A call for peaceful self determination in the Crimea

In response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea this weekend, Secretary of State Kerry criticized Russia saying “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.”  He had a point – invasions of one country by another are pretty rare these days. Since the mid-nineties, there have only been a handful of inter-state wars: the brutal and largely ignored war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late nineties; India and Pakistan’s clash over a bunch of snowy mountaintops in 1999; the US invasion of Iraq (and Afghanistan – but that was a little more complicated); Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon; and Russia’s brief conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia.

Unlike the Cold War that dominated most of the last half of the 20th century, most of the interstate wars have been more about national interest and ethnic identity than any grand ideological narrative. In this sense, many of the recent conflicts have represented sort of a return to earlier historical habits. The Cold War focus on ideological conflict (or at least ideological justification for conflicts) was as much an historical aberration as it was some sort of progression from the Machtpolitik and more overtly nationalist conflicts of earlier times when Europeans killed one another in large numbers over the remains of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Monarchist, fascist, and communist ideologies have faded away, but nationalism remains and will continue to be the most important source of conflict in the decades to come.

One thing that has changed since the 19th century, however, is the perceived acceptability of forcibly redrawing the global map. Since the Second World War, there have been few clear-cut examples of the international community recognizing the results of such conquest. Cases like the Chinese annexation of Tibet and India’s successful support of secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan are perhaps the two most prominent examples during the Cold War years. On the whole, however, the international community has refused to recognize any challenges to the “territorial integrity” of existing countries by other countries.

During the nineties, however, the aftermath of the Cold War led both the United States and Russia to challenge global norms. Russia materially supported break-away areas of Moldova and the country of Georgia. The US led bombing campaign against Serbia led to the independence (as recognized by about half the world) of Kosovo.

In the case of Kosovo, Russia helplessly watched from the sidelines as it watched an historical ally be dismembered by the West. No wonder many Russians viewed the US as hypocritical when the US protested the later 2008 Russian conflict with Georgia on behalf of South Ossetian separatists.

In the cases I just mentioned, US and Russia were supporting the rights of  geographically concentrated minorities to govern themselves rather than be governed by what they considered a foreign people. This right to “self-determination” is also a throwback to the 19th century when it became the primary justification for many of that century’s wars. These types of conflicts, which many modern day liberals look upon with horror, were fought in the name of what was originally called “liberal nationalism,” whose Lockean “consent of the governed” and “social contract”-based justifications would be familiar to many Americans today.

There is no easy answer to juggling the competing ideas of “self-determination” and “territorial integrity.”  Supporting the first without regard to the second opens a whole Pandora’s Box of potential conflict. Supporting the second without regard to the first ignores the legitimate aspirations of peoples to govern themselves. Trying to square the circle with complex agreements for limited self-rule often leads to gridlock and discontent all around, such as the modern day case of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Russians have a point too, however. Whatever competing historical justifications might be presented by either side, the majority of the people of the region prefer to be governed by Russia just as the majority of the people in Kosovo, Abkhazia, Trans-Dniester, South Ossetia, and Kashmir assert their self-determination. The international community, led by the UN, should work harder toward encouraging states to peacefully grant succession to well-defined areas where the people vote to do so.

If we want to move past the conflicts of the past, there needs to be a push for global norms that de-emphasize lines on the map while continuing to emphasize a prohibition against forcible changes. This year the people of Scotland will get to choose whether they remain part of the United Kingdom. The Quebecois have received a similar option in Canada in the past. Puerto Rico has gotten to vote on remaining part of the US, and I don’t see why a state like Texas shouldn’t be allowed to secede if the people there so chose.

In the 19th century, land meant wealth. It meant food, resources for industry, and populations that could be recruited into the military. In the future, land means less and less in terms of national wealth. Knowledge and information are the resources of the future. Mini-states like Luxembourg and Liechtenstein have populations that are quite well-off and secure.

So, let the people of the Crimea be ruled by whomever they so choose. Historical narratives about who rightfully owns what are no reason to hold onto a people who live where they do through no choice of their own and want a more representative government. If we want to move away from the past, we need to stop using it as a justification for violence.

Posted on March 2, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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