This past August 1st marked one hundred years since the beginning of World War I. What might have remained a squabble between an empire (Austro-Hungary) and a minor neighboring state (Serbia) set into motion the domino train of mutual defense treaties that led to a world war – the first world war – the first of two world wars.
I’ve been hearing a lot this summer about airplanes, surface to air missiles, bombing raids, hostile crossings of borders into neighboring territory. This summer began with the tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine by, presumptively, Russian backed pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists. It also saw the brutal and destructive Israeli response to the Palestinian response to the Israeli settler’s response to the suspected Palestinian killing of three Israeli teenagers in June (which was itself a likely response to yet something else egregious done by Israel or Israelis, etc., etc., etc.). As this summer draws to a close, President Obama declared the US and its usual allies will respond to the rise of a presumptive new Caliphate (ISIL) in what we call the Middle East with bombing raids wherever necessary. What links these events to World War I?
Irredentism and revanchism. These are 20th Century concepts many of us thought could safely be relegated to the surely-we’ve-outgrown-these-horrid-practices dustbin. Clearly, such relegation, and the optimism which supported it, was premature.
Irredentism refers to the practice of justifying unilateral reshaping of borders according to the ethnic or nationalist connections between disparate populations contained across those borders. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is an excellent example. Ethnic Russians live there. Russia should extend to wherever there are ethnic Russians. Therefore, Russia should extend to include Crimea. But there reside also nationalist Ukrainians, so one nation’s solution to inadequate borders in irredentist terms recreates the very problem for those who were thereby severed from their own national community. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WWI and the expansion of the German nation ahead of WWII were both expressions of irredentist claims to national unity, liberation or reunification. Borders, ever again a problem.
Revanchism (best pronounced with a hint of French inflection) refers to the practice of justifying the reclamation of lost territory, in a kind of national avenging. The challenge with revanchism is that it relies on the fiction that there is an identifiable prior settled state of affairs which has been upset in the seizure of territory by a neighbour. It also relies on the fiction that such action can heal, compensate for, or unproblematically reunify wrongly severed peoples and places. Here, the Israel-Palestine conflict serves as a perfect example of revanchism in action and of the tragedy of its pursuit. On both sides, the motivation is to regain territory taken by others. For the Israelis, it is the ancient loss of Judea, Samaria and all the rest of Greater Israel. For the Palestinians, it is the more recent run of generations of mutual and reciprocal territorial incursion, occupation, annexation, and settlement that is the legacy of the UN’s effort to compensate a people for one tragedy (the Shoah inflicted upon the Jews in Europe by Germany) by imposing a parallel tragedy on another people (the Nakba inflicted by the UN carving up British Mandate Palestine to create Israel). Not surprisingly both terms, Shoah and Nakba, refer to the same existential catastrophe of a people being destroyed by the aspirations of another.
What this exposes is, I think, the inherent fragility of national borders and the feeling of charade we play whenever we demand that borders should be here or there or none at all. I think it also has to do with the appeal of appealing to democratic self-determination by peoples who cannot stand each other, never have, and don’t want to continue pretending that they do. There will always be some excluded “us” trapped unjustly behind the borders with “them”.
It’s not like this problem is uniquely a Russian and Ukrainian or an Israeli and Palestinian problem…. Pick a border from any map and there you will find that border contested by some political community. Neither is it a problem of states that have recently undergone dissolution, like the USSR or Yugoslavia, or resolution, like Germany. Well, there might be one border not in dispute… the US-Canada border (though some Americans still claim manifest destiny, and some Canadians still rue the 54-40 Agreement). Ok, perhaps two such borders… add the Czech-Slovak border, which was an internal regional border made into a national border creating two new states from the old.
Clearly borders are a problem, mere lines on maps, a collective fiction. But they are also lines in the collective imagination, in the definition of a people, and in the very real actions which either affirm belonging or sting with exclusion. In the nation state, we find the curious and increasingly unstable blending of a geo-political entity with an ethno-cultural entity and healthy dose of nationalist ideology. A people in a place. A unified people in a unified place. The appeal is understandable, but the practice is troubling.
What makes a border worth respecting? As US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, recently scolded her Russian counterpart, “borders are not suggestions.” But what are they, then, if not suggestions of limits, to some, and opportunity, to others? How to ensure they are not mere suggestions against an ill-tempered neighbour who believes there are compatriot nationals or fellow folk on the other side of the border clamouring for liberty or reunion and just a little bit of help?
As Cara Nine astutely asks, "If we don’t understand why territorial rights are justified in a general, principled form, then how do we know that they can be justified in any particular solution to a dispute?"
This may just be the defining political question of the 21st Century. We’d better get better at answering it, lest this 21st Century become too much more a repetition of the 20th.
Department of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
 Including UK, Canada, France, and Germany among increasing numbers of others. Interestingly, Iran may join the coalition.
 US Mission to the UN, Briefing Room Statements, transcript of remarks delivered to the UN Security Council, April 13, 2014. Available at http://usun.state.gov/briefing/statements/224764.htm. Last Accessed 14 Sept, 2014.
 Cara Nine, Global Justice and Territory (Oxford University Press, 2012).