The Conversation

Illegitimate government and penciled-in borders

As is his wont, Ron Paul managed to go overboard in his defense of Vladimir Putin's annexation of the Crimean peninsula, somehow extrapolating a legal Russian right of invasion from their lease on the Sevastopol naval base.  He thought Russia might respond to our accusations of occupation by snapping that America's occupying Cuba because of Guantanamo Bay, which bizarrely ignores the significant detail that the United States is not actually occupying Cuba, the way Russia has troops all over the Crimea, and Putin's talking about how the boys might enjoy a romp all the way to Kiev.

Those who worry that his son Rand's rising star might be dimmed by association with his father's more... unconventional positions have some new concerns to chew upon.  

Personally, I think Rand Paul has more than earned the right to stake out his own positions on the issues, but even his most ardent supporters have to admit that it might be a little awkward for him to spend time during a possible 2016 presidential run distancing himself from his father's provocative statements.  One would imagine that Ron Paul might graciously keep a low profile during the campaign, to give his son a clean shot at the White House... but then one would remember we are talking about Ron Paul.  Try to imagine the size of the media horde following him around in 2016, hoping he'll say something that ties Rand in knots for a couple of days, especially if Rand wins the GOP primary.

There is an interesting point to be made in Ron Paul's talk of how the impending Crimean independence referendum should be regarded as legitimate, as transcribed by Mediaite:

Host Matt Welch asked if Crimea’s snap referendum, scheduled to be held on Sunday, could really be considered legitimate given that it is being orchestrated by an occupational government “in the shadow” of the Russian government amassing forces on the Ukrainian border.

“Yeah,” Paul said. “I don’t think we should do all that threatening.” Welch attempted to clarify his question, but Paul went on to say that the Crimean invasion is being used as an “excuse” to erect interceptor missiles in “Russia’s backyard.”

“There should be a right of secession,” Paul concluded. He said America has a tradition of secession and Crimea should have it as well.

Postwar Western foreign policy is very much concerned with the legitimacy of government.  The rest of the world tends to be more, shall we say, ruthlessly pragmatic about such concerns.  And before World War II, there wasn't generally a huge effort made to separate the population of various nations from their leadership.  That's how it was possible to wage total industrial war against the Axis.  Perhaps it might be said that our grandfathers didn't have the luxury of debating whether Adolf Hitler was the "legitimate" ruler of Germany, since they were wholly invested in the extremely difficult task of defeating him.

But now we invest much energy in convincing ourselves that various governments are "legitimate" or not, driven by the perspective of global hegemony.  When you don't have to mobilize 100 percent of your industrial and social resources to win a pitched existential battle against a global menace like the Axis, you have more latitude to convince yourself that the people of a nation are entirely separate from their government, broadly innocent of its crimes.  Also, it's much easier to justify tough action against an offensive nation if the rulers can be isolated from the populace and defined as illegitimate.  We openly worry about collateral damage and the fates of foreign citizens before dropping the very first bomb on their infrastructure.  We're planning reconstruction before wars even begin.  And sometimes we persuade ourselves that the people of an unpleasant land are far less supportive of their gangster government than is actually the case.

It's absurd to think of the Crimean referendum as a wholly legitimate exercise in democratic self-rule, given the massive amount of Russian military hardware looming over the ballot box.  But it's quite possible the Crimean populace would vote for either independence or incorporation into Russia, in a completely free and fair vote.  (It's almost comical how hard the Russians are working to ensure the vote isn't free and fair, but that's because they don't want it to be close.  The Western world is relatively easy to manipulate using the symbols and totems of democracy.)  

The major reason the Russians would do well in even the most scrupulous Crimean vote is that most of the people who might have voted to stay with Ukraine are long gone, run out of town on a rail by Stalin.  Does that make Crimean self-determination legitimate, just because it happened so long ago?  What if it had happened ten years ago, 20, or 30?  

All of Ukraine's borders have a strange story behind them; they are drawn in 20th-century ink, not the dust and blood of ancient times.  Does that mean Vladimir Putin can strip them of legitimacy and drag the whole country back into his new Russian empire?  The deposed Viktor Yanukovych was formally stripped of his office by the Ukrainian parliament - was that a legitimate turnover, or a "coup?"

The sources of legitimacy can be difficult to nail down.  I tend to think it's a mistake to seek them in history, because that's so subjective; a century can be seen as either time-worn granite or quicksand, depending on who judges its consistency.  Senator Marco Rubio gave a speech at CPAC urging that we should evaluate national legitimacy by the standards laid out in our own Constitution: just powers derived from the consent of the government, respect for the inalienable rights laid out in our Bill of Rights.  He was fairly clear in asserting that Vladimir Putin isn't really the legitimate head of Russia by that standard, since his government doesn't measure up to Constitutional standards.  But - as far as such things can be measured in an unfree society - Putin enjoys very high approval ratings from the Russian people.  

On my more cynical days, I find myself wondering if any large government can truly measure up to the standards Rubio laid out.  The demands of a massive centralized State seem incompatible with the Bill of Rights.  Maybe what the world really needs, instead of pushing toward some vision of one-world utopian government, is a whole lot of secession - smaller autonomous units allowing people to govern themselves by their own lights, and peacefully depart if they find the local government unacceptable.  But then again, the process of decentralization would not likely be peaceful, and the resulting smaller units of government probably wouldn't live in harmony for long.  It seems to be a deep-rooted element of human nature to draw, and erase, borders.



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