Vol. 30 No. 7 (August 2020) pp. 104 - 108

BOXING PANDORA: RETHINKING BORDERS, STATES AND SECESSION IN A DEMOCRATIC WORLD, by Timothy William Waters. New Haven: Yale University Press. 320pp. Cloth $38.00. ISBN: 9780300235890.

Reviewed by Mark Rush, Department of Politics, Washington and Lee University. Email:

BOXING PANDORA really is two books in one. In the first part, author Tim Waters offers a thoughtful criticism of contemporary thinking about the legitimacy of nation-states and the rules and assumptions governing thinking about secession, and then places this in a broader assessment of the blind spots that afflict contemporary approaches to international relations. This part of his argument is powerful, provocative and important. In the second part, Waters offers a new rule and set of criteria for secessionist movements. He sets this forth in reasonable terms and develops it carefully with an eye towards anticipated criticisms.

The second part of BOXING PANDORA is not as strong as the first. That is because making this argument presents a much more formidable challenge than demonstrating the illogic that underlies our understanding of the international system. However, this is not a gratuitous criticism. BOXING PANDORA is an important, courageous work that scholars of and practitioners in international affairs alike will find to be a provocative read and a welcome challenge to contemporary approaches to global politics.

Waters asserts from the outset that “secession” is nothing more than a manifestation – and, in some cases, a necessary prerequisite for the universally recognized right – of self-determination. While this was a largely “inchoate” notion until the early 20th century, the aftermath of the First World War “produced a rapid expansion of self-determination claims” (p. 21). While laudable, self-determination as envisioned by Woodrow Wilson was clearly a product of the era and grounded myopically in terms that recognized only ethnicity and nation-states. It was correspondingly incomplete, Waters argues, because it ignored the possibility that a people might not be easily identifiable as an existing nation or a recognized ethnic group. Instead, he argues, a people might manifest itself through democratic mechanisms (p. 25). [*105]

While self-determination was conceptually incomplete, it was recognized and applied in a remarkably inconsistent manner. Thus, while nations such as Austria and Hungary arose in the aftermath of the First World War, Kurds, to this day, remain stateless (pp. 143-44). Accordingly, the contemporary system of nation-states essentially derives from a map drawn in the 1920s and is as ad hoc in nature as are the lines drawn by Sykes and Picot to sort out the Middle East at that time (Fromkin). Furthermore, this vision of the world was based on two irreconcilable principles: the promotion of decolonization and self-determination on the one hand and the equally firm insistence on the integrity of pre-existing national borders on the other (pp. 42-43). This built-in tension was exacerbated after the Second World War, he argues, when it was modified to support a renewed round of decolonization and self-determination—but only for “non-self-governing territories separated from the parent state” (p. 91). If you were a minority within the parent state or, alas, within one of those newly-freed colonies, you were out of luck because “while those who do not govern themselves must be freed from the dominion of others,” no other “others” were entitled to recognition (p. 91)

Based on this reasoning, Waters concludes that there is no rational basis on which to oppose the desire of a community to secede from a state. While the principle of territorial integrity makes sense in the abstract, it makes no sense in practice if the legitimacy of territorial borders is subject to question in the first place. Accordingly, he crafts a new right of secession in Chapter 4 (pp. 124-25). The right has several components, with three key parts:

1. To secede, a people must be a “self-defined community constituting a local territorial majority”;
2. The community must “vindicate its claims exclusively through a plebiscite”;
3. “Other communities within [the seceding] territory can form and make a counterclaim not to secede.” (Ibid.)

Waters acknowledges that this right could set in motion a series of “cascading” plebiscites in which progressively smaller territories would decide whether to become part of a new nation or return to a previous one. Additionally, at a certain point, someone, somewhere would need to establish criteria to define the minimum population and territorial contiguity to constitute a viable state. [*106]

At first, this seems logical and reasonable. But, it quickly destabilizes when one thinks about how to operationalize the right of secession and what its costs would be. Waters is no Pollyanna: he identifies numerous obstacles and challenges to the right’s actualization. I note several key ones here.

First Waters addresses gerrymandering and electoral systems. A critic might contend that secession is unnecessary when alternative forms of voting or institutional structures such as a senate could serve the interests of a minority as easily, or perhaps more easily, than secession. But, he argues, a minority might reasonably wish to determine its own fate rather than have to negotiate with a majority. In this respect, he echoes arguments made long ago by Lani Guinier (1994) (and before her, John Calhoun (1851)) about the need for extraordinary measures to give numerical minorities a fair shot at governing and having their interests addressed. If you are a minority, you must always work harder to protect your interests. So, independence and self-determination might be a much more attractive alternative.

Waters also addresses the challenge of deciding what “contiguous” territory must look like to qualify as a viable state for a plebiscitarily-defined nation (pp. 176-78). As manifest in the history of gerrymandering in the United States, contiguous territory can snake around and through pieces of land in order to link together a geographic majority while still leaving some other local group(s) stranded as a minority. Political and legal scholarship are replete with criticisms of gerrymandering and the extent to which it can be used to undermine electoral legitimacy. Yet the use of creative cartography to stitch together scattered parts of a population with common interests is no more or less ad hoc than was the drawing of lines by Europeans across the Middle East or parts of Africa to create new national borders that have no historical relevance.

The second obstacle Waters addresses is opportunism. He acknowledges that to the extent that a people’s self-identification requires nothing more than a plebiscitary expression, that right would empower a community to arise and express its desire for self-determination based on nothing more than, say, its residence in a resource-rich area (pp. 202 ff.). As an example, he alludes to Katanga’s desire to secede from the Congo and take the uranium mines with it. This also was an issue, for example, when native [*107] Canadians threw a monkey wrench in Quebec’s secession plans by stating a desire to secede from a newly-independent Quebec and, in so doing, taking the Hydro-Quebec plant with them.

Finally, Waters addresses dependence on the instruments of direct democracy. Waters’ assertion that a free and fair plebiscite is all a population needs to establish its right to self-determination is grounded on a very rosy assumption that plebiscites really do manifest “the will of the people” and cannot be hijacked. Yet, accounts such as David Broder’s (2000) DEMCOCRACY DERAILED indicated long ago that direct democracy is not immune to corruption. Even if a plebiscite is held under fair conditions, examples such as the Scottish secession referendum and Brexit demonstrate the extent to which losers can claim that the public was fooled or misinformed and, therefore, call for a do-over.

These are all friendly criticisms that Waters himself acknowledges. While they challenge the applicability/operationalization of his right of secession, they do not undermine his justification for calling for a right in the first place. Nonetheless, he does leave some vexing questions unanswered. For example, there is no way to operationalize the secession principle in, say, India. In a nation with so many groups with overlapping memberships living cheek to jowl, it is unlikely that any one group (even one equipped with cutting-edge GIS technology) could find a way to carve out territory that was sufficiently compact and contiguous to enable it to secede as a state. The right works nicely if the seceding party is a Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec, and so forth—a clearly defined minority in a pre-existing geographic area.

The right also works in only one direction and in favor of smaller parties. It does not appear to embrace the possibility that the rest of Spain might wish to “secede” from Catalonia or the rest of Canada might wish to “secede” from Quebec. In such cases, “secession from” would be a euphemism for “booting out.” It takes little imagination to suggest that the world would be aghast if minorities could be kicked out of countries.

These criticisms amount to nothing more than small quibbles. BOXING PANDORA is an important, enjoyable read that belongs on the bookshelves or in the Kindles of all legal and political scholars. Were it reducible to a short article, it would be a tremendous piece to give students in introductory global politics [*108] classes to make them rethink so many of the assumptions upon which contemporary politics is based.



Calhoun, John C. 1851. DISQUISITION ON GOVERNMENT. Available: Last accessed 2 June 2020.


Guinier, Lani. 1994. TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY. New York: Free Press.

© Copyright 2020 by the author, Mark Rush.