Analysis

Breaking Up Is Bad for the United States

Talk of secession is on the rise among Americans—and already weakening the country.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz adjusts his face mask.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz adjusts his face mask while then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the second day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 13, 2020. Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images

What is the United States’ greatest advantage relative to other countries? Is it the country’s large and still innovative economy? No doubt economic strength is important, but how did the U.S. economy get so big? Is it America’s well-armed, well-trained, and far-flung military? Military power is obviously valuable, but what allows Washington to deploy these forces all over the world and worry relatively little about defending the homeland? Or is the secret ingredient the United States’ array of allies? Guess again: Some U.S. allies add to its strength, others create more problems than they solve, and others are more like protectorates rather than meaningful additions to U.S. power.

In fact, America’s unique advantage has been its status as the only great power in the Western Hemisphere—and thus, the only “regional hegemon” in modern political history. By expanding across North America, assimilating incoming immigrants, and maintaining high birth rates for many years, what were originally 13 weak and loosely connected colonies grew into the world’s largest economy in little over a century. With no powerful rivals nearby, the United States also enjoyed a level of “free security” other great powers could only dream of.

The resulting combination of size, population, and economic might allowed the United States to create a vast military establishment, beginning when it mobilized for war in the late 1930s. At the same time, geographic isolation freed the United States from having to spend a lot of time and money defending its own soil. It also allowed the United States to enter the two World Wars later than anyone else and left its territory unscathed during those destructive global cataclysms. Distance helped make the United States an especially attractive ally during the Cold War: It was strong enough to help protect its distant partners but sufficiently far away that they didn’t worry the United States might try to subjugate them.

What is the United States’ greatest advantage relative to other countries? Is it the country’s large and still innovative economy? No doubt economic strength is important, but how did the U.S. economy get so big? Is it America’s well-armed, well-trained, and far-flung military? Military power is obviously valuable, but what allows Washington to deploy these forces all over the world and worry relatively little about defending the homeland? Or is the secret ingredient the United States’ array of allies? Guess again: Some U.S. allies add to its strength, others create more problems than they solve, and others are more like protectorates rather than meaningful additions to U.S. power.

In fact, America’s unique advantage has been its status as the only great power in the Western Hemisphere—and thus, the only “regional hegemon” in modern political history. By expanding across North America, assimilating incoming immigrants, and maintaining high birth rates for many years, what were originally 13 weak and loosely connected colonies grew into the world’s largest economy in little over a century. With no powerful rivals nearby, the United States also enjoyed a level of “free security” other great powers could only dream of.

The resulting combination of size, population, and economic might allowed the United States to create a vast military establishment, beginning when it mobilized for war in the late 1930s. At the same time, geographic isolation freed the United States from having to spend a lot of time and money defending its own soil. It also allowed the United States to enter the two World Wars later than anyone else and left its territory unscathed during those destructive global cataclysms. Distance helped make the United States an especially attractive ally during the Cold War: It was strong enough to help protect its distant partners but sufficiently far away that they didn’t worry the United States might try to subjugate them.

From this perspective, the Northern victory in the Civil War was a critical moment with far-reaching implications. Preserving the union enabled the country to complete its western expansion and eventually amass capabilities that dwarfed its neighbors. Had the South won the war and gained independence, the two resulting countries would each have been weaker and almost certainly remained wary rivals for many years. One can easily imagine the two states fighting again, and foreign powers would have meddled in hemispheric affairs by allying with either the North or the South or with Mexico and Canada. International politics in North and Central America would have become more like the multipolar continent of Europe, where rival great powers feared each other, competed for power and influence, and occasionally fought punishing wars.

I was reminded of all this when I read that Republican Sen. Ted Cruz told a group of students that Texas might have to secede (again) if Democrats tried to “destroy the country.” Granted, Cruz is a grandstanding popinjay whose idea of political responsibility consists of flying off to vacation in Cancún while his constituents shiver through a brutal power outage. He may not have meant what he said, but he clearly thinks this kind of loose talk will rebound to his political advantage. It is also the height of cynicism for Cruz to warn about Democrats trying to pack the Supreme Court or “expand voter fraud” when it is the modern GOP doing everything in its power to disenfranchise voters and gerrymander its way into permanent minority rule.

Secessionist movements have been part of the political scene for a long time, of course, and they typically don’t amount to much. Moreover, as writer Casey Michel noted in Politico last year, modern secessionism is less about actually leaving the union than about trying to obstruct government initiatives that certain groups don’t like. Even so, some polls suggest that support for various secessionist proposals is uncomfortably high, and a growing number of people (overwhelmingly on the political right) are now willing to threaten physical violence against elected officials whose views they oppose. And I hear that an armed mob even invaded Congress to overturn last year’s presidential election, and its actions are being whitewashed and defended by prominent politicians, including some of its possible targets.

Moreover, it’s not as if the “secessionist obstructionist” impulse is wholly confined to the political right. California defied former U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental protection measures and its threats to withhold federal health care funds over abortion rights, and Massachusetts filed numerous lawsuits to block a wide array of Trump-era initiatives, often in league with other like-minded states. If a future president tried to enact Gilead-style social policies or further stack the electoral map in his or her party’s favor, it is not inconceivable that blue states in the west or northeast would simply refuse to go along.

There are two dangers here. The most obvious (and likely) is that polarization and obstructionism make it impossible for the government to take prompt and effective action in critical policy domains, no matter which party is in power. Need I remind Americans that this shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot tendency is precisely what Chinese President Xi Jinping is counting on and is central to China’s claims that it has a superior political model? The less likely but more worrisome possibility is existing divisions will harden and today’s loose talk about secession starts to gain real political momentum.

Do I think this outcome is likely? Certainly not. Established nations rarely break up, and civil wars are even less common among democracies unless—here’s the scary part—their political institutions are weak or failing. But this danger should not be entirely dismissed. A few democracies have split up in recent decades, and secessionist efforts can be a costly distraction even when they ultimately fail, as the cases of Quebec, Catalonia, and Scotland all suggest.

Here’s the part I don’t get. Despite the many blunders that have occurred on the United States’ watch (Iraq, the Iran-Contra affair, the 9/11 attacks, North Korea’s nuclear test, etc.) Republicans like to portray themselves as responsible grown-ups when it comes to national security. Yet they also seem ardently opposed to any serious effort to prepare the country for a serious geopolitical competition. One can disagree with a lot of the Biden administration’s policy proposals, but its objectives shouldn’t be controversial: Reduce polarization; put the pandemic behind us; maintain the United States’ technological edge; and enhance long-term productivity by investing in infrastructure, health, education, and other broad social goods. Oh, and stop destroying the environment that human life depends on. These initiatives might not work, but the goal is to make most Americans better off and put the country in a better position to compete with rival powers like China. It’s a win-win.

Republicans like Cruz like to pontificate about the need to beat China, but he and his ilk are doing everything they can think of to make that task impossible. Loose talk about secession, opposition to vaccines, ignoring vigilantism, and endlessly stoking the culture wars undercut any hope of having a successful foreign policy, let alone winning a geopolitical contest with a peer competitor. And let’s not forget that Cruz also believes U.S. foreign policy will somehow be more effective if he blocks key ambassadorial nominations, leaves these posts vacant, and opens the door wider for Beijing.

Remember: Should the secessionist impulse ever gain momentum and succeed in breaking up the country, it would squander the United States’ most vital geopolitical asset. Or to put it more simply: “Together we stand; divided we fall.” Could someone embroider that message on a nice red, white, and blue sampler and send it to the junior senator from Texas?

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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