Catalonia in the vanguard of an emerging structural problem for the international order

Catalonia in the vanguard of an emerging structural problem for the international order
Catalan independence protests grow, 21 Oct 2017. (Image: Screen grab of UK Mirror video)

There isn’t time tonight to develop this thought fully.  But I want to put a few markers down on it, as this evolving problem of insurgent nationalism isn’t going to go away.

The situation in Catalonia appears headed for the peak of a crisis in the coming days.  The Catalan parliament voted on Friday to declare independence, in defiance of an ultimatum from Madrid, and the Rajoy government stepped in immediately thereafter to dissolve the parliament, and impose “direct rule” from Madrid on the would-be break-away region.

David P. Goldman (“Spengler”) wrote an eloquent defense of the Catalonian position at PJ Media, and I have much sympathy for his points.  He emphasizes that Catalonia inherently has a language-based cultural coherence that “Spain,” as we know her today, does not.

Catalans have been unhappy under Spanish rule for centuries; their objections and resistance are not new.  Indeed, if you look at their history, Catalonia was thrust under Spanish rule (as we now conceive the meaning of that expression) mainly for the convenience of others.

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Goldman folds in the demographic implosion of larger Spain, with its fatally low birthrate, and asks why Catalonia should be tethered to it, in effect chained to a sinking ship.

These are valid issues and questions.  Along with the pervasive issues of migration policy and economic concerns, they militate against the Continent’s ongoing project of turning today’s status quo into a more perfectly unified Europe of tomorrow.

But there’s a danger in seeing this situation in the wrong dimensions.  Goldman frames the danger here, although without intending to:

Americans who cheered Britain for voting for Brexit and supported Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary for standing up to the European Community over mass Muslim immigration should support Catalan nationalists as well.

In each of the cases Goldman cites, the actor Americans supported was an existing nation-state.  And the policy Americans applauded was about asserting national sovereignty against the pressure of supranational collectivism.

That latter pressure is the difference that should make us think very hard about what we’re buying into with support for insurgent nationalist movements.

Brexit and the national assertions of sovereignty against migration quotas are defenses of the prerogatives of nation-states.  They’re about preferring those prerogatives, and the benefits they confer, over supranational collectivism.

The Catalans, of course, want to gain precisely those benefits for themselves.  I have tremendous sympathy for that.  One thing I think is certain is that a nation of Catalonia would take its place in an orderly fashion and not try to destabilize the neighborhood.  Catalonia, as a nation, would adopt all the Westphalian conventions we are familiar with.

But in the current case, Spain is the nation asserting its prerogative of sovereignty.

How easy should it be to break up an existing nation-state?  Although we’ve had foreshadowings of this moment – e.g., the Kosovar independence bid in the last decade – we haven’t really had a situation quite like this one.  The break-up of Yugoslavia was a break-up from multiple causes, and a comprehensive one, devolving into widespread fragmentation, because there had been no longstanding basis for national unity in the nation-of-convenience that was called “Yugoslavia.”  We can fully acknowledge the centuries-long push for Catalonian independence but still not say the same about “Spain.”

One reason these concerns matter is that there are other regional aspirants to independence in Europe.  Most subsist within the borders of an existing nation, and would at least not create cross-border problems like those posed by the Kurdish independence bid.  But if Catalonia were to achieve full independence as a sovereign nation, the precedent would have the strong potential to set off a chain reaction.

Don’t be so sure you want that reaction to be set off.  Besides the fact that it wouldn’t be confined to Europe, there is the fact that smaller nations make more territory less defensible – and change the power dynamic between nation-states and supranational collective bodies.

Depiction of independence movements across Europe. (Map credit: UK Guardian)

Which has more power and authority when relating to the European Union (or the other nations of Europe and the larger world): Spain, as she exists today, or a rump Spain and a separate Catalonia?  The answer is obvious.

I have made this point a number of times, but it bears repeating.  The modern nation-state is the bulwark of self-rule, individual liberty, and peaceful stability.  Smaller “nations” cannot stand against dominant ones, and certainly cannot stand against empires.  Tribes have no hope of even that.  Tribal organization is eyed with romantic illusion by many in our modern world, but it never enabled the liberty and latitude we think of as essential.  The freedom to innovate, create, disagree, and build good things requires protection, of a kind tribes cannot offer and empires disdain, solely because they can.  Only the nation-state is suited to protecting the kind of life we cherish.

Every break-up of an existing nation-state in Europe today will have the effect of increasing the power and political significance of the EU — or perhaps a hegemon that will emerge to dominate the power vacuum.  The nationhood of the EU’s members is not that important to the political agenda in Brussels; in fact, a loss of meaning for the members’ nationhood would carry benefits for that agenda.

Over time, meanwhile, there can be no guarantee of which nations an independent Catalonia would develop relationships with, and what kinds of things would be ushered into the Catalonian ports and countryside.  Spain and France (or others) might or might not be happy with that.  Although I doubt that Catalonia’s choices in this regard would be particularly alarming, the issue itself must be considered by Catalonia’s neighbors.

But again, this isn’t the break-up of Yugoslavia.  It’s not the amicable parting of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  Nor is it the Brexit decision, which is about UK national sovereignty as against an EU program of anti-sovereignty.

Catalonia is sui generis in terms of the larger question it implies about what Europe will turn into.  America certainly has to watch with concern, since Europe hosts our key network of Western alliances.  Because of what Europe is, and has been for the last century and more, the United States is able to preserve our Atlantic Ocean bastion less through military vigilance than through diplomacy and mutually beneficial engagement.

If “what Europe is” changes significantly – e.g., into a pastiche of smaller, less defensible nations, with their nationhood predicated less on defensibility – the underpinnings of American security will be in question.  The anchor nations of Europe today are too big and well established to be easily picked off one by one.  But what if that were to change?

That’s not only an issue of the map and geomilitary calculations.  It’s also about principle.  Can a line be drawn on what constitutes a compelling reason to break up a nation that has existed within its current borders for decades or even centuries, as opposed to a non-compelling reason?  There are other important questions of principle that have no easy answers.

There is not a nation in existence today that has not come to be by having territory added to it in a way that some people or factions continue to resent, no matter how long it’s been since the deed was done.  In light of the demographic trends David Goldman discusses, we can expect to see more restiveness about national borders in the decades to come.  It is not obvious what we should do about these developments.

With tremendous sympathy for the Catalans, as well as the Kurds, I urge caution, on principle, in tossing aside existing national borders.  The relative stability Europe has had since World War II is an aberration in the life of nations, not a common condition – and prioritizing respect for defensible nation-states with recognized borders has played an indispensable role in it.  We should not dismiss the principle lightly.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.