Putin’s World vs. the “Sanctity of Borders”

The “sanctity of borders” has been the central doctrine of the post-Cold War world order. It is very topical because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine which seems to have taken place on February 27, 2014. For the record, Putin has denied that Russian forces seized Crimea, claiming the pro-Russian forces are local militias. The US State Department has provided evidence that Putin is lying. As an intermittent Russia watcher, my impression is that words have an instrumental rather than a veridical function for Putin, and have little value as evidence for anything except what he thinks it is in the interests of Russian power to fool the world into believing at a particular moment. Be that as it may, the Crimea crisis is a dire threat to the global principle of sanctity of borders.

I have a schizophrenic attitude to the “sanctity of borders.” On the one hand, as I put it in the title of a previous post, “The Modern Borders Regime Was Designed to Secure International Peace,” which I just reread. It’s worth rereading now. Both there and in an earlier post, “Deepening the Peace,” I argue that the Wilsonian world order that, in the course of the 20th century, gradually succeeded in partitioning the world into sovereign democratic or pseudo-democratic nation-states with well-defined borders, has been (since World War II) strikingly successful in maintaining peace. I derived these ideas some time back from an excellent book by Michael Mandelbaum, The Ideas that Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century (but the book is really about the 20th century). For evidence on the world’s growing peacefulness in general, see the Human Security Report and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. (I find the latter book obtuse in many ways, but it musters the evidence convincingly.) I think the “sanctity of borders” as a principle of international relations is a crucial factor explaining the world’s unprecedented peacefulness.

This is partly why I have hitherto been skeptical of the peace case for open borders. While prima facie plausible, it seems empirically false. The Golden Age of Open Borders ended in World War I. The closed borders post-WWII era was much more peaceful. Correlation does not prove causation, of course, but the fact that the data seem to show the opposite of what the peace case would predict, makes it seem unpromising.

Now, to immigration restrictionists, “the sanctity of borders” has another meaning: borders are morally significant lines which individuals cannot cross without wronging all the inhabitants of the nation whose territory they have entered. Either governments per se, or the people through their governments, have a kind of collective right in the entire territory of a nation, which undocumented immigrants violate. Governments act justly when they restrict immigration, regardless of what their reason may be or whether they have any reason at all. There is no right to migrate; on the contrary, nations enjoy a right, analogous to private property rights, not to be migrated into without their (suitably defined) consent. Thus borders are sacred.

“Sanctity of borders” in this sense, I deny. I think it lacks moral or philosophical justification, and the belief in it is immensely harmful to human welfare. Governments do not really enjoy this right. When they act on their belief that they do, they act wrongly. The world would be a better place if they correctly understood that they do not have this right, that on the contrary there is sometimes a right and in any case a liberty to (peacefully) migrate which governments may justly infringe only in exceptional cases.

Is my rejection of “sanctity of borders” against international migration inconsistent with a favorable attitude to “sanctity of borders” in international relations. No. The reconciliation is easy: I could simply assert that governments have a right to defend their borders by force against armed invaders, and a duty not to send armed invaders into other countries, but that they do not have a right to deny entry to peaceful immigrants who intend only consensual and rights-respecting interaction with a country’s current and lawful residents. Maybe I would assert that. But I would qualify my support for sanctity of borders in other ways. And here my opinions track those of many “liberal internationalists” in the foreign affairs community.

There have been many instances of humanitarian intervention by Western democracies since the end of the Cold War, including: Rwanda; East Timor; Sierra Leone; Yugoslavia, and in particularly the 1998 war in Kosovo; and most recently, the 2011 intervention in Libya. All these wars tend to violate the principle of “sanctity of borders,” in the sense that military forces cross an international border without consent of the recognized, sovereign government of that country. Is it hypocrisy, then, to object to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, or of Ukraine in 2014, on the ground that it violated “the sanctity of borders?” No, but the sanctity of borders must be qualified. It could be restated:

(1) “No government should send military forces across the sovereign borders of another, not having been attacked, unless this is necessary to prevent a massive human-rights violation, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing, currently in progress [humanitarian intervention], and to prevent such a crime is the government’s only important motive [disinterestedness].”

That would justify the war in Kosovo and some others, but not the 2003 invasion of Iraq. If we want to justify that too, we could offer the following:

(2) “No government should invade another country that has not attacked it, except to prevent extreme human-rights abuses or remove a totalitarian regime; furthermore, it should do so without intent of annexation or economic exploitation, without partition except as a last resort to prevent human rights violations, with fair advance warning, multilaterally and with the active support of other nations, and with a domestic record that gives it a credible chance of establish a rights-respecting regime in place of that which is removed.”

Principle (2) would justify the West’s humanitarian interventions, as well as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but condemn Russia’s invasions of Ukraine and Georgia. But am I just moving the goalposts? Is principle (2) actually rightin some fundamental moral sense? Does it allow too much, in authorizing so many interventions? Does it forbid too much, condemning some military interventions that are really justifiable?

For example, in Ukraine, Russia acted non-transparently and without fair warning, by stealth and surprise, in a situation where no major human rights violations were taking place, without a credible chance of establishing a rights-respecting regime because they don’t have one at home, with what seems to be an intent to partition Ukraine, and likely with an intent to annex Crimea. Yet Russians could make a plausible cause that the majority of the population of Crimea wants to be partitioned from Ukraine or even annexed to Russia (there may be a referendum about this in Crimea). Why shouldn’t the will of the Crimean majority decide whether the country is to be part of Ukraine or not? And why shouldn’t Russia help the Crimean majority attain its goals?

I think the best answer is that a world order based on a qualified sanctity of borders, as expressed above in Principle (1) or Principle (2), has proven itself quite effective in maintaining international peace. But that answer is not fully adequate, because man does not live by peace alone, and in all sorts of other ways, the contemporary world order is not conducive to the flourishing of much of the human race. The world order based on “sanctity of borders,” which Putin is now vigorously subverting, though impressively peaceful, has never been particularly rational or just. There was vast economic inequality between rich and poor nations. Totalitarian dictators like Saddam Hussein, whom the West had power to overthrow, were left in power, to the infinite detriment of their abject peoples. The 2003 invasion of Iraq has mitigated this problem a bit, but has not no way to guarantee people against getting trapped in a totalitarian nightmare regime. Many borders were drawn in a highly arbitrary fashion. Some states were rigged to fail by a disadvantageous geography or ethnic makeup. Ukraine, though far from the least fortunate of the world’s countries, is a good example of the arbitrariness of established borders, and the harm they do. There was never any very good reason for predominantly Russian Crimea to be part of Ukraine. It was a historical accident.

There have always been lots of plausible reasons to renegotiate all sorts of borders all over the world. Borders had to be treated as “sacred” precisely because they were so arbitrary and indefensible. We can’t offer a good reason why Crimea should be part of Ukraine, because there isn’t one and never was. Nor, for that matter, is there a good reason why Chechnya should be part of Russia, or Taiwan part of China, or why most of the borders in Africa should be as they are. But start to redraw them, and you open a Pandora’s box.

One of the more arbitrary borders in the world was that between Iraq and Kuwait, and just for that reason, the Gulf War of 1991 was so important for establishing the principle of “sanctity of borders.” That war, with full UN backing, embodied more than any other the principle of “collective security” which the US had been seeking to establish as the basis of the world order since Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The League of Nations had embodied it, rather naively and ultimately without success. The United Nations had embodied it, but UN processes quickly got caught up in Cold War realpolitik and didn’t work the way they had been intended. But suddenly, in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, a UN-backed US-led genuinely global coalition applied overwhelmingly force to reverse an act of aggression. The very arbitrariness of the border thus defended clarified that it was precisely the principle of sanctity of borders, i.e., of any internationally recognized border, that was being established. It was a watershed. To this day, the world is full of little countries with little militaries that go unafraid among the nations. They have confidence in collective security, in the US-led UN-based world order, in international law. It was the 1991 Gulf War, above all, that made that possible. Meanwhile, however, humanitarian intervention has been undermining the principles of that world order. In particular, the 1998 war in Kosovo, leading to its declaration of independence in 2008, and the 2003 war in Iraq, undermined it.

The Iraq War of 2003 had a justification in international law: Saddam had committed himself to letting the international community verified that his country was free of WMDs, then he’d kicked out the weapons inspectors. UN Resolution 1441, authorizing the use of force, was passed. But there was still something lawless about the way the war was initiated. For one thing, the US administration said that it wanted UN authorization, yet would intervene with or without it. The US administration didn’t seem to be reacting to anything Iraq had just done. In that sense, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a “war of choice.” There was certainly a humanitarian argument for overthrowing what everyone recognized to be a brutal totalitarian tyranny. But Saddam’s Iraq wasn’t engaged in genocide just then. The invasion of Iraq was part of a broader, much-misunderstood response to 9/11, and in that respect it was effective: Al-Qaeda was lured into a deadly trap. But to accept that as a reason to violate “Iraq’s sovereignty” was to set a dangerously ambiguous precedent, easy to manipulate and turn in sinister directions. The US wasn’t disinterested the way it had been in Kosovo or East Timor, and that made it more dangerous. The “sanctity of borders” was certainly violated in the sense that an international frontier was crossed by armed force, and the ex post justification, that a people was being liberated from tyranny, could easily turn into a program for wars all over the world, since there are plenty of genuinely tyrannical governments left standing. On the other hand, there was no question of the US annexing Iraq, and it didn’t partition it either. In that sense, the sanctity of borders was respected. But it was nonetheless a blow to the principle.

In the spring of 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, and this was recognized by many countries around the world including the US and most of western Europe. Russia was on the side of Serbia, a fellow Orthodox Slavic nation, and it’s probably in reaction to this that Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia, a province of the US-allied Republic of Georgia, grew more active… and a war took place in August 2008. How exactly this occurred isn’t entirely clear, since Russia is an unfree and secretive country. The outcome was that Russia occupied two provinces of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and supported their declarations of independence, which however have gone almost entirely unrecognized by the rest of the world. But while Russia didn’t procure international recognition for its new occupied territories, it didn’t face any real consequences either.

Obama came into office and immediately sought to “reset” relations with Russia, as if the breakdown in relations were the US’s fault. I think this basically reflects Obama’s uncritical, knee-jerk rejection of the legacy of the Bush administration. Obama appeased Russia by withdrawing plans to create a missile defense complex in Poland, among other things. To my mind, the “reset” was a huge mistake on the part of the Obama administration, and it’s the main reason why Russia has now occupied Crimea. Russia paid no price for its aggression in Georgia, so now it has done it again, on a larger scale. The West could have done plenty to punish Russia without going to war: boycott the Sochi Olympics, expulsion from the G-8, sending arms to Georgia, a military buildup along the Russian border, targeted sanctions, trade restrictions. It could have boycotted the 2014 Sochi Olympics, or agitated for them to be moved elsewhere, a blow to Russian prestige. It should have done all that, but it might not have worked, and it might have risked escalation into war. What made it difficult, though, was that Russia’s position– that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be separated from Georgia because their populations seemed to want to– was morally plausible. At any rate, to risk war with Russia for such a dubious cause would have seemed odd.

Now, after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the West finds itself in a position something like what it faced with Hitler in 1938. This is not a polemical reductio ad hitlerum, but an analytical device and a mnemonic. Putin resembles Hitler enough that Hitler’s career sheds light on Putin’s. Hitler and Putin came to power in countries bitter about losing major wars. Each was fiercely indignant about the fall of the former regime. (Putin has called the Soviet breakup “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.”) Both rose in the context of a struggling democracy which they proceeded to eviscerate, clamping down on political parties and press freedom and imprisoning opponents. Both spread anti-Western attitudes through official propaganda.

By late 1938, Hitler had an impressive record of bloodless conquests. He had remilitarized the Rhineland, contra Germany’s agreements in the Versailles Treaty; executed an Anschluss or union with Austria, which was then confirmed by “referendum”; then occupied the Sudetenland, a majority-German region of , this time with the active support of France and Britain, which were hoping to sate Hitler’s territorial ambitions to avoid war; and then occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. None of this had met armed resistance, and naturally it did much to fuel Hitler’s popularity in Germany. Note that all of these early Hitlerian victories could plausibly be defended in terms of the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination. The West had greatly strengthened Hitler by letting him achieve all of this so easily. But what was the alternative? As long as Hitler had a plausible moral justification for his moves, however legally unacceptable they may have been, it was hard to muster the moral will to go to war with him. And so the rules of international legality were eviscerated, and a new system of incentives developed, and countries began to align themselves with Hitler. If Britain and France had fought in 1936, it would have been an easy win. By waiting to 1939, they almost handed Hitler the world on a platter.

Now, differences. First, Russia’s relative power is much less than Germany’s was. Second, whereas Russia is an authoritarian semi-dictatorship which has increasingly stifled dissent, it is not a totalitarian regime like the Nazis or the Soviet Union. Consequently, Russian public opinion is less crazy. Russians have more access to international news. Third, there isn’t a Russian ideology in the way there was a Nazi ideology. Fourth, Putin was less ruthless in establishing his regime. And I doubt that we’re on the brink of World War III. But the dilemma the West faces is similar to what it faced in 1938: either plunge into a nasty, dangerous confrontation that could lead to war for the sake of a not particularly just cause (keeping the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, or Crimea in Ukraine), or let the central stabilizing principle of the international order be eviscerated, and live in Putin’s world.

Bryan Caplan asked for predictions about Ukraine. I’ll offer a few. For now, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine looks unpopular in Russia. If Crimea secedes in some fashion, which it probably will, I doubt that Putin’s gambit will be so unpopular a year from now. I think Russians are afraid of the reactions of the West, but the West’s reaction will be feeble enough that, in Russians’ eyes, events will prove Putin right. Putin will be strengthened at home. Meanwhile, a few other things will happen:

  • Other secessionist movements around the world will be emboldened. They will behave more provocatively, and start to look for foreign patrons.
  • Demand for nuclear weapons will increase. Crimea will persuade many that nuclear weapons are the only real security in Putin’s world, and also, and worse, that they allow a nation to engage in aggression with impunity. I was tempted to say “fifteen nuclear powers by 2020,” but I don’t know enough about the supply side. Maybe nuclear weapons are too difficult for some regimes to get. But more will want them.
  • Military spending will rise in many countries.
  • Many regimes will try to alter the ethnic “facts on the ground” in their favor, burdening human rights in pre-emptive strikes against possible secession movements.
  • If Crimea’s independence is widely recognized, Taiwan will start to use it to bolster the case for their independence. This raises the probability of a China-Taiwan war.
  • The trend towards declining violence documented by the Human Security Report will stall or go into reverse.

Now, all this is causing me to reassess the peace case for open borders. Until now, I had been skeptical because the status quo seemed to be doing so well. But now it looks like the status quo may be breaking down. There’s a civil war in Syria which no one knows what to do about. In view of the empirical regularity that democracies do not fight each other, the global spread of democracy was an encouraging sign for the future of world peace. But democracy seems to be in decline. Democracy failed quickly in Egypt. The Pax Americana seems to be giving way to a more chaotic period of interregnum.

And so, let me suggest that it would be useful if open borders, the right to migrate, could be deployed in a somewhat opportunistic factor as a means to peace. Consider the case of Ukraine. One reason Russians care so much about Ukraine is that Kiev is so central to Russian history. It was where Russia began. Russians want to have access to it. If Ukraine joins NATO and the EU, immigration restrictions will probably be tightened in ways that make it harder for Russians to live and work there, or even to travel there. It’s not really clear why Russians should have less right of access to a place important to their culture and history like Kiev, than Americans have to a place important to our culture and history, like New York. Might it not help to reconcile Russians to Ukraine’s absorption into Europe, if their right to live and work in Ukraine were recognized and guaranteed? In principle, Russians’ right to live and work in Ukraine is separable from Moscow’s right to rule Ukraine.

Again, consider the situation of a Russian-speaking voter in Crimea, faced with a referendum on separation from Ukraine and incorporation into Russia. One major benefit of becoming part of Russia is that he will gain the right to live and work in Russia. This is quite valuable, since Russia is both big– many options– and richer than Ukraine. While it might seem even more valuable to have the right to live and work in Europe, (a) that is not being offered at the moment, and (b) for a Russian-speaking Crimean, the cultural transition would be much harder. Now, suppose arrangements could be made, such that Crimeans would be part of a free migration zone which includes Russia, so that Russians could move to Crimea and live and work there, while Crimeans could live and work in Russia. That might make it easier to reconcile pro-Russian Crimeans to the cancellation of a referendum on independence.

Indeed, if Ukrainians could all along have been an overlapping zone of free migration between Russia and Europe, such that Ukrainians could live and work in either Russia or Europe, and Russians and Europeans could live and work in Ukraine, need the tensions into Ukraine ever have come to this pass? Europe-oriented Ukrainians could be confident that the influence of Europe would be sustained, while Russia-oriented ones would not fear being cut off from their homeland.

At bottom, the trouble with Ukraine is not that her people can’t get along with each other, as that the sovereign democratic nation-state model just doesn’t fit it very well. Some other arrangement is needed to avoid conflict, which combines integration and fluidity with the autonomy of regions and ethnic communities, and which recognizes and gives institutional protections to the links Ukrainians feel to different communities beyond Ukraine. The state sovereignty model is too crude to accommodate these needs.

If we’re entering a more chaotic era, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It will probably be more violent: that’s just reversion to the historical mean. Minimizing violence was one thing that the late 20th-century Wilsonian world order did exceptionally well. But it may also be more creative, more just, and/or more interesting. As we muddle through, the single most important thing we can do is to advance individual rights on any front we can. Formal, democratic, constitutional processes may become less important, and hopefully some powers, such as the power to restrict migration, will be taken out of their hands. Protection of human rights should not be the responsibility only or primarily of sovereign states towards their own citizens, but churches and all sorts of civil society organizations and of conscience, as well as international organizations, should find ways to do it, and existing states should probably start doing it for people other than their own citizens. Apologies if this is vague, but it’s my dim glimpse of what may be in store for us.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

Leave a Reply