Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Crimean Non-War

In the wake of its apparent decision not to respond militarily to its own political dismemberment, the humiliation of the Ukraine is now complete. It feels easy to be outraged. Nor does last week’s referendum, in which an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted in favor of leaving Ukraine and rejoining Russia, do much to lessen that sense of indignation. The bloodiest of all America’s wars, after all, was fought precisely over the right of a sovereign state to prevent by force the secession of any of its constituent regions…and most Americans—surely an overwhelming majority of Americans—feel that the Civil War was not only requisite if the nation was to endure, but also justified both politically and morally. (And we are talking about a monstrously blood conflict that took the lives of about 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians. By comparison, about 418,500 Americans died in the Second World War, which figure includes fewer than 2,000 civilians. But President Lincoln is not remembered as a warmonger, let alone a bloodthirsty one, but is consistently ranked as one of the three greatest American leaders, almost always vying for first place with Washington and FDR.) So it feels natural to respond with outrage to Vladimir Putin’s openly orchestrated effort to use the pro-Russian sentiment of the electorate as a fig leaf to grant at least some veneer of reasonability and justification to what would otherwise just have been an aggressive effort to seize somebody else’s property and annex it shamelessly and without regard for world opinion.

But that’s only one way of looking at the situation. And others are worth taking into account as well, particularly those that seem related to the way the world relates to Israel and its insistence that the Palestinians recognize the inherent Jewish nature of the state before any meaningful peace treaty be negotiated. One of the mysteries of political science is the random allotment of statehood to some ethnic groups but not to all. The Basques, the Chechens, the Lapps, the Inuit, the Roma, the Bretons, the Navaho, the Uighurs, the Ainu—all these are recognizable groups with their own cultures, their  own languages, their own senses of ethnic identity, but the world seems at peace with them having to make peace with being guests in someone else’s home permanently. (The Tibetans are the exception to the rule because plenty of people in the world actually do seem to care that Tibet was forcibly annexed by China in 1950…but, as the Chinese know all too well, Tibet is also the exception that merely proves the rule because, when all is said and done, words are cheap…and no one in the West is really ready to go to war with China to free Tibet, and least of all our own country.)

On the other hand, the world order has a place in it for extremely tiny nations. The 163,000 Lapps in northern Europe number more than five times as many as there are citizens of Liechtenstein, a country with full member-state status at the United Nations. I can make that point more clearly: there are two million ethnic Chechens in the world, which figure is greater than the population of ninety-four recognized nations in the world. (Palau, a member of the United Nations with the same one vote in the General Assembly as every other member, has a population of just under 20,000, about four times as many people as Forest Hills High School had students when I was in attendance.) In that light, it’s hard to argue that the Crimea, with a population of well over twice as many ethnic Russians than Ukrainians (58.32% vs. 24.32%, almost all the rest being Tatars), should categorically be permitted to chart its own course forward in terms of its national destiny. To ask the same question in other words: why should the Crimeans be Palauans when they could just as easily be Mohawks? That is the question that no one seems to be able to answer clearly or convincingly.

I wonder if any readers remember learning about the Crimean War back in high school. Does it jog your memory if I remind you that that was Florence Nightingale’s war?  I remember being very impressed as a teenager by the 1968 movie The Charge of the Light Brigade starring John Gielgud and Trevor Howard, and going to the trouble—I was like this even then—of going to the library to get some books about the Crimean War so as better to appreciate the action in the movie and the background of its plot. (It really is a fabulous movie, by the way. If you have a chance to take a look, you won’t be disappointed.)  The background isn’t even all that complicated. On the one side were the French, the British, and the Turks. On the other side were the Russians. The whole thing had mostly to do with the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the decision—which apparently seemed worth going to war over in the 1850s—of whether Russia or France was going to be designated the protectors of the Ottoman Empire’s Christian population. When the Ottomans chose France, Russia went to war. So far, this had nothing to do with Crimea.  But then, in the spring of 1854, Britain and France went to war with the Russians (who had in the meantime invaded Moldavia and Wallachia, where modern-day Romania is). The Italians declared war the following year. And it was at that point that most of the fighting began to take place in Crimea.

Does this sound familiar? West and East are at loggerheads over who is going to exert the most pressure on people who really deserve just to be left alone. Russia is on one side. The Western powers, now joined by the United States, are on the other. Everybody claims to want nothing more than to protect the Ukraine…from each other. Why exactly the problem can’t be solved simply by letting the Ukraine be and everybody else just going home is simple to answer because this isn’t really about Ukraine and its territorial integrity at all. This is all about spheres of influence, rising and declining military and economic power, and who has the right to be recognized as the world’s most powerful nation or bloc of nations. It’s 1855 all over again!

Even more obvious is that no one really cares about the Crimeans themselves either. The large majority of residents are ethnic Russians, so why should Crimea be part of Ukraine? Crimea actually is part of Ukraine, so why can’t the Russians just accept that as placidly as they accept the existence of substantial numbers of Russians in the Baltic Republics? Or is that exactly where Putin is going to train his gaze after he’s done dismembering the Ukraine. What will be after that? Brighton Beach? You heard it here first!

But there really is a profound question here, and that has to do with the right of ethnic majorities to live in countries that conform to their own cultural values, language needs, religious sensitivities, and ethnic sympathies. And that specific version of the question brings me to Israel. The question of the occupied territories notwithstanding, the issue that seems the most vexing of all the problems that stand in the way of peace in the Middle East is really a philosophical one: do or do not the Jews of Israel, who together constitute more than three-quarters of the Israeli population, have the right to define their nation as a Jewish homeland, as one in which Jewish culture is deemed the national culture and others are welcome to exist…as minority cultures with protected rights but specifically not as the defining national culture? The Palestinians regularly balk at any suggestion that they recognize the inherent Jewishness of the State of Israel.  They seem, on the other hand, okay with Iran self-defining as an Islamic republic that at least on paper guarantees the rights of non-Muslims to live, if they wish, in an Islamic state and to practice their non-Islamic religions there.

And in that paradox lies my specific question: do ethnic majorities have the right to define the national culture of the countries in which they live or don’t they? No one disputes that Israel has an Arab minority. Some are Christians, although only about 122,000 out of more than 1,400,000. The rest are Muslims. None is Jewish. Yet the majority—acting, I believe, not out of imperialist disdain for others but out of a natural right of every nation to pursue its own national destiny as its citizens define it—has created a specifically Jewish state on the ground and, along with it, the expectations that minority groups accept the will of the majority.

And so we are caught on the horns of an interesting dilemma. Why shouldn’t the Crimeans choose their path forward? The American Revolution was “about” the right of a nation to self-define. The birth of Israel in 1948 was “about” the right of a nation to call itself into existence and to chart its own destiny culturally and politically. The same could be said of many other nations…but not of all groups that have nationalist aspirations. Our nation’s dithering response to the crisis is reflective of the ambivalence we feel about the whole question of who gets to decide when a nation, or part of a nation, is ready to decide its own destiny. History has somewhat arbitrarily awarded that right to some and denied it to others. Population doesn’t seem to matter. Geography, even less so. History, hardly at all. So we are left at loggerheads with ourselves: the American Revolution (people can secede from their own country) vs. the Civil War (secession is unlawful and can reasonably trigger war), the rights of nations to call themselves into existence vs. the rights of nations to preserve their territorial integrity at all costs, the reasonableness of using a national plebiscite to determine the will of the people vs. the unreasonableness of allowing the majority of citizens in one of  a nation’s regions simply to decide to leave their own country merely because they wish to go.

In the end, I think history—and justice—is on the side of majority rule. Small groups generally have to make their peace with being part of the larger societies in which they live. But when the majority of citizens seeks to change course and seek its destiny on its own, then I think that is how things should be. On the other hand, countries have the right to keep themselves united…and there was no visible sign of unrest among the residents of the Crimean Autonomous Republic until they were goaded into voting in a referendum more or less imposed on them by Russia. It is true that 97% of voters voted to rejoin Russia, but the kind of political re-assignment surgery that the Crimeans seem to favor has to be weighed against the right of a country to protect is borders and preserve its territorial integrity. The bottom line: the Ukraine has a right to hold itself together. That they’ve apparently caved in totally and allowed Russia to write their own foreign policy is either a sign of mature realism…or cowardice in the face of a very powerful neighbor. Which it is remains to be seen…but the path to nationhood, or even to political self-determination, has to be built on the evolutionary, ever-building desire to travel into a future of a people’s own devising…not a gift on a silver platter offered by an enormously powerful “friend” entirely focused on the pursuit of its own best interests. Those of us who favor a two-state solution in the Middle East are convinced that the Palestinians have earned the right to be masters in their own home…a right they share with Israelis and with the citizens of all legitimately-conceived nations.

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