There are times when what does not happen in the world may be just as significant as what does. And while we follow the stirrings in north Africa, with as much trepidation as excitement, we should not neglect what is going on just a little further south. Between 9 and 16 January, the people of southern Sudan cast their votes in a referendum on secession. The result will be announced in the middle of next month. But it is already known that the south Sudanese have opted more than 99 to one for a separate state, and in June the world's newest independent country should be born.
By geographical size, Sudan is one of Africa's biggest countries, and one of its most variegated politically and in almost every other way. A formal split redraws the map. But the reason this potentially momentous change has fallen from the headlines is that, despite apocalyptic predictions of violence and a return to civil war, the referendum took place almost entirely peacefully. The voting was orderly; observers described the polling as meeting most international norms, and Sudan's leaders in Khartoum said before, and have confirmed since, that they would accept the result.
Of course, noble intentions do not always match reality. Maybe Khartoum will show less equanimity about losing one third of its territory when the principle comes closer to becoming a fact. Maybe the oil-rich region of Abyei, which straddles the future border, will indeed become the focus of a new and even nastier armed conflict. And even if none of this happens, maybe the inevitable change in regional dynamics will spawn sub-conflicts of its own, starting with unrest inside the north of the country and a new flare-up in and around Darfur.
But why not enjoy a brief rest from doom-watching and take the early positive signals from Sudan at face value? All right, so it is a cherished tenet of diplomacy that changing borders is, almost always and everywhere, a very bad idea. It is regarded as a trigger for instability, a suspension of the international status quo that presages a perilous leap into the unknown. But is it quite so destabilising as is commonly assumed? Is it any more destabilising, for instance, than the supposedly preferable alternatives, such as living together in enforced peace and harmony, or some form of federation, reluctantly entered into?
In Europe, the supposed permanency of national frontiers was a staple of the Cold War. For the best part of half a century, any bargaining between the two superpowers was predicated on the inviolability of borders. The carve-up signed at Yalta was set in stone – or iron curtain or barbed wire – for fear of something worse. But when neither the division of Europe nor some of its national borders could be maintained, the unravelling was – with the exception of Yugoslavia – remarkably orderly. Oh yes, there were qualms. Margaret Thatcher was not the only national leader to resist the unification of Germany. And there were disputed scraps around the edges – those so-called "frozen conflicts" – that remain unresolved.
But these should not disguise the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed into its constituent parts extraordinarily peacefully; that the republics that gained, or regained, their independence, are more content in their current independent state than they were – in the case of the Baltic States blissfully so – and that many of the remaining disputes are themselves a consequence of artificial borders created for purposes of political control by Stalin. It could be argued that if changing borders were not still such a taboo, these disputes might have been solved by now. The "velvet" divorce that separated Czechoslovakia in 1993 was so amicable that it has been almost forgotten; the two republics have gone their different ways as individual nation-states since.
Now it is clearly unreasonable to expect all disputing couples to behave like the Czechs and the Slovaks. But is it reasonable in this day and age to set treat secession as somehow worse than unwilling union? Or, as the Western sponsors of Kosovo's independence did, to insist that independence was an exception that should in no respect be treated as a precedent? Granted that nothing should be done that might seem to encourage forced annexation, might it not now be more realistic to accept the division of Cyprus than hope that it can be put back together?
All right, the sceptics will pipe up, perhaps post-Cold War Europe is "mature" enough to handle border-change – perhaps even the United Kingdom will one day divide into its constituent parts – but elsewhere it would be a recipe for war without end. Pessimists on Sudan will cite Ethiopia, noting that civil war resumed with Eritrea within five years of separation. Which is true, but peace – albeit an uneasy peace – has now reigned for more than a decade.
And could it not also be said that it is outside Europe where a new permissiveness towards changing borders might, in the end, prove most constructive? Is it not here, where demographic change has been acute, and where many colonial-era borders already rode roughshod over older allegiances, that an adjustment of the border, or even the creation of a new sovereign state, might discourage a resort to force? Then again, if changing borders became a more acceptable way of solving disputes, other countries might feel their dignity less threatened by a loss of territory. Might we see, perhaps, an independent Kurdistan; a peaceful Kashmir united, or split, as a result of the UN-ordained plebiscite it has never had?
Countries and territories change. For one reason or another, the ethnic or religious mix shifts; technological advances may dictate a sharp rise or fall in economic fortunes. Why should state borders not be subject to pragmatic fluctuation, too? National allegiance is a powerful force, not to be underestimated even in this global age; but insecurity turns it all too easily into aggression. A more broadminded attitude towards frontiers would give mediators an additional tool for ending or pre-empting wars. Ending this taboo would enhance, rather than detract from, international stability, and – still better – as the smiles of south Sudanese voters showed, it would add to the sum of human happiness.