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date: 18 August 2017

Secession and Recognition in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

There are few questions more interesting and more important for the international community than the issue of how new states are created and accepted into the wider global system through the process of recognition. While there are thousands of ethnic groups around the world, there are just 193 member states of the United Nations. And yet, for many years, the foreign policy aspects of secession and the recognition of seceding territories have received relatively little attention by scholars in the field of politics and international relations. This was largely because the subject was seen to be a marginal interest. Few territories managed to stage a credible attempt at secession. Almost none managed to gain widespread acceptance. However, over the past decade, there has been a significant growth in the attention given to secession and recognition in international relations. This has been particularly apparent since Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, in 2008, and because of heightened secessionist tensions in the former Soviet Union.

To date, the question of de facto states—territories that are unrecognized or partially recognized—has been at the heart of studies into secession and recognition in the field of politics and international relations. Attention in this area has tended to focus on the nature, structure, and international interaction of unrecognized territories. However, the scope of research is now widening. As well as interest in the historical development of attitudes towards secession and recognition practices, scholars are now looking at the way in which parent states—as the territories they have broken away from are generally known—attempt to prevent de facto states from being recognized or otherwise legitimized by the international community. Meanwhile, increasing attention is also being given to the role of external parties, such as great powers, as well as to the efforts of secessionist territories themselves to find ways to encourage recognition, or at least to participate more widely in the international system. Therefore, while the community of scholars working in the field of secession and recognition is still relatively small, the subject itself is undergoing rapid growth.

Keywords: foreign policy, international law, secession, statehood, recognition, de facto states

Secession and Recognition in International Relations

Secession is an issue of increasing interest in the field of international relations. The growing number of territories actively seeking to break away from an established state has seen a rise in the number of politics and international relations scholars working on the subject. In foreign policy terms, the most important question relating to secession is the topic of the recognition of states. This field—which must be differentiated from the related, but nevertheless separate, subject of the recognition of governments (see Lauterpacht, 1947; Patel, 1959, Talmon, 1998)—refers to the ways in which states choose to accept new entrants into the international system.

As O’Brien and Goebel (1965) showed, recognition can be extended in a wide range of ways. In addition to the various forms of bilateral recognition, which tend to predominate, there are a variety of other modes and methods of recognition. These include recognition by conference, where states come together to create a new state, and collective recognition, which involves groups of states acting together to announce their joint acceptance of a new state. While the subject of recognition is gaining increasing interest in the field, relatively little work has been done on these various methods of recognition from an international relations perspective. Why do states choose the methods that they do to recognize? How are recognition decisions made? What are the various constitutional models for extending recognition (government, parliament, head of state, etc.)? Like so much else in this expanding field, there is plenty of scope to develop new research agendas in this area.

Traditionally, and with relatively few and notable exceptions (Heraclides, 1990), the question of secession and the recognition of states as a foreign policy issue has been dominated by scholars working in the field of international law. Indeed, until fairly recently, remarkably few academics working in the fields of politics and international relations engaged with the subject. This lack of interest appears to have been shaped by several factors. In part, it appears to be because the subject seemed to be rather sterile and lacking in any real wider relevance. Following the end of the Second World War, the international community sought to reject any attempt by territories to break away without the explicit permission of their parent state. Throughout much of the Cold War, therefore, it was taken as a given that unilateral acts of secession were ultimately destined to failure. The almost complete absence of any successful act of unilateral secession appeared to make the subject of secession and recognition a relatively uninteresting subject of investigation for most IR scholars. It certainly held little interest in foreign policy analysis.

At the same time, the particular way in which the subject of secession and recognition was framed by international law scholars came to be seen as rather pointless by many scholars. This was largely because of a very particular debate that emerged over the very nature of statehood and the role played by recognition. On the one hand, the declaratory school of thought (see Chen, 1951) argued that statehood was not dependent on recognition. A state exists when it is able to meet the basic criteria of a defined territory: a settled population, effective governance, and the ability to enter into international relations. In contrast, the constitutive school of thought argued that recognition is a vitally important part of statehood. A state cannot truly exist unless it is recognized by its peers as such. In the end, the declaratory school of thinking came to dominate legal thinking. While some scholars (Lauterpacht, 1947), certainly took a more constitutive view of recognition, the vast majority accepted that the conditions of statehood were ultimately more significant than recognition. As a result, recognition came to be seen to be largely irrelevant in the discussions over secession. This appeared to further alienate IR scholars from the wider subject of secession and recognition. Indeed, even in international law, the subject of secession and recognition came to be seen as rather marginal. Consequently, the number of works on the subject of recognition declined. While recognition may have been a hot topic in the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s, by the 1970s, when the process of decolonization was over, it appeared to have all but ceased to be a major subject of interest. Few new works appeared in the field. One notable exception was Dugard’s (1987) study on recognition and the United Nations. An essay by Brownlie (1983) neatly summed up the way in which the field had become obsessed with issues that had little bearing in the real world. As he memorably put it:

In the case of “Recognition,” theory has not only failed to enhance the subject but has created a tertium quid which stands, like a bank of fog on a still day, between the observer and the contours of the ground which calls for investigation. With rare exceptions the theories on recognition have not only failed to improve the quality of thought but have deflected lawyers away from the application of ordinary methods of legal analysis.

The end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, inevitably reignited interest in the issue of secession and state dissolution. At first this was driven by international law scholars (Hannum, 1993; Martti, 1994; Cassese, 1995; Duursma, 1996). Meanwhile, Grant’s (1999) book on recognition, and the works by Bühler (2001) and Grant (2009) led to an updated understanding of the legal issues related to secession and statehood on the international stage. More significantly, these topics now began to receive attention from politics and IR scholars. In part, it was driven by changes to the discipline; most notably, the move away from rational choice theorizing and the growth of normative and constructivist approaches to international relations. A body of literature began to emerge that saw the quest for independence as a question of moral philosophy. Under what conditions should secession be accepted? Although tackled by Buchheit (1978) and Beran (1984), the question gained greater salience with the conflicts of the 1990s and major contributions to the debate emerged from Buchanan (1997), Moore (1998), and Wellman (2005). However, the real turning point in the context of foreign policy was the publication of a book by Scott Pegg (1998) that examined the phenomenon of de facto states in international politics. Although it gained relatively little attention at the time, in line with the general obscurity of secession and recognition in international relations, it is now widely regarded as the seminal text in the field of international relations perspectives on breakaway territories. It laid the foundations for what is now a growing field of study in international politics. Since then, many other major works examining the phenomenon of secession and secessionist states in the international system have emerged (Bahceli et al, 2004; Pavkovic & Radan, 2007; Geldenhuys, 2009; Caspersen & Stansfield, 2010; Doyle, 2010; Pavković & Radan, 2011; Caspersen, 2012; Griffiths, 2016).

Problems of Definition and Terminology

Unfortunately, the growth of interest in secession and recognition has been blighted by a failure to agree on common definitions and a proliferation in terminology. The term “de facto states” has emerged as the predominant term. However, it is far from universally accepted as a suitable title by all scholars. While the concept of “de facto statehood” is readily used as a conceptual description for the purposes of explaining historical practices of recognition, the term “de facto state” is highly problematic. Under declaratory theory, favored by international lawyers, there is no such thing as a de facto state. If a territory meets the conditions of statehood, it is a state. (Admittedly, the difference between the two terms may appear small to many observers.) In addition, many other terms have been used to describe these entities. The two most common alternatives are “unrecognized states” and “contested states,” but terms such as “separatist states,” “para-states,” and “breakaway states” have all been used. Ultimately, the consensus appears to be moving towards the terms “de facto state.”

Meanwhile, there are many competing definitions of what should be considered to be a de facto state. For example, Kosovo has now been recognized by more than half the members of the UN. It also has degrees of interaction with many other countries. This contrasts sharply with other de facto states that have not been recognized by even a single UN member, such as Somaliland or Nagorno-Karabakh. Such distinctions are not always explicitly acknowledged in the literature. In some cases, the term is a catch-all to describe any and all territories that have declared independence. At the other end of scale, a restrictive view defines them as secessionist territories that have managed to consolidate their independence and effectively operate as functioning states. This means that there are very few points of agreement on how many de facto states there really are. Some put it as few as six. Others, such as Caspersen and Stansfield (2010), have suggested there may have been over twenty de facto states since 1945. This can lead to considerable confusion and can make comparison between various studies difficult, if not impossible.

The Historiography of Secession and Recognition

One of the most interesting dimensions of the subject of secession and recognition in the field of foreign policy has been the way that responses to acts of secession and corresponding recognition practices have evolved over the past three centuries. Without doubt, the most significant work in this field to date has been the book by Mikulas Fabry (2009). This charts the evolution of recognition since the United States of America declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. Importantly, the work comprehensively analyzes the significant shift in the way in which states have treated questions of unilateral secession over the past two and a half centuries. At first, recognizing an act of secession was seen to be an infringement of sovereignty. However, this changed in the 19th century with the moves by the Spanish colonies in Latin America to break away. In response Britain and the United States took the view that territories that had managed to prove their effective independence, and where there was little chance of the parent state being able to reassert its authority, the de facto statehood of the breakaway territory should be recognized.

This support for recognizing de facto statehood essentially persisted until the end of the Second World War. However, this was subject to some important refinements in the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps most significantly, following the end of the First World War, the notion of self-determination, as expounded by Woodrow Wilson, led to the view that peoples should have an innate right to independence. Although this view was later scaled back in the face of the practical difficulties associated with allowing any ethnic group that wished for independence to be granted statehood, the idea of self-determination is nevertheless a powerful idea in contemporary international politics. Of greater practical consequence, the 1931 Montevideo Convention is widely understood to have laid down the criteria for statehood: a defined territory, a settled population, effective governance, and an ability of states to enter into international relations. However, the reverence given to this treaty by international lawyers is largely misplaced (Ker-Lindsay & Fabry, 2017). Although it said that statehood was not dependent on recognition, thus underpinning the declaratory school of thought, this was written in the context of the recognition of governments by the United States. In other words, Latin American states did not want their existence as independent entities to be tied to Washington’s acceptance of their particular form of government. Finally, the Stimson Doctrine of non-recognition has provided an important prohibition on recognizing acts of secession secured by the armed intervention of external actors (Turns, 2003). Notwithstanding the excellent work by Fabry, the history of the foreign policy aspects of secession and recognition in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century remains a largely underexplored area. There is ample scope to explore many of the specific cases of international responses to acts of secession.

The end of the Second World War marked a radical change in the way in which the international community responded to secession. Most importantly, the idea of de facto statehood was abandoned. Instead, the principle of the territorial integrity of states came to be seen as sacrosanct. Recognizing unilateral acts of secession was now understood to amount to a fundamental breach of the obligation to respect the borders of all sovereign states. The problem was that this appeared to create an apparent contradiction with the notion of self-determination, which was still considered to be a central principle of international politics, especially in the context of the push towards decolonization. Indeed, both concepts were explicitly written into the UN Charter. In the end, the contradiction between the two positions was resolved by defining self-determination in two different ways. For colonies and areas under military occupation, the idea of external self-determination allowed for full independence. In contrast, for people’s living within the borders of accepted states, internal self-determination came to be seen as the right to self-government within the state, for example through some form of autonomy or within the bounds of a federal system.

As a result, the right of secession, and the likelihood of any act of secession being recognized, all but disappeared. As was seen in the case of Katanga’s attempted secession from Congo and Biafra’s attempt to break away from Nigeria, the international community took a hard-line stance against recognizing acts of unilateral secession. In fact, the one and only successful example of unilateral secession during the entire Cold War was Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan (Musson, 2008). The only other notable secession during the Cold War was the 1983 unilateral declaration of independence by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). While the so-called “Cyprus Problem” has been subject to considerable attention by scholars, work on the TRNC’s failure to secure international recognition has been rather more limited (Talmon, 2001; Ker-Lindsay & Fabry, 2017). Again, this absence of case studies to draw on may largely explain the relative paucity of interest in secession and recognition by international relations scholars during this period, as well as the lack of work on this era in the years that have followed.

Secession and Recognition in the Modern Era

The end of the Cold War fundamentally transformed the way in which the academic community considered the issues of secession and recognition. The relatively peaceful way in which the Soviet Union broke apart disguised the fact that the fracturing of the USSR led to a number of secessionist conflicts. While some of these were put down by military means, such as Chechnya, in a number of places the conflicts remain “frozen” and de facto states have emerged. These include Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Transnistria (Coppieters, 1996). Meanwhile, the violent collapse of Yugoslavia ultimately proved to be a turning point in the way in which secession and recognition was considered by the scholarly community. In part, this was because it helped to confirm some important concepts in the field of secession, such as the notion of uti possidetis (Shaw, 1996), whereby the boundaries of sub-state units must be respected in cases of secession (see Pellet, 1992). Yugoslavia was also highly contentious inasmuch as it led to significant disputes within the international community. One of the most important texts in this regard is the book by Richard Caplan (2005) on the way in which the European Union approached the question of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This was highly contentious inasmuch as Germany is blamed by many for leading the region to war by virtue of its precipitous decisions to recognize Slovenia and Croatia.

However, the major turning point for the study of secession and recognition was Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008. A highly contentious step, almost a decade later Kosovo remains recognized by just over half the members of the United Nations. Although the UN-led talks leading up the decision to secede has been widely examined (Fawn, 2008; Ker-Lindsay, 2009; Perritt, 2009; Weller, 2009), there remains a lot to be done to understand the exact thinking that led to the positions adopted by the various parties (Berg & Mölder, 2014). Very little has been published that looks at the way, for example, the United States and the Russian Federation approached the issue. While their respective positions are well known, there is very little analysis of the exact decision-making processes underlying the reasons why they chose to adopt the stances they did. Likewise, in the period since the declaration of independence, Washington and Moscow have lobbied hard for and against recognition respectively. Here again, there has been relatively little written so far about the internal discussions that shaped their respective positions, or the exact steps that they have taken to press their cases. Another rich area for study is the way in which various other states chose to recognize, or not, Kosovo. A couple of notable exceptions are the studies on Romania (Csergo, 2013) and Slovakia (Lezova, 2013). From a more legalistic perspective, Talmon (2009) produced a very interesting study of the way in which New Zealand adjusted its long-standing policy of implied recognition—where it made no formal statement of recognition of new states, but instead left the international community to draw its own conclusions by the way in which it interacted with the state in question—in response to Kosovo.

The subsequent decision by Russia to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in August 2008, further reinvigorated the study of secession and recognition in the post-Soviet states of Eurasia (Kolstø & Blakkisrud, 2008; Fabry, 2012; Broers, 2013; Broers, 2014). More recently, the purported secession of Donetsk and Luhansk, and Crimea’s short-lived claim to independence before being annexed by the Russian Federation, has also started to be scrutinized (Fabry, 2015). The growth in interest in the subject of secession and recognition in the fields of politics and international relations has also seen increasing interest in de facto states beyond Europe, such as Richards (2015) and the work on Kurdistan by Voller (2014). Nevertheless, it remains the case that the scholarly focus of attention is still firmly rooted in the Caucasus and South East Europe.

Foreign Policy of Counter Secession and Recognition

An area that has gained greater prominence in recent years is the way in which various actors, most notably the seceding territory and the parent state, respond to acts of secession. So far, more attention has been given to the actions of the parent state (Ker-Lindsay, 2012). As shown, the process of counter-secession relies on four key elements. In the first instance, and following on from Lauterpacht’s observation that parent states will often take many tears to recognize formally the independence of breakaway territories, third party states will often take their cue on how to respond to an act of secession by the behavior of the parent state. If it appears that the parent state is willing to accept the act of secession, even if it outwardly claims that it does not, then this is likely to lead to recognitions, or at the least a higher degree of international acceptance. For this reason, any counter-recognition strategy that is to have any hope of success must be based on an effective strategy whereby the parent state takes action to clearly signal its strong and ongoing opposition to the attempt to secede. The ways in which this is undertaken, and subsequently communicated by the parent state, has been subject to relatively little scrutiny and represents another potentially interesting focus of study, especially for those who are also interested in the internal dimensions of secession.

The second and third aspects of counter secession are the actual act of trying to lobby third countries not to recognize the breakaway territory and preventing those territories from interacting with multilateral international organizations. While the efforts of the parent state are often crucial, the role of major powers is now understood to have a central role in such instances (Sterio, 2013; Coggins, 2014). In both cases, the body of scholarship available is very limited indeed. The fourth element of counter-recognition relies on the use of the international law to prevent the interaction of a de facto state with the wider world. Again, relatively little work has been done in this area, at least from the international relations perspective. The notable exception is the 2010 Kosovo Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice. This has been a rich source of analysis. See, for example, the major edited volume by Milanovic and Wood (2015), which brings together legal scholars with academics working in politics and international relations to discuss the case.

Interestingly, just as the way in which states attempt to try to prevent secessionist territories from gaining international recognition has been subject to relatively little attention, so too has the topic of how breakaway states themselves seek to gain wider acceptance on the international stage. Fortunately, this too is now starting to gain prominence (Owtram, 2010; Caspersen, 2015; Ó Beacháin et al., 2016). Frear (2015) has examined and analyzed the efforts by Abkhazia to gain wider recognition. Meanwhile, Newman and Visoka (2016) have explored the way in which Kosovo has developed its foreign policy. Again, there is considerable room for much more work in this area. For example, there has been no comprehensive study produced on the way in which the Turkish Cypriots have sought to engage with the international community, or how Turkey has lobbied for their recognition, both at a bilateral level as well as within international organizations, such as the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Overall, the subject of secession and counter-secession strategies are likely to become increasingly interesting in the years ahead. As Griffiths and Fazal (2014) have argued, system-level changes have made the quest for secession increasingly more attractive for separatist groups.

Legitimization and Engagement without Recognition

As well as the subject of how states prevent or encourage the recognition of de facto states, there is also the important question of how contested states interact on the international stage. While the quest for recognition is the ultimate goal of de facto states, failing this, many territories seek to encourage a process of “legitimization” or “normalization.” This can occur through increased bilateral interaction with states, participation in international bodies as an observer, or involvement in wider sporting and cultural events, such as the Olympic Games. One of the first major pieces to be written in this area was the article by Berg and Toomla (2009), which examined the various forms of legitimization. This has been followed by work that seeks to understand why different breakaway territories achieve differing levels of acceptance short of recognition by individual countries and the international community as a whole (Berg & Mölder, 2012). As well as the broad examination of the nature and processes of legitimization, attention is now turning to the specific ways in which this operates in practice. Again, drawing on the role of great powers in processes of recognition and legitimation, and the diplomatic cables reproduced by Wikileaks, Pegg and Berg (2016) have examined how the United States has interacted with a range of de facto states, including Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, and Somaliland. Meanwhile, attention has also turned to the way in which de facto states themselves see the process of legitimization as a foreign policy goal. For example, Brentin and Tregoures (2016) have examined the way in which participation in sporting events, especially international football competitions, has become a central plank of its wider strategy to gain recognition.

Within this wider context of legitimization, one field of study that has gained growing prominence is the subject of engagement without recognition. This relates to the way in which third party actors, whether states or international organizations, choose to interact with territories that they do not recognize. The term first seems to have emerged with the work done by Lynch (2004) on the Caucasus. It was also the subject of an article by Cooley and Mitchell (2010) that looked at the way in which external actors could interact with Abkhazia and other post-Soviet de facto states. The subject is important inasmuch as it has considerable policy relevance. With the growth in secessionist entities, many states are starting to question how they can interact with these de facto states and yet not be seen to endorse them. Recently, it has been suggested that there is in fact a very high degree of latitude in this area (Ker-Lindsay, 2015). As long as the state engaging with the breakaway territory insists that it is not recognizing the de facto state, and that it does not take steps that cannot be anything other than recognition, for instance opening an embassy, then it can in fact have substantial economic, political, and cultural interaction. Indeed, the level of interaction can amount to recognition in all but name. While this may be the case, what is less understood at present are the factors that lead states to make these decisions about whether to engage with a territory that it does not recognize and the scope of such engagement. At the same time, the way in which international organizations engage with de facto states that are unrecognized by their members has been subject to relatively little scrutiny. One of the few works in this field has been the book on the European Union’s interaction with Northern Cyprus (Kyris, 2015).

Emerging Research on Secession and Recognition

To date, the study of secession and recognition in the context of foreign policy has been largely focused on case-study-based empirical research that draws primarily on qualitative approaches. Relatively little work has drawn on quantitative methods. This may in part be explained by the fact that many of the scholars working on the issue are based in Europe, rather than North America, and view quantitative approaches with a relatively high degree of skepticism. Secondly, many of those working in the field have a strong area studies perspective. There are many working in the area who are also specialists on particular regions, such as South East Europe or the former Soviet Union. In many such cases, there is relatively little support for mathematical approaches. Thirdly, it may also be explained by the fact that the field is still closely intertwined with international law. Even now, it is not possible to meaningfully engage with the subject of secession and recognition without being well versed in the legal literature on the subject. This continues to provide the essential reference points for any discussions on the subject. For all these reasons, it seems likely that qualitative approaches will continue to dominate the field for the foreseeable future. Having said all this, it is nevertheless the case that some work is emerging that adopts a quantitative approach (Berg, 2013; Berg & Toomla, 2013; Toomla, 2016).

While it would seem unlikely that quantitative approaches will come to dominate the subject for the foreseeable future, the field does appear to be moving beyond the realms of the more conceptual and empirical analytical approaches that have tended to dominate the field to date. Although there have been some efforts in this direction in the past (Tancredi, 2006), the need for theories of recognition are now starting to be voiced in politics and international relations (Fabry, 2013). Perhaps the most significant contributions in this sense have been the edited book on Recognition in International Relations by Daase et al. (2015) and the symposium on “The Politics of International Recognition” that appeared in International Theory in 2013. Another area that has received relatively little attention in the academic literature is the question of remedial secession. This refers to cases where territories are considered to have a right to declare independence in the event of gross human rights abuses. Emerging from the debates over Responsibility to Protect, the idea has generated some interest in academic circles (Summers, 2010; Vidmar, 2010). However, it is an area where there is considerable room for further development, especially from a normative perspective in international relations.

Finally, while the subject of secession and recognition is developing quickly in international relations, it nevertheless remains the case that international law still shapes the debate over discussions on secession and recognition. It is almost inconceivable that IR scholars working in this area can do so without a thorough grounding in the international law aspects of the subject. Even now, there are few areas where international law and international relations are quite so intimately entangled. It is telling that by far the most important book in field of secession and recognition is Crawford’s (2006) magisterial study on state creation. But what is particularly interesting is the way in which the old declaratory versus constitutive debate from international law is now being examined by scholars from international relations (Erman, 2013). Unlike the legal scholars, who largely favored the declaratory view, those working in the field of politics and international relations appear to be more constitutive in outlook. In some ways, this might be considered rather logical inasmuch as the discipline focuses on interactions at the international level. Removing statehood from the realm of relations between states would almost naturally negate the relevance of the recognition of statehood as a factor in the endeavors of de facto states to achieve status on the world stage. However, it is unclear just how far this inherent view can be sustained under real scrutiny. It will become even more interesting as a topic of focus when international relations scholars and international lawyers start to engage more actively with one another on the subject.


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