Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Breaking Up Is Bad for the United States

| Nov. 18, 2021

Talk of secession is on the rise among Americans—and already weakening the country.

What is the United States' greatest advantage relative to other countries? Is it the country's large and still innovative economy? No doubt economic strength is important, but how did the U.S. economy get so big? Is it America's well-armed, well-trained, and far-flung military? Military power is obviously valuable, but what allows Washington to deploy these forces all over the world and worry relatively little about defending the homeland? Or is the secret ingredient the United States' array of allies? Guess again: Some U.S. allies add to its strength, others create more problems than they solve, and others are more like protectorates rather than meaningful additions to U.S. power.

In fact, America's unique advantage has been its status as the only great power in the Western Hemisphere—and thus, the only "regional hegemon" in modern political history. By expanding across North America, assimilating incoming immigrants, and maintaining high birth rates for many years, what were originally 13 weak and loosely connected colonies grew into the world's largest economy in little over a century. With no powerful rivals nearby, the United States also enjoyed a level of "free security" other great powers could only dream of.

The resulting combination of size, population, and economic might allowed the United States to create a vast military establishment, beginning when it mobilized for war in the late 1930s. At the same time, geographic isolation freed the United States from having to spend a lot of time and money defending its own soil. It also allowed the United States to enter the two World Wars later than anyone else and left its territory unscathed during those destructive global cataclysms. Distance helped make the United States an especially attractive ally during the Cold War: It was strong enough to help protect its distant partners but sufficiently far away that they didn’t worry the United States might try to subjugate them.

From this perspective, the Northern victory in the Civil War was a critical moment with far-reaching implications. Preserving the union enabled the country to complete its western expansion and eventually amass capabilities that dwarfed its neighbors. Had the South won the war and gained independence, the two resulting countries would each have been weaker and almost certainly remained wary rivals for many years. One can easily imagine the two states fighting again, and foreign powers would have meddled in hemispheric affairs by allying with either the North or the South or with Mexico and Canada. International politics in North and Central America would have become more like the multipolar continent of Europe, where rival great powers feared each other, competed for power and influence, and occasionally fought punishing wars.

I was reminded of all this when I read that Republican Sen. Ted Cruz told a group of students that Texas might have to secede (again) if Democrats tried to "destroy the country." Granted, Cruz is a grandstanding popinjay whose idea of political responsibility consists of flying off to vacation in Cancún while his constituents shiver through a brutal power outage. He may not have meant what he said, but he clearly thinks this kind of loose talk will rebound to his political advantage. It is also the height of cynicism for Cruz to warn about Democrats trying to pack the Supreme Court or "expand voter fraud" when it is the modern GOP doing everything in its power to disenfranchise voters and gerrymander its way into permanent minority rule....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Breaking Up Is Bad for the United States.” Foreign Policy, November 18, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt