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National Secession

Summary and Keywords

National secession seeks to create a new sovereign state for a nation residing on its homeland that is currently located inside another sovereign state. This goal distinguishes national secession from regional secession, autonomy, and decolonization and shapes the strategies, operational objectives, and tactical choices of the leaders of national-secession campaigns. Explanations for the success of some campaigns—particularly, success at getting on the global agenda—have focused on the identities, grievances, or greed of their members. Explanations for why some campaigns have turned to protracted intense violence have focused on these motivations and on tactical-logistical opportunities.

The existing literature suffers from its failure to agree on theoretical and conceptual fundamentals. As a consequence, empirical studies focus on very different universes of cases and operationalize key variables in diverging ways. The existing literature frequently does not consider how the goal of national secession constrains the strategies, operations, and tactics of such campaigns. And so, it often fails to consider whether studies with another dependent variable can be extended to the study of national secession. Explanations stress indeterminate or substitutable causes and remote constraints on most national-secession campaigns—causes and constraints taken “off the shelf” from theories about conflicts operating under very different strategic and operational constraints. Missing from these explanations is the authenticity and realism of the programs for national secession in the assessments of the populations that each program presents as a nation with a right to a sovereign state of its own. Explanations and recommendations for responses by common-state governments, their allies, and the international community often fail to understand the centrality of the war of programs between national secessionists and common-state governments and the ways this constrains what compromises are possible and what responses are most likely to lead to domestic and international peace in such conflicts.

Keywords: secession, nationalism, nation state, decolonization, independence, sovereignty, insurgency, civil war, frozen conflict, quasi-state, partition, empirical international relations theory


National secession seeks the independence of a new nation state carved from the citizenry and metropolitan territory of an existing state. Proponents of national secession claim that they speak on behalf of a nation that has a right to a sovereign state of its own. This strategic goal distinguishes national secession from attempts to seize power within an existing state (through a coup d’état or revolution), to claim independence for an external territory inhabited by non-citizens (the essence of decolonization), or to replace the nation state system with a new world or regional order (such as a global caliphate or communist society).

The distinctive strategic goal of national secessionists should shape the questions we ask and the answers we expect to find about national secession. Yet, the existing literature tends to overlook the ways in which this strategic goal profoundly influences the strategic constraints, operational tasks, and tactical options confronting a national-secession campaign.1 First, the strategic goal determines where a campaign’s leaders can expect to find most recruits and allies. Compared to many revolutions, for example, national secession typically limits the potential platform population to only a small percentage of the common-state’s total population.2 Second, the ability (or inability) to recruit more widely and to form broader alliances defines the maximum capabilities that a campaign’s leaders can expect to command and, therefore, constrains their operational objectives. Based on the strategic constraints of a limited platform population, most national-secession campaigns cannot reasonably expect to achieve independence through armed victory over their common-state governments. Third, these expectations of maximum capabilities at full mobilization and expectations of the most likely path to achieving the campaign’s goal constrain the choice of tactics by campaigns—particularly, the ways the campaign uses violence. Fourth, the strategic goal shapes how campaign leaders must calculate the response of the international community, including likely governmental and non-governmental allies, opponents, and veto players. National secessionists usually expect few allies outside their platform populations and resistance from the international community to calls for carving up an existing sovereign state. Fifth, these goals are likely to influence the types of solutions and compromises that campaign leaders will find acceptable. Coup conspirators and revolutionaries may find participation in the common-state government an acceptable compromise, while many national secessionists will not; conversely, partition of the common-state is a desired outcome for national secessionists but often unacceptable or irrelevant to revolutionaries.

This article describes the accomplishments of empirical studies of national secession and the research agenda that remains by addressing five topics—the goal of national secession; the distinctive strategy, operations, and tactics used by national secessionists; the causes of national secession; violence as one tactic sometimes chosen by secessionists; and common-state and international responses to national-secession campaigns.

National Secession as a Strategic Goal

The literatures touching on national secession that are discussed in this article diverge in their definitions of the phenomenon, often subsume it within other cross-cutting phenomena, and demarcate very different universes of cases for analysis. A consequence of what might seem to be semantic quibbles is that the findings of exceptionally fine empirical research have not constituted cumulative insights. Expanding on the definition offered above: National secessionism is a political program claiming that a population residing within the metropolitan territory of an existing sovereign state constitutes a nation that has a right to its own sovereign state, within the part of the common-state’s territory that the nation considers its homeland.3 Defined in this way, national secession shares many qualities with closely related goals, such as regional secession, autonomy, and decolonization. Nonetheless, for the purpose of more precise empirical research, this definition demarcates a specific universe of cases that excludes these closely related cases where the key actors pursue different strategic goals.

First, national secession differs from regional secession, in that nationalists (such as Armenian, Catalonian, Eritrean, and Tamil nationalists) claim that their platform population is not simply an agglomeration of individuals but constitutes a distinct nation with a territory that is not simply a tract but, in fact, the nation’s homeland. Alternatively, as Goode (2011, pp. 23–25, 27) notes, regionalists define their goal by the territory, such as New England, Texas, or South Yemen, rather than the attributes of its resident population (also see Agnew, 2002). Second, secession differs from autonomy, which does not seek independence but accepts remaining within the existing common-state. Instead, an autonomy campaign may seek a new autonomous segment-state within the common-state (such as a Volga German Republic, Cordillera Administrative Region, or Gorkhaland), expanded autonomy for an already existing segment-state (such as Ticino, Vojvodina, or Sakha), stateless (but common-state-sanctioned) self-governance (such as the Haida Gawaii, Chiapas Mayans, or Coptic Republic), or simply to be left alone (see Anderson, von der Mehden, & Young, 1967, p. 74; Scott, 2009). Third, national secession differs from decolonization (such as the Indonesia, Palestine, and Puerto Rico independence projects) in that decolonization seeks separation of a population residing outside the metropolitan territory and not fully franchised within the common-state government (on decolonization campaigns, see Lawrence, 2013). The bright line between decolonization and secession is drawn by international law, which obligates states to expedite the transition of external territories to sovereignty, but prohibits states from threatening the territorial integrity of sovereign states by supporting secessionists (see, e.g., United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2625 (XXV), 1970; and United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV), 1960). Indeed, reflecting the very different conditions necessary for each to achieve independence, 87% of the 128 colonies existing in 1945 have since become sovereign states, but, in stark contrast, 85% of the 171 proposed national-secession states gaining international attention since 1945 have not. Combining secession and decolonization has important consequences for empirical analysis: A model that combines these is likely to underscore the differences of these two very different types of campaigns (e.g., Griffiths, 2016, pp. 72, 76) and to provide good predictors of what distinguishes decolonization from secession, since many independent variables (such as geographic distance, cultural and social differences, or representation in the common-state executive and legislature) correlate with this internal-external distinction.

There are possibly thousands of nation-state projects, but there is no way to count them all, since most remain the pet projects of small circles and go unrecorded. Since they seek to gain recognition as sovereign states by the international community, an important distinction among national-secession campaigns is whether they have even gained attention in the major Western capitals among the powers that are the gatekeepers or veto-players in the international recognition game. A search of The Times of London, The New York Times, and Keesing’s Contemporary Archives between January 1945 and December 2010, checked against printed and web-based sources, identifies 171 national-secession campaigns that have been able to publicize their programs by word or deed enough to draw this international attention. (These data are based on Roeder, under review.) These 171 major national-secession campaigns constitute little more than 2% of the 7,800 nation-state projects that Gellner (1983, pp. 44–45) famously speculated posed potential challenges to existing sovereign states.

These major national-secession campaigns were most common in South and East Asia, followed by the Central Eurasian region, and then by Europe (see Table 1). Alternatively, countries in Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and Oceania faced fewer challenges. The common-state challenged by the most national-secession campaigns was the Soviet Union/Russia, followed by India, Indonesia, France, Yugoslavia/Serbia, Nigeria, and Iran.

Table 1. National-secession campaigns by region, 1945–2010.


Number of national-secession campaigns

Number of common-states


South and East Asia








Western Europe




Subsaharan Africa




North Africa/SW Asia




Western Hemisphere












Note: Rump-states, post-amalgamation states counted as continuous with pre-break-up. Campaigns that recur in successor states are counted only once. Adapted from Roeder (under review).

This is a more expansive list than earlier studies of national secession. In his seminal study, Buchheit (1978) mentions in passing about three dozen secessionist campaigns, but he does not intend this to be an exhaustive list. Alternatively, Heraclides (1990, p. 344) lists only 13 national-secessionist campaigns in the Third World from 1945 to 1990.

On the other hand, national-secession campaigns conceptually constitute only a subset of the universe of cases of national self-determination, which is identified by Marshall and Gurr (2003, pp. 57–64) as “the quest of national and indigenous peoples for self-governance.” They identify 148 national self-determination conflicts from 1955 to 2002, including, alongside national secession, projects for autonomy short of independence (e.g., Russia’s Yakuts, Yugoslavia’s Hungarians), state-less autonomy (e.g., many indigenous peoples in the Americas), regional secession (e.g., Nevis), and decolonization (e.g., Puerto Ricans, Palestinians). Similarly, Minahan (2002, pp. xi–xii) identified 350 “nations still without states” in 2002, which constituted 575 projects targeting specific common-states. By Minahan’s definition, populations qualify as nations when they exhibit self-identity and “outward trappings of national consciousness” (such as a flag) and support “formation of a specific nationalist organization or political grouping that reflects its claim to self-determination.” This even longer list includes not only the four types of cases added by Gurr and Marshall, but also adds one or more simply whimsical projects (such as the Principality of Seborga).

These differences, far from simple semantic quibbles, shape the universe of cases that various scholars have analyzed. Yet this has meant that their findings are not unambiguously cumulative. For example, Sambanis and Milanovic’s (2014) excellent study of regional autonomy identifies causes in common to national secession, regional secession, and autonomy campaigns but leaves us unable to answer whether national-secession campaigns, which pose a specific challenge to the status quo, differ in their causes and consequences.

In still other studies, national secession has also been bracketed with decolonization projects under the label “national independence” conflicts. Diehl and Goertz (1991; also see Goertz & Diehl, 1992) combine these to identify 121 cases of successful national independence between 1816 and 1980. Goldsmith and He (2008) follow in this trajectory, but re-label these all as cases of “decolonization.” Goldsmith and He’s list of 145 cases from 1900 to 1994 includes 20 cases between 1945 and 2010 of successful secessions such as the Soviet and Yugoslav republics. (There are two curious, but minor, omissions—Bangladesh and Slovakia.) These data sets select on successful independence and so they do not seek to include unsuccessful independence campaigns and provide no criteria for identifying such. Coggins (2011, p. 442) continues in this tradition of examining independence projects together, but re-labels these all “secessions” and introduces what can be thought of as an oxymoron—“anticolonial secessions”—in order to distinguish external from internal independence projects (also see Griffiths, 2015, 2016).

Although nationalism is often dismissed as a 19th-century Romantic ideology and national self-determination as an early 20th-century Wilsonian folly, the practice of national secession really came into its own only after 1900 and has remained part of domestic and international politics ever since. The pace at which new states have been created by secession since 1945 has been one new state every 2.7 years. This is only marginally different from the pace in the interwar years, when it stood at 2.6 years. This is a substantially faster pace than in the 19th century following the defeat of Napoleon, when it was a more leisurely one new state every 5.6 years. With campaigns pressing for the independence of proposed nation states such as Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders, and Abkhazia, it is unlikely that national secession has come to an end.

Strategies, Operations, and Tactics

Campaigns in the name of popular sovereignty—whether they seek to seize power within an existing state (revolutionaries), create a new state (national secessionists), or replace the nation-state system partially or entirely (transformers)—have tended to rely on some common elements of a strategy that explains how persuasion (propaganda), organization, and sometimes even violence are orchestrated to achieve a strategic goal. These common elements of campaign strategy were refined and published in the works of Lenin (1973), Mao (1965), Guevara (1961), the Irish Republican Army General Headquarters (1985), and many others; propagated by party internationals, toilers’ universities, foreign advisers, and student study groups; codified and dissected in the strategies of counterinsurgency (e.g., U.S. Department of the Army, 2007, pp. 11–12); and elevated to the status of common knowledge or folk wisdom among activists.

Yet, within this commonality at the broadest level, differences in strategic goals distinguish how national-secession campaigns can reasonably expect to achieve victory, what operational tasks they must complete to get there, and which tactics they can expect to help complete those tasks. Compared to revolutionaries and transformers (such as communists or ISIS), most national secessionists pursue lofty strategic objectives with much less prospect of building the operational capabilities to achieve their goal through a direct confrontation with the common-state government. Indeed, even among the 171 major national-secession campaigns, the median platform population constituted just over 3% of the common-state’s population. National secessionists typically must await a fortuitous development such as collapse of the central government brought on by its other domestic opponents or international intervention. Attempts to achieve spectacular victories by the campaign’s own means often spell disaster, as Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country and Freedom) (ETA) discovered when its violence did not induce Madrid to grant independence, but to unleash devastating reprisals, and did not induce many Basques to rally behind ETA.

Operating under these constraints, national secessionists may seek to influence third parties to create an opportunity to walk away with independence or simply wait for collapse at the center. Either way, the national secessionists’ chief operational objectives are to prepare for these events—typically by coordinating their platform population around the goal of independence so that the international community or what remains of the collapsing common-state concludes that independence is the only viable solution. Indeed, much of the guidance from revolutionary strategists concerns precisely these operational tasks—building the capacity to demonstrate this coordination of the platform population behind the common goal. Lenin (1972, p. 224) stressed the five operational tasks of building a core of professional revolutionaries and sustaining it through the hard and often dull times through continuing political education, fostering identification with the campaign’s strategic goal among members of the platform population, cultivating consciousness of the historic role of the platform population in the campaign’s action plan, linking the individual demands of parochial constituencies within the platform population to this strategic goal, and developing a capacity to demonstrate this broad coordination behind the campaign’s program at appropriate moments (Paret & Shy, 1962; Leites & Wolfe, 1970; Kalyvas & Balcells, 2010). In preparing for this, national-secessionist leaders must not only explain to diverse audiences within the platform population how the demand for independence is the logical extension of being a member of the nation, but also how the proposed nation state is the best solution to the sometimes personal or parochial political issues dear to them.

The choice of tactics, such as conspiratorial organizing, parliamentary struggle, winning plebiscites, staging street protests, terrorism, guerilla warfare, or broad military operations, is made with an eye to fulfilling these operational tasks. At the same time this choice is constrained by the successes so far in coordinating the platform population behind the strategic goal and action plan of the campaign (see Lenin, 1972; Mao, 1965).

Causes of National-Secession Campaigns

The question of the causes of national secession needs to be formulated precisely for empirical research: Why do some populations become platforms for nation-state projects that recruit many supporters to a campaign for independence? Probably almost every ethnic group (and many coalitions of ethnicities) has had at least one dreamer who imagines a sovereign nation-state project on its behalf. The cause of this nearly universal outcome is the diffusion of an idea (e.g., Breuilly, 1994). Yet, only a few of these dreamers recruit a larger following, and this is an important variation that needs explanation.

The study of national secessionism has been handicapped by the often-unspoken assumption that its causes are the same as other forms of protest. In recent years national secession is often subsumed under other phenomena—ethnic politics, political protest, political rent-seeking, social movements, and civil wars—and the explanations have focused on identities, individual grievance and greed, and tactical-logistical opportunities. Missing from this list is the role of national-secessionist programs themselves: Not all programs are equally well drafted and many leave members of the platform population uncertain or even doubtful that the proposed nation actually exists and statehood is achievable. Programs that are received as authentic and realistic by larger shares of their platform populations provide the essential link between the identities, motivations, and opportunities highlighted by earlier explanations and the success of specific national-secession campaigns.

The discussion that follows begins by identifying the theoretical assumptions of alternative explanations, lists key hypotheses advanced on the basis of these assumptions, and reviews evidence from comparative-case studies, giving special attention to the large-n studies of Jenne (2006), Marshall and Gurr (2003), Sorens (2012), and Walter (2009). These four studies differ in their dependent variables and cases and answer somewhat different questions—why ethnic groups seek self-determination (Jenne, 2006; Walter, 2009) and politically active groups seek self-determination (Marshall & Gurr, 2003) as well as why ethnonational groups pursue secession (Sorens, 2012) (see Table 2). Not included for special scrutiny are studies that focus on ethnic politics and conflict broadly rather than secessionism specifically.

Table 2. Findings in eight large-n studies of national secessionism and violence.


Jenne (2006)

Marshall and Gurr (2003)

Sorens (2012)

Walter (2006)

Cunningham (2013/2014)

Marshall and Gurr (2003)

Walter (2009)

Wimmer (2013b)

Number of cases









Type of cases

Ethnic groups

Politically active groups

Ethnonational groups

Ethnic groups

Self-determination groups

Self-determination groups

Ethnic groups

Sovereign states

Dependent variable

Claim to self-determination

Claim to self-determination

Secessionist claim

Claim to self-determination



Secessionist Violence

Secession Rebellion

Cultural motivations

Cultural difference








Social mobilization



Communication tech


Economic motivations







Economic advantage


Mineral wealth







Demographic stress


Tactical opportunities

Relative size




GDP per capita






State population






Gov’t instability










New state


Rebel cohesion



Mountainous terrain





Other groups



Logistical opportunities

Youth bulge



Transnational supp’t



Adjacent co-ethnics







Irredentist threat


Programmatic credibility

Geo concentration






Not in homeland


Previous autonomy






Group size



Geo separation


Sea access


Pol discrimination
















Imperial past


Federal state


Secession permitted


Prev concessions


Concessions others



Note: Symbols: + indicates a positive relationship significant at the .05 level; – indicates a negative relationship significant at the .05 level; 0 indicates a test with no significant relationship; [] indicate significance in only some equation specifications; {} indicate variable included in composite variable; ∙ indicates this independent variable not included in this equation. Adapted from Marshall and Gurr (2003, Tables 5.2, 5.3); Sorens (2012, Table 2.1, Models 1, 2); Walter (2006, Tables 1, 3); Cunningham (2013, Table 2); Cunningham (2014, Table 5.2, column 6); Walter (2009, Tables 5.1, 5.3); Wimmer (2013b, Table 5.3, column 2).

Cultural Identities and Divides

The literature on the role of identities divides over whether all minorities or only specific cultures are prone to national secessionism. Arguing that “a nation is a self-aware ethnic group,” Connor (1994) makes the case that ethnic groups typically become nations and demand statehood once they become self-aware. Wimmer extends this logic, arguing that “the principle of ethnonational representativity of governments—that like should rule over likes—became de rigueur for any legitimate state” (2013a, p. 90; also see Smith, 1981, 1986; Kaufman, 2001). Detailed studies of the origins of individual nation-state projects have recorded that the intellectuals who were present in the initial emergence of salon and classroom nations were often concerned with cultural issues such as language preservation in these early stages (Hutchinson, 1987). Yet, Lustick, Miodownik, and Eidelson (2004) demonstrate with a principal-agent model that rigorous deduction does not lead to the conclusion that “identitarian processes and pressures” alone lead to strong support for secession.

The identity thesis frequently begins with the conflation of the concepts of ethnic groups and nations (see Cobban, 1944, p. 48; Kymlicka, 1995, pp. 11, 18; Wimmer, 2013a, pp. 7–8). Yet, for purposes of empirical research, it is best to distinguish and perhaps overdraw the distinction between the two along lines suggested by Weber (1968, vol. 1, p. 389): Ethnic groups are cultural phenomena looking backward to common ancestors and experiences that constitute the current community; nations are political phenomena looking forward on the basis of a claim that the community should have (or should continue to have) a sovereign state on its homeland. Although ethnic identities influence the emergence of national claims—some on behalf of single ethnic groups, others on behalf of collections of ethnic groups—there is nothing inevitable, natural, or even typical about an ethnic group embracing the claim that its members constitute a nation with the right to a sovereign state of its own (see Brass, 1991; Kedourie, 1960; Lee, 2008). Nations (platform populations) in national-secession programs are political inventions (Hobsbawm, 1983).

A first hypothesis of the identity literatures is the expectation of the universality of nation-state projects. This hypothesis may not be easily rejected: Almost every ethnic group (and many concatenations of ethnic groups) has had at least one dreamer who has imagined an independent state on its behalf. Yet, few of these projects have become bases for campaigns that rally large parts of the platform population. Second, Gurr (2000, p. 67) refines this with the claim that, with greater cultural distance between minority and majority, the salience of minority identity for politics increases for more members of a platform population and so more successful campaigns are often associated with greater cultural distance. A third set of identity hypotheses focuses on specific cultural divides and this effort identifies at least six major clusters of independent variables. Fishman (1973, pp. 52–55; 1999, p. 445), Conversi (1997, pp. 162–186), and Vanhanen (1999, p. 59) hypothesize that language plays a central role in the process of contrastive self-identification, which becomes a powerful motivator for secessionism. Deutsch (1966) accords primacy to linguistic differentiation, but adds that more intense communication and the process of social mobilization are essential to the activation of this divide (also see Pye, 1966). Huntington (1996, pp. 137, 254) hypothesizes that religion is fundamental to defining “who we are” and that beliefs in different gods define the “fault lines” that should cleave states. Robinson (2000) hypothesizes that Islam’s tenets predispose Muslims to seek secession from non-Islamic states. Hastings (1997) proposes that nationalism is rooted in the Abrahamic tradition—a proposition from which one could deduce the hypothesis that Christians, Jews, and Muslims should all be more inclined than Buddhists, Confucians, Hindus, and ethnic religionists to support secessionist projects. Studies of the spread of the idea of the nation state and nations by Breuilly (1994), Lecours (2012), and Seton Watson (1977) suggest the hypothesis that differential exposure to the ideas of popular sovereignty and the nation state, which originated in the cultural milieu of the North Atlantic and spread to cultures in longest and most intense interaction with the original nation states, accounts for their different probabilities of becoming platforms for significant national-secession campaigns. Horowitz (1985, p. 267) hypothesizes that cultural heterogeneity of a platform population tends to weaken support for a secession project.

Studies that define their unit of analysis as ethnic groups or minorities at risk incorporate the assumption that cultural difference is a necessary condition for self-determination or secession. This may be a proper assumption, since some ethnic difference may well be necessary for national secession to coordinate a following: Norman (1999, p. 38) observes that “every serious secessionist movement [in the twentieth] century has involved ethno-cultural minorities.” And over 90% of the 171 major national-secession campaigns proposed a titular state, such as Croatia, Georgia, or Kurdistan, based on a single dominant ethnic group. Nonetheless, the evidence leaves us wanting a more precise formulation of the universality hypothesis. So far ethnic differences (in the absence of other causes) have not been sufficient to generate projects that claimed international attention: Only about 7% of some 3,741 largest ethnic groups were platforms or parts of platforms for one of the 171 major national-secession projects. And some major national-secession campaigns have been based on multi-ethnic coalitions such as Eritreans, South Sudanese, or East Timorese.

Rigorous comparative studies have not identified many cultural variables as significant and substantial constraints on the presence of secession or self-determination claims. In his study of voting for secessionist parties in democracies, Sorens (2008) finds that support for secessionism increases where there is a region-specific minority language and the more that language differs from the national language of the major ethnic group. In his comparative case studies of European nationalists, Hroch (2000, pp. 158, 165, 172) does not find that cultural unity or divisions within a platform population or a homeland influences the likelihood of national secession. In the large-n studies cited in Table 2, cultural difference or discrimination does not increase claims to self-determination in Jenne (2006), Marshall and Gurr (2003), or Walter (2009). Jenne (2006) finds that racial difference is negatively related national secession). Recently improving communication technology, but not the level of social mobilization, brings greater self-determination claims in Marshall and Gurr (2003) (also see Hibbs, 1973, pp. 175, 191).

Economic Grievances and Greed

Studies of protest politics and political rent-seeking highlight ways in which national-secession campaigns can draw on private or parochial grievances and greed. An individual’s grievance may give rise to a sense of injustice, relative deprivation, or disorientation under existing conditions, which is often associated with emotions such as anger, hatred, alienation, or resentment (Gurr, 1970; Petersen, 2002). Socio-economic change that is rapid and extensive makes adaptation more difficult, giving rise to “formlessness,” “deinstitutionalization,” “anomie,” and disorientation (Eckstein, 1988). In Greenfeld’s (1992, p. 15) account of the rise of nationalism, change can bring about ressentiment—“a psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred.” This literature that posits an emotion nexus awaits more careful specification of how different emotions affect the relationship between stimuli and response—such as whether the relationship is linear, exponential, or curvilinear. Alternatively, analyses of political rent-seeking substitute rational calculation for emotional response and postulate that individuals, constrained by the universal and fundamental economic problem of limited means to satisfy unlimited wants, turn to secession when it is profitable (Collier, 2000b, p. 839). Nonetheless, the attempt to reduce the causes or sources of national secessionism to economic micromotivations has been criticized for quite some time (see Anderson, von der Mehden, & Young, 1967, p. 72; Horowitz, 1985, p. 235).

Hypotheses about the impact of economic grievances on national secession have focused on poverty, inequality, and change, while hypotheses about greed focus on opportunities for gain. Hechter (1998, pp. 10, 39) hypothesizes that national secessionism is more likely when unequal economic development within a country gives rise to a cultural division of labor in which culturally distinct communities on the periphery occupy subordinate economic roles within an economy controlled from the industrial and financial centers of the core cultural community (also see Nairn, 2003; Wimmer, 2002, pp. 42, 104). Alternatively, Collier and Hoeffler (1998, p. 564; 2006, p. 38), who propose greed (or ambition) to explain secession, hypothesize that economically well-off regions are more likely to secede. Gellner (1964, pp. 167, 169) suggests the hypothesis that secession of “B-land” is more likely when it offers more opportunities for career advancement to intellectuals in the platform population (also see Alesina & Spolaore, 1997, pp. 1028, 1037; Wittman, 1991, p. 126). Ross (2004, p. 41) hypothesizes that lootable “resource wealth, if located on a country’s periphery or in an area populated by an ethnic minority, will give local residents a financial incentive to establish a separate state” (also see Le Billon, 2001).

Rigorous comparative research has not identified robust economic predictors of major national-secession campaigns. Comparative case studies have found little support for a relationship with poverty-based grievance. In his study of voting for secessionist parties in advanced democracies Sorens (2005, p. 96) finds that it is regions substantially wealthier than the national average that deliver the strongest vote for secessionist parties (also see Gourevitch, 1979; Hroch, 2000, p. 161; Roeder, 1991). In the large-n studies in Table 2, the link to relative poverty or economic inequality cannot be corroborated by the findings in Marshall and Gurr (2003), Sorens (2012), or Walter (2009). Yet, mounting demographic distress due to rapidly growing populations shows a statistically significant relationship with the likelihood of self-determination claims in Marshall and Gurr (2003). Jenne (2006) finds that economically advantaged groups are more likely to press national-secession claims. Yet, the link to lootable resources (mineral wealth or oil in the secessionists’ claimed homeland) is not corroborated by the findings in Sorens (2012) or Walter (2009).

Indeterminacy and Substitutability of Micromotivations

As these weak empirical findings suggest, perhaps prevailing theoretical premises have led us to look in the wrong places for independent variables. Hypotheses that generalize from identities, grievances, and ambitions to general patterns of national secessionism encounter two problems. First is indeterminacy. Identities and micromotivations certainly have been shown to give rise to political discontent, instability, and violence in individual cases, yet many members of ethnic groups with well-formed cultural identities, strong cultural or economic grievances, and ambitions for economic or political advancement do not draw the conclusion that the solution to their problems or ambitions is independence or at least may not focus on the same imagined nation state as the solution. Because there is no determinate link from these motivations to national secession, most identities, grievances, and greed cited in earlier studies are not sufficient to cause broad national secessionism in a platform population.

Second is substitutability. In the growth of national-secession campaigns, these identities and micromotivations are raw materials with which cadres work to recruit members of the platform population. The strategy developed by Lenin and others stresses that cadres must be artful at linking diverse identities, grievances, and ambitions to a common solution, and, typically, there is an abundance of these motivations that can be linked to the goal of national secession. As a consequence, the pattern of cultural identities and economic micromotivations in one national-secession campaign often differs from that in another. The only identity that is non-substitutable is the political identity (often created by the programs, propagated by the campaigns, and fostered by the cadres) associated with the proposed nation state. The only grievance that is non-substitutable is political dissatisfaction (also often fostered by the programs, campaigns, and cadres) that sees the current common-state as a prime obstacle to the fulfillment of individual aspirations. Other identities and micromotivations are substitutable one for another, so that identity, grievance, or ambition energizes many who come to a national-secession campaign, but no specific type of cultural identity, cultural or economic grievance, or economic ambition is necessary for a campaign to recruit a substantial following.

In addition, explanations focused on the micromotivations suffer three other limitations in explaining sustained protracted campaigns for independence. First, these micromotivations alone are likely to lead to agendas that are particularistic or parochial, and unlikely to focus on independence as a solution. Second, the motivations to support independence may not continue once personal or local concerns are addressed so that any activity on behalf of a campaign is more likely to be short-lived. And third, no one micromotivation is likely to recruit enough followers to mount a very large campaign on behalf of a new nation state. For these reasons, national-secession leaders must typically gather members of a platform population with a variety of micromotivations and work diligently to keep them united behind a common solution that will purportedly address their diverse aspirations, grievances, and ambitions. National-secession campaigns share this in common with revolutionary campaigns: As Kalyvas (2003, p. 486) notes, civil wars are often “concatenations of multiple and often disparate local cleavages, more or less loosely arrayed around the master cleavage.”

Still, it is important not to go too far in this argument: Collier’s (2000a, p. 13) assertion, that “conflict is not caused by division, rather it actively needs to create them,” misses the more complex relationship of these motivations to coordination behind a campaign program. The national-secession program creates a solution, but not the underlying identities, grievances, and ambition. While the solution is typically an invention of the campaign and must be propagated, the national-secession campaign must link this invented solution to real identities, grievances, and ambitions.

Remoteness of Tactical-Logistical Opportunities

The tactical and logistical opportunities that might (eventually) affect decisions to engage the common-state government in a contest of violence do not show a strong, consistent relationship to the decision to press national-secession claims. (These factors are discussed more fully in “Violence as a Tactic.”) In the large-n studies in Table 2, the presence of co-ethnics in an adjacent country predicts self-determination or secessionist claims in Marshall and Gurr (2003) and in Sorens (2012), but not in Jenne (2006) or Walter (2009). Rebel cohesion predicts greater claims in Marshall and Gurr (2003).

Alternatively, the relative size of the platform population, common-state governmental instability, and anocracy, which might influence the balance of capabilities, do not yield significant findings; the exception is governmental instability in one but not the other of Walter’s (2009) equations. Mountainous terrain in a country, which might give rebels a tactical advantage, and a youth bulge in the population, which might give rebels a logistical advantage, do not predict greater self-determination claims in Walter (2009), although Walter qualifies that the terrain finding might change with region-specific rather than national data. The number of other mobilized ethnic groups yields three contradictory results in the three studies. Transnational military support is positively related to national self-determination in Jenne (2006) but not in Marshall and Gurr (2003).

The Tenuousness of Most International Influences

The impact of international influences on the rise of national secession has been noted widely but seldom tested rigorously (see Sambanis, 2006). Aside from the direct effect of the diffusion of the idea of nationalism and interventions of foreign powers and intergovernmental organizations, the effect of other international influences tends to be more indirect, affecting one or the other of the variables identified as cultural or economic micromotivations or tactical-logistical opportunities. Because the causal chain is longer and the links uncertain at each step, the effects may not be easily corroborated in rigorous tests.

Nonetheless, speculative hypotheses needing refinement and testing concerning how international influences may increase national secession might spotlight not only the diffusion of the idea of nationalism and support from international actors, but also the ways in which longer-term trends such as globalization and complex interdependence are making small states more viable by providing access to global markets that are larger than the common-state markets the secessionist would leave behind, and by providing secure environments in which smaller states do not need to provide their own defense. Against these are equally speculative hypotheses that international influences may reduce national secession by reinforcing the norm of the integrity of existing sovereign states, fostering new transnational identities that make nationalism less salient to much of the platform population, and creating institutions for the resolution of disputes between national secessionists and common-states short of partition. Complicating both of these are still more complex hypotheses where the consequences of international influences vary among platform populations and common-states—for example, whether the platform population expects its local economy to benefit more from policies, such as liberal economic reform, supported by international institutions but not the common-state.

Secessionist Programs as Independent Variables

Missing from the search for explanatory variables in the earlier studies is the program itself. (By default, up to this point this has been deeded to the interpretivists rather than empirical political scientists.) A national-secession program describes the strategic goal, offers an action plan of operations and tactics for achieving this, and outlines the benefits that will follow from independence. Programs define a common goal around which campaigns seek to coordinate members of the platform population who are energized by diverse motivations, yet not all programs are equally well drafted to achieve this coordination. Thus, the program itself is often the critical independent variable that explains why some campaigns recruit broad support. For a program to serve this role as a common solution to diverse concerns, it must be perceived by members of the platform population as a project that many other members will see as authentic and realistic. Authenticity is the expectation that many other members of the platform population will recognize the nation as a real community. Realism is the expectation that many other members will see independence for the proposed state as a practical possibility. A program that leaves many in the platform population puzzled and incredulous—uncertain whether the nation exists and statehood is achievable—is much less likely to coordinate expectations.

Since individual members of platform populations cannot easily poll or even communicate with all other members, they rely on publicly visible cues that they expect other members to see and expect to coordinate expectations within the platform population. Members of the platform population (and outside observers) have greater reason to expect that a campaign will grow in size and remain stable over time when it builds on this “common knowledge.” National-secession campaigns that seek to coordinate these expectations in the platform population are at an advantage if they need to do less inventing: Projects that can rely on the evidence of already conventionalized definitions of populations, recognized patterns of settlement, historic precedents, and the absence of close alternatives are more likely to be seen as authentic and realistic by potential proponents and recruits (compare the discussion of legitimacy, which is closely related to the idea of authenticity, in Toft, 2002).

This suggests six hypotheses about the conditions under which campaigns are likely to coordinate more support behind the goal of national secession: First, programs based on cultural conventionalizations—such as standardized definitions of ethnic groups that have become common knowledge—facilitate the focusing of expectations in the platform population and so are more likely to result in major national-secession campaigns. Second, programs based on commonly identified homelands of the platform population facilitate this coordination and so are much more likely to result in major national-secession campaigns. Alternatively, projects based on invented nations, such as the Padanians, or homelands that cannot be easily identified, such as Romastan, are relatively handicapped. Third, an alternative homeland—particularly an independent nation state elsewhere—makes it more difficult to convince members of a platform population that the territory they currently occupy is their homeland and that they should become the platform for an independent nation state there. This is even true for contiguous homelands, even though this can be complicated by irredentist claims and the tactical-logistical value of these as safe havens. Fourth, current or prior statehood—particularly if it is recent—is a powerful cue to the realism of a project (Hechter & Levi, 1979; on the role of ancient statehood see Smith, 1986, pp. 64–65; Sullivan, 1988, p. 22.) Even concocted statehood, as long as it refers to a real state—such as Eritrea (see Erlich, 1983, p. 11)—can serve as a focal point by its power to suggest the realism of the goal of independence. Fifth, programs that can appeal to larger platform populations are more likely to be perceived as realistic by the members of this population than projects for boutique nation states. Sixth, opportunities to collaborate with the common-state reduce expectations that other members of the platform population will see the struggle through to independence, undermining the perceived realism of the program, and so result in less coordination around the national-secession campaign (McGarry, 1999, p. 225).

The large-n studies in Table 2 provide some corroboration of these hypotheses, although it was not the authors’ intention to test this theory. Geographic concentration of the platform population in an identifiable territory is a significant predictor of likelihood to press a self-determination claim in Marshall and Gurr (2003) and Walter (2009) but not in Jenne (2006). Previous statehood is a powerful predictor in Jenne (2006), Marshall and Gurr (2003), Sorens (2012), and Walter (2009). They argue that loss of statehood is also a source of grievance, but it is an object of immediate grievance for only a small elite segment of the platform population and unlikely to recruit broadly in the larger population unless linked by an authentic and realistic program to the resolution of the more immediate grievances and ambitions of the diverse platform population. Geographic separation and sea access to the proposed secessionist state, which increase the realism of the project, have positive relationships to secessionist claims in Sorens (2012). Obstacles to political collaboration with the common-state—political discrimination—strongly predict secession and self-determination claims in Sorens (2012) and Walter (2009), but negatively predict self-determination claims in Marshall and Gurr (2003). Indications that the common-state is open to secessionist demands—such as permitting secessionist organizations—reinforce the realism of the goal and predict greater secessionism in Sorens. Concessions to other ethnic groups by the common-state, which increase the realism of national-secession projects, increase the likelihood that ethnic groups without such concessions will press for national self-determination in Walter (2009).

Democracies are no less susceptible to self-determination claims in Jenne (2006), Marshall and Gurr (2003), and Walter (2009). This is precisely what we would predict from the programs of national-secession campaigns, since they seek states of their own, not participation in someone else’s state.

Violence as a Tactic

National-secession campaigns account for a substantial part of all political violence. The U.S. Department of the Army’s (2007, p. 3) Counterinsurgency Field Manual identifies secession as one of the two major goals of insurgencies in recent years. Of the 367 episodes of civil wars from 1945 to 2010, over two-fifths (44.7%) were associated with national-secession conflicts and another 3.3% with autonomy conflicts; the remaining 52% were divided among all other types of civil conflicts, such as military coups, revolutions, communist insurgencies, communal violence, and drug wars (this is based on data in Uppsala Conflict Data Program, 2011, excluding external wars—whether inter-state or colonial wars). Over a quarter (27.7%) of all attributable acts of domestic and international terrorism between 1970 and 2010 was associated with national-secession conflicts—perpetrated either in support of or in opposition to independence (this is based on data in National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2013). Wars associated with national secessionism have tended to leave more casualties, to last longer, to be more resistant to negotiated settlement, and to recur more frequently than other civil wars (also see Jenne, 2006, p. 27; Walter, 2009, p. 4). Between 1945 and 2010, episodes of national-secession civil wars tended to last about 21.9% longer than episodes of all other types of civil wars. The rate of recurrence—that is, the number of subsequent episodes divided by the number of first episodes—was about 24.1% higher in national-secession than in other types of conflicts. Nevertheless, the conditions under which violence is sensible for a national-secession campaign are uncommon: Less than two-fifths (66) of the 171 major national-secession campaigns were parties to civil wars that claimed at least 25 lives in a single year between 1945 and 2010. Only a quarter (43 of 170) was associated with terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2010 (these data are drawn from Roeder, under review).

The most intense campaigns were located in North Africa and the Middle East (associated with the South Sudan and three Kurdistan projects) and in South and East Asia (Tamil Eelam, Kashmir, Timor Leste, Kawthoolei, and Khalistan projects) (see Table 3; although countries in North Africa and the Middle East faced fewer national-secession campaigns than other countries, the campaigns were much more likely to engage in protracted intense violence than campaigns in other parts of the world). These were followed more distantly by Subsaharan Africa (Eritrea, Oromia, and Ogaden projects) and the Communist/post-Communist states (Chechnya/Ichkeria, Republika Srpska, and Nagornyi Karabakh projects).

Table 3. Lethal violence per campaign, grouped by region, 1970–2006 (Percentage of projects reaching 25 deaths in one or more years).

Region (Number of Campaigns)

Percentage of Projects

Average Percentage of Campaign-Years

North Africa/Mid-East (14)



South and East Asia (45)



Communist/Post- (38)



Subsaharan Africa (39)



Western Europe (23)



Western Hemisphere (9)



Australia/Oceania (1)



Global (169)



Note: (*) Singapore dropped because it achieved independence prior to this period; Bangladesh dropped since the denominator is only two years. Adapted from Roeder (under review).

Those national-secession campaigns that do use violence typically have little prospect of armed victory over the common-state government. To the extent their expectations are constrained by their own operational weakness and the empirical evidence from other countries, strategically minded national-secession leaders have little reason to plan to use protracted intense struggle to induce their common-state governments to grant independence—at least to not directly induce such a concession. Most must wait for collapse at the center. Looking closely at the 26 successful secessions from 1945 to 2016, one lesson to be learned is that the most practical operational objective in violence in order to gain independence is to induce intervention by third parties on the secessionists’ behalf. The 26 cases of successful secession show that in six or eight cases (Bangladesh, Bosnia, Eritrea, Kosovo, Timor Leste, and South Sudan, and possibly Croatia and Slovenia as well), violence brought independence, but only by influencing foreign interventions against the common-state. Prior to that ultimate act, when violence is used as a tactic by national-secession campaigns, the operational objective in the choice of violence is typically to coordinate the platform population behind the goal of independence and demonstrate to the international community the futility of trying to hold together the common-state.

Identifying the conditions under which national secessionists are likely to choose tactics other than violence is an issue in need of substantial theoretical development and empirical study. Beissinger (2002) offers an exceptional study of “waves of nationalist mobilization” in the USSR and highlights the effect of these demonstrations on identity formation. Studies of violence associated with national-secession campaigns are more common, but empirical studies often substitute operational measures such as ethnic wars or identity wars in their analyses (e.g., Collier & Hoeffler, 2006; Morelli & Rohner, 2015). This may be a consequence of a common assumption that the program of the national secessionists is endogenous to other constraints (Buhaug, 2006) or inconsequential. Nonetheless, this leaves us unable to discern precisely any relationship to national secession in these studies. In reviewing the literature on violence, I identify the postulates, hypotheses, and empirical findings and give special attention to the large-n studies of either secessionist or self-determination violence in two studies by Cunningham (2013, 2014) and one apiece by Marshall and Gurr (2003), Walter (2009), and Wimmer (2013b).

Indeterminacy and Substitutability of Micromotivations

Explanations for violence by national-secession campaigns that focus on cultural and economic motivations (identities, grievances, and greed) once again suffer the indeterminacy and substitutability that lead to weak and less-than-robust findings. Culturalist theories of national-secession violence often postulate that greater identity with an ethnic or cultural community is likely to be associated with heightened sensitivity to wrongs against the community, a search for scapegoats, a willingness to sacrifice for the cause of a nation, and a readiness to act out, so that, as Cottam and Cottam (2001, p. 95) claim, “the intensity of emotional responses to threats or opportunities for the nationalist will be strong and volatile.” This association of violence with greater cultural identity with one’s own group and awareness of differences from the “other” population in the common-state is formulated in social identity theory, building on the pioneering work of Tajfel (1970), in the postulate that “the mere presence of different groups is sufficient to cause conflict and competition” (Cottam, Dietz-Uhler, Mastors, & Preston, 2010, p. 201). Connor (1994, pp. 82, 84) warned of “the formidable threat that ethnic heterogeneity poses to political stability. . . .”

There is an abundance of hypotheses identifying cultural influences that are likely to give rise to ethnic violence, but only a few distinguish secessionist violence. Like many culturalists, Pye (1966, p. 136) hypothesizes that deeper ethno-cultural divides or greater cultural distances (“sharp division” based on “regional, ethnic, linguistic, class, religious, or other communal differences”) increase the likelihood of violence on behalf of national secession. Kaufman (2001, pp. 27–34) hypothesizes that violence is more likely to occur when a “widely known and accepted myth-symbol complex” justifies hostility to the other group and supports “fear that the existence of their group is at stake.” Huntington (1996, pp. 183, 263–264) hypothesizes that “the most violent fault lines are between Islam and its Orthodox, Hindu, African, and Western Christian neighbors”—what he labels “the bloody borders of Islam.” Brubaker (1996, p. 108) identifies as particularly destabilizing and prone to violence the triangular interplay among nationalizing, homeland, and minority nationalisms, which lead to the break-up of states and violence (also see Ellingsen, 2000, p. 234).

In the empirical large-n comparisons specifically focused on secessionist or self-determination violence in Table 2, Wimmer (2013b) finds a positive relationship between ethnolinguistic fragmentation of the population and the likelihood a country will experience such violence. Cultural division is not significant in Walter (2009) and social mobilization is not in Marshall and Gurr (2003). Otherwise, cultural variables have been conspicuously absent from the independent variables tested. The Brubaker hypothesis concerning the effects of division of the platform population by international boundaries has been tested indirectly by independent variables for adjacent co-ethnics. Cunningham (2013) finds a positive relationship in one study but not the other (Cunningham, 2014); Walter (2009) finds no significant relationship.

Few theories postulating economic micromotivations have advanced separate hypotheses to explain the use of violence by national secessionists (for an exception see Collier & Hoeffler, 2006), and so more general explanations for violence—such as absolute or relative poverty—have by default been most common. Contrary to the “consensus” view that the risk of civil war increases with absolute or relative poverty and low levels of economic development (Blattman & Miguel, 2010, p. 4), there is no consensus in the findings of large-n empirical studies of self-determination and secessionist violence in Table 2. Testing the effect of economic inequality (discrimination), Cunningham (2013) finds a positive relationship with violence by self-determination groups, but Walter (2009) finds no significant relationship to secessionist violence. Close studies of national-secession campaigns find no tidy relationship between poverty or underdevelopment and protracted intense national-secession struggles (e.g., Clark, 1984, p. 147; Zürcher, 2007, pp. 220–221). As Aspinall (2007, p. 968) finds in the Aceh separatist conflict in Indonesia, it takes “hard ideological work by nationalist political entrepreneurs to transform unfocused resentments about natural resources into grievances that would manifest violence.”

Remoteness of Tactical-Logistical Considerations

The tactical and logistical opportunities that affect the “feasibility” of conducting an armed struggle against the central government are remote from the operational tasks facing most national-secession campaign leaders. In the feasibility thesis, as Collier and Hoeffler (1998, p. 564) argue, “the incentive for rebellion is the product of the probability of victory and its consequences.” And “the probability of victory depends upon the capacity of the government to defend itself.” Yet, due to operational weakness, it is rare that a national-secession campaign can aspire to achieve armed victory on its own, even against a weakened common-state government, except in extremis (when the common-state government is in the process of collapsing, but by then violence may be unnecessary for victory). As Wimmer (2013b, p. 136) summarizes his own findings: Wars conducted by national secessionists “cannot be interpreted as merely opportunistic reactions to a weakening imperial grip on power. . . .”

Hypotheses deducible from the feasibility postulate identify political, geographic, and resource opportunities that should lead to greater violence by national-secession campaigns. By this logic, weak common-state governments create opportunities for victories through arms. Favorable geographic or topographic opportunities for an armed struggle include distance of the secessionist homeland from the seat of the common-state government, geographical separation of the homeland from the common-state territory, proximity of the homeland to an international border, an adjacent safe haven, and a homeland in mountainous terrain. Resource opportunities for logistical support include a well-resourced diaspora, local lootable resources, and adjacent co-ethnics providing personnel, materiel, and protection. (These are derived from the general literature on political violence; see, e.g., Fearon & Laitin, 2003; deRouen & Sobek, 2004.)

Comparative case studies of national secession have drawn competing inferences about the importance of these tactical and logistical constraints. There are mixed conclusions on the influence of geography as a predictor of protracted intense struggles by national-secession campaigns (compare Zürcher, 2007, pp. 221–223; Anderson, von der Mehden, & Young, 1967, p. 70). Many close studies of diasporas, particularly resourced diasporas, conclude that these have constituted an important source of logistical support for violence in some instances (Collier, 2000a; see e.g., in Fair, 2005; Mirak, 1997; Pool, 2001; Romano, 2006; Sheffer, 2003; Zimmermann, 1996). Yet, comparative studies have not corroborated the hypotheses that either the size or the wealth of diasporas increases the likelihood of secessionist violence. Comparative studies of lootable resources have not corroborated the hypothesis that national-secession campaigns are as constrained as other campaigns by the availability of this logistical support: Collier and Hoeffler (2006) and Morelli and Rohner (2015, p. 40) provide compelling evidence that identity and ethnic wars are more likely in oil-rich countries or where the territories of ethnic minorities contain a larger share of the country’s oil. Nonetheless, Michael L. Ross ranks 36 civil wars in the 1990s by the proportionate share of primary-commodity exports in the common-state’s gross domestic product. The 14 secessionist civil wars were less than half as likely to be associated with more resource-dependent countries (Ross, 2004, p. 47; also see Sorens, 2012, p. 129).

The large-n empirical studies of self-determination and secessionist violence in Table 2 show little consistent corroboration of these hypotheses that focus on tactical-logistical opportunities. The balance of capabilities (relative size) between government and self-determination groups yields a positive relationship in one Cunningham (2013) study, but not in Walter (2009). Lower state capacity—measured by lower GDP per capita—brings greater self-determination violence in one Cunningham (2013) study, but not in Walter (2009) or Wimmer (2013b). An overburdened state that contributes to state weakness (measured by the greater governance load brought on by a larger national population) yields positive findings in Wimmer (2013b), in one of Walter’s (2009) equations, but not in Cunningham’s (2014) indirect test through a composite variable. Regime weakness measured by governmental instability, anocracy, or newness of statehood yields no significant results in Cunningham (2014), Walter (2009), or Wimmer (2013b). Rebel cohesion, which might be interpreted as a measure of secessionist capacity, actually reduces the likelihood of violence in both Cunningham (2013, 2014) studies. Logistical constraints yield the same inconclusive results: A youth bulge does not increase secessionist violence, according to the findings of Walter (2009). Adjacent co-ethnics increase the likelihood of self-determination violence in one Cunningham (2013) study, but not in the other (Cunningham, 2014) or in Walter (2009).

The Programmatic Account of Violence

Under the constraint of operational weakness, violence to achieve armed victory over the common-state government may not even be considered an option. Strategically minded national-secession campaign leaders typically use violence to promote programmatic coordination within the platform population. As propaganda by other means, violent acts can be some of the most visible and persuasive cues seen by many members of the platform population and interpreted as common evidence of the authenticity and realism of the program for independence (for examples of this use of violence by national-secession campaigns, see Clark, 1984; Kingsbury, 2009; Romano, 2006; Sullivan, 1988; also see Kydd & Walter, 2006). Thus, for national-secession campaign leaders the chief operational objectives of protracted intense struggles are typically to expand enthusiasm for the goal of independence, to foster expectations of its practicality among still more members of the platform population, to demonstrate this coordination of the platform population around the national-secession program, and, so, to deprive the common-state government and international community of any hope that holding together the common-state is a viable option.

Yet, with this operational objective, a key constraint on the choice of this tactic is the expected response of the platform population to violence. That is, the assessments of the platform population of the authenticity and realism of a national-secession project are both the purpose of protracted intense struggles and the chief constraint on the choice of a protracted intense struggle. Attempting to stage and sustain protracted violence is prudent only when campaign leaders are reasonably certain that the call to action will not reveal a serious lack of support for the cause, but instead will clearly demonstrate the resistance of broad segments of the platform population to compromise with the common-state government on the issue of independence (also see Toft, 2003.) Yet, where the platform population is not already aligned behind the goal of independence, protracted intense violence is more likely to open up sharp divisions among leaders and cadres over the campaign’s action plan, alienate members of the platform population who are unwilling to bear the costs of such a struggle, and, by revealing the hollowness of claims of imminent independence, undermine the perception of programmatic realism. Sporadic acts of violence that impose fewer costs on the platform population may be prudent tactics when programmatic coordination is still weak, but a protracted violent struggle with mounting costs to the platform population is prudent only when the platform population is broadly and solidly behind the goal of independence.

Thus, national-secession leaders who consider a protracted intense struggle must first of all take stock of the authenticity and realism of the program for independence (and alternative programs) in the eyes of members of the platform population (also see Paret & Shy, 1962, pp. 8, 19, 21; Mao, 1961, p. 43). Yet, this is decision-making with imperfect information under substantial uncertainty: The responses of the platform population depend on attitudes that are typically costly for leaders to measure ex ante. The leaders have reason to suspect that many members are keeping their true intentions a closely guarded secret, since early truthful revelation of support for either side could be costly. Indeed, the members of the platform population may be uncertain how they will actually respond in the future, since this will depend on the responses of others. (This may, of course, result in information cascades; see Lohmann, 1994.) Thus, campaign leaders (as well as analysts) must rely on observable cues that provide low-cost “evidence” of whether to expect that members of the platform population will accept the costs of a protracted intense struggle for independence. The more that these cues suggest that members of the platform population expect that other members will see the doctrine’s claim to nationhood as authentic and the action plan for statehood as realistic, the more likely it is that a campaign will engage in a protracted violent struggle.

On the basis of this theoretical foundation, the following hypotheses follow: First, evidence of separateness (such as geographic, ethnic, or historical separation) increases expectations that other members of the platform population will see the program for independence as authentic and realistic. On this expectation, campaign leaders are more likely to calculate that the platform population will remain committed to the goal of independence, even as the costs of violence increase, and, so, on this expectation, campaign leaders are more likely to choose the tactic of protracted intense struggle. Second, cues to the authenticity and realism of a project include a previous sovereign, previous non-sovereign, or current non-sovereign titular-state on the national homeland proposed for independence. And so campaign leaders are more likely to choose protracted intense violence when their project for independence aligns with such cues as previous statehood, a current segment-state, or a de facto state (see the debate in Hoddie & Hartzell, 2014). Third, the size of the platform population, by supporting expectations that other members of the platform population will see the project for independence as realistic, should also increase the likelihood of protracted intense violence. Fourth, higher expected costs of political participation in the common-state lower expectations of defections within the platform population to the common-state project (even as the costs of violence mount), and so increase the likelihood that campaign leaders will choose the tactic of protracted intense violence. These costs might include having to “pass,” to learn the state language, or to convert to the state religion in order to enjoy full rights of participation.

The findings in the large-n empirical studies of self-determination and secessionist violence in Table 2 are broadly consistent with these hypotheses, although it was not the authors’ intentions to advance this specific theory. Territorial concentration of the platform population is positively related to secessionist violence in Walter (2009), but not in Cunningham (2013). Previous statehood associated with a project and concessions by the common-state to other groups are both positively related to secessionist violence in Walter (2009). Similarly, a past of indirect, imperial rule over the secessionist population and its homeland, rather than direct incorporation into a common nation state, is positively related to secessionist violence in Wimmer (2013b). Yet, concessions to the secessionist population reduce the likelihood of self-determination violence in Cunningham (2014). Political exclusion (that is, high costs to collaboration with the common-state government as a result of discrimination against or exclusion of an ethnic group from the governing elite) is positively related to violence in Cunningham (2013) and Wimmer (2013b), but not in Marshall and Gurr (2003) or in Walter 2009). Yet, political repression is positively related in Marshall and Gurr (2003).

Democracy in the common-state does not affect the likelihood of violence in secessionist and self-determination struggles according to Cunningham (2013) and Walter (2009). Once again, this is a telling finding: The goals of a campaign affect the set of mutually acceptable compromises.

Responses to National-Secession Campaigns

The responses to national secessionism receiving the greatest attention have divided among institutional, policy, and military responses. Muddling-through is common but has received less attention as a conscious strategy for managing national-secession conflicts. These responses suggest diverse hypotheses in need of rigorous empirical testing—hypotheses explaining why common-state governments respond in specific ways, which responses national secessionists are more likely to accept under different circumstances, and the consequences of these responses for further secessionism and violence.

Institutional Responses

Despite the extensive literature on the institutions to accommodate diversity, there is much less research explicitly focused on institutional responses to national secession—when conflict concerns pursuit of independence rather than greater participation in the existing common-state or more favorable policies. Although diverse in their specifics, these institutional responses divide among four broad strategies—recognition of a separate sovereign nation state for the national secessionists (often labeled “partition”), various international and domestic institutional compromises recognizing the separatists’ nation state short of full sovereignty, recognition of the peoplehood claims of the secessionists without granting statehood (such as communal autonomy), and no explicit institutional accommodation of either the peoplehood or statehood of the national secessionists (such as a unitary common-state) (also see Coakley, 2003). The failure in the literature to use a common terminology has meant that terms such as partition, power-sharing, or ethnofederalism refer to very different universes of cases in different studies, and, as a consequence, what are cast as debates over these strategies or variants sometimes disguise substantial agreement, and empirical findings do not always constitute an accumulation of knowledge. Although it is typically unstated, a key divide in the approach to institutions is the extent to which different authors emphasize the role of institutions as means to satisfy the micromotivations ascribed to secessionists (e.g., Sambanis & Milanovic, 2014), constraints shaping the strategic environment that makes violence more or less necessary and prudent (Kaufmann, 1996; Posen, 1993), or tactical-logistical assets that empower different participants to advance either the national-secession or common-state program (Roeder, 2007). Lustick, Miodownik, and Eidelson (2004) demonstrate how conclusions about the consequences of different institutional arrangements are highly sensitive to the assumptions that the analyst makes in beginning the deductive process. These studies would benefit from closer attention to the timing of the introduction of institutional reforms—when in the evolution of a national-secession conflict—and the length of time before the predicted political effects should appear.

Policy and scholarly communities, with the notable exception of political philosophers, have typically rejected partition as an option for managing national-secession disputes, unless it appears that a peaceful and democratic common-state is no longer a viable option. Wittman (1991) hypothesizes that states are increasingly likely to agree to divide as the transaction costs of administering a more heterogeneous common-state begin to exceed the transaction costs of managing inter-state relations between new secessionist and rump states (also see Bolton & Roland, 1997). Griffiths (2015, 2016) argues that the decision of common-state governments to grant independence is constrained by their desire to limit the downsizing of the common-state and to protect the core of the state, and so grants of independence are constrained by the administrative structure of the state. The two “expulsions” since 1945 (Singapore and Slovakia) suggest that common-state governments are more likely to accept secession when continued unity threatens the power of the common-state governing elite (as in Malaysia) or achievement of its key policy objectives (as in Czechoslovakia). Sambanis (2000), Chapman and Roeder (2007), Johnson (2008), and Sambanis and Schulhofer-Wohl (2009) have formulated competing claims about the consequences of partition and tested these in rigorous empirical studies, but they differ sharply in their conclusions about the consequences for peace.

International institutional arrangements recognizing the statehood and peoplehood claims of national secessionists received new attention in the wake of the conflicts in the Soviet and Yugoslav successor states (e.g., Krasner, 2004). Proposals for international innovations to resolve these conflicts focused on three major international institutional variants—new sovereign union-states (such as a new Transcaucasus federation) above the new rump and national-secessionist states, which would be co-equal, but subordinate, constituents of the union; condominiums involving some external great power or international organization (such as the UN Trusteeship Council) as a co-sovereign (alongside the common-state government) in the governance of a subordinate national-secessionist state; and new intergovernmental organizations (frequently referred to as “confederations”) between new secessionist and rump states, which would exercise sovereignty through veto or opt-out provisions. The causal hypotheses concerning the consequences of each variant for peace need to be tested empirically—perhaps with narrative and comparative studies of most-nearly-similar institutional arrangements.

Debates over domestic institutional reforms to address ethnic diversity or divided societies infrequently address the issue of national secession explicitly and seldom consider the extent to which the strategic goal of the national secessionists may limit the set of mutually acceptable compromises. The accumulation of findings in these debates is limited because participants frequently use the same terms to refer to different universes of cases and often blur the distinction between comprehensive constitutional arrangements and individual institutions when using similar labels. Proposals such as Nordlinger’s (1972) conflict-regulation, Lijphart’s (1977) consociation, and Roeder’s (2005) power-dividing originally did not refer to individual institutions, but to comprehensive constitutional arrangements. Proposals for narrower institutional reforms have focused on electoral rules for parliamentary representation (e.g., Reilly, 2001) and forms of homeland autonomy (e.g., Hale, 2004; McGarry & O’Leary, 2015). Despite excellent, rigorous tests, such as Brancati’s (2006) studies of the consequences of decentralization for support of regional parties in democracies and Morelli and Rohner’s (2015) study of its consequences for civil wars in all countries, we have less analysis of the effects of different institutions in explicitly national-secession conflicts.

Policy and Practices

In addition to formal institutional arrangements are the rights regimes, distributive policies, and representative practices of governments. Even unitary common-states without institutional accommodation of national secessionists, which account for the majority of states, may adopt rights regimes that run the spectrum from fostering minority cultures to forced assimilation, policies from compensatory to discriminatory redistribution, and representative practices from affirmative action and central power-sharing to rigid discrimination and exclusion. Wimmer (2013b, pp. 149–156, 162–166) stresses that cooptation into executive governmental offices—what he labels a “power configuration” to contrast it with formal institutions—can lead to broader sharing of public goods and have a particularly powerful effect in lessening secessionist rebellion. Much further research is needed on these regimes, policies, and practices; their relationship to the formal constitutional and institutional arrangements discussed in the previous paragraph; and their consequences in responding to national secession.

Fighting National Secessionists

Why common-state governments choose to fight national secessionists rather than let them go with independence has traditionally been explained by the extent to which common-state governments see secession as threatening their own nation state, which may include the secessionists and their homeland as a part. More recent studies have explained these responses by the extent to which the precedent of one secession will cause further secession: Walter (2009, pp. 24–27) argues that the number of other potential secessionist groups constrains common-state governments in granting independence to any one of these. Griffiths (2015, pp. 736–742; 2016, pp. 29–38) argues that the number of administrative units that are similar to the secessionists’ and their proximity to the core of the metropole is the chief constraint. Why common-state governments should find a single secession acceptable, but more secessions unacceptable, needs further explanation.

Once common-state governments decide to fight, there may well be a distinctive way of countering national secessionists that calls for substantial refinement of the counterinsurgency strategies drawn from analyses of revolutionary wars. This is true to the extent that the distinguishing strategic goal of national-secession campaigns shapes their operational tasks, their tactical use of violence, the allies they can expect to draw from around the world, and the compromises they are likely to find acceptable. Before we can draw such a conclusion, however, we will need careful empirical testing of at least five broad hypotheses that follow from the programmatic account offered in previous sections: First, where national secessionists use violence for programmatic coordination within their platform populations, the major battle is a war for minds, and the core of the common-state response to national-secession campaigns must be an authentic and realistic program that offers an alternative doctrine of nationhood and statehood. Second, where a national-secession campaign has made major advances in programmatic coordination, the role for material incentives to encourage more pragmatic members of the platform population to defect from the national-secession campaign will be substantially smaller (compare Wintrobe, 2006, p. 169). Third, without an authentic and realistic common-state program of national unity, material incentives to defect from the national-secession campaign, such as development programs, may only buy the common-state government a temporary reprieve until the national-secession campaign, with leadership and staff still coordinated on the campaign goal, reconstitutes itself by building on substitute grievances and ambitions. Fourth, in the war for minds, the common-state government bears the primary burden; actions by outside powers conducted in a manner that makes it appear that the central government’s promises are actually the work of outsiders may make the common-state’s task of engaging the war for minds even more difficult. Fifth, early, even anticipatory, responses are critical: Where the campaign has actually achieved programmatic preemption within its platform population, it may be too late for a war of programs; opportunities for persuasion are limited and unlikely to reopen for a generation or more.

Patience, Frozen Conflicts, and Quasi-States

One option for common-state governments and the international community is to do nothing and permit the status quo to continue, yet we have little rigorous analysis of this option. The disputes between national-secession campaigns and common-state governments can become intractable—with neither side willing to concede or compromise (Goddard, 2006). Intractable disputes can drag on without violence or with only sporadic violence for as much as a century (Euskadi) or with violence that drags on for decades (Kawthoolei, Eritrea); formal negotiations over “frozen conflicts” (such as the Cyprus stalemate) may drag on for decades with little progress. More research might offer a clearer understanding of the conditions likely to give rise to intractable conflicts and the consequences of permitting intractable conflicts to continue. One area that has attracted such scrutiny is the study of quasi-states (e.g., Kolstø, 2006; King, 2001; Caspersen, 2012; Pegg, 1998). Rigorous comparative case studies could sharpen our understanding of the different consequences of long-term truces patrolled by peacekeeping operations, long-term stalemates without peacekeeping, long-term wars, and armed victory by either national secessionists or common-state governments.

What Have We Learned and What Remains?

This article stresses the many uncorroborated claims about national secession so as to invite more empirical research—particularly from the next generation of scholars. So far, our individual research efforts have failed to compile a long list of robust findings. A first remedy may be for the community of scholars to define the universe of cases and phenomena studied more precisely and consistently. This need not require anyone to abandon his or her current research agendas, but to agree on a terminology that facilitates transparency and communication. A second remedy may be more careful explication of the theoretical foundations and causal logic linking dependent to independent variables. And a third may be operationalizations that more precisely measure the “true variables” in our arguments and that are not themselves ambiguous indicators of multiple causal constraints. (To cite just one example, gross domestic product per capita has been used as an index of such varied “true variables” as poverty-based grievance and state capacity.) All this requires careful design of empirical research, avoiding the temptation of shortcuts like preexisting data sets and variables that imperfectly reflect the actual research questions.

Nonetheless, we have learned something important that is not limited to the study of national secession: The goals and strategies of political actors need to be featured prominently in our analyses. The most important explanations for political outcomes may lie close to the realm we call politics rather than in more distant realms of culture, economics, or military tactics and logistics. Politics is often the realm in which individuals with very different ideational, power, and material motivations come together behind common political solutions. If we take seriously the goals and strategies of key actors in politics, then we will take seriously what they are fighting about.


I thank Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, Brian Engelsma, Jason Sorens, and Barbara Walter for their very careful reading and thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this article that improved it enormously.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (1.) A campaign in this context is a course of action designed to arouse public opinion for or against some political objective. This usage highlights a contrast with the concept of a movement, which may embrace diverse or changing political objectives.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (2.) A platform population comprises the individuals that a campaign claims constitute the nation on which the new sovereign state should be based. The sovereign state that is currently in common to the secessionists and the rump they would leave behind is labeled the “common-state” (such as Georgia or Spain) so as to distinguish it from any segment-states (such as Abkhazia or Catalonia) that may exist within it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              (3.) As defined more fully in Section 4.6, a program presents a strategic goal and outlines a course of action to realize that objective.