How (Open Borders Can Help) to Win Cold War II

It took two World Wars to defeat German imperialism. Now it looks like it will take two Cold Wars to defeat Russian imperialism. Unless the West chooses not to. If the West declines to resist Russian expansionism, or dilly-dallies too long, expect a crescendo of chaos. The world order subsists on a fine web of international law norms, foreign policy doctrines, tacit and explicit guarantees and threats, precedents and balances of power. That’s why “isolationism” is at bottom just a naïve failure to recognize that people respond to incentives. In the 1930s, aggression was contagious. Italian, German, Japanese, and eventually Soviet aggression encouraged and accelerated one another because they were all testing and eroding the same system of international law. If Putin’s conquest of Crimea is allowed to stand, it will not be the last.

But in a confrontation with Russia, does the West actually have the moral high ground? The democratic governments of the West are really rather wicked institutions. The deportation of millions by the US regime over the last 20 years is a crime considerably less than slavery, but on the order of Jim Crow segregation, and worse than the WWII internment of the Japanese. US fiscal policy preys ruthlessly on the young, sucking away their earnings to finance retirement programs that will be bankrupt long before they retire. Religious freedom, for the sake of which America was founded, is under unprecedented attack. Putin’s claim that Russia is standing for Christian values over against a decadent West is not wholly spurious: his regime has banned abortion advertising, and abortion has been plummeting, and Russians are surely less afraid than Americans that their churches will be harassed or closed down by the LGBT lobby. Russia is decent on immigration, too. It has the largest foreign-born population in the world after the United States, and accepts many immigrants from places like Central Asia who could hardly hope to get into the West.

As for Crimea, what exactly is wrong with Russia’s annexation? That it violated “sovereign” borders? But so did the US-led campaigns in Kosovo and Iraq. While the West obviously had far stronger humanitarian reasons to intervene in Kosovo and Iraq than Russia did in Crimea, the strength of a humanitarian case for intervention is a fuzzy variable. And while the Crimean referendum was obviously a farce, it’s surely true that many, and likely true that most, Crimeans prefer to join Russia. “Consent of the governed” as a political principle seems to imply a right of secession. Of course, that’s not a principle international law recognizes, and it would lead to chaos if it did. But democracies need noble causes to be willing to fight, and insisting on the integrity of the historically accidental borders of Ukraine against the will of the Crimean people hardly qualifies.

The trick, then, is to wage Cold War II in ways that will both be effective, and will make the West’s cause more just. Here, open borders can help. The ideas below are selective applications of the open borders ideology, which would be of great practical value in defeating Putin. I recently discussed them with a foreign policy specialist who knows a lot about Russia. Such ideas had never occurred to her before– they’re not the sort of things Washington talks about– but she agreed they’d be effective, albeit they’re politically infeasible. Well, perhaps. But sometimes geopolitical struggles can move the Overton window very far and very fast. Here’s hoping.

1. Insist on freedom of movement within Ukraine, including Crimea.

Never mind who rules Crimea. Insist that all Ukrainian citizens should have free access to it. Russia has hitherto been pretty accessible for Ukrainians, so Russia might concede this, but to the extent that there’s any interference with Ukrainians’ freedom of movement “within their own country,” make that a cause celebre. This will help to prevent the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea from congealing. International non-recognition of Crimea will keep getting talked about. There will be no normalcy for Crimea until it is under Ukrainian rule.

2. Insist that Russians traveling to Crimea need Ukrainian visas, but make them available easily.

On a related point: let Ukraine offer Russians visas to visit Crimea, but insist that they need them. When ordinary Russians want to travel to Europe, ask them whether they have been in Crimea since April 2014. If so, charge a fine, which will be forwarded to the Ukrainian government as compensation for trespassing on their territory without permission. (I consider it legitimate for a properly constituted and internationally recognized government to demand that foreigners visiting their territory have visas, provided that the visas are freely available and can only be denied on very limited grounds related to public health or safety.)

3. Let Russians visit Ukraine and the West freely to live and work; but tax them to compensate Ukraine; and require them to take civics classes, so as to bring them up to the standard of decent, civilized conduct which their homeland lacks.

This is a variation of the DRITI policy. Let Russians come to the West to work. But impose a special tax, and use the proceeds of the tax to finance Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression. Say: “Yes, Russians, you can live and work in the West. We even exhort you to do so, so as to avoid supporting Putin by paying taxes to him and listening to his propaganda. But you have to show penitence for your homeland’s aggression by paying taxes to help its victims fight back against it.”

Also, set up classes in the West, and require Russians to attend them occasionally– don’t make it too burdensome, once per three months is enough– to instruct them in the values that peaceful, civilized, democratic nations live by. Some will scoff at them, no doubt, but I think they could be fairly effective. And the fact that the courses would be mildly humiliating is useful. It would make it clear to Russians that their country’s behavior puts them a step below citizens of other nations on the moral scale.

4. Welcome young Russian men of conscription age to enter the West, and even bribe them.

Russian conscription is rife with human rights abuses, with draftees sometimes being treated little better than slaves. So there is a human rights case for treating all young Russian men of conscription age as refugees. But there is also a ruthless realpolitik logic to welcoming young Russian men to the West: it directly depletes Russia’s military resources. I would go further than just letting them in, without the usual taxes and civics classes. I would pay them to come, e.g., $1,000/month. If we end up hosting, say, 3 million young Russian men, that’s $30 billion a year. A small price to pay to defuse the greatest military threat the West faces today. And it would drive Putin crazy.

5. Make this offer to China: if China joins in sanctions against Russia, the West will demand that Taiwan gradually open up to immigration from the Chinese mainland; but if China ever recognizes Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the West will immediately recognize Taiwan’s independence.

The contribution of open borders ideology here is that, while China’s claim to territorial sovereignty over Taiwan seems hard to justify, open borders principles would support recognizing the right of Chinese from the mainland to travel to or settle in Taiwan. And that might certainly be a step towards the reintegration of Taiwan with China, so China would welcome it.

I could write a lot more about how the West should deal with Russia (but just this one: turnabout is fair play, so the West should say that by violating the territorial integrity of its neighbors, Russia has forfeited its own, and declare that Chechnya and Kaliningrad can expect the West’s support for their independence whenever they want to seek it). But I think the strategic use of key open borders tenets would be very effective, far more so than anything the West is doing now, maybe more effective than anything else the West could do. The beauty of it is that while these policies would be extremely damaging to the Russian state, they would on balance be beneficial to the Russian people. And for that reason, they would make it much harder for Putin to promote Russian solidarity against the West. They would also make it more difficult for Putin to claim the moral high ground. Russians are obsessed with moral equivalence and claiming that whatever their government is doing, the West does it, too. So you might really see Russia competing with the West to use open borders as a geopolitical weapon, e.g., trying to deplete Western military resources by welcoming Western young men to Russia. That would be good for freedom of migration, but it would also show that Russians are far more willing to “vote with their feet” in favor of the West, than vice versa.

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

5 thoughts on “How (Open Borders Can Help) to Win Cold War II”

  1. 1) Might work. It will be interesting to see how developments unfold in the Crimea in the short and long run.

    2) Given the Russian majority I don’t see how this could be enforced.

    3) Russians are not going to go to Ukraine for work given its dire financial problems at least in the short term.

    4) EU is in a serious financial problems so they are not going to attribute large sums of money or open borders to Russians or anyone else that there has been a back lash to open immigration into western Europe.

    5) Never happen. China is more concerned just now about the island disputes with Japan and other countries or the situation in Taiwan that US is obligated to defend both.

    1. True, Russians would be unlikely to go to Ukraine for work (though a few might); but plenty of them would go to the West. The nice thing about this proposal is that, except for a little bit of money to subsidize the living standards of Russian émigré young men, this doesn’t particularly *cost* the EU anything. But of course, it’s true that this is “politically infeasible.” However, geopolitical struggles can change the scope of the politically feasible.

  2. I had a lot of fun reading this article, and I definitely believe that some Captain America is needed to change their value system. Your proposals are refreshing and based on what actually can be done.
    However, I do not believe that Russians need to be taught our “western” values. This is not working. After the end of the Cold War, many of the newly democratized countries (including Russia) embraced electoral authoritarianism, which is to some extent twisted version of the western democratic values. They rework it to suit their needs. And we cannot took them out of Russia.

  3. Very interesting article I enjoyed it. Specially I like idea about taxation (#3). I want only to comment that annexation of the Crimea cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. Current international law is compliant with the decisions of Nuremberg Tribunal. This Tribunal found annexation of Sudetenland a war crime. Now I do not see any difference between annexation of Sudetenland and annexation of Crimea. Hence accepting annexation of Crimea undermines basis of international law. Besides, referendum there was really a farce. I many times visited Crimea and I am not sure at all, that majority would support a secession. For instance the only party in local assembly which had “unification” with Russia in its program won less than 4% votes at last democratic elections in the Crimea.

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