the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2014 April 14


Self-determination is a founding principle of the post-war, post-colonial era, at least in rhetoric. With the referendum held in Crimea on March 16, self-determination experienced a rhetorical setback. But there is no time better — no time more necessary — to defend a principle, than when it is unpopular. That is when we find what our principles truly are. If the Crimeans have no right to choose their own future, the right may exist for no one.

There is some talk of self-determination in the current discourse. This is all about the self-determination of Ukraine, though, vis-à-vis Russia. But seeing Ukraine as the appropriate unit of self-determination presumes that there is something natural, or normal, or necessary, or permanent, about the territorial blocks that currently appear on our maps, and in the minds of our governments. None of this is true. Consider permanence: we know that the borders on maps change. They changed most recently with South Sudan. But after this sort of change happens, for whatever reason it happens, the conservative powers in the world immediately retrench to resist the next instance.

Crimea’s referendum has led to annexation by Russia, and that is a genuine problem. Russia is a dictatorship. It became a dictatorship under Vladimir Putin’s first presidency, remained his dictatorship when Dmitri Medvedev was nominally the president, and was confirmed as Putin’s dictatorship when he decided that he would resume the presidency after one Medvedev term. No one should have to live under a dictatorship, and no sensible person would want to. If that were the main argument being made about Crimea, I would understand and support it.

That is not the main argument being made about Crimea, though. Rather, we are hearing the familiar assertions of “territorial integrity”, “sovereignty”, and “internal affairs”. We are hearing charges of “illegality” and even “treason”. These are arguments of power. They are primarily made by those in power, to keep their power. There is generally nothing more complicated in these arguments, certainly nothing more principled or noble.

The arguments are even made by those barely in power, like the new government of Ukraine. Addressing the Crimean authorities as “traitors”, Ukrainian prime minister Arseni Yatsenyuk said: “Any decision of yours is deliberately unlawful and unconstitutional, and no one in the civilized world will recognize the decision of the so-called referendum of the so-called Crimean authorities.” This is the rhetoric of a government that itself took power through unconstitutional means. It is true that an elected parliament voted to remove the elected president, but hastily, and only after increasingly-violent protests that had seized many government buildings and were posing a direct threat to the parliamentarians. Typically decisions made under duress are not taken as valid.

This, anyway, is what Western governments have said about the Crimean referendum. The presence of Russian troops in Crimea is supposed to have cowed the voters in Crimea, either to vote for union with Russia, or to abstain from voting at all. This is entirely plausible. It is equally plausible that members of president Viktor Yanukovich’s own party voted to remove him from power only because they were cowed by the disturbances outside their chambers. It is also quite plausible that Crimean parliamentarians did not more vigorously pursue independence or union with Russia until recently because they were cowed by the presence of Ukrainian troops in Crimea. Given that most Crimeans are not Ukrainians and Crimea had sought to break away before, occupation is a reasonable description of the Ukrainian military presence in Crimea.

We often cannot know whether such rhetoric as Yatsenyuk is using springs from the jealousy of power inherent in governments, from a vitriolic nationalism at odds with liberal democracy, or from a cynical political response to the demands of a nationalist public. It would indeed be a rare politician in a democracy who offered to surrender territory, resources, or even minority populations; right or not, politicians view this as electoral suicide. In this, democratic politicians and authoritarian politicians are in near-perfect accord.


Robert Jackson, after studying the post-colonial world, observed that self-determination, while celebrated in theory, was limited in practice to a specific set of cases: overseas Western colonies within their colonial borders. It was not applied to the land empires of Russia and China; it was never offered to pre-colonial peoples who lived across colonial borders, or formed a minority within a colony. Jackson also identified the viewpoint he called “international liberalism”, in which the principles of liberal society, for the freedom and dignity of the individual, were translated to the interactions between “nations”. The modern state system, following from the Peace of Westphalia, is essentially a system of territories, bounded units of land, and in a sense it is the territories that have rights under this system — not individual humans, or even groups of humans, but the territories themselves. Just like humans in traditional liberalism, the territories in this Westphalian system are meant to respect each other, refrain from violence against other territories, and in doing so secure the right to live unmolested, to live as they, the territories, choose. When the US administration and others insist that Ukraine should be able to decide for itself, they mean the Westphalian territory of Ukraine, regardless of how it is governed.

That ideology is obsolescent. We may be witnessing its long, slow death through such acknowledgements as the Responsibility to Protect. The system will surely be recognized, in time, as a barbaric, unprincipled stage in human political relations, a time when a democratic Taiwan was consigned by other democracies to be a province of an undemocratic China, when a democratic Somaliland languished while a powerless but recognized Transitional Federal Government of Somalia met in exile, and when a democratic Northern Cyprus was promised international acceptance, but denied at the demand of its newly-privileged neighbor to the south.

If we understand ‘territorial integrity’ as the geopolitical reference to permanence of borders, ‘internal affairs’ as the reference to the freedom of action of the present government, and ‘sovereignty’ as a combination of both, any one of them can and typically does serve as the refuge of those who cannot earn the loyalty of citizens, but would instead rule over the unwilling. The new government in Kiev is surely an improvement over the old in many ways; but of course its members are nationalists, speaking the harsh language of nationalism, which ought to dampen our sympathy. It says a lot that so many in southern and eastern Ukraine would rather live under Putin. And perhaps there aren’t that many with that preference, but there is a simple way to find out: a referendum.

Without siding with either Putin or Yanukovich, we must acknowledge that Putin had an easy case to make in the beginning, reading something like this: Yanukovich was elected, he remains the legitimate president, he invited us in, and if Russia defends his right to govern anywhere in Ukraine, Russia is not dividing Ukraine; the hooligans in Kiev are. In that way the situation was quite different from the precedent in Georgia. And in truth, Putin wants Ukraine divided as little as anyone; he wants the whole of Ukraine in the Russian sphere. The annexation and the apparent discarding of Yanukovich change the picture, but only to bring the focus back to the issue of self-determination, and whether the Crimeans are entitled to it.

The fears of Russians and Russophones in Crimea were legitimate to begin with, even if they were being fanned by propaganda. (All states propagandize for the state, through their public education systems among other things, so it isn’t as though Ukraine had been unable to make its point to the Crimeans.) One of the first acts of the new government in Ukraine was directed against language rights for Russian speakers. The new government displaced an elected president and prime minister who were chosen from among, and with the electoral support of, the Russophone community, and who were supporting Russophone interests, while the new government is turning away from Russia and towards Western Europe. And even the charge of fascism against the Maidan protesters was an accurate description of some minority of them. Russophones feared, therefore, for their cultural rights; their political rights were curtailed by the removal of the president they voted into office; and visible allies of the new government are anti-Russian extremists. If we in the West don’t acknowledge this point of view, we cannot understand the very real enthusiasm many in Crimea feel about the annexation.

Of course Vladimir Putin lacks the moral authority to speak on self-determination. His career was built on the reconquest of a de facto independent Chechnya. Nor does his “managed democracy” system allow Russians to choose their own political future. But the present nature of Russia is a red herring, because if Russia were Sweden, we’d be having the exact same discussion. For that matter, if a territory — say, Karelia — wanted to leave Russia and join Sweden’s neighbor Finland, thereby moving from a corrupt autocracy to a liberal democracy, this would also be rejected. And if lack of democracy in Russia were the real objection, then independence would be an acceptable option for Crimea, as would, in retrospect, joining a democratic Russia before Putin. Is independence, would annexation to a democratic Russia have been, something the West would accept as self-determination? I’ve not heard a single voice in government endorse either possibility.

The new Ukraine and its friends are insisting instead that a vote to release Crimea from Ukraine needs to take place among all voters in Ukraine. For those who accept, who insist upon, the justice of the status quo, everywhere and anywhere, this surely seems axiomatically just. For all others this should seem like what it is: a larger group voting itself control of a smaller group. It is morally no different from a vote held among the combined voters of the United States and the Bahamas as to whether the Bahamas should be a part of the United States. Perhaps the people of the United States don’t want another stretch of beautiful beaches. But if they did, the people of the Bahamas could not hope to outvote them.

It is disingenuous, then, to insist that Crimea is going about self-determination in the wrong way. No other chance for self-determination is on offer.


The hypocrisy is unmistakable. The United States still celebrates its birth in separatist violence more than two centuries later. Many African states are under the parties, in one case the very person, who led them to independence. Gibraltar and the Falklands must, Britain insists, choose for themselves to leave for Spain or Argentina. (Spain has its own hypocrisy on Gibraltar, as compared to Ceuta and Melilla.) Britain has meanwhile consented to a referendum in Scotland, as Canada has done several times in Québec. Kosovo is recognized by most of the West now. South Sudan is a new member of the UN.

But the hypocrisy is in reference to a prevalent stance in favor of the existing borders. Scotland and Québec are grudging exceptions which the central government has vigorously worked against. The EU attempted to discourage the independence of Montenegro from Serbia despite having recognized Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia; the EU demanded a 55% majority, barely achieved. New Zealand similarly discouraged the independence of Tokelau, demanding a two-thirds majority; the referendum “failed” despite a 60% vote for separation. The independence of Kosovo is still not recognized by many states or the UN, even though it is clearly a fact, and though it was prompted in part by the broadly-condemned aggression of former master Serbia. Somaliland has held elections in which the governing party lost and promptly handed over power, while the rest of Somalia was under a hodgepodge of vicious warlords and radical militias; and yet Somaliland was never allowed to participate in the international political and economic system, while Somalia was. The overthrow of one of West Africa’s few reliable democracies in Mali was not enough to earn recognition for the Tuareg state of Azawad.

The West does not support independence for Tibet or even the very real, long-existing independence of Taiwan. Spain will not countenance an independence referendum in the Basque Country or Catalonia; Catalonia is a part of Spain because a few centuries ago Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile. Europe will not do business with Turkish Cyprus, even though it agreed to the federalist Annan Plan, which Greek Cyprus rejected so as to force a reunion on its own terms. Of course there are the post-Soviet “frozen conflicts” of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniestria, and Nagorno-Karabakh; there are Anjouan, Acheh, Eastern Türkestan, Cyrenaica, Biafra, Casamance, Tamil Eelam, Cabinda, Tatarstan, and not least Chechnya, whose de facto independence was ended by none other than Vladimir Putin. There has been no thought of recognition for effective states that have existed for long periods of time without claiming independence, such as northern Côte d’Ivoire or the large rebel territories in Colombia. The West met the liberation of Eastern Europe with stern warnings about irredentism to Hungary and Romania.

The one clear example where self-determination is universally welcomed, indeed demanded, is Arab Palestine, but only as a whole (that is, not Gaza by itself), and perhaps only because, as with the Baltic states, East Timor, and the Western Sahara, the US and Europe never recognized the incorporation of those areas to begin with. Even this is capricious, though; it ignores the intervening reality of control, while standing in contrast to the countless examples where territories and peoples were conquered but whose sovereignty now belongs, per Westphalia, to the conqueror.


Identifying units for self-determination is not universally easy, but that doesn’t mean we should refuse the attempt, in general, or in Ukraine. Crimea was clearly different in make-up from its parent state; it was already autonomous within accepted boundaries; and it had been a part of Ukraine only since 1954. That Crimea is not monolithic is obvious; but what region of two million residents is? Arguments against a change in status often make reference to Crimea’s heterogeneity, and point out that many in Crimea are Ukrainians and Tatars who surely did not want to join Russia. This is true; but the Ukrainians and Tatars are minorities. Even together, they are a minority. The majority in Crimea is Russian. Why is it objectionable to force the Ukrainians and Tatars to live in Russia, but not objectionable to force the Russians to live in Ukraine? And if we can only satisfy one side, shouldn’t it be the larger?

The Tatars’ cause in particular is sympathetic because of their unfortunate historical displacement by Josef Stalin, but the Russians in Crimea weren’t responsible for that. The same displacement, at some greater remove, happened to the Jews in Palestine; and yet, how many would claim that the Arabs do not deserve self-determination because the Jews were in Palestine first?

Crimea should not have just two options, Ukraine and Russia. The Western grousing, however, about the lack of options on the referendum ballot would be more credible if Western ballots were sophisticated, rank-preference affairs; but they are not. (Britain just rejected a ranked system, in fact, under the influence of the two parties who benefit from fewer options.) If Crimea does have just those two options, though, the question should not be mapped to a binary of good and bad. One element of a people’s self-determination is weighing the merits and demerits of the options in reference to the people’s own values.

If we took the process of self-determination seriously on a global scale, we would do well to start with language, as society and community are built around communication, and the ability to communicate with the government is essential to a government of consent. We can also conduct surveys of identity, allowing individuals to place themselves into communities. We will never identify a world of perfect homogeneous bounded territories, but very simple cluster analysis will tell us where the clearest communities are, and we can move on from there. Does anyone doubt, for example, the existence of the Kurds as a community distinct from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria? Does anyone doubt that there are Yorubas in West Africa, Aymaras in the Andes, or Navajos in the United States, living in definable areas where they are a clear majority? There’s no reason why we should even insist on contiguity. Kaliningrad, Cabinda, Alaska, and Nakhchivan are separated from their parent states, to say nothing of various offshore possessions or states that are nothing but a collection of islands. The state territories of Germany and Switzerland intermingle, as do Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

True, the business of identifying these units for self-determination will eventually get complicated. Perhaps, as some argue, we should not begin the process, because we won’t know where to stop. Why is doing the right thing contingent on knowing when to stop doing the right thing, as though we would ever want to? And if we must of necessity stop, isn’t a little of the right thing better than none at all?

Another common argument against self-determination appeals to stability; in short, we shouldn’t allow self-determination because then everyone will want to do it. Is it truly bad that everyone will want what everyone already does want? It is nonsensical to suppose that people don’t want to get what they want; the only real question for the voter in a referendum of self-determination is which option best preserves future self-determination, in which resulting group the voter would most expect to get future desires met. If the process begins with a survey of identity, and any result is met with the same welcome into the world economic and political system, we will surely get many takers. The violence that is often expected in the process of self-determination is entirely the result of state resistance. Peoples don’t initiate violence to secure self-determination; they resort to violence when violence has been used to deny them. Embracing the principle of self-determination would have the opposite effect. We can assure peoples that they will be given the ability to choose their futures. They will then have no reason to fight. By contrast, insisting on the consent of the recognized sovereignty in the case of Sudan meant decades of war to force the sovereign power to the negotiating table. That is probably not a precedent that anyone wishes for Ukraine.

If we didn’t trust Putin, Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksyonov, and the other Crimean authorities to oversee a referendum — and we shouldn’t have — we had ample diplomatic opportunity to send in somebody we did trust. Until recently we were going to trust Viktor Yanukovich to oversee elections in all of Ukraine, despite his history of stealing an election. We rightly complain about stolen elections all over the world but still do business with their “winners”. But had we supported the idea of a referendum, pressed Kiev to acquiesce as a condition of recognizing the new government’s legitimacy, and offered to accept the referendum’s results were it conducted freely and fairly, we likely could have secured cooperation from Moscow and Simferopol. By all accounts some status distinct from Ukraine was quite popular in Crimea in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution. Would Putin and Aksyonov not have taken the gamble?

Underlying resistance to this process is the supposed national ownership of land. Land “belongs” to certain groups. In this view, Crimea and everything on it, biotic and abiotic, is just a form of property. Thus we have human-rights advocate and US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power say this about a group of people: “A thief can steal property, but that does not confer the right of ownership on the thief.” Her only defense for this language would be that she imagines Crimea as an abstract, depopulated place — though it could only become so with the sort of ethnic cleansing which Power’s journalism career served to document.

The area now recognized as Ukraine has the same long history of border changes as have its neighbors. If Ukraine is a real thing beyond Westphalia, and beyond the southwestern marchland of Russia that its name suggests, presumably it is the homeland of Ukrainian speakers — those who follow a southwestern standard within the East Slavic dialect continuum to which Russian and Belarusian also belong. In terms of the language actually (as opposed to nominally) spoken, that excludes most of those in Crimea and southern and eastern Ukraine, and many of those in the center and north as well, including in Kiev itself, all of them following the Moscow standard. Alternatively, Ukraine is an identity. The only way to find out which of those in Ukraine share this identity is to ask them.

So long as Ukraine continues to claim a territory that it does not control, it will not be admitted to NATO, which will not commit to “defend” territory already occupied by Russia. Nor will it be admitted to the European Union, which does not want to inherit another Cyprus. (The admission of Greek Cyprus as such to the EU was itself something that most in the EU surely did not want, but Greece threatened to veto the nine other candidates were Greek Cyprus excluded. If Ukraine had such a champion, that champion would not have such leverage.) NATO and the EU will similarly exclude Georgia, Moldova, and Serbia. In all cases the claimant states can point to no desire of the inhabitants of the claimed territories, even before control was lost. They can only point to Westphalian tradition and sovereignty, and insist that, regardless of who else lives or lived there, the land belongs to them. We need only think of Serbia to remember that the mad struggle over land rights has been a continual disaster for humanity.


The greatest changes in recognized international borders recently came with the dissolutions of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The rules on territorial integrity and state sovereignty were suspended momentarily in each case, long enough for the central state to vanish from the rolls. In the place of each central state appeared the first-order political divisions, the “republics”, defined by the former central state. The rules on territorial integrity and state sovereignty were then immediately reinstated. What used to be first-order political divisions were now sacred, immutable Westphalian territories. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was less self-determination than it was a carve-up among the heads of the Soviet Union’s republic governments, some of them not coincidentally the last heads of the local Communist parties, two of whom are still in power.

The lack of principle in these events is profound. The contradiction is considerable. The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were no longer recognized as members of the international system, in any way. At the same time, the last decisions they had made regarding internal borders were now held to be fixed for all time. The only legitimate new territories were those that were first-order divisions as defined by the vanished authorities. No alternatives, even alternatives that had been previously defined by those same vanished authorities, were entertained as even possibly legitimate.

In the new view of Westphalia, Crimea was a part of Ukraine, Kosovo was a part of Serbia, Transdniestria was a part of Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh was a part of Azerbaijan, Krajina was a part of Croatia, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia were parts of Georgia. In several of these cases, including Crimea, this territorial alignment had not been a constant. Crimea was a part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic until 1954, when it was administratively reassigned by Nikita Khrushchev. This decision took no account of the cultural and ethnic make-up of Crimea, but at the same time it had no effect on citizenship or general political condition. And that decision was, in 1991, a seemingly-meaningless capricious internal fiat made by the deposed, unelected head of a dissolved, tyrannical régime — suddenly given the force of permanent international legitimacy.

Stalin was a master manipulator of the Soviet Union’s territories and peoples, but he never saw fit to take away Ukraine’s republic status. Had he done so, Ukraine and Crimea would now both be a part of Russia, and few would think that “the people of Ukraine” had any specific rights whatsoever. Putin would have his troops openly in Kiev, and any protests in the Maidan against the local governor would be treated as an internal matter. And elected Western leaders would now be saying that, under the principle of “self-determination”, it is up to the people of Russia to decide what to do in Crimea. While we decry the autocracy of Vladimir Putin, we hold ourselves bound by the decisions of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev. That can hardly be the basis for legitimacy in our modern world.



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