Russia takes a bite out of state sovereignty
The real clash with Georgia is sovereignty vs. self-determination.
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Such characteristics lay at the heart of the conflict that erupted in the Balkans and help to explain the genesis of the dispute between Georgia and South Ossetia that led to last month's Russo-Georgian war.Skip to next paragraph
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When Georgia declared its independence in 1991, the international community recognized its legal status. However, the international community did not extend statehood to Abkhazia and South Ossetia when those regions attempted to secede from Georgia.
There is a good reason for this. Allowing a disaffected minority to secede from a multi-ethnic state destabilizes an international system that is already under stress. Once the principle of secession is accepted as a legitimate remedy, where does it end? In chaos. Secession leads to further secession, to the proliferation of small, weak states that are prey to their stronger neighbors.
The tension between sovereignty and self-determination can also be seen as a clash between stability and justice.
This polarity has always posed a dilemma for the United States. On the one hand, Americans have often provided support for oppressed peoples throughout the globe. The Bush doctrine is far from an innovation when it comes to articulating the American mission in support of "ending tyranny in the world." Americans have always understood that the boundaries of states are often brutally arbitrary, paving the way for tyrannical states to oppress their citizens.
On the other hand, American statesmen have recognized that the logic of secession leads to unending conflict. And precedents matter. Many observers believe that Russian support for Ossetian independence is payback for US support of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in February.
Although the issue of secession for the US was settled militarily by the Union victory in the Civil War and settled legally by the 1868 Supreme Court decision, Texas v. White, the US might someday have to contend with the demand by a politicized Hispanic minority in the US Southwest for autonomy or even independence.
The tension between justice and security in the international system is not likely to abate in the foreseeable future. The only remedy for the inevitable conflicts arising from this tension is the spread of liberal principles, especially the principle of government of, by, and for, the people.
• Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national security studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and editor of "Orbis," the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.