There's a secessionist fever sweeping the globe Novelist Carlos Fuentes reports hearing people say, "In Mexico there are 90 million people. If we were only 30 million, we would already be a First World Country."


WASHINGTON -- As the president of the world's most powerful nation visits the world's most populous nation, note that the future is being defined by disintegrative forces worldwide.

In Europe in 1500 there were approximately 500 political entities. By the beginning of the 19th century there were a few dozen. The unifications of Italy and Germany further reduced the number. By 1920 Europe had 23 states with 18,000 kilometers of borders. But by 1994 it had 50 states and 40,000 kilometers of borders. In the four decades after 1945, U.N. membership tripled.

War's role

These figures lead Pascal Boniface, a French scholar, to say we live in "the secessionist age," in which secession -- Kosovo is just the instance du jour -- is the principal threat to peace. Writing on "The Proliferation of States" in The Washington Quarterly, Mr. Boniface argues that whereas war used to be the hammer that pounded nations -- including this one -- together, now war often is an instrument for dismantlement.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the divorce of the Czech Republic from Slovakia, exemplify various forms of contemporary fissuring. Mr. Boniface sees the potential for further fracturing of nations almost everywhere, from Yemen to Iraq (which "seems to be living under a stay of execution, with a Sunni area around Baghdad, a Shi'i zone in the south and a Kurdish one in the north"). In Indonesia, some of the 180 million people from 500 tribal groups spread over 18,000 islands are apt to aspire to constitute the next Hong Kong or Singapore -- a small, independent economic prodigy. Indian Sikhs on the border with Pakistan seek an independent Khalistan.

Much splintering is ascribed to the recrudescence, in the post-Cold War thaw, of religious and ethnic impulses. Karl Marx and others wrongly argued that such impulses were preindustrial forces that lost their salience and were supplanted by economic motives in the industrial era. But if Mr. Boniface is right, it may be time to revive respect for economic interpretations of historic changes.

He argues that one reason for the proliferation of nations is the pursuit of prosperity through miniaturization. "Prosperity has dethroned power as the primary concern of states." So "when a cultural or ethnic group decides that it is the principal generator of wealth in a larger nation or federation, a secessionist movement is just a press release away."

North vs. south

As "the arms race has given way to a prosperity race," the Lombard League has risen in the north of Italy to express resentment of unity with the backward south. Mexico's north resents the south. (Novelist Carlos Fuentes reports hearing people say, "In Mexico there are 90 million people. If we were only 30 million we would already be a First World Country.") In Spain, regional nationalism is strongest in the Basque and Catalan regions, the two wealthiest. South Korea's ardor for reunification of the peninsula has cooled since Germany has counted the costs of its reunification.

America's march to true nationhood was halting, in part because of economic rivalries among regions. In his new book, "A History of the American People," Paul Johnson notes that the word "nation," which some Southerners found objectionable, does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, and even Chief Justice John Marshall, the supreme nationalizer, used the world gingerly: "America has chosen to be, in many respects and for many purposes, a nation."

Early in the 19th century, during debates on the building of the National Road, Sen. William Smith of -- where else? -- South Carolina objected to "this insidious word" which was, he said, inimical to "the origins and theory of our government" as a confederation of sovereign states. It took roads -- and canals, railroads, the postal service, and especially the New Deal's redistribution of wealth toward the South -- to provide the economic prerequisite of national unity.

Which China should note, given the huge and growing disparities between its booming coastal and lagging interior regions. "What makes China susceptible to fracturing is economic diversification," writes Mr. Boniface. "The rich in China are no more likely to want to support the poor than the rich anywhere else."

Mr. Boniface believes that era of territorial acquisition by conquest has been followed by an era of territorial "unloading" -- "a rush to become smaller in the hope of being able to pass through the eye of the needle leading toward greater wealth." In light of the worldwide waxing of centrifugal forces, America's unique combination of vast size and equitably distributed prosperity makes American pre-eminence seem even more likely to be prolonged.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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