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World: Analysis From Washington -- More Than A Colony, Less Than An Independent State

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that the international community should oppose the emergence of what he called "quasi-states" because the absence of effective government control there often makes such entities into breeding grounds for terrorism.

In a country-wide broadcast on 24 September, Putin named Chechnya and portions of the Philippines as examples of such states, and he called on the world community to back the strengthening of central governments to overcome these ethnic and religious challenges to the territorial integrity of existing states.

Putin's argument is consistent with much current thinking about the international system in principle if not in the specific cases he cites. But it fails to take into account arrangements, common a century ago but rare today, that allow particular territories to develop as more than colonies but less than fully independent states.

At present, there is one clear example of this kind of arrangement: Greenland. It seldom attracts much attention, but a government change there this week in the wake of charges that the leader of the Social Democratic Party was to blame for the poor performance of that northern island has called attention to its special status.

Since 1979, Greenland's 56,000 residents have governed themselves and controlled all aspects of their lives except for foreign and defense policies, which continue to be set by the Danish government in Copenhagen that continues to claim sovereignty over Greenland.

A century ago, many territories around the world, including Canada, Bokhara, and Newfoundland, had a similar status somewhere between that of a colony and that of an independent state. And such arrangements worked because they allowed the residents of a particular territory to enjoy most of the privileges of independence without threatening the territorial arrangements of the larger and sovereign power.

But since the end of World War II, such arrangements fell into disfavor, with colonies and national movements all seeking full independence. The international community backed this process in most cases and pressed others that aspired to independence to fully integrate themselves into existing states either through federal or other domestic arrangements.

This insistence of the international community, however, has had an unintended and unwanted consequence. It has caused ever more territorially based groups to assume that the only way they can fully defend their interests is to seek complete state independence.

Responding to such challenges, the international community has typically sided with the existing state rather than the challenger or urged that the existing state create federal structures in order to allow minorities of various kinds to have greater control over their lives. But generally, the international community has argued that the minorities must make their peace with the central governments rather than the other way around.

In the best case, that has led to integration and cooperation, but often, it has led to the kind of violence that undermines any possibility of civic peace. And it has also undermined the authority of international institutions by putting them in the position of defending the existing state system even when parts of it are manifestly unjust and when claims against it rest on the principle of national self-determination.

Greenland is clearly a special case, a distant island with relatively few people. But the political arrangement between Greenland and Denmark serves as a possible model for what other countries might try. And if that happens, media attention to that ice-locked land this week could have a major impact on the way in which individual countries and the international community deal with such challenges now and in the future.

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