Surveying our violent and sometimes weird world, it might seem that things change only for the worse. Tensions between Moscow and Washington, with ripple effects across the globe? Check. Iranian ayatollahs fulminating against the Satanic West? Check. Israel and Palestine at war again? Check.
But one historically bloody rite of passage seems to have gotten a lot easier of late: the birth of a nation.
Typically, when part of a country has wanted to break away, it means war. The American Revolution was a war of secession fought by colonists against the British Empire. And the 20th century’s two great waves of nation-building were cataclysmic: After the end of World War I in 1918, peoples around the world broke away from empires and formed their own states, emboldened by the idealism of American President Woodrow Wilson. Tens of millions were killed and displaced in the process. After World War II, dozens of Asian and African countries declared independence as they expelled colonial occupiers, sometimes with acceptance, often with bloodshed.
Lately, however, the world has seen some surprisingly smooth independence movements in which the path to statehood has been achieved through voting, not battle. The latest candidate for the new nations club is another British territory: Scotland.
On Sept. 18, Scots will vote whether to withdraw from their union with Britain. Like their 18th-century counterparts in the American Colonies, if they declare independence they will remove bountiful riches from London’s control, in this case probably most of the North Sea oil fields. But in a sign of changing times, the United Kingdom is only striking against the secessionists with words. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to accept the referendum results.
A lot has to go right for an independence vote to take place, and to be honored. A “parent” nation has to be confident enough—or scarred enough by civil infighting—to let go willingly. A breakaway republic needs the resources to survive and prosper on its own. And a stable region helps: South Sudan, the world’s newest country (see sidebar), has already fallen back into the violence that characterized its existence as a persecuted region under the control of Khartoum.
Scotland’s coming vote might be getting all the attention, but there are other countries with independence referendums in the offing. Some are more likely to work out than others; if they do, the world could see a handful of new flags, and also new challenges. Here’s a tour of the new nations you just might be able to visit soon.
If it votes for independence on Sept. 18, Scotland will become the newest entrant to the European Union. It’s already a popular tourist destination and an economic powerhouse. If current political trends continue, an independent Scotland will form a leftist, socialist counterpart to a more right-wing England. The Scots have proven more committed to national health care and labor rights than Britain under Conservative rule. Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival has been an alternative cultural mainstay for decades, and Glasgow served as Europe’s Cultural Capital in 1990.
Will it change much? Maybe Scotland will be forced to abandon the pound sterling after three centuries, but an independent Scotland probably won’t look that different. It’s unlikely to sever its relationship to the United Kingdom entirely, like Ireland did. It probably will maintain formal allegiance to the queen, like other former British territories including Australia and Canada. And its economy will remain intertwined with that of England, with whom it will continue to share a common language and island.
The region of Spain that gave us Gaudi, Barcelona, and George Orwell’s best work of reportage has often been an economic basket case, but it’s undeniably beautiful region with an undeniable sense of separate identity. People there proudly speak Catalan, a Romance language as different from Spanish as Portuguese or French, and many refuse to identify as Spanish. Separatist parties won the Catalan regional elections in 2012 and promised to hold an independence vote, now scheduled for Nov. 9.
It’s unclear whether Catalonia could prosper independently; Spain, overall, isn’t doing so well itself. The region has its own manufacturing and finance base, and it remains a popular tourist destination. Unshackled from Spain, Catalonia would be likely to even more boldly embrace its linguistic differences and the region’s more populist politics. Visitors already in thrall to the delicious cuisine, with its famous mixing of pork and seafood, and eclectic architecture, will be able to bask in a romantic storyline of a persistent, stubborn, and maybe even ill-conceived commitment to national independence.
If it votes “yes,” Catalonia’s path forward won’t be smooth: The Spanish government says it won’t honor an independence referendum. Barcelona, the would-be capital, will have to negotiate gingerly with Madrid—which has promised to block the EU membership of not only Catalonia, but also Scotland, for fear of setting a precedent. Catalan leaders are already considering how to go around Spain and appeal for recognition from foreign countries and the United Nations.
If they both dig in, expect a long and strange standoff, but a diplomatic one: It’s almost impossible to imagine contemporary Spain going to war to retain control of its wealthy eastern region.
This one has been underway for longer than most college students have been alive. A huge, mineral-rich territory almost as large as Morocco itself, Western Sahara stretches south of Morocco along the Atlantic Coast. If it didn’t have generous phosphate deposits to mine, it’s conceivable that its half-million inhabitants would have been left alone when Spain ended its colonial rule in 1975. Instead, Morocco moved in and fought a long war with a local independence group called the Polisario Front. Since 1991, the United Nations has monitored a cease-fire and was mandated to organize an independence referendum to settle Western Sahara’s future.
Some diplomats—perhaps a bit Pollyanna-ish—believe that the vote could finally come to pass in two or three years, and their assumption is that the independence faction would win. Western Sahara has beautiful desertscapes and an undeveloped coastline; it is huge, 100,000 square miles, and mostly uninhabited. It probably wouldn’t join Morocco as a top tourist destination, but its mining industry and natural resources could position it as a relatively wealthy neighbor to Morocco and Algeria, if things go right—or could doom it to the “resource curse” that often mires resource-rich countries in poverty and underdevelopment.
A French-controlled island in the Pacific, New Caledonia gained renown because of the brutal measures the French undertook to suppress the locals in the 19th century, and later for its critical role as an Allied naval base during World War II. Today it is one of the most prosperous economies in the South Pacific, with healthy agriculture, tourism, and mining sectors. French support has been generous, which might explain why voters rejected independence during a referendum in the 1980s.
Secessionist parties have grown in popularity since, however, and a second vote will be held before 2018. If it succeeds, New Caledonia would join Djibouti, Algeria, and the dozens of former French colonies sprinkled around the globe. France has already said it won’t fight to keep New Caledonia, but it’s not clear whether the island will really cut its ties: Many local opponents of independence believe that when they get to the voting booth, residents won’t want to let go of the French subsidies that would disappear after independence.
A tropical Pacific island currently ruled by Papua New Guinea, Bougainville has a copper mine and about 250,000 inhabitants. Past governments have hired foreign mercenaries to quash secessionist rebellions, but now Bougainville is scheduled to vote on independence between 2015 and 2020 and Papua New Guinea now seems resigned to let the territory go if voters support independence.
Aside from miners, it’s unlikely to attract casual visitors. Like Papua New Guinea, it’s hard to reach. Fun fact: It’s named after the same French navigator as the ubiquitous warm-climate bougainvillea vine.
One example of the slow-and-steady approach is Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds have ruled their own enclave, more or less free from Baghdad, since 1991. They speak their own language, have their own regional government, and have developed their own oil industry. Kurdistan is its own country for all practical purposes; it even has its own border guards. But it has avoided war and preserved its relations with neighboring Iran and Turkey (which have their own restive Kurdish minorities) by stopping short of declaring independence.
Now, with Iraq’s central government distracted by its war against the jihadi Islamic State, the president of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government this month ordered his parliament to set up an independence referendum. Until recently, Kurdish politicians believed they could never secede without some kind of buy-in from Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, all of which oppose Kurdish independence. But the new turmoil in the region has these governments distracted with more pressing issues, and they might be willing to accept an independent Kurdistan if it means a genuinely stable new neighbor.
If the referendum were to pass, Kurdistan would be a landlocked mountainous territory with stunning mountains and lakes and major oil and natural gas reserves. Compared to its neighbors, Kurdistan has been prosperous and politically coherent, controlled mostly by a few traditional clans who have proven adept at developing the economy and coopting potential challenges from Turkey and Iran by inviting them to invest heavily in Kurdistan’s economic boom. A free Kurdistan would bring to a close a curious irony: one of the Middle East’s most stable countries in recent years has stayed that way by not being a country at all.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.