“Trump’s shift on the Golan indirectly validated Russia’s seizure of Crimea.”
When the founders of the U.N. gatheredered in San Francisco after the Nazis’ defeat in 1945, they made a bold decision: to outlaw territorial conquest, the method by which many of the world’s borders had been shaped. The new U.N. Charter barred members of the world body “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
For decades afterward, the inviolability of existing international borders—regardless of how well they matched a region’s ethnic makeup or served historical justice—was one of the most widely invoked principles of global affairs. The broad U.S.-led coalition to restore the independence of Kuwait—annexed in 1990 by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as its wayward 19th province—stood as a testament to the endurance of that postwar proposition.
But today, in a newly unmoored international order in which the strong increasingly exercise raw power over the weak, old territorial grievances are bubbling up to the surface again. This new willingness to try to alter borders by force is arising just as the U.S., which for decades guaranteed the stability of the international system, is pulling back from its global commitments and the institutions that it helped to forge in the wake of World War II. In many major capitals, an irredentist ambition to grab the territory of neighbors is driving policy once again.
“Our habit that borders remain fixed is the product of a very recent past, of the second half of the 20th century and the Cold War. If you look at European history, there has not been a single century when borders didn’t shift in a radical way,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow think tank that advises the Russian government.
“A principle of international relations is not some commandment from Moses. It’s the product of a balance of power and interests,” he added. “When someone is able to ensure that those rules and principles are observed, they are observed. When this ability ends, they are no longer observed.”
Countries have invaded each other since the dawn of history, but irredentism—a belief that historic parts of one’s country under supposedly unjust foreign rule must be reunited with the homeland—is a much more recent invention. The term was coined in 1877 by the Italian politician Matteo Renato Imbriani. Speaking at his father’s funeral, he pledged not to rest until all of Italy’s “terre irredente”— “unredeemed lands” then under the Austro-Hungarian crown—were liberated.
Irredentism quickly grew into a potent political force, legitimizing demands for territorial conquest and helping to
spark both world wars. The most consequential irredentist movement, of course, arose in Germany, where Hitler promised to reunite the German Volk, newly divided by supposedly unfair post-World War I frontiers, into a rejuvenated Third Reich.
The horrors unleashed by the resulting war triggered a profound reset of international norms—and a hard-won belief that insisting on fixed, inviolable borders would help to ward off future aggression and conflict. African states that became independent in the 1960s and 1970s universally agreed not to challenge their frontiers, many of which were arbitrarily drawn by colonial powers. In 1970, West Germany accepted the loss of what is now western Poland. Argentina’s irredentist invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 ended in a military rout and the downfall of its military dictatorship. While the breakups of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s caused several civil wars and created a half-dozen separatist enclaves, the existing administrative borders of the component Soviet and Yugoslav republics remained as the internationally recognized frontiers of newly independent states such as Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Then came Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014—the first irredentist change of borders in Europe since World War II. This major breach of established global rules met with only halfhearted international repercussions, such as mild sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s territorial grab was followed later that year by a semi-covert invasion of Russian forces into Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
“We have chipped away at the foundations of international law by doing nothing, or doing very little, in response,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as president of Estonia in 2006-16. “It is a very dangerous trend, especially for small countries like mine. If you are a small country, what do you really have except international law and its prohibitions on aggression and changing borders through force?”
Mr. Putin, who sees himself as the “gatherer of Russian lands” unfairly lost during the Soviet Union’s collapse, has repeatedly called Ukraine an unredeemed part of the historic Russian homeland. He holds the same view of Belarus, now undergoing an unprecedented democratic upheaval. “I believe that the Belarusians, the Russians and the Ukrainians are one people,” he said last year.
Russia’s brazenness in Crimea went a long way to embolden China’s communist leaders. Much like Mr. Putin, President Xi Jinping is focused on restoring his country’s erstwhile glory. He has already erased much of the distinctiveness of Hong Kong, a former British colony, and is becoming more vocal about absorbing Taiwan, a former Japanese possession that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.
“Crimea certainly had an impact on China because it showed that the West was powerless to stop a territorial grab,” said Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College. “Eastern Ukraine also gave China some ideas that you could run a ‘hybrid warfare,’ making the life of Ukraine—or Taiwan—very miserable without crossing the line of a real war.”
Beijing is also making irredentist claims over swaths of north India, where Chinese troops engaged in a deadly clash with Indian forces in June, and the South China Sea, where China has erected outposts in areas claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and others. This year, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan’s foreign ministries protested after official Chinese publications described large parts of their countries as historic Chinese territories that should return to the motherland.
“China is certainly a very revisionist power,” said retired Rear Adm. Sudarshan Shrikhande, a former chief of India’s naval intelligence. “It’s quite astounding how China seems to be wanting to simultaneously rub so many countries the wrong way.”
Smaller powers are showing irredentist leanings too. Over the past three years, the Turkish military has occupied some parts of Syria and Iraq that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said should have remained in Turkey after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. In recent weeks, Turkey also came close to a military confrontation with Greece over Ankara’s expansive new claims over the Eastern Mediterranean, a crisis that has prompted some senior Turkish officials to question Greece’s sovereignty over Greek islands close to the Anatolian mainland such as Rhodes. “Our civilization is one of conquest,” Mr. Erdogan thundered in August.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s nationalist leader, Viktor Orban, regularly decries the 1920 Trianon treaty that left large ethnic Hungarian minorities outside of Hungary’s borders. Since 2017, he has blocked Ukraine’s formal co-operation with NATO over the status of Ukraine’s ethnic Hungarian minority.
Even the U.S. is no longer universally committed to the principle of the inviolability of international borders. Last year, President Donald Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel took from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Israel had been prepared to return the land to Syria for peace as recently as the mid-2000s. The Kremlin happily noted that Mr. Trump’s shift on the Golan indirectly validated Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
The need to counter this drift toward greater acceptance of territorial conquest is becoming increasingly urgent, warned Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a very grim picture that is emerging,” she said. Unless the trend can be reversed, she added, “the gate will be open for chaos in many regions of the world.”