"Ideas Have Consequences" was written by the young conservative
scholar Richard Weaver, after he had witnessed the carnage World War II had
visited upon his civilization. And if we look about the borderlands of
Islam -- Chechnya, Kashmir, the West Bank -- we see the consequences of
ideas advanced by two Americans whose influence is hard to overstate.
"All governments derive their just powers from the consent of
the governed," wrote Thomas Jefferson. "There is the revolutionary slogan,
coming from the pen of a young, erudite, Virginia slave-holder," said
historian D. W. Brogan. "The Revolution was on the march from that moment.
It still is." With the triumph of the American Revolution, the handwriting
was on the wall for every empire on earth.
In 1919, an even greater gravedigger of empire arrived in Paris
preaching a doctrine of "self-determination" for all peoples. Woodrow
Wilson's Secretary of State Robert Lansing realized Wilson had let the genie
out of the bottle. "The phrase (self-determination) is simply loaded with
dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. ... What a
calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!"
In the name of self-determination, Wilson helped to carve the
new nations of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia out of the carcasses of
the Russian, German and Hapsburg empires. But his principle clashed with
Georges Clemenceau's resolve ("There are 20 million Germans too many!") that
Bismarck's Germany must be dismembered for the safety of France.
So, in violation of the terms of armistice and of Wilson's
principle, the Saar was put under French control, South Tyrol was given to
Italy, 3 million Sudeten Germans were put under Czech rule, a corridor of
German land and the city of Danzig were given to Poland, and the Prussian
city of Memel was seized from a prostrate Reich by Tiny Lithuania.
Having endured these forced amputations, Germans believed the
victorious Allies had hypocritically butchered their country in violation of
their own principles. The Allies came to believe it, as well. Thus, when
Hitler came to power and demanded the return of all stolen lands and
self-determination of all Germans then under Polish and Czech rule, the
Allies were morally paralyzed.
Why, British and French asked, should we fight a war to the
death against Nazi Germany to keep Sudeten Germans and Danzigers from
rejoining their cousins, when they should never have been separated at
Versailles and want to go home. If 90 percent of Taiwan's people demanded to
go home to China, would Americans fight to prevent an Anschluss with
Beijing? Of course not.
"Munich" is a curse word today, but we should remember that in
the Munich and Danzig crises, it was Hitler who was invoking, if cynically,
the Wilsonian principle of the self-determination of peoples.
Consider the wars being fought today on the borders of a newly
militant Islam. Chechnya has been Russia's for centuries. Do Chechens have
the right to be free and independent? Moscow says no, we will hold Chechnya,
even if we must expel all the Chechens. Whose land is it, anyway?
Do Kashmiris, most of whom are Muslim and would vote for union
with Pakistan or independence, have a right to leave India? India says no
and will fight to hold the province. To whom, then, does Kashmir belong?
India, or its majority? Who decides?
Do Palestinians have a right to a homeland on the West Bank with
its capital East Jerusalem, when they are 90 percent of the people there and
Israelis 10 percent? Israelis say no, these are covenant lands, biblical
lands, given to us by God. Other Israelis say we are entitled to this land
by right of conquest. Others that we must hold them for our own survival,
self-determination be damned.
Not only Israel, but India in Kashmir, China in Sinkiang and
Serbia in Kosovo confront independence movements by Islamic peoples who are
throwing in our face our own hallowed principle of self-determination, as
Hitler did in the 1930s. And there is the same perplexity and moral
confusion among Western elites now as then.
Are we hypocrites who only believe in self-determination when
it does not threaten our own or allied interests? And if we are true
believers in self-determination, was Lincoln right to send a million-man
army to crush a people's rebellion to break free of his Union, as our
forefathers had broken free of the British Crown. If America was a "union of
free and independent states," why was the South not free to depart?
So, today, in Chechnya, Putin invokes Lincoln as Islamic rebels
invoke Wilson and the young slave-owner Jefferson. And so we all stumble
toward a war of civilizations in which the atomic bomb may be the ultima
ratio, the last argument of those who believe there are principles and
rights even higher than those of self-rule and self-determination.