By Gautam Samel
The Earth is no stranger to conflict on a large scale. Conflict and violence have been central to humanity since time immemorial, and it has played a large role in our economic, political, and social life. The 24th of February 2022 saw a significant escalation of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with a history from 1991 and a build-up since the 2014 unrest. Russia’s actions in Ukraine are what historians and political commentators call “irredentism”, a political stance advocating the restoration of supposedly previously owned territories.
Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union and considering how the modern nation of Russia is considered the “successor” to the Union. Russia’s actions thereby are irredentist. Neo-colonialism, like irredentism, is another form of underlying conflict justification, the only difference between the two being that in the modern world irredentism would ideally be morally superior to neo-colonialism. This begs the simple question: Why? Why would we rate any form of conflict justification—barring self-defence—as higher or lower moral than the other? This article explores this question, referring to historical instances and the economic scenarios in them.
To understand irredentism and neo-colonialism, one must look into its origins. Irredentism was coined from the Italian term “irredenta” meaning unredeemed. The rise of the revanchist movement in Italy in the late 19th century to the early 20th century set the stage for the political ideology for irredentism. Since then, it has been most notably and famously used by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in the aftermath of the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles struck both nations hard, severing a lot of territories previously owned by Germany into the hands of France and Poland. Hitler’s revanchism led to the demand of certain lands back – such as Alsace-Lorraine from France and Silesia, Pomeralia and Posen from Poland. However, while the justification for Germany’s aggressive warfare came from these irredentist ideals, the Nazi war machine was not pacified with the conquest of these territories which took place in the early years of the Second World War. They wished to occupy all of Poland, France, Eastern Europe and conquer Russia. Here is where we see conquest-hungry behaviour compared to the more justifiable irredentism, and this is rather not surprising. The European Allies controlled at the time nearly all of Africa, the Commonwealth, French Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia, the British Raj, and smaller island territories. Non-colonial nations albeit with colonial ambitions like Germany were highly interested in becoming colonial juggernauts like their adversaries. Since other continents were too far out of reach, Nazi Germany looked towards Europe.
Nazi Germany’s plans were in part thwarted by the colonial empire of the Allies, which contributed a lot of men, resources, and time to the Allied war effort. A lot of western countries today are well developed, and in a much better economic state compared to what they have named “third world countries” which they exploited for their own gain. By the time the motive of discovery had turned into the motive of conquest, nations had realized that owning faraway lands was good for more than just headlines and glory. Controlling and exploiting these resource-rich faraway lands and their natives offered a monetary benefit like no other. Herein rose the aim and policy of colonialism, to conquer lands in other continents not yet well-discovered by Europeans, and to use them for European gain and European wars. Side-by-side also grew the policy of imperialism, a sister policy of colonialism. Imperialism, “conquest simply for conquest’s sake”, is rapidly rising in popularity in order to get more men to enlist as soldiers and colonial officers.
But here’s the problem: once you begin feeding an idea with greed, it becomes hard to stop it. Controlling their newly discovered lands was not enough for the colonizers. They wanted more, and thus began wars with a colonial motive. Colonial establishments of one nation fighting another to grow, with help from home and assistance from the natives. A vicious circle of violence had begun – all so the money could keep flowing. It took a massive range of wars beginning from the late 18th century – to the world wars in the 20th century – to finally end colonialism. But by then, the economic scales had already tipped. The Empires of India, once one of the richest and prosperous kingdoms, had become but a fraction of their former glory. Africa’s natural resources were now haunted with violence and in-fighting.
Once a colonial holding, the United States of America turns out to be better than the most. Severely damaged by a crippling civil war, they soon manage to turn the tide in their favour and get their act together. And here’s where the real picture comes into play. The United States is now a rival power to Europe – and about to be one of the most military focused nations of the world. The ripples of American influence were felt very well in the First World War. The dual victory in the Second cemented their reputation and set a new era of global politics and economics. The UK, France, and allies had given their best and kept their pride, but once the dust had settled, it was clear there were about to be only two stalwarts of the new era – the USA and the USSR. While the game has already begun, here is where we start to worry about neo-colonialism. Never officially declaring war, the two nations stay locked in conflict in some country or other.
At this point, it is important to note how late in the 20th century one really is – but European nations still own a lot of colonies. In fact, France’s last colony Djibouti gained independence in 1977, which means a lot of Generation X are probably older than Djibouti. This really brings us to the stark reality of how relatively close to us colonialism really was, and it is not some age old issue of a bygone era. The USSR’s and the USA’s conflict led to a major fallout in the nation of Afghanistan. Both nations attempted to gain the upper hand and played what can be termed as “stupid games”. These games worked well for quite long. In fact, the finances of it would turn out to be spectacular, if one were to peruse the books (if one was allowed, obviously). More money went into funding the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts than these countries poured into more developmental efforts. Just the way nations like France and the UK once fought tooth and nail to grow their colonial empires in the Americas and India, now the USA and USSR were fighting for personal gain. Military budgets ballooned, and so did the wars.
And they won stupid prizes. A lot of the militant outfits they created eventually turned against them, leading to terrorist attacks, general instability and unrest, more wars and conflict. We are truly feeling the effects of the Afghanistan unrest today, a day where an extremist outfit has taken over the control of an entire nation. Similar battles were fought out in Iraq, Iran, and Syria post 2000s. Korea, Vietnam felt the burns of the cold war in the late 20th century.
Circling back to neo-colonialism, the Americans have well been criticized in their foreign policy by scholars such as Chomsky and Nayna Jhaveri. Jhaveri termed the Iraq war as “petro imperialism”, an effort to wage war for control over oil reserves. The United States has not refrained from dipping its hand in every conflict taking across the world as long as some personal gain was available in these wars. Israel-Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, Iran are just some examples. Probably a lot more conflicts have deeper implications and ties to their controllers. While their European counterparts relied on the construction and inhabitation of colonies across the world, the United States seems to have replicated colonies with military bases across the world. Even a lot of well-developed nations today have US military bases within them, which just points towards despair in the modern socio-political world.
Coming back to our issue of irredentism, we must ask the question – what exactly is a “justification” for war? And what makes it more and less moral than the other? Does the involvement of money make a certain war automatically less moral? Is justifying a conflict with the theory that this land once belonged to us, so we are ready to commit violence for it, more moral than other justifications? Is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine really irredentism? Or is there again, personal gain that is playing with people’s minds? Is money really the source of all this?
No form of war is more moral than the other. There is no real “justification” for all this conflict—neither land, nor religion, ethnicity, or anything. Probably the real, hidden motive was greed all along. That maybe, just maybe—all this blood is being shed so some wallets can be fatter.
Gautam Samel is an undergraduate student at Jindal Global University