Monday, March 27, 2023

What are the risks of America breaking apart? Russia breaking apart?

Topics for evaluating the risks in the two countries

Ira Straus


To my friends in both countries:

I think none of us wants the other’s country to break up. Nor for our own to break up. Anyway, I hope not, since either break-up would bring a lot of dangerous chaos. It would probably also bring a worse regime in the successor entities – angrier, more extreme -- not a better one.

Still, there is a lot of talk of break-up, as prediction and even as a political option. The talk itself can add to risk and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Russia, there is more talk of Russia breaking up than ever since 1991; and in America, more talk of America breaking up than probably ever since 1865.

I’ve been asking myself, ‘How can we usefully exchange thoughts on these dangers -- how serious are they, and what if anything should be done about them?’

One problem for such a dialogue: to fall into a defensive attitude, or denial, when discussing the danger of one’s own country’s break-up. I suppose I might bristle if some foreigner suggests that my country might break up. I can see some people becoming really defensive about it -- ‘You’re nuts if you think my country could break up, that’s just your delusion, you guys over there hate us too much!X!X.’ This, alas, doesn’t help us clarify what are the risks and how best to deal with them. Perhaps such discussions could have a rule of the road: ‘Let each person discuss only their own country’s risks of coming apart, and try avoiding defensive memes.’

Here’s a list of questions one might feel like addressing about our country. Of course others might want to add some more questions of their own, or subtract some from my list.


1. Lines of cleavage in one’s own country; risks of break-up


differences between federal units

city vs countryside

ethnic-racial divisions

ideological differences

regional differences

foreign powers that have different pulls on different regions of one’s country

economic interests seeking local protection, resource-rich areas hoping to get rich

wish to escape from center’s policies

wish to escape from policies of other provinces on e.g. taxes, abortion, crime, regulations, education


sub-provincial secessionist tendencies (countryside leaving a dominant city inside US state, e.g. the movement in rural eastern Oregon to separate from Portland and join Idaho; ethnic Russians separating from a titular nationality)


1A. Causes of break-ups affect their significance. Which of the above causes would lead to relatively benign break-ups, which to more malign ones?

Could break-ups be done peacefully? How to try to keep them peaceful; or would trying to keep them peaceful just encourage the break-up? Would peaceful break-ups today lead to violent conflicts tomorrow, e.g. by leading to revanchist politics to reconquer the space?



2. Risks of one’s country’s alliances coming apart

for Russia - Belarus, China, BRICS, CIS, Central Asian states, Russia-dominated enclaves in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova

for US - NATO, EU, UK, Pacific alliances, other alliances or partnerships in Mideast, Africa, South Asia, Latin America

How strong are domestic isolationist movements vis-a-vis the country’s alliances? How strong are domestic groups that would prefer a reversal of alliances

-- Americans who want to align with Putin against American wokeness or against LGBTQ, or with Russia against China;

-- Russians who want to align with the West against China rather than vice versa, or who want to align with the West against Russian autocracy.

Would it be better if these alliances came apart anyway?



3. Soft secessionism: elements of divorce without formal break-up

Is a quasi-divorce already occurring, in the form of migration and self-sorting of populations? (or the opposite, is there increased intermixing through migration?) Does this sorting do more to make secession more likely and prepare for it, or to make it less likely by making the hard-core in each group more satisfied with its local government? How well can the existing Federal system accommodate the sharper differentiation of its member units?

Other forms of quasi-secession:

in Russia: local currencies, coupon currencies, provincial political bosses and patronage systems; in Chechnya, own military and intelligence and criminal enforcement services

in U.S.: sanctuary cities, churches, and states (for illegal migrants, drugs, shoplifters, rioters, guns). Insurrectionary riots; discrediting of law enforcement, accusing it of being used discriminatorily, or weaponized.

Heightened levels of mutual demonization, dislike, and distrust across party lines or ethnic lines. What do surveys on this show in the US and Russia?

Division of national media: in U.S., progressive-mainstream media vs Right media; in Russia, government-controlled vs independent media. How (im)balanced are they in audience size? How much do they communicate with the other to learn, how much do they instead hear the other only as “the lie” that it’s their job to combat and subdue?


4. What discussions are taking place in each country of its own break-up?


extent and prominence of discussion and expectations of break up or civil war

What surveys are there, of public thinking on break-up – surveys on prediction, and surveys on the wish?

What surveys are there on civil war (as prediction, not wish)?

Interplay of the break up and civil war discussions, as alternatives to each other or as each leading to the other.

How much is the wish for break-up the father to the thought or prediction of it? Is the thought also father to the wish -- when people predict break-up, does it normalize the thought of it, opening up space for the listeners to think it might be OK to wish for it? How often is it the opposite -- a way of expressing fear of secession, or a wish to stir up alarm about it and opposition to it?

How much does the society tend to mix the ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’, i.e. take its guidance on what to advocate from predictions of what will happen (so predictions of break-up are to some degree also advocacy of it)? How much does it, to the contrary, distinguish Is from Ought, and think it OK to advocate an Ought far removed from the Is or from what is predicted?




What are the secessionist movements and organizations in each country?

How widespread are ideologies that can promote sympathy for break-up?

What role is played by sentimental memories of past secessionist attempts, or past periods, recent or ancient, of independence in some parts of the country?



5. Discussions in each country of the other country’s break-up

How extensive is the discussion about the opposite country breaking up?  What prominent government and major media people are talking about it?

How much of this discussion is prediction about break-up, how much about risks of it, how much is advocacy of it?

How much are prediction and advocacy connected? Is the wish father to the thought (the wish for it leads to predicting it)? Is the thought father to the wish (the prediction leads people to think about it more favorably)?

Is the possibility presented together with advocacy, or neutrally, as analysis of a possibility that one has to be prepared for, e.g. to discuss what policy responses would be appropriate if it were to happen?

Is there any covert action promoting secessionism, such as funding of secessionist movements or help in organizing them (some seeming examples: funding for and networking with Euroskeptic parties across Europe, supporting UKIP in Brexit referendum, support for Scottish secessionists)?


How much do the country’s international propaganda media encourage divisiveness and secessionism in the opposite country, or give support to secessionist forces? When they talk about this, is it because they want it to happen, or they think that their national leadership wants it to happen, or they are just giving objective information and analysis about the opposite country, or it is just part of their habit of highlighting bad news about the opposite country?

Is encouragement of the other’s break-up effective, or counterproductive? (Effective: by mainstreaming it, encouraging elites to contemplate it as a normal thought and maybe adapt to it, and by encouraging secessionists to think they have broad support. Counterproductive: by providing an image of a mortal enemy to unite the country against, and making it easy to brand secessionists as puppets of the enemy.)


How many Russians think America is trying to break Russia up? How many Americans think Russia is trying to break America up?

How much does each country’s government or media accuse the other country of trying to break it apart, promoting divisiveness in it, supporting secessionists?

How justified are these accusations; how much are they projections onto foreigners of the blame for one’s country’s own risks and fears of breaking up? How large is the role of foreign promotion of break-up (usually in history small), compared to domestic forces that want or lean toward break-up?



6. What are scenarios under which break-up would become highly likely in each country?

What are scenarios under which it would become highly unlikely for a long time to come?



7. What would happen to seceding U.S. states or to seceding Russian regions?

Prosperity from good policies? Poverty from bad ones, or from break-up with the Union market? Moderation and political good feelings? Political or religious extremism, flight of those who disagree to other states, a more radical sortation of the population, cementing extremism in each state? Regional unions of seceded states? Subsecessions to stay in the country or unite with other federal units? Intra-state civil wars?

What foreign countries could seceding entities ally with, or join? Would different entities form opposing foreign alliances? How would the rest of the world be affected by this geopolitical pluralism in the former superpower that had provided a core cohesive factor in the world order?


8. What can each country do regarding the other’s potential break-up:

What could each do to help cause the other’s break-up?

What could each do to help prevent the other’s break-up?

What could each do to help the other manage any unavoidable break-up?

What could each do to manage the other’s break-up for its own advantage?



9. What can each country do to prevent itself from breaking up, or to manage any unavoidable break-up?

What things might each country do that would instead make its own break-up more likely, or worse?

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