Crimean Anschluss and the end of the Westphalian system

Crimean Anschluss and the end of the Westphalian system

The latest stage in the Crimean saga came with the signing of an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Crimea, integrating the peninsula into Russia. The European Union and the United States imposed restrictions on Russian individuals close to the regime; further economic sanctions seem likely. This point came quite fast and without bloodshed: The first annexation of the 21st century was achieved within less than a month without firing a single shot. Although criticism is widespread, no country seems willing to take up the challenge Putin presented. The end result is diplomatic indignation, loose economic sanctions that are directed toward individuals rather than the country, and unwillingness to fight over Crimea. Under the circumstances, the road ahead is pretty clear.

The principles of the modern international system, among which are the sanctity of state borders, have been badly bruised since the 1990s. The end of the bloc system, while freeing up people, also loosened several knots that have kept the system together. The effects of globalization, rising micro nationalism, the global reach of transnational forces and the spread of weapons systems have undermined the Westphalian state system, with its principles of as “sovereign equality,” “territorial integrity,” and “non-interference in internal affairs.”

Skeptics would be quick to point out that, in modern times, states have not been equal except that insofar as they have one vote at the U.N. General Assembly. Even that has been tampered with in terms of political pressure and economic enticements to various countries to vote in certain way. During the Cold War, the realities of the system forced states to behave within limits. After it, the gap between states in economic terms has widened so much that it does not make sense anymore to talk about the equality of states.

The non-interference principle, too, has been diluted in so many ways that one cannot really speak about its existence anymore. It started with a humanitarian argument: If a state is unable to protect its citizens from hunger and natural disasters, should the people of the civilized world intervene? Are we responsible for the well-being of all human kind and thus obliged to help them? Most responded “yes” when they were faced with starvation in Ethiopia of 1984 and in Somalia of 1992. Both faced civil war and the collapse of government; it was easy to allow the international community to step in and fill the vacuum to save human lives.

Rwanda was different; one out of nine people was killed in tribal warfare and as a result of a failed state. The decision was still easy. Moving along; some started to argue for cases where a regime started to hurt, even kill en masse, its citizens. Serbia and Iraq of early the 1990s were examples.

The next question was; if the international community is allowed to protect the citizens of a sovereign country from its own regime, why not protect their “democratic” rights? Iraq after 9/11 is a case in point. Thus the argument that started with “humanitarian aid” has developed into “humanitarian intervention” and ended in “responsibility to protect.” Gradually, the non-intervention principle has eroded.

Now, it is the turn of “territorial integrity” concept, which has already been weakened by number of “interventions” around the world. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, whatever its justifications were, was an open violation of the territorial integrity of a sovereign country. That of course stopped short of dividing the country. Russia did that effectively in Georgia in 2008; an affront which was left without punishment by the international community. Emboldened, it came back to effectively finish off the last vestiges of the modern international system and annex a piece of territory that belongs to another sovereign state.

The question then to ask is; can the international community afford to allow this openly unlawful conduct to go without punishment?