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Secession and the invisible hand of the international system


This article argues that 1945 constitutes an historical inflection point from a period of state expansion to state contraction and that this transformation is primarily the result of changes at the international level. Just as security and economic pressures drove lead states to expand in earlier times, changing conditions in the post-1945 period led to a contraction in state size. The change from multipolarity, the development of the territorial integrity norm, the shift to nuclear deterrence, and the burgeoning global economy contributed to the milieu in which states evaluate the costs and benefits of holding territory, and this has enabled states to permit secession more frequently. The result has been an increase in the rate of peaceful secession and a corresponding proliferation in the number of sovereign states. I test this argument both qualitatively and quantitatively using original data on secessionist movements and internal administrative regions between 1816 and 2005.

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1 See Data section for a discussion of this definition.

2 Coggins, Bridget L., ‘Friends in High Places: International Politics and the Emergence of States from Secessionism’, International Organization, 65:3 (2011), pp. 433–68.

3 Calculations are based on a growth rate of just over two states a year, the rate between 1945 and 2011.

4 Downing, Bryan M., The Military Revolution and Political Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); Zacher, Mark W., ‘The Territorial Integrity Norm: International Boundaries and the Use of Force’, International Organization, 55:20 (2001), pp. 215–50; Hironaka, Ann, Neverending Wars: The International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005); Kalyvas, Stathis and Balcells, Laia, ‘International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the Cold War Shaped Internal Conflict’, American Political Science Review, 104:3 (2010), pp. 415–29; Atzili, Boaz, Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

5 For a recent contribution see Gartzke, Eric and Rohner, Dominic, ‘The Political Economy of Imperialism, Decolonization and Development’, British Journal of Political Science, 41:3 (2011), pp. 525–56.

6 Armitage, David, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 20.

7 Lake, Davd and O'Mahoney, Angela, ‘The Incredible Shrinking State: Explaining the Territorial Size of Countries’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 48:5 (2004), pp. 699722. Lake and O'Mahony do not include colonial possessions in their calculations (for example, Britain's only net change in size between 1815 and 2004 was the loss of Ireland in 1922). This reduces the size of states and locates the peak too early since most overseas possessions remained subordinate territories well into the twentieth century.

8 State data taken from Griffiths, Ryan and Butcher, Charles, ‘Introducing the International System(s) Dataset (ISD), 1816–2011’, International Interactions, 35:5 (2013).

9 Manela, Erez, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

10 Lieberman, Victor, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, 800–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

11 Tilly, Charles, ‘Reflections on the History of European State-Making’, in Tilly, Charles (ed.), The Formation of the Nation-States of Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975).

12 A number of scholars have developed models for why states expand, overextend, and then contract (Collins, Randall, ‘Prediction in Macrosociology: The Case of the Soviet Collapse’, American Journal of Sociology, 100:6 (1995), pp. 1552–93; Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Vintage Books, 1987). But these theories typically draw on a number of domestic and international factors to explain the path of a given state, not the entire set of states, or all the great powers. They lack a systemic theory for why states would be undergoing the expansion/contraction cycle at roughly the same time. Indeed, for Gilpin and Kennedy the expansion of one state typically coincides with the contraction of another.

13 Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, ‘The Political Economy of Secession’, Development Research Group, World Bank (23 December 2002); Hale, Henry, The Foundations of Ethnic Politics: Separatism of States and Nations in Eurasia and the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Nicholas Sambanis and Branko Milanovic, ‘Explaining the Demand for Sovereignty’, Development Research Group, World Bank (November 2011).

14 Bartkus, Viva Ona, The Dynamics of Secession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Studies, 1999); Sorens, Jason, Secessionism: Identity, Interest, and Strategy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012).

15 Beissinger, Mark R., Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

16 Roeder, Phil, Where Nation-States Come From (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

17 Shaw, Malcom N., ‘Peoples, Territorialism, and Boundaries’, European Journal of International Law, 8:3 (1997), pp. 478507; Buchanan, Allen, Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

18 Coggins, ‘Friends in High Places’.

19 Fabry, Mikulas, Recognizing States: International Society and the Establishment of New States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

20 There are feedback effects here insofar as metropolitan response is influenced by international law, just as secessionists try to anticipate the responses of both the state and the international community. Although my chief aim in this article is to examine the factors that shape state response, I also highlight the ways in which that response influences (and is influenced by) would-be secessionists and the international community.

21 I appropriated this phase from Roeder, Where Nation-States Come From, p. 344 who appropriated it from Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, p. 14.

22 Doyle, Michael W., Empires (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); Gartzke and Rohner, Political Economy of Imperialism.

23 For an overview see Alesina, Alberto and Spolaore, Enrico, ‘War, Peace, and the Size of Countries’, Journal of Public Economics, 89 (2005), pp. 1333–54.

24 Bartkus, Dynamics of secession; Toft, Monica, ‘Indivisible Territory, Geographic Concentration, and Ethnic War’, Security Studies, 12:2 (2002), pp. 82119; Walter, Barbara, Reputation and Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

25 Doyle, Empires, pp. 343–4. Waltz makes a similar argument, Waltz, Kenneth, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw Hill, 1979), pp. 190–1.

26 James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Little, Brown, and Company, 1994), pp. 202–3.

27 The difference between formal and informal relations turns on whether the subordinate party remains sovereign.

28 On the logic of Soviet informal empire, see Bunce, Valerie, ‘The Empire Strikes Back: The Evolution of the Eastern Bloc From a Russian Asset to a Soviet Liability’, International Organization, 39:1 (1985), pp. 146; Liberman, Peter, Does Conquest Pay? The Exploitation of Occupied Industrial Societies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

29 Parrott, Bruce, ‘Analyzing the Transformation of the Soviet Union in Comparative Perspective’, in Dawisha, Karen and Parrott, Bruce (eds), The End of Empire? The Transformatin of the USSR in Comparative Perspective (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997), p. 16.

30 Whether unipolarity should generate more or less secession than bipolarity is difficult to say. On the one hand, the United States has less incentive to see the emergence of states that are pro-Western. On the other hand, it has less incentive to prevent or delay the emergence of states that are not.

31 Zacher, Territorial Integrity Norm.

32 Fazal, Tanisha M., State Death: the Politics and Geography of Conquest, Occupation, and Annexation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). Fazal defines state death as the loss of sovereignty.

33 Atzili, Good Fences, Bad Neighbors, p. 22.

34 Fazal, State Death.

35 Bates, Robert H., Prosperity and Violence: The Political Economy of Development (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001), p. 75.

36 Herbst, Jeffrey, States and Power in Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 253.

37 Jackson, Robert H., ‘Juridical Statehood in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Journal of International Affairs, 46:1 (1992), pp. 116.

38 Fearon, James, ‘Separatist Wars, Partition, and World Order’, Security Studies, 13:4 (2004), pp. 394415.

39 Fabry, Recognizing States.

40 Herz, John, The Nation-State and the Crisis of World Politics (New York: McKay, 1976); Deudney, Daniel, ‘Nuclear Weapons and the Waning of the Real-State’, Daedalus, 124:2 (1995), pp. 209–32.

41 Liberman, Does Conquest Pay? pp. 123–5.

42 Clayton, Anthony, ‘Imperial Defense and Security, 1900–1968’, in Brown, Judith M. and Louis, Roger (eds), The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume IV (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 294.

43 Keohane, Robert and Nye, Joseph, Power and Interdependence (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1977); Lake, David, Entangling Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); Gartzke and Rohner, Political Economy of Imperialism.

44 Brooks, Stephen, ‘The Globalization of Production and the Changing Benefits of Conquest’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 43:5 (1999), pp. 646–70.

45 Kahler, Miles, ‘Empires, Neo-Empires, and Political Change: The British and French Experience’, in Dawisha, Karen and Parrott, Bruce (eds), The End of Empire? The Transformation of the USSR in Comparative Perspective (London: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), pp. 288.

46 Jervis, Robert, ‘Theories of War in an Era of Leading-Power Peace’, American Political Science Review, 96:1 (2002), pp. 114, 8.

47 Rosenau, James N, ‘Governance in a New Global Order’, in Held, David and McGrew, Anthony (eds), The Global Transformations Reader (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

48 The Economist, ‘Scotland's Eurodreams’ (21 April 2007).

49 Alfred, Cobban, The Nation-State and Self-Determination (London: Collins, 1969). Manela, The Wilsonian Moment.

50 Crawford, Neta C., Arguments and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Manela, The Wilsonian Moment.

51 Crawford, Argument and Change in World Politics, p. 350; Jackson, Robert, ‘The Weight of Ideas in Decolonization’, in Goldstein, Judith and Keohane, Robert O. (eds), Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions, and Political Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 131.

52 Jackson, ‘The Weight of Ideas in Decolonization’, p. 130.

53 Walter, Reputation and Civil War. For a similar argument see Toft, ‘Indivisible Territory’.

54 Spruyt, Hendrick, Ending Empire (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).

55 Carter, David B. and Goemans, H. E., ‘The Making of the Territorial Order: How Borders are Drawn’, International Organization, 65:2 (2011), pp. 275310.

56 Elbadawi, I. and Sambanis, Nicholas, ‘How Much War Will We See? Explaining the Prevalence of Civil War’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 46:3 (2002), pp. 307–34; Ravlo, Hilde, Gleditsch, Nils Petter, and Doruseen, Han, ‘Colonial War and the Democratic Peace’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 47:4 (2003), pp. 520–48; Goldsmith, Benjamin E. and He, Baogang, ‘Letting Go Without a Fight: Decolonization, Democracy, and War, 1900–94’, Journal of Peace Research, 45:5 (2008), pp. 587611.

57 Coggins, ‘Friends in High Places’. I expanded Coggins's time period to include cases between 1816 and 1931 and 2000 and 2005.

58 Coggins, ‘Friends in High Places’; Goldsmith and He, ‘Letting Go Without a Fight’. For a survey of definitions see Armitage, David, ‘Secession and Civil War’, in Doyle, Don H. (ed.), Secession as an International Phenomenon (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010), p. 30; Pavkovic, Aleksandar and Radan, Peter, Creating New States: Theory and Practice of Secession (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), pp. 67.

59 Fabry, Recognizing States, p. 13.

60 Jackson, ‘The Weight of Ideas in Decolonization’, p. 122.

61 Harbom, Lotta and Wallensteen, Peter, ‘Armed Conflict, 1946–2009’, Journal of Peace Research, 47:4 (2010), pp. 501–9.

62 Correlates of War Project, ‘State System Membership List, v2011.1’ (2011), available at: {}.

63 Finland was the first to declare at the end of the war, and Soviet disappointment over the Finnish choice to remain independent influenced the decision to deny all subsequent attempts over the next several decades (Nahaylo and Swoboda, Soviet Disunion, p. 21).

64 In keeping with the ISD list (Griffiths and Butcher 2013), as well as the list maintained by the Correlates of War Project, Russia is treated as one continuous state between 1816 and 2005. Thus, Russia is the rump state and successor of the Soviet Union.

65 In 1947, the United States formalized its existing control over the Pacific Trust Territories.

66 Hatton, Ragnhild M., ‘Russia and the Baltic’, in Hunczak, Taras (ed.), Russian Imperialism from Ivan the Great to the Revolution (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1974), p. 129.

67 Liberman, Does Conquest Pay?, p. 121.

68 Lake, Entangling Relations, p. 30.

69 Doyle, Empires; James, Rise and Fall of the British Empire.

70 There were no secessionist events in Israel or North Korea after their supposed first nuclear detonations.

71 Katherine Barbieri, Omar Keshk, and Brian Pollins, ‘Correlates of War Project Trade Data Set Codebook’, Version 2.0, available at: {}; Angus Maddison, ‘Historical Statistics of the World Economy: 1-2008 AD’, available at: {}. I adjusted the Maddison figures to current dollars using an inflation calculator put out by the US Department of Labor.

72 There is a moderate correlation between this and the democracy variable, but it falls within acceptable limits.

73 Marshall, Monty, Jaggers, Keith, and Gurr, Ted Robert, Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800–2009 (Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland, 2009).

74 For a related argument see Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization.

75 The average dropped state accounted for a little over two observations, with a modal value of 1.

76 Any state with more than ten observations or significant effects is listed in Table 1.

77 150 miles is one of the thresholds used by the COW dataset on Colonial possessions. See Colonial/Dependency Contiguity Data, 1816–2002. Version 3.0, available at: {}.

78 However, 60 per cent (130 out of 216) of the conflict cases also possessed an administrative unit, so having one is clearly not a sufficient condition. Since the variable perfectly predicts peaceful secession, I dropped it from the model rather than remove the 86 observations where conflict occurred in the absence of an administrative unit (a requirement to run the regression).

79 These include the 14 non-Russian Union Republics and Chechnya. The Russian Republic is treated as the rump state and successor to the Soviet Union.

80 Armitage, Declaration of Independence, p. 109.

81 Manela, The Wilsonian Moment, p. 5.

82 Herbst, States and Power in Africa; Fabry, Recognizing States.

83 Doyle, Empires.

* I thank the political science departments at Columbia University, the Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Sydney for funding my research. I would also like to thank Bridget Coggins, Alex Cooley, Michael Doyle, Tanisha Fazal, Graeme Gill, Elise Giuliano, Ben Goldsmith, Vsevolod Gunitskiy, Robert Jervis, Megan MacKenzie, Jack Snyder, and several anonymous reviewers for their useful comments and criticism.

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