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Irredentism as a Vestige of Good Old Nationalism in the 21st Century
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-08-21 09:13:32
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Map of the territories claimed as "irredenti" in the 1930s.
In green: Nice, Ticino and Dalmatia; in red: Malta; in violet:
Corsica. Savoy and Corfù were also claimed later on.

“Irredentism” is a word coined in Italy in the 19th century (from the Italian “irredento” or “unredeemed”) to refer to those territories which were allegedly part of the Italian national family, so to speak (see map above). It remains alive and well in the 21st century, as a virulent strain of nationalism, as evidenced by Putin’s claims and political adventurism for the sake of a greater Russia.


The Reconstruction of Nations by Timothy Snyder (2004)

More specifically, irredentism claims that those people who were once part of that state and are now outside it, must be brought back into the family fold by taking the territory where they reside, and thus “redeeming them.” As such it is also a form of ethnic national pride. Irredentism involves territorial disputes usually between two countries. Wikipedia lists several such disputes in its article on irredentism among which: 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, Ethiopia and Eritrea.


Determining Boundaries in a Conflicted World by Suzanne Lalonde (2002)

Irredentism rejects the idea that current borders, no matter their origin, deserve absolute respect, even to claim international stability among sovereign states; thus armed force is sometimes justified in correcting, so to speak, unjustified borders. That was the argument Hitler used to invade Czechoslovakia: there were ethnic Germans residing there; that justified the invasion as their champion and protector.


Global Justice & Territory by Cara Nine (2012)

If the above sounds airily familiar, it is because it is. Putin has claimed irredentism in the Ukraine, first by declaring Crimea and historic and integral part of Russia and then describing the whole eastern part of the Ukraine “the new Russia. He claims a right to intervene abroad to protect the rights of Russian ethnic minorities living there. That may well include states such as Moldova, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia (where an intervention has already occurred in the past). Carried to a ridiculous extreme such an irredentist claim would give Putin the right to intervene in the affairs of the Russian community living in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Come to think of it, was not Kiev the place where “Rus” began? As we know, the West’s reaction has been an accusation against Russia of acting illegally under international law by annexing Crimea and covertly fomenting a rebellion in Eastern Ukraine.


Recognizing States by Mikulas Fabry (2010)

Obviously some serious rethinking of the concept of sovereignty seems to be needed. The rethinking has indeed been going on among scholars. In fact, there has been a veritable plethora of books written on this subject lately, but few diplomats if any, seem to have perused them. Just to mention five: The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 by Timothy Snyder(Yale University Press, 2003) considers the intricate history of Central and Eastern Europe; Determining Boundaries in a Conflicted World: The Role of Uti Possidet by Suzanne N. Lalonde (McGill-Queen’s University) focuses on the Roman legal principle  that has become a modern rule of thumb about borders:  the possessor of property at the end of a conflict may keep it unless the peace treaty says otherwise; Global Justice and Territory by Cara Nine (Oxford University Press, 2012). Nine is a professor at University College Cork in Ireland and the winner of the American Philosophical Association Book Prize; Recognizing States: International Society and the Establishment of New States since 1776 (Oxford University Press, 2010) by Mikulas Fabry, which tracks the inconsistencies of the international community when it come to recognizing or denying legitimacy to a state; it was the recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the EU and the US that triggered a war there.  Fabry is a professor of international relations at Georgia Tech. Unrecognized States: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Modern International System (Polity, 2011) by Nina Caspersen, director of graduate research in the department of political science at the University of York offers the thesis that borders more often than not are blurred, gradual and quite fluid and sovereignty is not absolute.


Unrecognized States by Nina Caspersen (2011)

Were one to spell out the common essence of those five books it would be this as perhaps best articulated by Timothy Snyder: going back in history it can be determined in the first place that the centralized state is a fetish of nationalism and political scientists who usually exaggerate the successes of nation building; that a great number of borders among nations came into being through force and conquest, followed by treaties, at times which were sometimes respected and more often, not respected. All one has to think back is the US, the Southwest and Mexico in 1848, or China and Tibet, and there are many other examples; that territorial borders, often drawn by colonial powers, are often a mistake because they don’t reflect ethnic or even linguistic realities. We respect them out of a penchant for stability at any cost; which of course is not an argument for instability and the changing of borders through violence, deception and propaganda, something we see happening in the Ukraine as we speak. Ultimately the philosophy of “might is right” that many dictators and authoritarian personalities seem to like, needs to be replaced by something more fair and civilized. As King Arthur sings in that famous musical “Camelot”: not might is right, but might for right. One wonders if any of our politicians and diplomats have ever heard of that song and the simple idea behind it.  


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