Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2008

Two weeks ago Scotland's top political leader, Mr. Alex Salmond, told an audience at the University of Virginia that Scotland deserves to be independent from Great Britain. He cited Thomas Jefferson's principle of self-government as the basis of his claim that Scotland should "become its own country.". (Daily Progress, April 2).

This story highlights one of America's knottiest foreign policy problems: how to respond to demands from nationalist groups around the world that desire to break their allegiance to larger states. Several examples are: Tibet and China, Chechnya and Russia, Basque separatists and Spain.

The dilemma arises over how to weigh America's historical support for self-determination by oppressed peoples against our need to maintain good relations with allies and major powers such as China and Russia.

Here are two regional cases that could have developed into major international crises and are now headed for negotiations, and a third that will most likely continue to engender serious international dispute.

Taiwan and China. Taiwan, a self-governing nation located off the coast of China, was headed toward confrontation with China a few months ago. Recently, however, elections in Taiwan brought to power a new government and a new president, Ma Ying-jeou, who pledged to negotiate Taiwan's relationships with Beijing. The outgoing president, Chen Shui-bian, had pressed the independence theme and called for a referendum on whether Taiwan should ask for United Nations recognition. China, which considers Taiwan a break-away province, threatened to use force if that occurred.

All American presidents since 1972 have affirmed that Taiwan is part of China and that disputes between them should be settled through negotiations. Nevertheless, the United States is pledged to assist Taiwan in case China uses force. This promise may not apply if Taiwan precipitates a crisis with China by deciding on independence.

The president and Congress have had to weigh the desirability of supporting Taiwan's desire for independence against the risk of precipitating a military confrontation with China. Political realism rather than the ideal of independence persuaded Washington to pressure Taiwanese leaders to negotiate with Beijing.

Now Tibet presents a new problem in US-China relations. Some Democrats in Congress, notably Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, suggest that President Bush should cancel his trip to China's Summer Olympics, to protest Beijing's crackdown in Tibet. Such action would be a severe blow to U.S. relations with China.

Quebec and Canada. After being voted into power in 1976, Quebec's large nationalist party, Parti Quebecois, tried twice in provincial referendums to persuade Quebeckers to vote for separation from Canada. Those efforts failed, but in 1995 the margin was close, less than one percent. Since then the party's support has waned, and recently its leader announced that the party would not seek a new referendum if it returns to power. This represents a major victory for the rest of Canada.

As on Taiwan, successive U.S. presidents declared that America supports a united Canada. But Washington did not press Quebec to give up its agitation for independence because that action would have bolstered nationalism there.

The decline in secessionist sentiment in Quebec is of immense strategic importance to the United States because of our close economic, military and political ties to Canada. It is a case where careful American diplomacy by several presidents paid off.

Kosovo and Serbia. Washington was not so fortunate in this case, because it supported a European Union plan to defuse the 1999 war in Kosovo by giving Kosovo its independence from Serbia. Belgrade objected strongly to this action, and was supported by its long-time patron, Russia. Moscow threatens to veto any attempt by Kosovo to achieve U.N. membership.

Although the United States and most European countries recognized Kosovo's declaration of independence in February, most Asian, Latin American and African countries have not. Neither have Russia and China, nor Spain and Greece and seven other NATO countries.

The dilemma for Washington is balancing its desire to support independence for Kosovo with its concern over Serbia's outrage at losing its territory. In addition, some 120,000 Serbs who live in northern Kosovo now demand that their small territory be transferred to Serbia.

In retrospect, it was probably a mistake for the European Union and the United States to support independence for Kosovo. Another option would have been to partition the province, giving the larger ethnic Albanian region to Albania while permitting the Serb-speaking northern section to be part of Serbia.

Kosovo, a land-locked country deeply fractured along ethnic lines, now lacks wide international support for its independence. It may be a case where Washington needs to rethink its policy and consider the desirability of partition.

File last modified on Monday, 17-APR-2008 12:28 PM EST

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