Friday, April 18, 2014

Russia Invades Ukraine as World Squashes Anti-Semitism

At a joint EU-US news-conference on 26 March 2014, Presidents Barroso, Van Rompuy, and Obama discussed the problematic Russian invasion of the Crimea province of Ukraine.  The “chairman” of the European Council and the “chief executive” of the European Commission both responded to concerns that the European Union had not stood up to its business interests in order to enact economic sanctions capable of putting Putin back in his pen. Even though the two EU presidents sought to "puff up" the force latent in the sanctions already in place, Barroso insightfully made the more significant point that aggressively sending tanks across a border was no longer tolerable. Perhaps from “lessons learned” from Hitler’s exploits in the twentieth century, global challenges such as global warming (and, relatedly, the species’ over-population), and an internet-enabled closer world in the twenty-first century, a paradigm-shift in international relations may harken some sorely needed progress in international relations (i.e., political development)  in the new millennium. The key would be a stark refusal to tolerate a practice that had been tacitly accommodated, even in opposition, just decades earlier. 

Did President Obama miss a chance to put Putin's exploits into historical perspective? President Barroso may have come out of the news conference as the visionary leader. 
(Image Source: Reuters)

The turn from one century to another is admittedly artificial as far as empirical (i.e., observed) change is concerned. Indeed, the internet actually took off during the last decade of the twentieth century, rather than in the new millennium. Even so, a temporal benchmark, especially one involving a new millennium, can spark a moment of reflection “taking stock” of gradual shifts that would otherwise go unnoticed in their accumulated significance. This “product” can in turn leave its own imprint, such that a new paradigm is “born” (i.e., recognized). On the individual level, while turning 60 does not instantaneously turn a person into an old man or woman, the milestone can prompt a person to re-evaluate previous lifestyle choices and thus have a real impact on the person’s life as well as self-identity. Additionally, the “big picture” reflection that a benchmark birthday triggers can easily enable recognition of the many gradual changes in the aging process that would otherwise go unnoticed and thus without conscious effect. The same dynamic can occur at the societal level, especially when a new millennium is in the mix.

Considering the dramatic technological advances that took place in the twentieth century, the relative dearth of political development in or out of the nation-state system is telling. The American invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Crimea in the first and second decades, respectively, of the twenty-first century dispelled any hope that the internet revolution might make the increasingly integrated world a “kinder and gentler” place in which nations can play together. Yet I suspect something subtle had changed between the two invasions, as evinced in Barroso’s statement at the EU-US news conference in 2014. “The real problem is this,” he said. “(I)n the twenty-first century it’s just not acceptable that one big power takes part of another sovereign country recognized by the United Nations.” Hearing this, I could not remember such a “new epoch” statement having been made by a country’s president as the U.S. military was toppling statues in Baghdad. Something had changed—but what exactly?

To be sure, the status-quo dies hard. Obama essentially reinforced it by serving up a warmed-over dish. “It’s about the kind of world in which we live,” he said, citing the familiar respect for national sovereignty and international law, both of which Russia violated in invading Ukraine. At least as far as the U.N. Security Council is concerned, Putin was well aware of the concept of national sovereignty. Obama’s response does not begin to get at Putin’s belief that his legislature had given him the right to invade Ukraine. As political rights apply only within the polity that grants them, Putin’s avowed right would have to be natural, as in the right of the strong to subdue the weak by sheer might. Barroso’s line in the sand effectively says that the world had moved on from tolerating the law of the jungle.

Generally speaking, a person used to doing something as it’s always been done will need to feel the considerable force of the “new rules” for them to have any effect. Such is the force of habit, and the presumption that goes along with it. The muted force of the European and American economic sanctions fall short from effecting a course correction in line with new standards. Resorting to the (also antiquated) knee-jerk military response would have only meant that the E.U. and U.S. government officials had decided to reaffirm “the old way.” Instead of being countered, Putin would feel the added confidence of a paradigm reaffirmed.

It thus appears that a new paradigm making invasion a heretofore relic of an early epoch in history had not sufficiently gelled. Another way of seeing this is by looking at a more firmly established post-twentieth-century paradigm: one forged by the horror of the Nazi holocaust.

As unmarked Russian military men were fomenting civil unrest in the eastern parts of Ukraine, masked men handed pamphlets to Jews leaving a Passover service in Donetsk. The Jews were presumably to register and provide a list of their respective properties and pay a registration "fee" of $50. The pamphlet read in part, "ID and passport are required to register your Jewish religion . . . as well as documents establishing the rights to all real estate property that belongs to you."[1] Noncomplying Jews would “be deprived of their citizenship and deported outside the republic and their property confiscated.”[2] Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (the newly declared pro-Russian government) had signed the leaflets, giving them the connotation of authoritative legitimacy. 

Not surprisingly, it did not take long for scathing reactions to come in from around the world. US Secretary of State John Kerry (who once tried to convince me that he is a fiscal conservative because he believes in efficient government) issued a statement saying, "This is not just intolerable--it's grotesque."[3] A rabbi who had received one of the leaflets told NBC News, "[I] couldn't believe it was real." Such reactions as these indicate that the anti-semitic paradigm that had held such currency in prior centuries, including the previous one, was essentially "dead on arrival" in the twenty-first century. 

That is to say, the intellectual "blown away" aspect of the ensuing international condemnation eviscerated any semblance of credibility for the leaflets; the anti-semitic paradigm had been so resolutely discredited by the world's discovery of the Nazi holocaust some seventy years earlier that the stunt fell flat on its face in the Ukraine. Barroso’s reaction to Putin's invasion could easily apply. Registering one's Jewish religion just isn’t done anymore. Not today. Not in our world. Considering all the bloodshed in WWI and WWII, Barroso's clarion call of a paradigm change has just as much merit as Kerry's statement. Both the leaflets and Putin's presumed prerogative can leave onlookers around the world saying to ourselves, I can't believe this is happening. So why is one essentially being allowed while the other was stopped in its tracks? The explanation probably lies with the respective paradigms--one of the two still having some residual currency in our collective mentality.

1. Oren Dorell, "Outrage as Jews Told to Register in East Ukraine," USA Today, April 18-20, 2014.
2. Andrew Kramer, “Demands That Jews Register in Eastern Ukraine Are Denounced, and Denied,” The New York Times, April 17, 2014.
3. Dorell, "Outrage."