Columnist Trudy Rubin says that she's gotten a lot of flak for her support of the US government's condemnation of the Russian attack on neighboring Georgia. The objections have, she says, fallen into three main categories:
- Because of the US invasion of Iraq, the US has lost any moral authority in condemning Russia
- Because the Georgian president "miscalculated" by "invading" South Ossetia, a province of the Georgian nation
- Because the US allegedly put the Georgians up to the aforementioned "invasion"
She goes on to write:
Russia presents itself as a champion of Ossetian self-determination. That's absurd. Russia has brutally repressed separatist movements inside its territory, particularly in Chechnya, where Russian artillery and bombs have killed untold thousands of civilians.This is an important point. A recent poll in the US says that a frightening percentage of Americans think that it's okay for a portion of our country to secede any time it wants. An even higher percentage of younger Americans believe secession is fine.
This sentiment overlooks a fundamental assertion of the Founders, one that was underscored by our own Civil War: Secession or independence can only be legitimate when rooted in moral imperatives.
The Declaration of Independence legitimized the US breakaway from Great Britain on the basis of "self-evident" moral principles. When the Confederate States broke away from the US, they claimed to do so on the basis of similar moral principles. They wanted freedom. But the freedom they wanted was the freedom to enslave others unencumbered by moral considerations.*
The two troublesome provinces in Georgia may want independence. But it appears that the desire has nothing to do with moral principles. That is one more factor which, for Americans conversant with their history anyway, should further delegitimize Russia's invasion of Georgia.
And Russia, which has, at best, limited concern for other peoples' "self-determination," is acting solely on the desire of Vladimir Putin to in some way reconstitute the Soviet Union. As Rubin writes:
Putin has been clear about wanting to restore the Kremlin's former empire, calling the Soviet breakup the "greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century."Rubin, I think, is right to say that the next US president will have to evolve a common policy with the Europeans for dealing with the Russian government's desire to keep its neighbors--and others--under its thumb.
Given what has happened to Georgia, other former Soviet Republics now have good reason to worry. Putin has threatened to target Russia's nuclear weapons against Ukraine if that country continues efforts to join NATO (and a Russian general just warned that Poland could face attack over a missile-defense deal with Washington).
Russia has cut supplies of natural gas to Ukraine and waged cyberwar against Baltic states. Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko believes Moscow was behind an assassination attempt by poison that nearly killed him...
So it doesn't matter who "started" the crisis in Georgia. It has little to do with Ossetian rights and everything to do with Putin's drive to restore Russian power. Had Saakashvili not sent troops into Ossetia, Russia would have found another excuse to attack.
Russia, as Rubin concedes, has every right to develop a sphere of influence via economic and diplomatic means. But Putin's Neo-Stalinism must be confronted by the world. (Please don't think I'm advocating a war with Russia. I'm not.)
There are several implications that arise from the events in Russia, the emailed reactions received by Rubin, and general US ignorance of our own history:
1. Given the enormous challenges represented by the repressive regimes in both Russia and China, the next president will have to make international cooperation a top priority. This doesn't mean ceding US sovereignty, but ensuring its continuation.
2. The US has dithered on this point for thirty years, but it is essential that we develop our own energy sources. There appears to be an increasing consensus, even in this contentious election year, that we must develop multiple energy sources and they must be of the domestic variety. The US can ill-afford to allow itself to be raked over an energy barrel. With the rise of the BRIC nations--Brazil, Russia, India, and China, there will be increased competition for world oil and gas resources. Two of those countries can, I think, be classified as hostile competitors. (Note: I did not describe them as enemies.) In the real world of the twenty-first century, the US must engage these powers, but understand that we cannot look into the eyes of their leaders and detect benign democrats. We must ensure energy self-sufficiency.
3. Reports of the demise of the state in deference to a globalized world in which organizations and corporations that cross national lines play the supreme role are greatly exaggerated. Richard Branson's Virgin brand may, for example, undertake space flight, taking on benign functions previously associated with governments. And the evil of terrorism may be directed by a wealthy person like Osama bin Laden. But governments, with their power (and responsibility) to tax, are the entities that have the greatest ability to help their people or project power in a way that endangers and enslaves their own nation and other peoples. US foreign policy must not forget that we still live in world in which governments wield great influence in human affairs.
4. Domestically, we must give higher priority to teaching history and other social studies. For Americans to so misread the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence as to accept that secession can be undertaken just when people feel like it, thereby legitimizing not just breakaways in distant Georgia, but maybe even within this country, is frightening. The ethnic and religious fragmentations in today's world are buttressed by such ignorance. "A knowledge of the past prepares us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future," John Kennedy once wrote. We will do more to ensure America's future with a true, honest, and appreciative understanding of our history and the principles that underlay our Revolution, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution than we will by enhancing science education, important though that is. Ignorant citizens are ill-prepared to make wise judgments when they go to the voting booth. An understanding of our own history will be a positive lens through which to view world events.
End of this far-flung lunchtime rant.
*Ann Althouse, a professor of Constitutional Law, recently wrote about this here.
Author Joyce Hakim also wrote about when secession is legitimate or illegitimate in her readable history of the United States. Writing of the sentiments of the rebel Confederate States in the present tense, Hakim notes:
...the Southerners...believe in "states' rights." They think any state should have the right to pull out of the Union, and that it is tyranny to keep them in against their wishes. They say they are doing the same thing George Washington and the other revolutionaries did against King George: fighting for their freedom. But it is a white freedom they are fighting for, and the North won't let them do it. Revolution is only right, says President Lincoln, "for morally justified cause." The South has no just cause. So, said Lincoln, secession is "simply a wicked exercise of political power."Not all revolutions or secessionist movements should be wrapped in red, white, and blue bunting.