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Obama's multiple fronts to preserve countries

From saving Iraq from the Islamic State to saving Ukraine from Russia, President Obama tries to preserve communities bound together as nation-states or in other ways. One lesson lies in Scotland's Sept. 18 referendum on whether to split with England.

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    The Saltire, or the Flag of Scotland (left), and the Union Flag fly outside the Scottish Office, with the London Eye wheel seen behind, in central London August 28.
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Because of their own civil war, Americans do not look kindly on attempts by others to break up a country. Here are only a few recent examples of this trait:

President Obama decided to attack the extremist Islamic State in part to preserve the existing communities in both Iraq and Syria. Before that, he ratcheted up sanctions on Russia to prevent it from splitting up Ukraine. And he has deployed military might near China to keep it from grabbing or threatening islands long settled by its neighbors.

He may even secretly wish Scotland had not sought a referendum to break away from England.

For all his lofty ideals, Mr. Obama is very American in the down-to-earth desire to preserve societies bound together by their shared experiences, a common sense of place, and overlapping customs and moral virtues. A society may be a nation-state, such as the United Kingdom, with an established border. Or it may be a cohesive ethnic or religious minority, such as Iraq’s Yazidi and Christian communities, which were overrun by Islamic State in its violent zeal to rapidly create an Islamic caliphate.

Or it could even be a group like the European Union, an attempt to overcome the Continent’s tragic nationalism and imperialism of the 20th century.

Inspired to keep a bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Oval Office, Obama may be acting in the spirit of that president’s first inaugural address, delivered on the eve of the Civil War and largely meant for Southern ears. Lincoln stated:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory ... will yet swell ... when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

When Obama speaks of honoring a country’s territorial integrity and upholding the rule of international law, he really speaks about conserving the affections of a community, even if those affections are frayed by tensions over ethnicity, religion, or political divisions. Splitting up a country, like ending a marriage, should never be done lightly.

A vivid example of this affection-maintenance is a project by a member of the British Parliament, Rory Stewart, to keep Scotland in Britain. Being a Scot who represents an English district, and someone who has traveled the world, Mr. Stewart clearly sees the two peoples as far more attached than they think.

In July, he launched a campaign inviting people to bring stones from around Britain and lay them along the border between Scotland and England at Gretna. The resulting cairn, called The Auld Acquaintance, is a physical marker for a union that has spanned three centuries.

He also inspired a group of English celebrities to write a letter to Scots, telling them, “how very much we value our bonds of citizenship with you.” (The group ranged from Mick Jagger to Dame Judi Dench.)

Without the attachment of affections, says Stewart, then England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland are not a country. “In the end what matters is not the wall that divides us but the human ties that bind in the name of love,” he states.

Scotland’s attempt to split itself off has been peaceful, unlike the situations in Ukraine, Iraq, and the islands in Asia. Yet all these crises are similar in being a problem of preserving long-held attachments of community in the face of ambition or differences.

Guns or ballot counts may decide their fate. But the best solution usually lies in the heart.

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