International Relations theorists don’t have the opportunity to conduct lab experiments like scientists. They have to rely on natural experiments, or in other words, deduce and infer from events that shape and transform in front of our eyes, happening in real time.

Recent events on the Catalan crisis and the Kurdistan referendum are important case studies for a few ideas that IR theorists have talked for, for a while.

  1. First of all, states react in exactly the same way, when their territorial integrity is threatened. Spain and Iraq, needless to mention, vastly different in their regime type or form of governance. Nevertheless they reacted in a way, every other great power or nation state will react or reacts. Iraq tried to stop the referendum, and now ordered the arrest of the leaders who were behind the referendum and is massing troops around Kurdish territory. It is doubtful, how much political authority Iraq has over Kurdish space, and how much capability to implement those orders are there. However, it is a significant escalation that muddies the Kurdish prospects. Similarly, Spain sent in troops and national guards, to bring order in Catalonia, and when they couldn’t stop it, is now threatening to send in troops and dissolve the Catalan parliament. Ultimately, great powers and nation states, who are capable, will stop any change to their territories, by force if necessary. To paraphrase the sage words of Thucydides, the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.
  2. Which brings us to the Catalans and Kurds. While the Kurds are justified in some respects to call for a referendum, there were no practical reasons for the Catalans to do so. After all, Spain is not a dictatorship and is a first world country, with a system of life and governance, which is better than a lot of other countries. That said, there are rules for calling for independence. It’s not always aspirations, and territories, or populations which just because they want to secede will be able to secede. According to international laws, the primary ability that determines independence is the capability of a seceding territory to have diplomatic relations with other great powers. Put simply, will other major powers recognize the independence? In Kurdistan’s case, other than Israel, no one supports any independence. In the case of Catalonia, no single European power supports the bid of Catalonia to be independent. France and Germany both said, they value Spain’s territorial integrity, and constitutional unity…which is weasel speak for sovereignty. Similarly EU officials are loathe to get into this trouble. This should also be a lesson for other smaller cities or territories in Asia, whoever is planning to break away from any major power. There are lots of regions in Asian, especially in major powers, where one can often see occasional trouble, protests and independence movements. Unless there’s an array of armada or cavalry to support your claim, and provide financial and military support if necessary, there’s no way, any referendum would guarantee independence.
  3. Finally, the two referendums prove that incoherence in foreign policy isn’t always a good idea. EU in the past followed an imperial and arbitrary policy with regards to state sovereignty. It has undermined state sovereignty in east and central Europe and UK, intervened militarily in Libya, and supported regime change in Ukraine. Unfortunately, what happened is as state based sovereignty was undermined in EU, ethno-centric sentiments started to rise. Now, the hypocrisy with regards to Catalonia is out in the open and is undermining EU credibility itself. One needs to understand that the boot is sometimes in the opposite foot.

Ultimately, referendums and direct democracy is anarchic. It causes needless chaos. There could be different form of governance in countries, but nonetheless if referendums and mobocracy is to decide every single aspect of decision making, there’s inevitable anarchy. It’s not good for geopolitics, and it’s not good for economics. And about time, this farce stops.


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