Self-Determination and U.S. Choices

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Author: Will Todman is an associate fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

The United States government can neither engender new states nor prevent them from coming into being, but it does possess a range of policy tools to influence the trajectory of new or aspiring states. While U.S. history creates a certain amount of empathy for self-determination groups, as a general rule the U.S. government views most independence movements skeptically. This is appropriate, in part because few such movements are viable. Economies are small or fragile (or both), the cause enjoys limited internal support, or the forces arrayed against it are too massive. 

In addition, the United States is tied diplomatically to some 190 countries around the world, and it usually privileges intergovernmental ties over those with non-governmental groups. Supporting secession not only would threaten U.S. relations with countries fighting U.S.-backed movements, but also other countries that feared that the United States might come to support secessionists elsewhere. For the United States, some sort of decentralization or autonomy arrangement is often a less costly option. It is also more agreeable to partner governments and reduces the risk of regional instability. However, exceptions can occur when secessionist movements take root in countries where the United States has more difficult relations, or where repression of minority groups or some other humanitarian factor weighs heavily on the scale.
This is a chapter in Independence Movements and Their Aftermath. Please click here for more.

Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program