LOS ANGELES — Should South Sudan’s Jan. 9 referendum for independence go smoothly, it is reasonable to ask why other troubled states don't dissolve themselves to avoid continuing ethnic or intra-national conflict?
Lost in history remains the profound fact that during the 20th century a number of countries did exactly that: Norway, Singapore, the Slovak and Czech Republics, former Soviet states are all products of partition.
So why not South Sudan? Indeed, why not let others emerge — Kashmir, Iraqi Kurdistan, a divided Belgium, Tibet, Israel and Palestine, Western Sahara and parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines?
Given the consequences of troubled unions, why not voluntary separation? Consider the fatal costs of civil wars to retain national unions: Biafra, 1 million or more. Chechnya, 200,000. Yugoslavia, 260,000. Kashmir, 60,000. Sri Lanka, 70,000 and so on. Can anything justify such consquences?
Like all divorce, state break ups generate downsides such as the loss of common infrastructure — ports, water works, power plants and roads. Enormous compensatory costs follow. But like a bad marriage, the economic benefits of state togetherness cannot compensate for the emotional pains and/or abuse and, too often, civil bloodshed.
A look at several lesser known state separations illustrates the benefits of letting go.
• Norway and Sweden. The 1814 union between Norway and Sweden following the latter’s shotgun invasion/union that generated parallel governments but with Swedish primacy in governance, language and quality of life issues. Management of foreign affairs broke the lynchpin. Agitation grew over the "consul affair": Norway wanted its own consular offices abroad to promote trade with the British isles and the European continent. Sweden demanded control over the foreign portfolio. Tensions boiled reflecting Norway’s angst as junior partner in this and other matters. Military expenditures directed at the other mounted. Norway increased fortifications. But war did not follow. Rather, negotiations spawned the mutual agreement to end the union in October 1905.
• Singapore and Malaysia. The story of the former British Crown Colony and its 1963 union with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak is much like many marriages that have, let’s say, questionable compatibility issues: The partners come with great aspirations and complementary needs but also baggage — different temperaments and expectations on issues of ethos, ethnicity and economy. Singapore sought a suitor to address the necessities of a very small city state: employment, trade and new industry. Neighboring Malaysia offered to fill the bill, but ultimately the two could not overcome the baggage. Bickering ensued over inequality in governance, racial discrimination and punitive economic tit for tat. It did not take long before these differences degenerated into passive aggressive behavior descending into communal riots that reflected and exacerbated tensions. Divorce came in 1961. In the Malaysia parliament the vote proved no contest: 126-0.
• The Czech and Slovak Republics. The creation of Czechoslovakia carved out of Austria-Hungary marked the realization of an intellectual dream. But the ambition foundered on the ethnic and economic fissures that divided Slovaks and Czechs evident in the First Slovak Republic in the Nazi era. The Soviet occupation papered over divisions that re-emerged with the communism’s fall opening the window for confederation or dissolution. 1992 marked the mutual preference for the latter.
Yes, each of these cases had a distinct dispute profile. But all countries survived break ups and prospered. South Sudan’s situation brings its unique complications and implications. The region already fought a civil war, in fact two conflicts. The country of Sudan — a shotgun marriage created at the end of the British colonial administration — never proved to be a credible match. The ethnic and religious differences between the Arab and Muslim North and the Christian, animist and ethnically distinct South proved too much.
In 1955, a year before independence, fighting broke out and lasted until 1972. Resuming a decade later it cost over 2 million lives before it ended in 2005 with agreement that the South would define its future this month. There is little doubt that the South will vote for separation.
Making South Sudan work will be challenging, likely more so than other state dissolutions. Governance, tribal divisions, infrastructure for heath and welfare requires dexterity and money in a land so poor. Fortunately the South will inherit large underdeveloped oil and mineral resources that could pave the way.
The capital of Juba — with a building and business boom of sorts — reflects the hopes. Still after the election new issues will pop up. Some oil fields straddle the North-South divide and will trouble the definition of the new country’s boundary. Only the North offers the outlet for oil export but the South controls the region’s watershed. The citizenship of different nationals residing on both sides of the dividing line may cause additional problems.
Nonetheless, examples of other successful state dissolutions give hope. And if South Sudan can do it right with its traumatic past, so should additional troubled lands. India/Kashmir, Israel/Palestine and other cases where internal disputes overwhelm bonds, take notice.
Bennett Ramberg has served a foreign policy analyst and/or consultant to the Department of State, U.S. Senate, Nuclear Control Institute, Henry Stimson Center, Global Green and Committee to Bridge the Gap.