Before I lived abroad, I rarely thought other countries experienced sectionalism as intensely as the United States because we fought an extremely bloody, four-year civil war between the North and the South. But placing sectional loyalties above national loyalties, seeking autonomy and independence is a fairly common phenomenon around the world. Citizens of the United States may feel these are intensely divisive times, but the US is lucky that it doesn’t hear more discontent from the 50 states, various regions and sections of the nation.
I first observed the power of sectionalism abroad as a 14-year-old visiting Cornwell, a county in the southwest corner of England. I was shocked and amused that the Cornish spoke of independence from England or Cornish nationalism – pretty brash and prideful for a single county in England, but when you’ve got a history going back nearly 2,000 years, perhaps it’s understandable. Cornish nationalism has mostly faded. But Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland continue to grouse at the sacrifices they endure as part of the “United” Kingdom, especially in the age of Brexit, and worry that their economies will go down the tubes with the rest of Britain when/if Brexit actually happens.
Spain has 17 “autonomous communities,” but Basques and Catalonians have sought to establish independent homelands. The Basques appear to have given up after decades of violent protests in which more than 800 people were killed. Catalonia passed an independence referendum in 2017, but the region remains deeply divided over the issue.
The Canadian province of Quebec still has a sovereignty movement. It has been active since the 1960s, despite losing two provincial referendums, the last one in 1995 but a close margin.
Many Kurds famously wish to be independent of Iraq and Turkey. Tibetans have sought independence or autonomy from China for more than 60 years. Palestinians seem to be making no progress in their quest for a state separate from Israel in the West Bank, but they are a growing percentage in the Jewish state, which creates challenges of democratic representation in a discriminatory environment.
Chechnya has for centuries sought independence from Russia, as has Crimea and Ukraine. The Baltic Republics – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – established their independence of Russia, as has Georgia, but continue to nervously look over their shoulders.
South Sudan gained its independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011, after a long-running civil war that started shortly after the country’s independence from Britain in 1956. Mostly a guerrilla war, it claimed the lives of at least 1.5 million people and displaced more than four million people. But sadly, civil war broke out again in 2013. More than 2.2 million people have been displaced by the fighting and “severe famine puts the lives of thousands at risk,” according to the BBC. Sudan has a population of 40.5 million, while South Sudan has a population of less than 10 million. The civil war in Sudan has led to more suffering per capita than even the American civil war. That’s hard for Americans to conceive or imagine.