Why does national independence matter? What does it even mean?
Prior to the 18th century, nations as we understand them did not exist. Political borders existed, certainly, but these were drawn up by various monarchs and despots to delineate their territory. Individuals feeling affinity toward the political body under whose boundaries they lived was uncommon. Once that began to change, though–as modern ideas of nations and political participation took hold–individuals started identifying with nations. People were Americans, Germans, French, Italians, and so on. How, exactly, this happened is still a matter of some debate. What matters is that nationalism is a familiar principle in most countries on Earth. More than that, the political systems that cover much of the globe rely on a concept of national self-determination coupled with democratic government. In other words, the people of a nation get to decide that nation’s policies and future. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Being denied such control of one’s destiny is one of the primary reasons the British Colonies broke away from Great Britain to form the United States. In particular, the wealthy businessmen who most profited from colonial commerce and trade, along with Enlightenment philosophers of the time, saw the British Crown’s control over colonial affairs as unfair, even tyrannical. Perhaps more importantly, most common citizens agreed! Those who didn’t want to go along were those who had strong economic or political ties to the British government. But there was something more: revolutionaries believed that the culture of the Colonies had become fundamentally distinct from that of the British, and that these differences were irreconcilable. Independence was the only option they saw.
Americans, of course, won our independence in the end. A new government was set up–the first democratic republic to exist in centuries–but it was not without its problems. Specifically, there was a major divide on the topic of slavery. The Constitutional rule that slaves counted as 3⁄5 of a person is easy to take at face value–the deliberate demeaning of an entire class of people on the basis of being owned as property (which was almost universally a proxy for being of African descent)–but this was arrived at as a compromise, because slavery was not popular throughout the Colonies even at the formation of the United States. From day one, we had a nation of different cultures. Northern urban culture was distinctly different from rural Southern culture. People held different attitudes, economic and political concerns varied, and so on. This was why, in large part, the philosophical basis of this new nation was not ethnicity nor any particular religious or political belief–other than beliefs in personal liberty and democratic participation. Imperfectly as these were implemented in the 18th century, they formed a philosophical foundation upon which many later egalitarian shifts could be built.
Unfortunately, we have also failed to live up to these ideals on many occasions. Waves of immigration brought waves of xenophobic violence. The end of slavery gave us the KKK, Jim Crow, and that legacy stretches into the modern mass incarceration epidemic. Women gained the right to vote here less than 100 years ago, and continue to experience various forms of sexism. In a country where our founding documents take “all men [people] are created equal” as a basic truth, there is a disturbing lack of that equality, 240 years later. What we continue to see is the ugly side of nationalism: white supremacy, xenophobia, warmongering. This comes down to a question that is ultimately difficult to answer: if there is a nation, whose nation is it, and whom does it represent?
Is the United States a nation of white, Christian men above all else? There are certainly some who would say so. And suppose those same men wanted to break away to create their own, independent nation. Is it wrong to let them? How far do we tolerate this concept of national self-determination?
The most direct measure is to examine such a nation’s liberalism. Nations which are fundamentally exclusionary, racist, warlike, undemocratic–we consider these illegitimate, for valid albeit subjective reasons. Western cultures, by and large, value individual autonomy and agency, sometimes at the cost of social and political order. There are also cultures who favor that social order at the expense of individuals. If enough individuals were unhappy with this, they could likely do something about it, which means that the political class–in whatever form they take–cannot simply run roughshod over everyone else. China is a good example here, in that its Communist rulers have gradually loosened some of their control to allow the people access to greater economic prosperity if not political freedom, and while there is still political agitation (which is almost always suppressed), there is less of it because too many people have too much to lose.
Moving away from the US and China, there are independence movements elsewhere in the world, too. Turkey is nominally a democracy, but is particularly repressive toward the Kurdish people, who live in parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. An independent Kurdistan has been a long-standing goal of many Kurds, and Turkey (to say nothing of Syria) has often taken violent steps to prevent it. Kurds themselves have attempted to form their own state through violence, as well. The question remains: are ethno-cultural nation-states valid, especially when formed of a culture that faces oppression and brutality under their existing political situation? Basing new political states on ethnic or religious divisions in particular is viscerally distasteful, but if it has the effect of freeing people from ongoing abuse, is that not at least a positive improvement?
And then there are instances where no real violence is involved, but where independence is still a major concern for over-arching political reasons. Take Scotland, whose fate has thus far been tied to the rest of the United Kingdom, and now may be dragged out of the European Union primarily on the wishes of the English and Welsh countrysides. Almost nowhere in the UK was support for the EU stronger than in Scotland, and yet Scotland may be ejected from the Union against their will. What about self-determination? If Scots want to remain in the EU, why shouldn’t they be able to? Scotland joined the UK in 1707 under contentious circumstances, with resulting violence. It has been, at times, a tumultuous relationship, but on the whole it has benefited Scotland, particularly economically. If those benefits are no longer sufficient, must they remain with the UK against their will? After all, the UK doesn’t have to stay in the EU against their will. Who ultimately has sovereignty?
One of the less visible independence struggles in the world today is that of indigenous peoples against those who colonized their lands. Just one such story is that of indigenous people in Brazil, who want to protect the rainforest as well as their culture. Another is the Lenca people of Honduras, who see their way of life threatened by dam projects. One of their most prominent leaders was killed in March of this year. Here the conflict is less over political or cultural identity and more about the extent to which one should embrace modern living at the expense of the environment, but such a conflict is relevant everywhere, not merely in Central and South America.
On this July Fourth, ask yourself what it means to be independent. Independent of whom, of what? Independent for what purpose? And think of those who struggle for independence–and who may even want independence from the nation you, personally, identify with. Fighting and dying for the right to self-determination, for the right to form nation-states, did not begin and end in the 18th century. It continues today, and doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.