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Opinion For world peace, this is the most threatening ‘ism’

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, June 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File)

Over the past century, one ideology after another has destabilized global politics and sparked war: fascism, communism, nationalism, imperialism.

Among conflict-generating “isms” the most relevant one today, however, may be irredentism.

Irredentism, as the Free Dictionary defines it, is “a national policy advocating the acquisition of some region in another country by reason of common linguistic, cultural, historical, ethnic, or racial ties.”

And that is a fair description of Russia’s and China’s “national policy” today toward Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. Russian President Vladimir Putin is massing troops on Ukraine’s border, loudly proclaiming the Russian people’s historic rights and interests in that country. China, meanwhile, is building up naval and air capabilities in obvious preparation for “retaking” an island Beijing regards as a wayward Chinese province.

For the Biden administration and U.S. allies, the challenge is to avoid war without letting Russia or China realize its irredentist dreams at others’ expense.

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This will not be easy, judging by past efforts to control irredentism. The modern world’s original irredentist movement arose in Italy during the mid-19th century as nationalists in that country, newly united under an independent monarchy, began demanding Austrian-ruled territories, in the Alps and on the Adriatic coast, populated by Italian speakers.

One reason Italy joined the Allies in World War I was the hope of getting this “unredeemed Italy” — Italia irredenta — as spoils. The belief that Italy was betrayed on this point by the Versailles Treaty helped fuel the rise of fascism under Benito Mussolini.

Adolf Hitler’s irredentist demands — also spawned, in a different way, by Versailles — included German-populated lands from the Czech-ruled Sudetenland to the free city of Danzig on Poland’s Baltic coast. Those demands, in turn, helped cause World War II in Europe.

Irredentism repeatedly disrupted the post-World War II peace, too. A bloody, but now forgotten, 1977-1978 war between Somalia and Ethiopia began when Somalia’s dictator invaded to seize a region of Ethiopia, the Ogaden, inhabited by ethnic Somalis. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990 in a dispute over oil resources — justified by a claim that the neighboring emirate rightfully belonged to Iraq.

For nations and international institutions trying to cope with irredentists, the ideology creates two special challenges.

First, irredentist claims tend to be difficult to understand, let alone adjudicate. The origins of any people’s presence on a particular territory often lie in the remote past and documenting them requires following obscure academics and mythmakers down their rabbit holes.

Putin is the author of a recent 7,000-word essay on Russia’s claim to Ukraine, salted with allusions to such events as the Ems Ukaz of 1876 or Russia’s 18th-century Great Northern War against Sweden. Outsiders gape in confusion, but such arcane arguments lend a patina of academic authority to the mostly emotional support irredentism often enjoys. National unification can appeal even to people who oppose an irredentist regime in other respects. Hence irredentism’s political usefulness to dictators.

The second challenge is the temptation of appeasement. Territorial claims are deceptively finite and thus deceptively negotiable. “Give me my rightful bit of land, and I’ll cease threatening the peace,” is the perennial irredentist promise. It always sounds more attractive to third parties than to the country whose territory the irredentist covets.

This may be why irredentists throughout history have preferred to deal over the heads of their target nations, with global powers or international organizations, rather than talk to them directly. Again, recall Hitler’s bargaining with Britain and France about Czech land.

It usually takes crushing military defeat to cure irredentism; both Germany and Italy abandoned their claims definitively in post-World War II undertakings.

Having already swallowed two strategic chunks of Ukraine — the Crimea peninsula on the Black Sea and eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region — with no decisive pushback from the United States and the European Union, Putin today is attempting to lure them into more talks rather than deal directly with Kyiv.

This is a trap: The more Washington and its allies discuss Putin’s irredentist demands, the more they gain credence, albeit as an unintended consequence. He could well seize on some alleged affront in the negotiations themselves as a casus belli.

Yet the raw political reality is that the Biden administration may have no alternative. The same may be true in Asia if and when Xi Jinping’s China — which has already achieved its irredentist goals in Hong Kong — moves on Taiwan in earnest.

The United States faces an unprecedented geopolitical situation: Two giant powers, Russia and China, dominate the Eurasian land mass; both are relatively politically stable and nuclear-armed; both are hostile to the United States; both wield vetoes, often in concert, at the U.N. Security Council.

And the rulers of both have staked their prestige on irredentist projects that the United States has staked its prestige on thwarting.