Halfway to Secession: Unity on Foreign Policy, Disunity on Domestic Policy

When it comes to talk about secession, the strategy employed by most Washington politicians is to shrug it off, claim it’s all the plotting of extremists, and retreat to the comfort of the idea that the elites control high-ranking military officers at the Pentagon. In their minds, it will always be easy to bomb disobedient Americans into submission.

As far as long-term thinking goes, these people are kidding themselves. These are the same sorts of people who assured us in 1980 that the Soviet Union would be around for centuries more. They’re the sorts of people who in 1900 assumed the Habsburgs would reign in Vienna for another five hundred years.

In the short term, however—”short term” meaning the next ten to twenty years—the critics of secession are almost certainly correct. The US regime will have to weaken considerably from its current state before any member state or region could hope to achieve full independence. 

It’s also hard to see—at this time—why much of the population would demand full independence and sovereignty at all. After all, as much as “red state America” and “blue state America” may be in conflict over policy and the extent of US power domestically, the fact is disagreements over foreign policy are quite muted. Consequently, this means a formal separation of the US into two or more fully sovereign and separate states would strike many Americans as unnecessary and undesirable.

In the larger debate over secession, this is an important issue. In recent years, talk of secession has become more frequent and more urgent. For years, a quarter of Americans polled have claimed to support the idea of secession. In 2018, a Zogby poll concluded 39 percent of those polled agree that residents of a state should “have the final say” as to whether or not that state remains part of the United States. 

Do the Needs of Geopolitics Preclude Secession? 

But if the idea of secession continues to be repeated among a growing number of Americans—as appears likely—expect more serious opposition to the idea on foreign policy grounds. The claim will be that secession must be rejected because this would make the United States likely to fall prey to foreign powers—especially China and Russia—and independence may even lead the new states to make war on each other. 

As we shall see, these claims are not especially plausible. But they will nonetheless strike many Americans as convincing. Therefore, opposition to secession on foreign policy grounds is likely to serve as a useful objection to secession—as far as the regime is concerned—for years to come.

Unity on Foreign Policy, Disunity on Domestic Policy

When it comes to self-determination and the protection of human rights through local control, the ideal solution lies in radical decentralization. This would mean a sizable number of fully independent entities in place of the old immense, unified American regime.

However, practical considerations do not always lend themselves to this solution in the short term. Like the abolitionists of old, decentralists and localists can look to the ideal while nonetheless accepting partial victories.

Although some pundits like Rush Limbaugh are now claiming the United States is leaning in the direction of secession, Americans likely still have a long way to go before deciding to break their polity up into truly sovereign new nations. For now, an in-between state of domestic disunity and foreign policy unity is more likely.

Here’s why: the culture war raging over BLM, Obamacare, covid lockdowns, gun control, and abortion are overwhelmingly based on disagreements over domestic policies. Yes, the Trump coalition certainly has been unenthusiastic about new wars, but virtually no one among Trump’s core constituents raised any opposition when Trump pushed for huge increases to the Pentagon’s budget. Indeed, Trump and his supporters appeared to favor more aggressive policy against China. At the same time, the center left and the Democrats—as became clear under Obama—have no interest in scaling back US militarism.

Thus, even when national political unity becomes too costly for the Washington elites to maintain—perhaps through a continued cycle of riots and state-level opposition to federal power—the dissenters can simply be placated with decentralization of domestic policy. Meanwhile, the government in Washington would (regrettably) remain firmly in control of foreign policy, and likely even over the US domestic surveillance state. This strategy is likely to work to pacify much of the public for a period of years, if not decades. 

As F.H. Buckley suggests in his book American Secession, under a plan like this, issues like abortion and gun control are simply be farmed out to states and localities, where residents could fight it out among themselves. Residents could also move to regions of the country that more reflect their particular political positions. The US security state, living above the fray of the internal conflicts over social policy, would continue to hold untrammeled power over the machinery behind wielding international power.

And there would be nothing at all unprecedented about this. History is replete with examples of unruly regions and ethnicities granted “self-rule” in exchange for ceding foreign policy to the central government. This was the case throughout much of the nineteenth century within the British Empire. It has been the case for countless difficult-to-unite populations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. States have made it abundantly clear on countless occasions that they’re willing to tolerate local autonomy for various domestic populations so long as the central government retains the preponderance of control over military and diplomatic affairs. This was the original intent of the United States: it was to be a group of autonomous states united only for purposes of foreign policy.

In terms of a political debate over foreign policy, a union of this sort does an end run around critics who are insistent that we must never challenge the status quo because anything that threatens the US regime will cause the Chinese regime to invade North America.

Under a regime of autonomous US states, the American state—as viewed by other global powers looking in—would not look fundamentally different. The nukes would still be where they always were. The navy won’t disappear.

Sovereign States, but Allies Too

But even if by some unexpected turn of events, the US broke up into independent states in every regard, this wouldn’t bring Chinese bombs raining down on Topeka. It is not at all a given that these independent states would shun the idea of mutual defense. In fact, experience suggests the opposite. This is apparent even to those who are not exactly entrenched advocates for secession. As noted by Eric Sammons at the conservative Crisis Magazine:

Foreign policy presents another challenge for an American secession movement. Secession opponents fear weakening American hegemony across the world. Would a divided America result in greater global influence for China or Russia? Would it lead to a possible invasion by those countries?

It’s impossible to say for sure, but there is no reason that a divided America could not remain a confederation of allies when it comes to military defense. An attack on any one new American nation-state could be considered an attack on all nation-states.

This observation that a NATO-like institution for North America could easily arise should be obvious to anyone who’s noticed that countries with similar backgrounds—think Canada, the USA, Australia, and the UK—have been generally united on foreign policy for well over a century now.

In spite of this, it’s not uncommon to hear claims that neighboring states are all poised to go to war with each other at any given moment. This, we are told, could be the natural outcome if the United States allows any portion of the nation to become independent. We’re supposed to believe war will almost immediately break out. These antisecessionists often point to examples like the Yugoslav wars and claim ethnic cleansing is on the horizon. But North America isn’t southeastern Europe. In the case of North America, we’d be dealing with countries that share a common language, a high standard of living—and thus much to lose from a war—and have deep and extensive trade relations. 

Moreover, if one is going to claim that two nations with such similar backgrounds are bound to go to war, one will need to explain why Canada has been at peace with the United States for 205 years. Conceivably, one might claim this is only because Canada was too small to challenge the US. But this ignores the fact that Canadian foreign policy was set by Britain—a world power and peer of the US—until 1931. Yet, in all those years after the War of 1812, during which the British state shared both extensive land and maritime borders with the US through British Canadian domains, London was apparently uninterested in any sizable conflicts with the US.

However, we’re expected to believe that if the United States were to break into smaller independent states, the “Blue States of America” is likely to welcome a Chinese invasion of Tampa Bay just to stick it to the red states. This may seem plausible to more hysterical anti-China Cold Warriors who seem to believe every left-of-center American is an agent of Beijing. But the Tampa Bay scenario is about as likely as Canada asking the People’s Liberation Army to invade Boston. 

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