It is customary in the literature to distinguish three broad classes of theories of secession. Nationalist theories, which give only well-defined nations the right to secede; Choice theories, which allow any geographically defined group to secede (on the basis, say, of majority vote); and Just-cause theories, which base the right to secede in the political maltreatment of the group, e.g. if it is discriminated against w/r/t civic rights, or if its language or religion are repressed.
Earlier today, over at the Volokh conspiracy Ilya Somin put up a couple of posts about South Ossetia and the morality of secession. Somin advocates a hybrid Choice and Just-cause theory: just about any geographically defined group has the right to secede from a larger political entity, so long as the successor government meets certain minimal moral criteria.
Specifically, Smolin is a proponent of what he calls a “comparative” approach to secession, where the key question is the relative quality of the successor government compared to the original regime. So for Smolin, what justifies the desire of South Ossetia to secede from Georgia, or Quebec from Canada, boils down to the question of whether the South Ossetian or Quebecois regime will be better than the Georgian or Canadian regime (where “better” is a function of Smolin’s preferred account of political morality).
I endorse some form of Just-cause theory (I like the one spelled out by my former CREUM colleague Wayne Norman, in his excellent book Negotiating Nationalism), but I think Smolin’s is a bit nuts. The main problem is the Choice aspect of his theory, which rejects any presumption in favour of the territorial integrity of existing states. For Smolin, since existing states were mostly formed by force, and because the international laws in favour of territorial integrity were passed by the very countries whose interests they serve, he thinks there should be no moral weight given to the status quo.
As Wayne might put it, this is the worst kind of philosophical musing divorced from any sense of political reality. Smolin apparently gives no moral weight to stability, while I see it as a central political virtue. I don’t see how a theory of secession can be entirely forward-looking, based only at the presumed qualities of a successor regime without any guarantees that such a regime will in fact have the presumed qualities. It isn’t enough for the desired regime to be theoretically “better” than the status quo. The status quo must be intolerable and un-improvable; the anticipated regime must be not just possible but probable; the risk of chaos must be low.