historical connection to the actual on the ground identities of the people. The creation of artificial states as a result of colonialism has been a problem recognized since the early days of African independence. Indeed, many of Africa’s most celebrated leaders—Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, to name but a few—rose to prominence preaching a message of inclusion. For them, the only solution to the divisions created by colonialism was to establish a new, Pan-African political identity, essentially transcending the political divisions of statehood to create a unified African community.

This vision never materialized. Instead, the politics of identity came to be characterized by exclusion and hierarchy, frequently motivating political violence: Hutus vs. Tutsis in Rwanda, Yoruba vs. Igbo in Nigeria, Xhosas vs. Zulus in South Africa, Shona vs. Ndebele in Zimbabwe, and so on. But rethinking the nature of citizenship and constructing a politics of inclusiveness may represent an important step towards national reconciliation and development. The Truth and Reconcilliation Commission in South Africa sought to address the injustices of apartheid by brining the violence of the apartheid system to public light. Similarly, efforts at national reconciliation following the Rwandan genocide centered on overcoming the divisive politics of ethnicity that characterized the genocide.

Contributing to the discussion on the African Arguments blog, Bronwen Manby offers a powerful conclusion, describing citizenship as “the most important right of all.”  Manby writing,

“Give us our identity cards and we hand over our Kalashnikovs”, said the leader of the rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire. Those who have never been deprived of official papers may find it hard to imagine the powerlessness that results: powerlessness that can and does lead people to take up arms. Even in the poorest countries, a passport or identity card does not just provide the right to travel, but forms the basis of the right to almost everything else.

Volcano Monitoring and Climate Change Negotiations

A couple of days ago, Paul Krugman took Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to task on his response to President Barack Obama’s Tuesday night speech.  In his response, Jindal criticized the government for its wasteful spending, highlighting two examples: $140 million spent on volcano monitoring and $8 billion for high speed rail projects, including a magnetic levitation line from Las Vegas to Disneyland. Setting aside the accuracy of the claims regarding the two projects (people on both sides of the debate have challenged both the figures and the accuracy of the description of the two projects), Jindal’s criticism does point to an interesting and important questions.  What should the government be doing?

This simple question is at the heart of the political and philosophical divide between conservatives and progressives in American politics.  Conservatives echo Jindal’s sentiment that, “The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens” (which itself is a refrain of President Ronald Reagan’s famous statement, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”)  Progressives argue that government should play an active role in ensuring all Americans enjoy certain basic and fundamental rights, including livelihood.

Beyond these philosophical differences, however, Krugman rightly points out that historically conservatives and progressives agreed that the government also had a role in addressing collective goods problems.  Collective goods are characterized by two important features which differentiate them from other goods.  They are non-rivalrous and non-exclusive.  Non-rivalry means that one person’s use of the good does not diminish another person’s ability to use that same good.  Non-exclusivity means that it is not possible to prevent people who have not paid for that good from benefitting from the provision of that good.  The classic example of a collective good in international relations is national defense.  Because of these two characteristics, the private market generally under-produces collective goods.  Both progressives and conservatives thus agree that the state should provide for public goods like national defense.

Here’s the problem, though.  Volcano monitoring is clearly an example of a public good.  We have a collective interest in ensuring that communities living near volcanoes have sufficient warning in the event of an eruption.  And clearly the market will tend to under-produce volcano monitoring, as it exhibits the characteristics of a collective good: one person knowing about a forthcoming eruption does not prevent others from having the same knowledge, and it is not practical to warn only those who have contributed to the volcano monitoring of a forthcoming eruption. High speed rail may be a bit more complicated, but most rail networks rely to a greater or lesser extent on public financing, primarily because of the nature of rail transit itself (lending itself to monopolistic characteristics). 

At the international level, though the problem is even more difficult.  At the domestic level, we can look to the state to provide collective goods—assuming, of course, that we can agree on what they are.  At the international level, there is no overarching authority to look to.  The nature of the international system thus makes collective goods even more difficult to provide.  Indeed, historically the provision of collective goods at the international level has tended to rely on the goodwill and desires of a particularly powerful state (e.g., through hegemonic stability theory), or through difficult and convoluted negotiations around national interests.  The lack of a higher authority with the ability to enforce its decisions means that states (behaving rationally) would hope to free ride on the goodwill and generosity of others.  But if all states do that, the collective good will be under-provided.

And thus the difficulty of international negotiations.  The problem of global climate change exhibits many of the characteristics of a collective good.  Yet states have incredible difficulty in reaching consensus on developing a framework to address the problem of climate change.  International negotiations underway this year are intended to develop a post-Kyoto framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.  The likelihood of success will depend on the degree to which states can address the collective good dilemma that characterize talks in this area.  And if progressives and conservatives in the United States can’t agree that volcano monitoring is a collective good, I’m afraid that any real agreement at the global level around the issue of climate change may prove even more elusive.

You can see Barack Obama’s speech on the MSNBC website .  A transcript is available at the official White House website.  The video of Bobby’s Jinal’s response as well as the transcript of his speech  are both available at his official website.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The big news this week was John McCain’s surprise choice for running mate choice: Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska.  There were many developments outside the United States and its presidential race, however.  Here are a five important stories you might have missed:

1. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called for new elections, which will take place on October 14.  Harper’s Conservative Party has ruled Canada as a minority government since February 2006.  The election is expected to be closely contested, as the Liberal Party, under the leadership of Stéphane Dion, mount their challenge.  With Canada’s economy tittering on the brink of recession, the economy figures to be the central issue of the campaign.  The outcome of the election may also signal a fundamental shift in Canadian politics, as the Bloc Quebecois appears to be losing its regional support in Quebec, creating the possibility of a Conservative majority in the national legislature.

2. There were two important developments in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute last week.  On Wednesday, the Palestinian Strategy Study Group released a report which indicated that Palestinians may be willing to endorse a bi-national state with Israel should the U.S.-backed two-state solution fail.  The proposal would mark a dramatic change in the structure and intended goal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.  In an unrelated development, Israeli President Shimon Peres on Friday called for direct talks between Israel and Syria to address outstanding issues.  The two countries been engaged in mediated indirect talks for a number of years, but relations between the two have generally been poor since 1947.  Normalization of relations between Syria and Israel would have to be a central component of any comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian question.

3. In a not-so-subtle confirmation of the flood of divestment from the country following the conflict over South Ossetia, the Russian central bank was forced on Thursday to intervene to support the rouble.  According to some estimates, as much as $21 billion in foreign currency has been withdrawn from Russia over the past several weeks, leading to a dramatic decline in the value of the rouble.  This represents the worst currency collapse for Russia since the 1998 crisis.  But despite the crisis, the Russian government still have the third largest currency reserve in the world—estimated at some $582 billion—thanks in large part to the dramatic increase in oil and natural gas prices over the past few years.

4. In Paksitan, Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party won Saturday’s presidential elections as expected.  Zardari, who is the widow of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, now faces a number of challenges: reinforcing the fledgling democracy amidst growing political and economic instability, normalizing relations with the west in the face of strong opposition in key regions of the country, and establishing a stronger degree of national unity while addressing growing violence within Pakistan. 

5. Talks between Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and the ruling ZANU-PF suffered their most serious setback to date last week.  The MDC announced it had lost faith in negotiations intended to bring about a power sharing agreement, accusing South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is mediating the negotiations, of trying to force through a deal which would see ZANU-PF’s Robert Mugabe retain political power.  The MDC also refuses to sign an agreement under which Mugabe would retain control of the country’s security forces, which they contend have been used for the political gain of the ruling party.