Top Seven Potential New States in the Trump Era

by Ambassador McMullen

The United States currently recognizes 195 countries as sovereign, independent states.  Two of these, Kosovo and the Holy See, are not among the 193 full members of the United Nations.  New countries have joined the international community in spurts caused by the wave of European de-colonialization in the 1960s and by the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  In general, however, states do not grant sovereign equality to other polities lightly—in fact, the international community accepts new members only grudgingly.  Potential new states could come from the UN’s list of 17 non-self-governing territories (e.g., Pitcairn Island, population 39), from the breakup of existing states, or the decision of a territory freely associated with a state, such as the Cook Islands, to seek independence.  During President Obama’s eight years in office, only South Sudan became independent, while in the administration of George W. Bush, three new countries emerged:  Timor-Leste, Montenegro (re-gained independence), and Kosovo (disputed independence).

Today marks the start of the Trump administration—and all bets are off.  The U.S. approach to governance that we have taken for granted in nearly every realm is now up for grabs.  An end to the One China policy?  Who knows?  An end to support for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians?  Maybe so.  Reneging or renegotiating treaties on trade or security?  Could be.  To Trump-generated uncertainties one must add the shock of Brexit, rising populism and Euroscepticism in Europe, bloody civil wars in the Middle East, Putin’s cocky authoritarianism, wholesale wackiness in nuclear-armed North Korea, tensions in the South China Sea, anti-globalization, and the rise of identity politics in many places.  The fundamentals that have underpinned the liberal international system since the early 1990s are looking increasingly shaky.

Given this fluidity, partisans of the scores of aspiring new states might think their time has come.  For most, it probably hasn’t (and never will), as barriers to entry to full statehood remain dauntingly high.  Imagine the difficulties in international organizations, international law, universal treaties, and diplomacy if there were 500 or 600 states in the system.  Few people recall that an early writer on globalization, Benjamin Barber (“Jihad Versus McWold,” 1992) favored a system comprising well-run city-states.   That’s not going to happen.   However, during the Trump administration it is possible that at least one or two new states could join the international community with recognition from the United States.  Taiwan?  Any move toward independence could trigger war with China.  Palestine?  Not until Hamas and Fattah make up.  Flanders?  What to do with enclaved Brussels?  Texas?  Not with Rick Perry running the Department of Energy.

Here’s my guess as to the Top Seven Potential New States during the Trump administration (in alphabetical order).  None of them is very likely to achieve independence, in my view, but they have a better chance than most other aspirants.  I’d be interested in changes, additions, or deletions you might suggest.

Alawitestan:  Even if the Trump administration and Russia team up to “bomb the sh*t out of ISIS,” Assad’s regime, and that of Syria’s 10% minority Alawite community, is dependent on continuing outside support to stave off the large Sunni majority.  If Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah tire of propping up Assad, he may find it prudent to seek a brokered partition giving him control over an Alawite redoubt in northwestern Syria.  In the event of partition, what would happen to Syria’s large Christian, Druze, and Kurdish minorities who have been largely supportive of or neutral toward the regime?

Bougainville:  this copper-rich island belonging to Papua New Guinea will hold an independence referendum in June 2019 as per the agreement ending a bloody secessionist war in the 1980s.  Most observers think it will pass.  During WWII over 700 American troops died here fighting the Japanese.  Disturbingly, a 2013 UN survey found that 62 percent of all men interviewed on Bougainville reported perpetrating some form of rape against a woman or girl in their lifetime.  I think Bougainvilleans will vote to leave PNG, and that the government in Port Moresby will be glad to be rid of them.

Catalonia:  If Scotland leaves the United Kingdom and joins the EU, Catalonia might be encouraged to follow the Scots’ lead.  Deep-set opposition in Madrid, with an eye toward consequences in Basque-land, Galicia, and the Canary Islands, makes this an uphill battle for independence-minded Catalans.

Cyrenaica:  Italy ruled eastern Libya as a separate colony for years prior to merging it with Tripolitania and Fezzan.  Post-Qaddafi fissures pitting eastern militias, governments, politicians, and business interests against their western rivals have re-emerged.  The recent flirtation between Russia and eastern-based General Khalifa Haftar may have upped the stakes.  Will Libya’s national oil infrastructure keep the country from splitting?  Will concerns of Islamic State toeholds in chaotic Libya set the international community against any fragmentation or division?

Kurdistan:  Iraq’s Kurdish region is always just half a step away from independence, it seems.  Cooperation with Ankara over oil exports and containing the PKK could help overcome Turkey’s angst about an independent Kurdish state.  Don’t forget that ExxonMobil (headed by secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson) was an active partner of the Kurdish Regional Government.

New Caledonia:  This Pacific island French territory is due to hold an independence referendum in 2018.  The last one, in 1987, failed miserably.  Events in France, such as a National Front electoral victory followed by a Frexit vote, could sour New Caledonia’s French settlers (about 27% of the population) on remaining affiliated with the metropole.  On the other hand, the settlers could be big supporters of Marine Le Pen’s vision of France’s future.  Most of the Melanesian majority will likely vote for independence.  Older Americans may remember New Caledonia as the setting for “McHale’s Navy.”

Scotland:  Scotland merged with England in 1707 for economic reasons – the country was nearly bankrupt after a failed attempt to colonize Panama, and it had been sharing a monarch with England for decades anyway.  So could the thrifty Scots seek independence for the same reason?  Post-Brexit polls show most Scots voted to remain in the EU on economic grounds, while most English voters supported leaving for cultural or identity reasons.  In 2014, 45% of Scots voted for independence, a number likely to increase in a post-Brexit environment.

Somaliland:  This former British colony was briefly independent in 1960 before merging with Italian Somalia—it has been de facto independent for years.  Chaos in Mogadishu and a border dispute with autonomous Puntland (based on clan politics and rumors of oil) have kept Somaliland from de jure independence.  As (if?) Somalia’s government gels, perhaps it will negotiate a long-overdue divorce with Somaliland.  A thumbs up from Mogadishu would result in snappy recognition from the AU, Britain, and the U.S.

South Yemen:  Following independence from Britain in 1967, South Yemen had a Marxist government that collapsed as the Soviet Union imploded.  In 1990 it merged with North Yemen, a decision it tried to reverse in 1994 by a bloody secession attempt.  Yemen’s post-Arab Spring civil war has pitted the northern Houthis (allegedly backed by Iran) against supporters of President Hadi (supported by Saudi Arabia).  Hadi’s backers control Aden in the south and Hadi is himself a southerner.  If the combatants in time agree to a cease-fire in place, this would effectively partition the country north-south.  Hadi’s forces, southern secessionists, and militant Islamists (who control much of southeastern Yemen) would then contend for political control.  Sounds like a long-term mess.