Sunday marks a pivotal point in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. A vote will take place to determine whether the Crimean peninsula remains a part of Ukraine or becomes an autonomous republic that will join the Russian Federation. The U.S. and other western powers have decried the vote, calling the Sunday poll unconstitutional. However, as too often happens, what is currently happening historically is largely due to a ripple in time from past actions taken by the U.S. and other western powers. The Ukraine dilemma simply adds to the history of how such a ripple eventually hits the shore to reveal U.S. foreign policy mistakes.
Dating back to pre World War II, the U.S. seemingly adopted a foreign policy based on a “do as we say, not as we do” doctrine. At the risk of over-simplifying, Japanese aggression in China and throughout the south Pacific during the 1930’s were largely due to western influences throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period in history, western powers such as the U.S. and Great Britain established relations with Japan, drafted treaties with the island nation and encouraged it to step out of the dark ages and join the industrial age.
In his book Flags of our Fathers, James Bradley tells how western powers encouraged and influenced Japan to become more modern—to become more like them—but then chastised Japan when it began to do so. In order to modernize, Japan needed to mechanize, and to do that, the nation needed resources. Being an island of limited resources, Japan did what it saw powers such as the U.S. and Great Britain do to build their empires; it attacked weaker nations to acquire the resources it needed to modernize and expand its empire.
However, Japanese aggression into China and the south Pacific produced a negative reaction from western powers. This perceived hypocrisy confused Japanese officials who believed that Japan was doing exactly what was expected of it if it were to become a modern power. Unfazed by criticism from western powers, Japan didn’t back down. In the summer of 1941, Japanese forces moved into French Indo-China and the U.S. reacted by cutting Japan off from American resources such as iron and petroleum. All Japanese assets in U.S. banks were also frozen. This prompted Japan to seek an alliance with Axis powers Germany and Italy to acquire the resources it needed to continue to modernize. The rest, as they say, is history. Encouraging Japan to become more westernized, without considering the consequences should it do so, helped produce one of the bloodiest war theaters in modern history.
Now, in the 21st century, the U.S. has spent the last decade promoting democracy through the barrel of a gun, because there is the belief that if forced upon them, nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan will embrace the democratic process and become more like the U.S. History will show whether this grand experiment produced the desired results, but history will also show that neither of these nations asked for the conflicts that they are currently embroiled in. Moreover, if these nations do eventually become like the U.S., will the U.S. be forced to one day condemn one of these nations for actions it steered them toward, as happened in Japan pre-World War II?
As a nation, the U.S. unilaterally decided that it knew what was best for Iraq and Afghanistan, because, ultimately, it was believed democracy in these nations would be better for the U.S. Forget the fact that the military history of Afghanistan was ignored; that during the height of its empire, the British were not able to control the region, the powerful Soviet Union was thwarted in the 1980’s and Alexander the Great had the foresight to not even attempt and excursion into its mountainous terrain.
History aside, the U.S. boldly took on a military task previously unaccomplished. It went into Afghanistan to not only spread democracy, there was also the mission of ousting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. However, here’s the rub, the U.S. played a part in creating Al-Qaeda. Following the Soviet Union’s movement into Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. CIA began funding and training the Mujahedeen so that the militant group could harass and possibly repel Soviet advances in the region. In the late 80’s, after having successfully ousted the Soviets, anti-American sentiment began to permeate the militant group, led by leaders such as Osama Bin Laden. So the U.S. covertly funded and trained the militant group that would eventually form Al-Qaeda. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like Afghanistan, the U.S. invaded Iraq to spread democracy, but it also did so under the premise that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq aided Al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks—both of the latter turned out to be false. When these facts came to light, Saddam Hussein’s war crimes were then championed as the reason to oust the dictator, and there was, of course, still democracy to be spread. However, here’s the rub where Iraq is concerned. The U.S. went into Iraq without even partially understanding how the relations between religious factions within the nation would affect the prospect of creating a stable nation that would embrace democracy. Ten years later, Iraq is still embroiled in sectarian violence, something that didn’t exist when Hussein was in power. Moreover, though Hussein was surely a war criminal who used illegal chemical weapons in battle, the U.S. was complicit in those actions. In 2002, The New York Times reported that during the 1980’s, when Iraq was locked in a conflict with neighboring Iran, the U.S. provided critical battle plans to Iraq concerning Iranian activities, knowing that Iraq would use chemical weapons in battle against the Iranians. Hussein would later used these same chemical weapons on Kurds in northern Iraq as part of his ethnic cleansing campaign, which would be used as evidence for his trial and eventual execution. In a nutshell, the U.S. helped create a monster that it would need to use its military might against to oust.
In hindsight, U.S. actions and policies concerning pre-World War II Japan, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan in the 1980’s, were misguided to say the least. However, it takes time and distance to know whether a particular decision or policy is indeed prudent. Thus, hindsight is 20/20. This brings into focus the current Ukraine dilemma and a ripple in time following the end of World War I that adds to the history of U.S. foreign policy mistakes.
Following World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson famously called for nations to have self-determination, essentially meaning that nations should be allowed to choose their own sovereignty. This was of particular importance following a war that left most of Europe and parts of Asia in shambles, and national borders undefined. However, the self-determination that Wilson called for only applied to western European and a few select eastern European nations.
During the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, statehood was bestowed upon eastern European nations Czechoslovakia and Hungary, while Wilson was backed by both the British and the French in denying statehood to Ukraine, though it had already declared its own independence in 1918. The nation was subsequently split up among Poland and the soon to be formed Soviet Union. Ukraine remained under Soviet rule until it broke away in 1989 as the Soviet empire was crumbling.
There is no way of knowing how Ukraine’s history would have turned out had Wilson and the western powers backed Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1919. However, this is known: seventy years under Soviet rule left a deep-seeded pro-Russian influence in the nation’s populous and politics, especially in the Crimea peninsula. A 2001 census revealed Ukraine’s population to be comprised of 78 percent Ukrainians and 17 percent Russians; however, Russians comprised 59 percent of the Crimean population, with Ukrainians making up only 24 percent.
So on Sunday, when Crimeans take to the polls, they will be asked whether they are in favor of remaining a part of Ukraine or in favor of joining the Russian Federation. The ripple in time set forth from the Paris Peace Conference decision to not grant Ukraine statehood has hit the shore and the pervading Russian influence in the region will undoubtedly mean the voters will choose to join the Russian Federation. This will in turn increase tensions between Russia and the United States as this ordeal is sorted out over the coming weeks. The decisions that the the U.S. State Department makes over the next few days and weeks may themselves produce ripples that future generations will feel, but the ripple we are currently feeling that is contributing to the Ukraine dilemma just adds to the history of U.S. foreign policy mistakes.
By Scott Merrow