In a referendum this weekend, the people of the Crimean Peninsula decided that their region should join the Russian Federation as an autonomous territory. Meanwhile, the Russian Duma is considering a law that would make it easier to annex neighboring territories in which “people have expressed distinct will and wish to become part of Russia.” After Crimea, in other words, Russia may try to annex larger and more economically significant parts of eastern Ukraine, which also include substantial numbers of Russians and Russian speakers.
Russia’s moves might have come as a shock, but for millennia, conquests and annexations were the meat and potatoes of state building and international politics. The groundwork for the United States’ own rise to global predominance was laid by its manifest destiny policy of westward territorial expansion, including the conquest of the southwest and California and the annexation of Mexico’s breakaway republic of Texas.
But that kind of imperialism has become virtually unheard of since World War II. There are some notable exceptions, including India’s conquest of Portuguese Goa in 1961, China’s forceful seizure of disputed but marginal territory from India in 1962, and North Vietnam’s absorption of South Vietnam in 1975. A few other prolonged occupations have stopped short of formal annexations, such as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, Armenia’s wresting of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, and Russia’s “liberation” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia in 2008. But compared to previous centuries, territorial expansion has been rare.
There are several possible reasons. For one, the victors of World War II banned aggression in the new United Nations charter. And during the Cold War, the superpowers assiduously checked expansion within and between their rival camps. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States continued to block attempted conquests such as Iraq’s play for Kuwait and Serbia’s unsuccessful effort to take much of Bosnia.
Some -- from nineteenth-century British free traders to contemporary international