With 298 innocent victims shot out of the sky by Vladimir Putin’s agents of revanchism and irredentism—yes, the ugly political-science terms drip blood as well as academic tone—the time has come to think hard about what those words mean.
Neither revanchism nor irredentism has attracted the incisive philosophical scrutiny one might expect this past half year despite endless media attention to Putin’s seizure of Crimea and brutal sub rosa invasion of eastern Ukraine, ISIL's demolishing of the boundary between Iraq and Syria, and other blunt acts of disdain toward established territorial lines. "Revanchism" and "irredentism" pop up in passing in such coverage, but usually only as quick, erudite, and unexplained descriptions of, for example, Putin's general strategy to alter territorial lines he dislikes and to reclaim Russian speakers outside the Russian Federation as Russian citizens.
Aesthetic homeliness provides one surface explanation for why the terms draw little examination. We're hardly sure how to pronounce them, let alone analyze them. Indeed, it's a longstanding cultural truth that a conceptual word's ugliness provides one incentive to steer clear of its content. When philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce grew irritated by later writers reformulating his theory of "pragmatism," the maverick thinker announced that he'd henceforth call his approach "pragmaticism," a word he deemed "ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers." Peirce got his wish. Few scholars or thieves bother with his coinage.
"Revanchism" and "irredentism" give pragmaticism a run for its money in the verbal atrocity department. But the reasons we've been avoiding their inner workings run deeper. What, then, do the two words mean, and why the deep aversion to analyzing them on the part of op-ed writers, political leaders, and pundits?
"Revanchism," from the French word revanche, or revenge, arose in the late 19th century as a description of aggressive political desire to regain territory, possibly by force, lost to another state. Its immediate trigger was France’s goal, partly driven by Georges Ernest Boulanger, the so-called Général Revanche, to regain Alsace-Lorraine, lost in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. France regained the territory after World War I in the Treaty of Versailles (score one for revanchism). As in earlier and later instances, linguistic, ethnic, and historic factors (e.g., earlier possession) fueled the revanchist agenda.
"Irredentism," from the notion of Italia irredenta ("unredeemed Italy"), is a political corollary of revanchism that may or may not accompany it. This peculiar strain of nationalism holds that people outside of a particular state belong to the human family of that state, and should or must be brought back into it by taking the territory where they reside, thus "redeeming" them. The original example, like "revanchism," also comes from 19th-century Europe—the Italian attitude toward foreign rule over territories containing ethnic Italians, such as today’s Trento and Trieste.
Probing revanchism and irredentism reveals the whole map of the world to be a holy mess of conquest, massacre, imperialism, and other nasty embarrassments to democracy and justice.
Broadly conceived, irredentist issues endure throughout the world. The Wikipedia article on "Irredentism," for instance, lists among the many countries engaged in hot to lukewarm irredentist disputes the following: Afghanistan and Pakistan; Argentina and Britain; Bolivia and Chile; China and Taiwan; China and Japan; India and Pakistan; Albania and Greece; Armenia and Azerbaijan; Britain and Spain; Portugal and Spain; Spain and Morocco; Japan and Russia; and Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Most important for analytic purposes are the criteria that revanchism and irredentism share. Both reject the principle that current national borders, regardless of their origins, deserve respect simply because respecting them insures international stability among sovereign states. Both contend that specific criteria of justified possession of territory outweigh the "stability" justification of current borders. Both sometimes hold that armed force is justified to correct unjustified borders.
The motivation to avoid probing revanchism and irredentism, one thus suspects, goes far beyond aesthetics. Rather, opiners, pundits, polemicists, and statesmen steer clear of the two subjects because they hide behind them a conceptual imbroglio that reveals the whole map of the world to be a holy mess of conquest, massacre, imperialism, and other nasty embarrassments to democracy and justice. The situation leaves the status of recognized states, philosophically speaking, cynical to its core, self-contradictory all over the place, and best not discussed in polite, diplomatic, or analytical circles.
Accordingly, widespread reticence on the deeper problems of revanchism and irredentism has been the case even though, to take one example, Putin, from the moment Ukraine’s sovereign status entered into play after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, has regularly sounded both themes. He declared Crimea an integral and historic part of Russia. He described the eastern parts of Ukraine as "New Russia," a 19th-century coinage that signaled his belief that they belong in the Russian Federation. In crystalline irredentist terms, he asserted the right of Russia to intervene in Ukraine, and perhaps other states in his "near abroad"—e.g., Moldova, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia—to protect Russians whom, contrary to modern Soviet and then Russian Federation practice, he suddenly defined as speakers of Russian. (Traditional Russian Federation policy, like that of the Soviet Union, stresses the diversity of ethnic groups and languages that make up the state.)
Internet wags wondered whether Putin might extend the "Putin Doctrine" to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Israel, Africans who’ve studied at Russian universities, or even the well-known émigré community in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. He hardly needed to mention—and didn’t—that Kiev itself might end up in play, since all acknowledge it as the place where "Rus" began. Putin’s recent drawing in of his official military claws—i.e., those fighters popularly known as soldiers who actually wear Russian uniforms—didn't last very long and hasn’t been accompanied by any renunciation of those claims.
The West’s response, jurisprudentially and otherwise, has remained fairly consistent between the United States and Europe, even if their attitude toward harsher financial sanctions hasn’t. Both have accused Russia of violating the sovereignty of a neighboring state and acting illegally under international law in annexing Crimea and covertly sponsoring referenda and revolution in eastern Ukraine. (Further charges, of course, including criminal ones, may follow the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.) Why did Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Erbil, the unofficial capital of Iraqi "Kurdistan," urge Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani not to declare an independent Kurdistan? Why did he announce that the policy of the United States "is to support the territorial integrity of Iraq"? The answer is clear—that old stability argument, which helps hide the conceptual imbroglio behind the "R" word.
Where should scholars come in? Here, as too often, they’ve contributed only silence to the public debate, leaving unrevealed the philosophical superficiality, dishonesty, and cynicism of the Russia-Western tit for tat. Yet scholars can boast of a great deal of serious thinking about sovereignty, the justification of territorial claims, the status of unrecognized states, and the regrettable origins of many international boundaries, contested and uncontested. In one of her stinging rebukes in April to Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power remarked that "borders are not suggestions."
But what are they? Scholars offer something worthwhile here. A quick, highly limited look at work about these matters in four disciplines—history, law, political science, and philosophy—reveals material that should be forced upon statesmen, diplomats, and pundits. The work shows that:
- A large number of the world’s borders among sovereign nations came into existence through force and conquest, sometimes followed by treaties, which were sometimes actually observed. Think the United States, the Southwest, and Mexico, circa 1848, when the United States gained possession of all or part of what became 10 states. Think Russia and Kaliningrad. Think China and Tibet. One could go on all day.
- The territorial history of some places—such as Eastern Europe—is so complicated and unstable that one needs the patience of a saint—or a very great area scholar—to wade through, absorb, and understand it.
- Some of the legal doctrines responsible for world borders—such as the Roman-law principle of uti possidetis—which says, more or less, that possession equals legitimate possession for the time being—hardly offer moral inspiration.
- The principle of self-determination of peoples, that noble notion famously articulated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918—which some believe can resolve the world’s mess in the direction of justice—is itself a conceptual and legal mess.
Ponder, then, a few examples of germane work from four disciplines, and the lessons they provide.
Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (Yale University Press, 2003), confronts us with the tangled history of Central and Eastern Europe. Did you mention the Ukrainian people? Those folks who began to think of themselves as a unified group in the 19th century? One doesn’t have to be Newt Gingrich, who sparked a furor during the last presidential campaign when he called Palestinians an "invented people," to understand that all peoples and nations, are, in a manner of speaking, invented.
As Snyder, the Yale historian, gently puts it at the outset of his book, "contested places are known by different names to different people at different times," despite the reality that the national histories of the four places he puts under the microscope "usually begin with the medieval period, and trace the purportedly continuous development of the nation to the present." Kiev used to be Polish, and Poles, Russians, Belarussians, and Lithuanians all claimed Vilnius. The southwestern-Ukrainian town (today) of Kolomyia was, at different times, Soviet Russian, German, Polish, Austrian, and—for almost all of that time—mainly Jewish. Does anybody (besides Snyder) remember Austrian Galicia and Russian Volhynia in the late 18th century, those regions of Western Ukraine once more Polish and Austrian than "Ukrainian"?
Snyder indefatigably takes the reader back to the forgotten 16th-century "Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth," founded in 1569, and the endless shifts of sovereignty (up to recent times) that followed its dissolution. With the Treaty of Andrusovo, in 1667, the Dnieper River formed the border between the commonwealth and a "state" that used to be called "Muscovy." Snyder observes that "the absorption of eastern Ukraine" in 1667 "put into practice a transition from a limited geographic and political notion of Russia as the territory of Muscovy to an imperial idea of Russia as Great Russia (Muscovy), Little Russia (Ukraine), and white Russia (Belarus)," with the Russian empire coming into being only in 1721.
Should any of that matter today? Ukrainian nationalism, Snyder notes, really began only in the middle of the 19th century, fueled largely by people of Polish descent. He writes that the "possibility that Ukraine might be a nation separate from both Poland and Russia came late to Russians, and once conceived was categorically denied." Rather, in "the final quarter of the nineteenth century, the idea that Russia was a single nation, and that all East Slavs were Russians, became hegemonic."
And what of later twists? Even after suffering, centuries later, four years of both Soviet and Nazi occupation in World War II, writes Snyder, "Ukrainians and Poles ethnically cleansed each other for four more." He explains: "In the years following the revolutions of 1989, every imaginable cause of national conflict could be found among Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine: imperial disintegration; frontiers without historical legitimacy; provocative minorities; revanchist claims; fearful elites; newly democratic politics; memories of ethnic cleansing; and national myths of eternal conflict."
Amid heaps of historical detail, Snyder voices core truths of political theory largely absent from media commentary on either Russia’s actions toward Ukraine or ISIL’s destruction of the border between Syria and Iraq. "The centralized state," he notes, "is something of a fetish both of nationalists, who project it back into the past; and of social scientists, who properly emphasize its novelty and potential but sometimes exaggerate the success of state-builders. States, no less than nations, exist in time. State power is legitimate when people find it to be so. … States are destroyed as well as created."
History shows, in short, that Putin and ISIL are right about one thing: Many territorial borders can be considered mistakes, or line drawings that don’t reflect ethnic or linguistic realities. Why should one respect them except out of habit or a fetish for supposed stability, even when bad borders trigger more instability than revised ones might? There are answers to that question—liberal, democratic answers—but they need to be articulated when revanchism and irredentism are on the rise. Snyder's fastidious historical detail should make all of us more open-minded about which borders in trouble spots are best for living in a future, peaceful world, while we continue to stand strongly against Putin's policy of changing borders through violence, deception, and propaganda.
Just as history enlightens here, so does jurisprudence. Suzanne N. Lalonde’s Determining Boundaries in a Conflicted World: The Role of Uti Possidetis (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), spotlights the Roman legal principle that became a modern rule of thumb about borders, with decidedly mixed results. In Roman law, uti possidetis (shorthand for "As you possess, so you may possess"), stated the principle that legal authority should leave current possessions in place between private parties until a dispute between them could be resolved—in short, it lifted to the level of principle a practical inclination to temporarily accept the status quo.
As Lalonde, a professor of international law at the University of Montreal, lucidly outlines, uti possidetis then strangely evolved, during the 18th century, into a principle between states, one declaring that the possessor of property at the end of a war or conflict may keep it unless the peace treaty says otherwise. With the liberation of various Latin American colonies from Spain and Portugal, the principle further mutated into the notion that former colonial borders should remain in place after decolonization—a pro-stability principle meant to forestall endless fratricidal warfare among new states. Uti possidetis, with a nod toward the Latin American precedent, then became the ruling principle during the 1960s era of African anti-imperialist liberation, leaving troubling, colonially imposed borders in place. Diplomats again invoked it after the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Like Snyder’s Central and Eastern Europe centuries ago, Lalonde’s Latin America is full of earlier shapes and versions of present-day countries, the ones we now call Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Paraguay, to name just a few. As in Snyder’s tale, Lalonde’s focal point is a place where force determines borders—where Mexico and Guatemala battle over Chiapas, where Bolivia loses its whole coastline, where Colombia and Venezuela clash over land for 50 years. Yet while reinforcing Snyder’s history lesson, Lalonde drives home a key jurisprudential point—that a legal principle sometimes takes hold, in a simplistic way, with no sophisticated philosophical justification, but just an aim in mind. In the case of uti possidetis, it’s peace and stability, regardless of tribal affiliations, ethnic alliances, language differences, geographical boundaries, and other arguably more important factors.
Drawing on history and jurisprudence, then, adds enormously useful texture to analyzing the issues of revanchism and irredentism. Add now the literature of political science and international relations. Mikulas Fabry, in his Recognizing States: International Society and the Establishment of New States Since 1776 (Oxford University Press, 2010), expertly tracks the inconsistencies of the international community when it comes to recognizing or denying the legitimacy of a state, and the ill consequences that can ensue from either decision. As Fabry, an associate professor of international relations at Georgia Tech, points out, it was the 1992 recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the European Community and United States that triggered the war there.
Exploring key issues—such as whether international recognition of a state presupposes a state’s existence or creates it, and how the rejection of annexation by force has changed since the Congress of Vienna—Fabry discusses such varied cases as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eritrea, Croatia, Moldova, East Timor, Kosovo, Abkhazia, and Somaliland as he urges an integration of disciplinary perspectives on the matter.
Similarly, in Unrecognized States: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Modern International System (Polity, 2011), Nina Caspersen, director of graduate research in the department of politics at the University of York, teaches us that the states of her title actually come with different wisps of statehood—borders may be "blurred, gradual, and fluid," and sovereignty "is neither always exclusive nor absolute." They thus should be understood that way, and perhaps recognized for vastly disparate reasons. Like Fabry, who traces the self-determination principle’s zigs and zags back 200 years, Caspersen offers an incisive look at the historic inconsistencies of the principle in international relations.
Finally, with acknowledgment that history, law, and political science vigorously color in our conceptual maps, there is some useful perspective—some—to be taken from what we might call airy-fairy analytic political philosophy. That is the remarkably hermetic field where political theorists of an idealistic, largely ahistorical bent talk in a stilted academic style to one another about how our world ought to be—the intellectual realm where John Rawls is the modern Godlike figure, and the good will of all parties is largely assumed.
Here a key recent text is Cara Nine’s Global Justice and Territory (Oxford University Press, 2012), honored not long ago by the American Philosophical Association’s Book Prize. Nine, a philosopher at University College Cork, in Ireland, can sound, like many political philosophers of this ilk, as if she’s operating in cloud-cuckoo land, oblivious to, or just not interested in, how states actually determine borders in the real world.
Expressing the worship of the abstract that marks her field, she desires a theory "that applies to each case of territorial rights regardless of the parties to the dispute (or even if there is no dispute)." Revealing the redistributionist, powerfully pro-"justice" preference also common to the field, she contends that "if territorial rights are the cause of persons not meeting their basic needs, then these territorial rights should change so that persons can secure access to the object of their basic needs." Indeed, she asks, "What gives us an exclusive right to the massive diamond mines within our borders? Wouldn’t the world be more just if those diamonds were shared with the world’s poorest?"
It’s difficult to imagine any real-world politician or statesman taking Nine’s mode of analysis seriously—not the way they would the complex sociological examples analyzed by Fabry and Caspersen. Nine, of course, might not mind. She makes plain that what she mainly cares about is engaging with theory and more theory: "cosmopolitan theory," "the theory of exclusive collective resource rights," "statist anti-cosmopolitan theories," and so on.
Yet one can’t help wishing that John Kerry and some of his peers, instead of setting frequent-flier records for hopping among nations, would take a week or two to just stay home and read a few relevant books, including hers. And that all political pundits, used to spitting up new columns or sound bites every three days about Ukraine or Iraq—wringing their hands about the catastrophe of Flight 17, or the abomination of ISIL driving the last Iraqi Christians from their ancestral homes—would do the same.
For Professor Nine, her high academicism aside, does put her finger on the emptiness at the root of our territorial maps, the lacuna in regard to justifying principles that leads us not to burrow too deeply into revanchism and irredentism. As she puts it, "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?"
That indeed, is the question. It doesn’t seem as if the world has an answer.
Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review and a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, is a Guggenheim Fellow and a distinguished visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University. He is the author of America the Philosophical (Vintage, 2013).