When Nazi Germany began to extend its power across Europe, it did so strategically, using an evolving language which equated nations with racial and linguistic groups. This language, though it had older roots, had been perhaps unintentionally strengthened by the rhetoric of self-determination associated with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points” at the end of the First World War.
Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination was a blow at the old continental European empires (particularly the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, multilingual and multiethnic empires), and suggested that people should not be forced to live in monarchic states which existed without reference to the ambitions of people within them. Rather, “nations” comprised of people of the same ethnicity, speaking the same language, should determine their futures.
This sounds reasonable enough, in some respects, although it is a far cry from the multiculturalism of our own nation-state. However, people in Europe did not live in neatly-packaged neighbourhoods that could be readily subdivided into the kind of ethno-linguistic states envisaged by Wilson and others. They had moved around historically and recently had done so within large empires.
And so as majority groups in given areas declared themselves new states, they looked not only to unite with other members of their groups nearby, but also to purge their states of people of different ethnicities who spoke different languages and practised different religions. Resulting conflicts occurred from the immediate aftermath of the First World War down to the Balkans wars in the final days of the twentieth century.
Most dramatically, however, the aspiration to reunify a linguistically- and ethnically-defined “race” provided the pretext for Nazi expansion during the late 1930s. The Nazi state used these arguments to seize territory from or absorb Austria, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and Poland. The unification of racial communities was seen as being more important than international law, and instead of resorting to arbitration or democratic processes, nationalists proceeded to shred the newly-enshrined world order represented by the League of Nations.
That order—like the one defined today by international law and the United Nations—was a far from perfect one, but it represented at least an aspiration to use non-violent and democratic means to rule relations between people. Like Germany in the 1930s, Russia’s President Putin is making a mockery of that world order, and using grievances—justified or otherwise—to expand his power by claiming to be the protector of people with some kind of linguistic or ethnic affinity to his ideal empire.
Somewhat ironically, Putin’s larger vision is presumed to be the resuscitation of some version of the Soviet Union, a linguistically and ethnically heterogeneous empire. But if that is the case, he is going about the recreation of that larger polity by appealing to much more parochial sensibilities. Just as German nationalists railed during the 1930s against the West, which had forced them to bear much of the cost of the First World War, Putin used his absorption of Crimea yesterday as an occasion to assail the West, claiming, “we were cheated again and again, with decisions being taken behind our back”.
The nature of the referendum—held under Russian bayonets with little international presence, and boycotted by some groups—was enough to call it into question. But, unaware or uncaring that he is a pitiful (if dangerous) caricature, Putin reeled off the numbers—96% voting to join Russia—claiming, “The figures are absolutely convincing”. He could learn a thing or two from more sophisticated election manipulators like Robert Mugabe, who at least ensure that the numbers are within the realm of possibility for those who would be predisposed to look the other way.
He sounded as buffoonishly patriotic as any U.S. President at the state of the union as he associated Russia with “truth”, “fairness”, “democratic”, and the West with “primitively”, “irresponsibly”, and “unprofessionally” taken actions. We can forgive him that sin...few countries realise how transparently absurd their most treasured ceremonies look from the outside, perhaps one of the many ill-effects of baleful nationalism. But his cynical upending of the rules, and his ready recourse to threats and force are unforgivable.
The role of the U.S. amidst ethnic and linguistic nationalism in the 1930s was similar to its role today. Then, the United States refused to sign onto the League of Nations in spite of the efforts of Woodrow Wilson. Many Americans feared that they would be drawn into an international conflict not of their making if they joined the League. As it turned out, the absence of the U.S., and the toothlessness of the League helped to lead to another world war. Today, the United States uses the United Nations, international law, and other international fora when it is convenient.
But, convinced of its own exceptional nature, the U.S. is a serial violator of international law. Whether in its refusal to sign treaties that it is happy to enforce upon others when convenient, in its violations of human rights, or its waging of aggressive war, the United States has traditionally undermined the capacity of global bodies to act as arbiters in the world.
Worse still, the actions of the United States, which have been a major contributor to global violence and instability during and after the Cold War, undermine our country’s ability to speak with a moral voice when other countries violate international law and the rights of global citizens.
Putin, like the neoconservatives in the United States, is a threat to world order, using one country’s violence and hypocrisy to justify his own sociopathic imperial ambitions. Putin, and other actors strong enough to survive diplomatic ostracism and political sanctions, need only point to the illegal and immoral U.S. war of aggression against Iraq to give themselves cover. In that war, the United States launched an illegal preventive war, deliberately bombed cities to smithereens, destroyed a country’s infrastructure, wrecked its institutions, and killed hundreds of thousands of its citizens.
Today, our Congressional representatives are squawking with outrage at Putin’s fait accompli in Crimea. But surely they must realise that compared with the terror which the United States and its military has unleashed across the Middle East, South Asia, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel during the past dozen years, most people see Putin’s actions as no worse, and far less destructive than our own.
But, just like the terroristic war waged on an abstract noun by the U.S., Putin’s actions could have terrible long-term consequences. They undermine international accountability, weaken those countries with a commitment to democracy, set a dangerous precedent, and revive an ugly form of nationalism associated with race and language. They do these things in an age characterised by economic inequality, a condition in which historically, irresponsible world leaders have encouraged their citizens to hate one another on the basis of race, religion, or language rather than address serious inequities.
Critics of President Obama in the U.S. believe the President should take drastic and provocative action to keep Putin from absorbing Crimea. They cite his “weakness” as the major factor behind Putin’s actions. But unless any of these irresponsibly violent fanatics are suggesting that the U.S. should be prepared to start a war, they should understand that the major boost to Putin’s actions comes not from any weakness on the part of President Obama (who has shown his own frightening disregard for international law, and a casual recourse to violence and terror), but to the more massive abuses of the world order committed by the frantic, psychologically unstable Bush Administration and its backers.
Defenders of the psychopathic war criminals in that administration often bleat that people are too willing to pin the blame for current violence or instability on an administration which has been out of office for five years. But the Bush Doctrine which advocated illegal preventive war, embraced methods of terror and barbarism, and legitimised Al Qaeda and its ilk while shredding the international legal order, has not only generated what will likely prove to be decades of violence and backlash.
It was also a tremendous boon to a gallery of thugs and autocrats, ranging from autocrats who used U.S. fears of Islamists as an excuse to crush democratic uprisings during the Arab Spring, to the likes of Putin, who can always just shrug, smirk, and point to a U.S. government which is joining him in subverting laws and norms meant to uphold the rights of global citizens and the ideals of democratic governance.