Journal Article - Foreign Affairs

Separatism's Final Country

| July/August 2008


This essay was written in response to "Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism" by Jerry Z. Muller (Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008).

"Muller argues that ethnonationalism is the wave of the future and will result in more and more independent states, but this is not likely. One of the most destabilizing ideas throughout human history has been that every separately defined cultural unit should have its own state. Endless disruption and political introversion would follow an attempt to realize such a goal. Woodrow Wilson gave an impetus to further state creation when he argued for "national self-determination" as a means of preventing more nationalist conflict, which he believed was a cause of World War I.

The hope was that if the nations of the Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian empires could become independent states, they would not have to bring the great powers into their conflicts. But Wilson and his counterparts did not concede to each nation its own state. They grouped minorities together in Hungary, Italy, and Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union ultimately emerged as a veritable empire of nationalities. Economists rightly questioned whether tiny states with small labor forces and limited resources could become viable, particularly given the tariffs that their goods would face in international trade.

More important, the nationalist prospect was and remains hopelessly impractical. In the world today, there are 6,800 different dialects or languages that might gain political recognition as independent linguistic groups. Does anyone seriously suggest that the 200 or so existing states should each, on average, be cut into 34 pieces? The doctrine of national self-determination reaches its reductio ad absurdum at this point...."

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Rosecrance, Richard and Arthur Stein. Separatism's Final Country.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 87. no. 4. (July/August 2008):