Sunday, September 14, 2014

Summer of discontent: Ruminations on a hundred years of the same-old, same-old

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[1] 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.”[2] 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?"[3]

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.

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] Including UK, Canada, France, and Germany among increasing numbers of others. Interestingly, Iran may join the coalition.
[2] US Mission to the UN, Briefing Room Statements, transcript of remarks delivered to the UN Security Council, April 13, 2014. Available at Last Accessed 14 Sept, 2014.
[3] Cara Nine, Global Justice and Territory (Oxford University Press, 2012).


  1. Chris,very thought provoking, thanks.

    You refer to borders as fictions at one point, but you don't really mean that, do you? They exist by convention, just like the rules of any society, but they really do exist as a result of these conventions. So, the border between my property and my neighbors, the border between California and Oregon, these seem not to be subject to any practical form of skepticism (though I understand there is legitimate outright rejection of the validity of these agreements by some parties, e.g., Native Americans.) International borders do seem subject to skepticism, though, partly, I'm guessing, because they have typically not been established by any kind of explicit mutual agreement. Not that the existence of such agreements will always trump irredentist or revanchist arguments, or other arguments such as, the agreements were made under duress or: we had a revolution and are no longer so bound.

    I wonder if the right framework for international borders is just to accept that they are all permanently subject to revision, but that forcible annexation is simply not a permissible means for achieving this.

  2. Hi Randy, thanks for the comment. Yes, I like the idea of borders as permanently subject to revision. But that still raises questions about process and effect and ends. That is, revision by whom, for what ends, in what ways and by what means? And what of already contested territory like the West Bank, where Israel just a couple of weeks ago annexed another 1000 acres of privately held Palestinian land for settlement. While Russia annexes Crimea, claiming a democratic referendum in support, they are condemned. While Israel claims a smaller parcel from a handful of individual farmers, for illegal settlement, no condemnation. The process we have, the international laws we uphold, are only as good as we have the will to make them. How old does a claim have to be? Russia's claim to Crimea proposes to undo a wrong the result of overly generous Soviet leaders in the 1950s when they agreed to give it to Ukraine. Israel's claim to Judea & Samaria goes back thousands of years. They each want their borders to reflect those truths. But, this is exactly what is fictional about borders, that there is any truth which underlies them but convention, agreement, or conflict and conquest. We live in a time when conflict and conquest, we believed, were done. But that's what I'm pointing out. Those times are not gone. Irredentism and revanchism only make sense against that fiction.

  3. Sobering stuff Chris! Borders seem useful to me... even if they come with these problems. In my mind, the benefits of societies acting collectively outweigh these costs. In the future, some kind of 'one world government' might do a slightly better job about peacefully managing its internal borders, but the current status of the various vested powers and extreme economic diversity make the 'one world government' highly unlikely any time soon. I'd say that borders are not really the problem (I assume that there would even be much more violence without 'national' borders). The problem is the way people choose to deal with these problems. I refer now to the work of Paul J Zak... A testosterone-fuelled neural circuit prominent in men's brains (and present, but not prominent in women's) provides positive reinforcement for observing and conducting punishment for past transgressions - to some people, and especially men in power who perceive a threat (who have higher levels of testosterone), it feels good to punish transgressors. The very same people are also more sensitive to what counts as a transgression. If it were not borders that were transgressed, then it would be something else.

    Solutions? Neurochemically reducing testosterone in all decision-makers? Mandating gender balance at the highest levels of authority? An even-handed 'World Police'? Non-Violent Communication training for everyone? It's certainly a tricky problem.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Dan. I'm not sure I want to do away with borders entirely either. At least not given the current global climate. For example, I'm glad for the US-Canada border, though many of my compatriots don't agree with its current location. I'm not sure I agree with the neurochemical explanation of border transgressions. There's just too much clearly democratic decision-making that helps to justify repeated incursions and colonial inclinations among otherwise very politically liberal nations. That's why, in part, I used the examples I did. Putin might be overly testosterone driven (speculation here), and perhaps so too might the Ukrainian rebels be (more speculation) who eagerly shot down the passenger jet. But it doesn't really explain Israel, nor our willingness to accept certain fictions about borders, including the focus of this piece, the fiction that they ought to map onto some historically identifiable "people" in their historically identifiable "place".

    I’m sympathetic to the idea of a people in a place, and that borders, if we should have them, should be justified in a way sensitive and responsive to those concerns.
    For example, I’m very sensitive to First Nations land claims and prefer to belong to a political community which is responsive to them in a way that doesn’t merely continue the colonial transgressions of the past. But that implies a process of negotiation, recognition, respect, and transparency regarding our reasons and values and judgements. It also must include the willingness to accept that these are not the only, nor even the best, justifications for borders, nor for having borders here rather than there, this way rather than that way. And it certainly cannot be acceptable as a basis for unilateral (generally violent) action, which is what irredentism and ravenchism are about.

    Regarding possible solutions: I’m all for mandating gender-balance at all levels of authority. I might even be persuaded to support letting women have the reigns for a few hundred years…. you know, in the spirit of social experimentation.