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The Immoral Principle of Territorial Integrity

The Crimean parliament's proposal to exit the Ukriane and join the Russian Federation has raised the question of the legality and morality of secession.  Inevitably, most of the discussion is based on the short-sighted and tortured reasoning of modern and postmodern political theory. A good example is Ilya Somin's, "Crimea and the Morality of Secession"—a classic exercise in hemming and hawing in the Washington Post.

Somin's language of argument reveals both the poverty of thought and the moral obtuseness of postmodern political theory, which is as reality-based as postmodern literary theory: What matters is what theorists have said.

Somin gives three reasons why Crimean secession is not "moral," reasons that suggest that the poor fellow does not have the slightest idea of what the word "moral" actually means. (Hint: It  involves norms of human behavior rather than academic legal theories involving states.)

Reason number one: "Many political theorists argue that secession from an existing state can only be justified if it is necessary to address serious injustices or human rights violations." Since when has an argument been conclusive when its authority derives from however many theorists, much less from a speculative theory about international human rights advocated by a rather limited number of philosophers?  We could bandy authorities back and forth all day—my Bentham and Hume against his Locke and Rousseau, for example, and reach no conclusion. Strike One.

His second argument is that Crimean secession is illegal because "the territorial integrity of states is a basic principle of modern international law." This argument is even weaker, first because "modern international law" is simply a theory that nation-states have cynically signed onto without ever intending to abide by it. When strong states are taken to task for violations—as was the US, when it mined harbors in Nicaragua—the answer is "Mind your own business." Second, as the examples of Yugoslavia and Kosovo show all too clearly, international law is, to borrow from one of Socrates interlocutors, "whatever is in the interests of the stronger." The US and its allies made war directly on civilians, not only in Kosovo but distant Novi Sad in order to assist rebels who had shown and are still showing a relentless determination to exterminate the Christian population of Kosovo. Strike Two.

His third argument is that Crimean secession would not pass muster according even to the broader libertarian justification for secession put forward by people like Christopher Wellman, to whit, that democratic majorities have the right to secede to protect themselves from human rights violations. If we set aside the libertarian nonentities who have made this argument, we can deal directly with Thomas Jefferson's exercise in wishful thinking, that government rests on the consent of the governed and that the people have a right to overturn a government destructive of natural rights. It is a pretty thought, but it can only be entertained if the rebels are backed by a superior force, such as the army and navy of the French monarchy or the American Empire.

But let us for the sake of argument suppose there is such a right of secession. This right, he argues, is only valid if the new regime will protect the civil rights of minorities. Where do we begin, perhaps with my Tory ancestors who were dispossessed and driven out of North Carolina or with the Indians displaced by Manifest Destiny? How about the Filipinos we slaughtered in order to give them the blessings of democracy? Perhaps those examples are ancient history. We went to bat for the secession of Albanian Kosovo and Croatia.  Anyone want to know what happened to the Kosovo and Krajina Serbs, who were despoiled of their property and ethnically cleansed?

Naturally, Wellman's (whoever he is) strawman arguments are easy to blow away. I wish I were making this up, but this is the sort of stuff that academics make up all day long. Strike Three.

Let us turn away from these academic questions and look for just one second at reality.

Many honest observers are puzzled by what seem to them contradictions and even hypocrisy in the policies of the so-called international community, which applauded and assisted the secessions of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, but absolutely condemned the attempts of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia to secede from the seceded states. The same governments and institutions that demanded the independence of South Sudan and Ukraine now are adamant in defending the "territorial integrity" of Ukraine and opposing the independence movements in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Superficially, these contradictory positions seem hypocritical or, at least muddled, but there is in fact no confusion in the motivation of the international community. In every case the goals are manifest: The extension of a system of an international order, as represented by NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union, in which the United States plays a preeminent role, at the expense of historic loyalties and rooted attachments to religious and cultural traditions.

Since religion often stands in for other forms of ethnic identity, the internationalists often play the card of religious freedom, sometimes with disastrous results. When the Arab Spring, nurtured and coddled by the US State Department, empowered Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt—as was inevitable—there was consternation among the internationalists. They could hardly afford to admit they had made a mistake, and they were still less likely to endorse the military coup that drove the Muslim Brotherhood from power, tacit acquiescence in the restoration of order has proved to be the only possible solution.

While the internationalists frequently deplore Islamic fundamentalism in Africa and the Middle East, in Europe, at least, the focus of attack is on Christianity, particularly on the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Catholics, as part of a powerful international organization with wealth and influence on several continents, are in a better position to defend their interests, but the Orthodox begin with two strikes against them: As European Christians, they are the familiar enemy representing the old civilization that modern European states are bent on destroying, but as Eastern Europeans they can be demonized as alien, bizarre and bigoted. It was inevitable that the anti-Christian international community would shrink with revulsion from the aspirations of Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. The Orthodox majority in Ukraine would now be subjugated by the same logic, if there were not Russian troops on the border and in the Crimea itself.

No question of morality is involved in the international community's approach to secession. The only question on the table these days is, to paraphrase another amoral politician, "How many divisions does the international community have—and are they willing to use them?" 

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.

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