It is a time of many times: a time for dancing, even if to the songs of a foreign land; a time for walking together, unintimidated when we seem to be a small and beleaguered band; a time for rejoicing in momentary triumphs, and for defiance in momentary defeats; a time for persistence in reasoned argument, never tiring in proposing to the world a more excellent way. ~Richard Neuhaus
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Including UK, Canada, France, and Germany among increasing numbers of others.
Interestingly, Iran may join the coalition.