The answer George Will gave several years ago when asked what he thinks of “neoconservatives” has stuck with many ever since. “They tend to be very bright, good writers” he said, “and many of them used to be my friends, but they fail before taking action to ask the question that Admiral Yamamoto asked of his superiors as he agreed to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
Adm. Yamamoto had attended Harvard, spoke English and was familiar with and an admirer of the United States. The imperial government of Japan wanted to drive the United States out of the Pacific and, according to Mr. Will, the admiral said, “We can do that, and we can keep them out for a year or perhaps 18 months, but then what?”
What, indeed. The failure to ask that question resulted ultimately in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the humiliation of Japan. Yet the powerful too often fail to ask this simple question when demanding this or that in domestic and international affairs.
It certainly wasn’t asked as Yugoslavia was coming apart during the so-called Balkan Crisis in the 1990s. American neoconservatives and others decided, when they weren’t urging the Clinton administration to send troops, to support every effort to allow Kosovo to break away from Serbia in the name of self-determination.
In doing so, they were edging up to opening what has become a Pandora’s Box of troubles for the United States, the United Nations and the world. Russia, which has always considered Serbia’s “Southern Slavs” a quasi-protectorate, was outraged at the time, arguing that Kosovo had no right to break away from the sovereign state of which the region was a part.
Moscow suggested then that if Kosovo could leave Serbia under the protection of Western arms, the territorial integrity of other nations would be at risk in future years. In retrospect, Moscow was chiding the United States even as we were supporting Kosovo’s independence for not asking, “but then what?”
Today, Vladimir Putin is using the Balkan precedent to justify the annexation of Crimea via referendum and is perhaps on the verge of using Russian ethnic residents to generate “support” for similar action in other nations on Russia’s border.
We are, on the other hand, arguing as he did a decade or so ago that Crimea, with or without Russian support, had no legal right to break away from a sovereign state, and that Russia in consequence had no right to provide support to Crimea’s Russian majority or swallow what was a part of Ukraine.
During the Clinton and Bush years, there was at least some recognition that the Balkan precedent could create the sort of problems we now face. State Department officials and others back then liked to refer to the Kosovo situation as “sui generis” and argued to all who would listen that it was so different from anything likely to develop in the future that it could never be used as a precedent.
They were wrong. Russia was concerned at the time not just about the fate of her Serbian allies, but that what happened there could be used to support the Chechen attempt to break away from Russia. Now, Russia has reversed field and argues that if what happened in the Balkans was acceptable, then so is what Moscow is up to on its borders in supporting Russian populations “trapped” in non-Russian states.
These same arguments are being used by others, as well. The Scots are demanding independence from Britain, Catalonia is about to hold a referendum justifying a break with Spain, and that country’s Basques are arguing that they, too, should be free. Quebec’s breakaway French have already lost two such referenda, but are talking about trying again.
Not to be outdone, Venice is demanding independence from Italy in a campaign that claims the support of at least 2 million of their fellow Venetians. Similar demands and arguments are gaining new vitality in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
Many Americans have little interest in nations and breakaway regions they’ve never heard of, but when the system of nation-states that the world depends on for stability is threatened in one of these countries, the likelihood that it will begin to unravel elsewhere increases. Even in this country, Texans only half-jokingly talk about breaking the state up into three states, and some Marylanders ponder the possibility of secession.
International precedents are often established without real thought as nations strive for advantage or to justify immediate action, but once established, precedents can cause real problems. The United States’ position that the Balkan situation was unique is correct, but every such situation is unique in its own way.
The Russians and others argued one side of the case when it was to their benefit; Moscow, after all, still claims the Chechens have no right to secede and justify their support of Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime on the need to protect that nation’s sovereignty. Yet the Balkans gave Mr. Putin the ability — if not the right — to justify what he is doing now in Ukraine and contemplating elsewhere as he argues that “if you can do it, so can we.”
Back in 2008, Christopher Borgen, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law, examined the various claims as to whether the Balkan episode would establish a legal precedent in, say, South Ossetia. Perhaps echoing the protestations of the Clinton and Bush era, he concluded that “as a matter of law, one is not a precedent for the other. However, in the end we need to keep in mind that sometimes the most effective law in politically charged situations may be the law of unintended consequences.”
It is sometimes possible to avoid such consequences by asking and seriously seeking answers to Adm. Yamamoto’s question.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.
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