Foreign Affairs

The Dangers of Irridentism

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Today, many countries around the world are nation-states: sovereign political entities in which one “nation” (a particular ethnic, cultural, or linguistic group) comprises a large majority of a country’s population.

In a way, it does make sense; after all, it is easier to communicate with people who speak the same language as you. 

But some issues do arise: what about people groups who fall outside of the “nation”? What if members of your “nation” live outside of your country’s borders?

Despots of all creeds have answered these questions with the same response: genocide and irridentism. 

The former has been written about much more than the latter. Irridentism is so closely linked to fascism that one could consider them one of the same.

It is defined in  the Free Dictionary as “a national policy advocating the acquisition of some region in another country because of common linguistic, cultural, historical, ethnic, or racial ties.” 

This is a fair description of Russia’s and China’s “national policy” towards Ukraine (especially Crimea and the other Russian-majority areas of the country) and Taiwan, respectively. Putin has been loudly proclaiming the Russian people’s historical rights and interests in that country whilst denying that the Ukrainians even exist as a distinct people. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China is building up its military to potentially invade the island of Taiwan, which the Beijing government regards as a breakaway province

Both geopolitical crises have the potential to spiral into a new global conflict, and this threat has historical presentence. Irredentism is the intersection between ethnonationalism and war, as irredentist movements can spiral from a “political talking point” to an invasion of another nation.

National unification can appeal to people who oppose an irredentist regime, hence irredentism’s political usefulness to dictators. In Russia, for example, Putin’s popularity increased following the annexation of Crimea. Irredentist regimes thieve in an environment of perceived persecution, whether the Germans in the Sudetenland or Russians in the eastern and southern Ukraine, so the irridentist can claim that the invasion of a neighbouring country can be justified as “helping your own”. 

Irredentism has been the driving force behind most wars since the nation-state’s emergence in the 19th Century. It was the main reason Italy joined the Entente in WW1 (the Italia irredenta). The belief that they were betrayed following the Treaty of Versailles helped full the rise of fascism under Benito Mussolini. Perhaps the most infamous irredentist was Adolf Hitler, whose desire to incorporate all Germanics into a single state and remove those who did not fit his ethnic criteria led to WW2 in Europe and the various Nazi Genocides, which comminated in the deaths of tens of millions.

Irredentism has repeatedly been the cause of the post-World War II conflicts, whether the 1977-1978 war between Somalia and Ethiopia or Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The desire for a Greater Serbia amongst ultra-nationalist was partly responsible for the Wars of Yugoslav Succession during the 1990s and the subsequent ethnic cleansings that devastated the Balkans.

Irredentism, once again, seems to be the primary motivation for another war ravaging the European continent. Shortly before his illegal invasion of Ukraine, Putin wrote a 7,000-word essay on Russia’s claim to Ukraine, filled with references to various unconnected historical events to justify his belief that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia – despite most Ukrainians wanting their country to remain independent. 

But what can be done to limit the rise of irredentism? 

In a speech given to the UN Security Council on 22nd February, Kenya’s UN ambassador, Martin Kimani, spoke out against the dangers of irridentism and the need to reject “states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity” to avoid “waging bloody wars these many decades later” via “continental wide political, economic and legal integration”. 

Even in a continent dominated by nation-states as Europe, the borders of the nation and the state are not perfect. Constantly shifting boundaries caused by innumerable wars and subsequent treaties have left members of the same group separated from each other by borders. This separation fuels irredentist claims and leads to conflict that often dissolve into ethnic violence. 

Thankfully, Western and Central Europe has seen an unprecedented 70 years of relative peace. This is partly due to the Sword of Damocles of nuclear annihilation hanging above everyone’s heads and the European Union. 

The EU is not just an economic union, but freedom of movement and open borders have ensured communities can cross state boundaries without impediment. This, coupled with a shared currency of many states, limits the legitimacy of irridentist movements. Following literal centuries of conflict Europe came together to pursue a continent-wide political, economic, and legal integration via the democratic peace theory. 

It is the spread of democracy in recent decades has brought about the most peaceful time in human history. However, this trend has started to reverse in recent years in part due to Kremlin meddling in western elections and the failures of neoliberalism. With the retreat of democracy and rise of authoritarianism, the global peace index has also dropped.  

The ongoing war in Ukraine is inspired by Putin’s desire to create a “Greater Russia” and if he ends up succeeding, it will only encourage others to do the same. 

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