The New World Disorder

Sunday, April 30, 2000

If the twentieth century might be called the century of totalitarianism, with a barbed-wire fence as its symbol, so the twenty-first century may one day be known as the century of the ministate, its emblem a mass grave pit surrounded by onlookers in breathing masks. Kosovo and East Timor are only the initial battles of subnational secessionist movements that will involve the United States and other Western democracies—because they care—in singular or U.N. occupation exercises, international peacekeeping, and relief programs, if not in actual warfare.

U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan has ensured the rise of the ministate with his confrontational declaration before the U.N. General Assembly that national borders are no longer inviolate when humanitarian concerns arise. As a headline in the London Independent summarized this position—"ANNAN: U.N. INTERVENTION 'EVERYWHERE OR NOWHERE.'"

The "Annan doctrine" implies that national sovereignty can no longer be considered as fixed forever. Governments must not, he warned, allow divisions within the Security Council to hinder legitimate intervention in places such as Rwanda and Kosovo. He said:

If states bent on criminal behavior know that frontiers are not an absolute defense, if they know that the Security Council will take action to halt crimes against humanity, then they will not embark on such a course of action in expectations of sovereign impunity. . . . Massive and systematic violations of human rights—wherever they may take place—should not be allowed to stand.

The Annan challenge to national sovereignty could mean an end to the international system as we have known it for two centuries.

The Totalitarian Century

What characterized the century of totalitarianism was that governments became the enemies of their own people. Professor Rudolph J. Rummel, a University of Hawaii political scientist, has been compiling statistics of mass murder and genocide by governments in modern times against their own peoples. His research has led him to the fearsome conclusion that twentieth-century dictatorial governments have killed more of their own people—three times as many—as have been killed in all civil and international wars put together. As of 1985, governments had killed 119,394,000 of their own citizens. The overwhelming majority of the victims (115,423,000) were killed by nonfree governments.

In the same period, the victims of all international and civil wars totaled 35,654,000. In other words, says Professor Rummel, "governments have killed more people in cold blood than in the heat of battle." And these figures are only approximations of the real numbers, which, he says, would probably be much higher.

The Ministate Century

Ministates are blossoming everywhere as never before, but as we have seen most recently in Kosovo and East Timor, these blooms may be lethal. There were fifty-one signatories to the United Nations charter in 1945. Today there are some 190 U.N. members, which doesn't include countries such as Taiwan that are not U.N. members. And more nations—some as breakaways from existing states—are born each year. Geographic area, economic viability, or size of the population are not consistent determinants of what constitutes a new nation.

What the new century will witness to a greater degree than ever before are challenges to national sovereignty occasioned by the rise and expansion of powerful subnationalisms. It is a different kind of patriotism, and its adherents will in some cases be prepared to forgo diplomatic negotiations in favor of violence, terrorism, abductions, assassinations, and blackmail. Not only is subnationalism rife—as seen most recently in the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia and the unpeaceful separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia—but we have a post–USSR subnationalism phenomenon: Witness the battles between Georgia and a rebellious Abkhazia. Within the Russian Republic alone we have claimants for sovereignty from Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatariya, and Vologda. If you haven't heard some of these names, you will when they come knocking on the door of the U.N. Security Council. And recall the war by a failed secessionist Biafra against Nigeria, which took a million lives by 1970, or the ongoing twelve-year war in Sri Lanka between the Tamils (onetime migrants from India) and the ruling Singhalese. India has its own secessionist problems: the question of Kashmir and the Sikh demand for an independent Khalistan. Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh bodyguards; her son was assassinated by Tamil nationalists.


Twentieth-century dictatorships killed more of their own people—three times as many—as were killed in all the century's civil and international wars put together.


Soon we'll be hearing the names of yet more subnational groupings—Assyria, Bashkortostan, Bougainville, Buryatia, Cabinda, East Turkestan, Karenni, Komyk, Mon, Nagaland, Ogoni, Scania, West Papua, Zanzibar. These are some of the thirty-five members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) headquartered in the Netherlands. Spokespersons for UNPO members say that the peoples they represent want out from a new kind of colonialism—new in the sense that the colonial masters are not Europeans but rather local governments that were themselves once colonies of Western powers.

Indonesia is the latest scene of such a challenge to sovereignty, a challenge that could mean the dissolution of the island archipelago as we have known it for a half-century. East Timor, its population largely Roman Catholic, was grabbed by Indonesia in 1975 when Portugal gave up that colony, and it's been hell for the Timorese ever since. And over in a Sumatran enclave called Acheh, a bloody rebellion against the government of Indonesia has been under way for three decades. Thousands of Achenese have been killed, tortured, or exiled. Even in the Moluccas, there is a still soft-spoken irridentist movement.

What kind of policy are the Western democracies to adopt in the face of these rebellions? Ignore national sovereignty in the artificial states created when colonial governments scrambled out of Africa and Asia—states such as Nigeria, the Congo, and Indonesia? Ignore the subnations within states that will not or cannot live together, as in Rwanda and Burundi? Should the U.N. Security Council, in the name of humanitarianism, support rebellious peoples of a future ministate against the wishes of the central government? Has every subnation a right to a state regardless, say, of economic viability? Does Tibet? Should distinctions be made between secessionist movements in democratic countries—Quebecois in Canada, Puerto Ricans in the United States, Laplanders in Finland, Basques in Spain, or Corsicans in France—and secessionist movements in nondemocratic countries like China, Burma, and Sudan?


If nationalism was the most powerful and destructive political force of the twentieth century, subnationalism threatens to be the bloodiest force of this century.


Perhaps the biggest potential secession crisis concerns the future of Taiwan. Even without a plebiscite, Taiwan is quite clearly a legitimate nation-state, regardless of Communist China's claims of sovereignty. Are we faced with a crisis for which there is no solution?

Redefinitions of sovereignty, legitimacy, nationalism, secessionism, and civil war are in order. These were redefined once before, during the "winds of change" era in Africa, when a colonized continent became a continent of independent states, in most cases peacefully—in some cases, like Algeria and Kenya, belligerently. In other words, new concepts of international law are essential if we wish to avoid global anarchy.

Alan Bullock, the British historian, once described nationalism as "a mass emotion [that] has been the most powerful political force in the history of the modern world." Today it's not nationalism, it's subnationalism.