Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In 1919 the Versailles Treaty established in international law and global institutions two ideals that have framed Western foreign policy ever since. The first is the elevation of national self-determination and democratic government as the default goods for all the world’s peoples. The other is the notion that supranational institutions, international laws, and multinational treaties and covenants are the best means for adjudicating peacefully international disputes and conflicts.
Russia’s current violent, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is merely the latest example of a century’s worth of repudiation of these ideals that still shape modern foreign policy––a challenge that, if we’re lucky, may lead to a long-needed revision of this ideal of a “rules-based international order” and its dubious foundational assumptions.
American president Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points and speeches during World War I articulated these ideals. In 1918 he told Congress, “National aspirations must be accepted; peoples may now be dominated only by their own consent.” This principle perforce was opposed to colonial empires, as Wilson made clear in the Fourteen Points: “The day of conquest and aggrandizement is gone by, which makes it possible for every nation whose purposes are consistent with justice and the peace of the world to avow now or at any other time the objects it has in view.”
Of course, as we’ve seen over the past century, what the great diversity of global peoples and cultures mean by “justice” differs considerably, especially regarding the use of force to realize national ambitions at the expense of other nations. Such ideals have been vulnerable as well to the duplicitous diplomacy, propaganda, and aggression of ambitious states. Hitler brilliantly turned this ideal against its champions like France and England during the Sudetenland crisis of September, 1938. After all, didn’t the 3 million alleged ethnic Germans stranded in the new state of Czechoslovakia after the war deserve their “national aspirations” to be “accepted”? Why should they, as Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels lied during the crisis, have to tolerate the “brutal treatment of women and children of German blood” at the hands of alien Czechs?
Or consider how the Israeli-Arab conflict has exploited this same shibboleths of “national self-determination.” After World War II the Stalin’s Comintern began tutoring anticolonial revolutionary movements like those in Algeria and Palestine (the old Ottoman province) to cast these struggles as fights for “national self-determination” rather than the advance of communism or an Islamic Reconquista. In the case of Palestine, the real goal has always been to leave the territory judenrein from the “river to the sea,” as confirmed by the PLO’s rejecting five offers to create their own nation. Other communist revolutions in Viet Nam and Cuba likewise exploited the Wilsonian rhetoric of “national self-termination” as camouflage for their true goal of establishing communist governments.
And continuing that malign tradition, we are watching in real time Russia invade Ukraine under the pretext that ethnic Russians had been stranded in the original homeland of Russia––first by the Bolsheviks, then by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Such a propaganda ruse is possible in part because of the frequent lack of clarity about what constitutes a “nation.” As Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing asked, “What unit does he [Wilson] have in mind? Does he mean a race [“people”], a territorial idea, or a community?”
Finally, as a practical matter, it is impossible to give all peoples who self-identify by a common culture, landscape, traditions, history, faith, and most important language, their own nation. When Wilson proposed that ideal, there were 30 million ethnic minority peoples in Europe. There still are today, like the Galacians, Catalans, and Basques of Spain, or in China the oppressed Uyghurs and occupied Tibetans. And when after World War I the system of Mandates was put in place to create new nations out of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, many distinct peoples like the Kurds did not get the boon of national self-determination. A century later nationalist movements from Catalonia to the Kurds in Turkey still struggle to have their national identity recognized.
As for democracy, its cargo of unalienable individual rights, political freedom, and equality of all before the law are not the destiny of the whole world and its diverse peoples. The genius of these Western ideals, rather, is that they are available for any peoples who want to live free of tyranny. Just as any child can learn to speak any of the some-6500 languages spoken in the world today, so too any human can learn to live in any other culture no matter how different. But this doesn’t mean that the Western way is the desired destiny of human history, as the post-Cold War “new world order” presumed.
The next transformational ideal established by the Versailles Treaty is Wilson’s 14th point, which became Article 26 of the Treaty: “A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike,” which became the League of Nations. The flaw lay in the assumptions that all member nations shared a “harmony of interests” such as peace, and foundational beliefs like the sanctity of national borders, both of which would create laws and covenant that would adjudicate, deter, and punish aggressors who violated these principles.
But that assumption conflicted with the national interests and identifying cultures of sovereign states. More practically, there were no clear-cut, binding, effective protocols for punishing violators of the League’s terms. It didn’t take long after the League’s founding for these weaknesses to be obvious. In the two decades between the world wars, three League Members and future Axis powers, Japan, Italy, and Germany, had with force violated national borders with impunity.
Anyone could have foreseen this outcome. Without a League military force to punish aggressors, it was up to individual member-states to spend the lives and resources needed to uphold the League’s principles. But that meant enforcement was hostage to the national interests and security of each state, confirming the wisdom of George Washington: “It is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation can be trusted farther than it is bounded by its interests.”
The successor to the League of Nations–– despite the latter’s abject failure to prevent the massive slaughter of the Second World War––the United Nations has a similar record of futility. And like the League, the UN has functioned primarily as a global “commons” that member state exploit to serve their own interests, no matter how much they violate the founding ideals like the sanctity of national sovereignty and boundaries, or the non-violent adjudication of conflict.
Indeed, this clash of interests and principles has been surreal in its transparent hypocrisy. The UN Human Rights Council is perhaps the most egregious example. Its rotating membership has included blatant human-rights violators like China, Cuba, and Venezuela. The Council’s politicization has been particularly obvious in its persecution of liberal democratic Israel, which accounts for half of all condemnations by the Council, while 48 “gross human rights abusers” have been ignored, including China, currently conducting a genocide against the minority Muslim Uyghurs.
But the most telling example of the UN took place last week, when Ukraine brought Russia’s invasion before the Security Council––the same body of which Russia is a permanent, veto-bearing member, and which the Russia delegate was chairing at the time. Winston Churchill’s warning in his 1946 Fulton, Missouri speech has become reality: the UN is merely a “cockpit in the Tower of Babel.”
Commentary about the crisis in Ukraine has worried that the postwar “rules-based international order” of which the UN has been the poster-child, may not survive Putin’s aggression against Ukraine’s sovereignty. But it has been the flabby response of the West that is more culpable for its weakness. Starting in 2008 with Putin’s land-grab in Georgia and Moldova, through the 2014 occupation of Crimea and military support of secessionists in eastern Ukraine, to the current full-scale invasion, Europe and the US have done nothing but speechify and impose economic sanctions carefully crafted to avoid hurting the global economy.
Worse yet, the current administration took active steps to pave Putin’s way. Waging the progressive Dems’ war on carbon, Biden has turned our country from a net exporter of oil and gas into a global energy mendicant that imports 600,000 barrels of oil a day from Russia––an amount less than the Canadian oil the Keystone LX pipeline would have been transporting to the US if Biden hadn’t stopped construction. He also nixed plans by Israel, Greece, and Cyrus to supply Europe with gas from the eastern Mediterranean.
The policies and institutional stale orthodoxies left over from the Versailles Settlement need to be revised, and realism restored to our foreign policy. If Putin’s offenses are as grievous and dangerous as the current commentary claims, then we need not to close the ineffective sanctions barn-door after the bear has left, but to start immediately rebuilding our military and energy industry; putting our NATO partners’ feet to the fire on military spending; delivering significant amounts of materiel to countries like the Baltic states and Poland; imposing scorched-earth sanctions that target the personal wealth of Putin and his cronies, the banks and financial institutions in Russia, Europe, and the U.S. that manage their wealth, and the Russian energy industry currently financing Putin’s adventurism.
There are signs that the West is waking up. Germany, mirabile dictu, has pledged to raise its military budget to the required 2% of GDP, and will now allow German armaments and components to be transferred to Ukraine by the original buyers. And Germany has joined other NATO countries in approving sanctions that ban Russian banks from SWIFT, the network for connecting banks around the world in order to manage international finance. If these actions continue to multiply, we may undertake a wider, more comprehensive reform of our stale foreign policy orthodoxies.
Or we can continue with diplomatic bluster, “new world order” happy talk, and feeble sanctions, in which case we will just be managing our decline.