The Freedom of Nations
by Henry Jackson Society
There are two reasons to rejoice over the plan unveiled earlier this month by United Nations special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which sets the disputed European country of Kosovo firmly on the path to independence. The first is specific to the case: the wishes and aspirations are finally being met of a people that has long been denied liberty, and the denial of whose liberty has long been a source of instability in the Balkans. The second reason is that an important principle is being established, or rather re-established: that in certain circumstances, the right of an unfree nation to self-determination may take precedence over the territorial integrity of an existing member of the international community (formally, Kosovo is still internationally recognised as part of Serbia). This is a principle upon which the modern Western liberal-democratic order has been built, and it is only through its reaffirmation that our interests and security can be protected.
The birth of the modern Western world began with an act of what some today might call ‘separatism’. With the United States Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776, a new independent state came into being. Today’s reactionary critics might have said that the new state had no history of independence; or that it was a ‘mini-state’ (its population of less than four million made it smaller than today’s Croatia and only about twice the size of today’s Kosovo). Yet the US proved to be a bastion of Western liberty. The Declaration was inspired in part by an earlier act of ‘separatism’ – the Dutch declaration of independence from the tyrannical rule of the Spanish Habsburgs in 1581. And the American Declaration in turn inspired a new generation of European freedom-fighters: most immediately, the Marquis de la Fayette and his fellow French officers who, after helping the Americans to achieve their freedom in the war against Britain, returned home to spearhead the French Revolution.
Since then, most major triumphs for liberty in Europe have involved acts of ‘separatism’. The Allied victory in World War I saw the downfall of four European empires and the emergence of Poland, Finland and several other independent countries, soon to be followed by the emergence of the Irish Free State; the fall of Communism in the 1980s and 90s added more than fifteen new members to the states system of greater Europe, from Slovenia to Azerbaijan. Indeed, most states of today’s Europe – from Iceland to Cyprus - seceded at one time or another from larger entities. Nor has the process been limited to Europe: the 1990s has seen the establishment of independent Eritrea and East Timor.
Failure to uphold this noble tradition has, in recent years, cost us dearly. In 1991-1992, the international community reluctantly recognised the break-up of Yugoslavia and the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But we made no effort to help this newly independent state establish itself; indeed, we actively undermined it. And we did not recognise the independence of Kosovo, which had also been a member of the Yugoslav Federation, on the grounds that Kosovo was formally part of Serbia. Our failure to defend Bosnia from aggression and genocide discredited the Western alliance, brought United States-British relations to their lowest point since Suez, and created a Balkan sink-hole that al-Qaeda and Iran both rushed to fill. And our own insistence on Serbia’s ‘territorial integrity’ simply paved the way to war with Serbia over Kosovo in 1999.
Let us consider a second example. The West’s victory in the Cold War was crowned by the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991, and the declaration of independence of all fifteen of its members – and of Chechnya. Estonia and Chechnya were two nations roughly equal in population, but as a result of arbitrary decisions taken by the Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, the first became a member of the Soviet Union while the latter merely a republic within the Russian Federation. Consequently, our leaders in the West chose to recognise the independence of Estonia and the other former Soviet republics, but not of Chechnya; instead we chose to uphold Russia’s ‘territorial integrity’. Estonia established its independence peacefully and is today a member of NATO and the European Union; a pillar of our security and stability. Chechnya, by contrast, was offered no chance to follow suit; we abandoned it to Russia’s murderous onslaughts since 1994, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, a new Islamist insurgency on the edge of Europe, and the creation of a Chechen Islamist diaspora whose members fought against us in Afghanistan.
We have received our just desserts from Russia for our respect of Stalin’s constitutional categories. Russian President Vladimir Putin, like Milosevic before him, bites the Western hand that feeds: he provided military intelligence to Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq war; he is helping Iran develop its nuclear industry; he condemns the United States for allegedly trying to build a ‘unipolar’ world; and it was probably his supporters, or members of the Russian security organs, who poisoned the British citizen Alexander Litvinenko under our very noses. Mr. Putin has, meanwhile, built a brutal regime at home, imprisoning and murdering dissidents and journalists: the necessary corollary of tyranny in Chechnya is tyranny in Russia; in betraying Chechnya, we also betrayed Russia democracy – a fact horrifically demonstrated by the recent assassination of the heroic Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, in retaliation for her honest reporting of Russia’s dirty war in the Caucasus.
It is worth bearing this in mind when critics speak of the ‘destabilising’ effect that Kosovo’s independence will supposedly have on the international order. What makes us in the West strong, stable and free is that our governments rest upon the consent of the governed. We have nothing to fear from ‘separatism’ because we live in democratic nation-states that exist on the basis of the will and loyalty of their citizens. On the other hand, empires and dictatorships that keep their people in chains have every reason to fear the ‘destabilisation’ that ‘separatism’ brings. In this context, we need merely regret that Kosovo’s independence will not bring greater ‘destabilisation’.
Critics will reply that we cannot afford to support the right of nations to self-determination; that if, for example, the people of Taiwan were to vote to secede formally from China we could not afford to alienate the budding Chinese superpower by supporting them; far better, they argue to sacrifice a democratic nation of twenty-three million to maintain good business relations with the Communist dictatorship in Beijing. Yet the truth is that either we uphold our values in the world, which means supporting democracy and human rights, including the right of nations to self-determination; or we allow the Russias and the Chinas to impose their values of coercion and repression. And in a world governed by the values of the present regimes in Moscow and Beijing, we will not be secure. Ultimately, our security is best served by the democratisation of both Russia and China, which will not be able to democratise so long as they hold other peoples in thrall.
Critics will reply that new ‘mini states’ are unstable and unviable; that if, for example, an independent Palestine comes into being, it will be a haven for terrorism and extremism. Yet the truth is that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will be an incubator of terrorism and extremism until the freedom, independence and security of both Israel and Palestine are firmly established; that the best way to defuse illegitimate Palestinian demands for the destruction of Israel is to grant legitimate Palestinian demands for national independence; that Palestine is, along with Lebanon and Iraq, the closest thing the Arab world has to a democracy; and that therefore an independent Palestine should be fostered as the natural friend and partner of Israel and the Western alliance.
Critics will reply that national self-determination is a two-edged sword; that by supporting the independence of Kosovo, we provide a justification for others arbitrarily to redraw international borders; most obviously, for Russia to dismember Georgia, a Western ally, by itself supporting the ‘self-determination’ of Georgia’s break-away provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet the truth is that we cannot abandon support for democratic principles simply because they are open to abuse and deliberate misinterpretation by cynical parties. Abkhazia and Ossetia are not equivalent to Kosovo. Abkhazia’s population, until the Russian-backed Abkhazian ethnic-cleansing campaigns of the 1990s, contained two and a half times more ethnic Georgians than ethnic Abkhazians, and the wishes of the Georgian plurality – now mostly living as refugees in Georgia – are not for independence. South Ossetia, by contrast, did have an ethnic Ossetian majority, but this comprised only about 66,000 people out of a total South Ossetian population of 100,000. With Kosovo’s population twenty times larger than South Ossetia’s, there is no reason to accept Russia’s false claims of equivalency between the two.
It is true that it is difficult to apply the principle of national self-determination to ethnically mixed territories, where the competing claims of different nationalities conflict. National rights, like any democratic rights, cannot be perfect or absolute; just as there are limits to freedom of expression and assembly (e.g. we in Britain do not permit incitement to racial hatred or the formation of private militias), so the freedom of nations has to be limited by the freedom of other nations. Yet it is for the democratic states of the world, rather than attempting the unworkable and undesirable by trying to freeze the territorial status quo, to judge each demand for newly independent statehood on its own merits – supporting those that have legitimate democratic claims and seeing in every new state that emerges a potential new ally. Liberty is not something to be feared; it is our strongest ally in a dangerous world.
This comment appeared as an editorial on the website of the Henry Jackson Society (www.henryjacksonsociety.org) 1 March 2007