Open Quebec embassy

This time, it seems, the rest of Canada wants Quebec out. In a clumsy response to a generation-long series of referenda in which Quebecers vote by ever narrower margins not to secede, Canada’s federal government took the province to court. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, himself a Quebecer, has asked his nation’s supreme court to issue legal rules for secession. The questions before the court this week are: Is unilateral secession legal under Canada’s constitution; does international law give Quebec the right to secede, and if national and international rules conflict, which takes precedence?
Quebec is boycotting the proceedings; provincial Premier Lucien Bouchard says the question of independence is a political and not a legal one. A court ruling that unilateral secession is illegal will only harden secessionist feelings and probably hasten a vote for independence. Enforcing the court’s rules at that point would require force, and the rest of Canada is unlikely to wage war to keep Quebec. On the other hand, the court might rule that Quebec has the right to walk away on its own. That might defuse the immediate crisis but would make secession easier. In any event, the case is very likely the beginning of the end for Canada as it exists today.
Bouchard is right, at least within Canada. The federal government lacks the will to keep Quebec in, and so Quebec will leave when it chooses. But the case is important for Americans, because it deals with a question central to our own history and to our foreign policy. The American Civil War began over the question of unilateral secession. North and South agreed that the Constitution is a contract, but disagreed about how the contract could be cancelled. Legally, both parties must usually consent to ending a contract. But without a legitimate higher authority, Southerners argued, either side can break the contract at will. The South lost the war that followed, settling the issue in American law. But the question is still a valid one, and central to the conduct of foreign policy in a fragmenting world.
Few European states recognized the self-declared Confederate States of America in 1861, a fact that helped ensure eventual Northern victory. Prudence will generally counsel against the early recognition of seceding states. But the logic of the international system itself dictates that recognition for new states comes only when independence is either recognized by the former government or assured by fiat accompli. If secession is a political question within Canada, recognizing Quebec’s independence before Ottowa does amounts to taking sides in an internal political question. As long as Chretien refrains from endorsing Norm Coleman in Minnesota’s gubernatorial election, the United States should avoid taking sides between Quebec and Canada.
Premature recognition can also do a great deal of harm. This decade’s Balkan conflict was spurred by Germany’s recognition of Croatian and Slovenian independence from Yugoslavia. That turned a domestic Yugoslav political crisis into an international war. Quebec is unlikely to become another Bosnia, but U.S. policy ought to be consistent. With rare exception, the United States should demand that both sides in a national divorce agree to call the whole thing off before recognizing the new state.