Scotland’s bid for independence and what it means for international relations

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The results have just been announced, that Scotland will not become an independent country and end a 300 plus year union. Even so, this vote will have profound effects for the UK and the international community.

Scotland’s bid for independence was fought hard on both sides. British politicians like Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized Scotland’s increased economic and political strength as a part of the UK. First Minister Alex Salmon highlighted the differences between Scotland and the rest of the union. In short Scots in favor of independence felt and still feel different, separate from the rest of the UK.

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 If Scotland seceded, the UK would’ve lost one-third of it’s land mass and 8% of it’s population. A Scotland-less UK would also be more likely to leave the European Union, which has always had an ambivalent relationship with the supranational organization.  The Conservatives have vowed to have a referendum on EU membership if they win next year’s general election.  As Scots are more left leaning, the UK would be more likely to leave without Scotland’s votes.

Also, the UK’s underwater nuclear weapons are in Scotland. Some have raised the issue if the UK lost possession of its nukes, would it continue to be a world power? Would it still be deserving of veto power on the United Nations Security Council? Nations such as India, Japan and Germany have openly declared they want “permanent member” status, making the argument that it no longer makes sense for the concentration of power in the international organization to be confined to five countries. A UK without Scotland would’ve further illustrate this argument.

However even though Scotland remains part of the UK, there will be consequences for Britain.  David Cameron has promised increased powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if Scotland voted “NO” on independence but it remains to be seen what he or any of the other party leaders can feasibly do.

The ethnic nationalism that pushed the UK to the brink of national divorce is not confined to the island nation. Separatist and regional movements in Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium watched the results of this vote very carefully. Whether Scotland became independent or not, Europe is at a critical moment in its history.  Groups all over the continent are challenging the modern definition of the nation-state.  Beyond Europe, in China, Canada and the Middle East, Scotland’s bid for independence motivated other ethnic groups to examine what ties them to the nation-state.

Just like the Global Recession has forced nations to turn inward, as seen in the recent elections in the European Parliament, so now too are groups within nations.  In a post-modern international system, the concept of the nation-state is slowly eroding as individuals groups, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups challenge globalization and centralization in the nation-state.

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American Foreign Policy in 1914 and 100 years later

An eternal historian, my mind instinctually looks to the past to analyze global affairs in the present.  As President Obama walks a fine line between pursuing American interests abroad and tending to domestic issues, it is becoming clear that Americans have little interest in foreign affairs.  For one between the economy, voting rights and other issues, many Americans feel there is enough going on at home that needs attention.  But also, after more than a decade of two fruitless wars abroad that did nothing except damage the United States’ image, many Americans have simply lost the desire to use American power to solve the world’s problems.  In December 2013 the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of Americans believed the country should remain out of global affairs.

Yet international crises keep manifesting themselves.  Tensions between Russia and Ukraine still has Europe on edge over what Vladimir Putin will do next and China’s continued rise has its neighbors apprehensive, particularly over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and the list goes on. But that does not change American apathy toward events outside our borders.  In March of this year, at the height of the Crimea-Ukraine-Russia crisis, Pew reported that while 29% of Americans thought the government should take a hard stance on Russia, 56% did not want the United States to get too involved in the situation.

This is eerily similar to American foreign policy a century ago in 1914.  After a brief attempt early in the 20th century to create an overseas American empire similar to the empires of Europe, the United States retreated inward and remained so when the Hapsburg heir was assassinated.  In fact, most Americans had no idea of the tensions in Europe at the time.  In both world wars, the United States refused to involve itself until American lives were at stake.

A century later, talks of a third world war slowly grow with every new crisis.  But Americans remain focused internally while other countries fear the future of international relations if America removes itself from the global stage.  In its May 3rd issue, the Economist highlighted that American hesitance to intervene militarily has our allies on edge amid fear that American enemies are emboldened.  The United States is no longer the world’s policemen as it was in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed.  But Americans not caring about the world’s affairs unless it directly threatens us is nothing new.  Even in the beginning years of American nationhood, there was no foreign appetite.

More than that, America can no longer get away with what it did before.  Not only are other countries rising for their share of the geopolitical pie but America simply does not have the money to fund a long-term military campaign.  American military might is still at the top but even that is slipping albeit slowly and other countries are catching up.

American leaders will deny the country is in decline but as a historian, I will not ignore the parallels.  In the early 20th century, Britain, which controlled 25% of the world’s population and the world’s most powerful navy, was insecure of its status as a global power after Queen Victoria’s death and an unsuccessful South African war which left it politically isolated in Europe.  Similarly, in late 2013 Pew reported that 53% of Americans see the country less powerful and less important than it was 10 years ago.  In truth, the world is becoming more multipolar, also similar to 1914.

Indeed this is the cycle of history.  World powers never remain world powers forever.