Impressions from Kiev: A Post-Sovereign Debates Pre-Sovereign

On a recent visit to Kiev, I was impressed by how my comments on the need for international cooperation in the context of today’s global, complex interdependence were met with emphatic calls for sovereign autonomy in a language of emotional nationalism.

Membership in the European Union is sometimes referred to as a “géométrie variable,” member countries have different obligations; the United Kingdom is a full member but retains its own currency, the Pound and not the Euro. On a recent visit to Kiev, I was impressed by how my comments on the need for international cooperation in the context of today’s global, complex interdependence were met with emphatic calls for sovereign autonomy in a language of emotional nationalism.

How does a post-sovereign who has two passports communicate with those who are fighting to have their country maintain a unique identity and territory? How does someone firmly entrenched in cosmopolitanism debate those who are in the midst of concretizing their own national identity in the turmoil of post-Soviet Union space? Are we in a temporal “géométrie variable”?

The first response to these questions is to place the current situation in eastern Ukraine in a historical context. The breakup of multiethnic entities in recent history – the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia – has been bloody. In an era of identity politics and wars, multiethnic countries have been reduced to smaller and smaller units. More and more, people want to live with people like themselves.

Witness the recent vote in Spain by the Catalans and the referendum for independence in Scotland. Increased globalization has increased the emotional need for smaller political units. This is not a propitious moment for multiculturalism, just as it is not an opportune moment for multilateral institutions like the United Nations. 

The second reaction is to try to explain that global issues such as climate change can only be solved by cooperation. Even though the United States and China have numerous contested issues, the choking smog that has overwhelmed many of China’s major cities makes cooperation between the two countries a necessity for survival.

Cooperation in this sense is not an idealistic dream; it is driven by physical realities. Extreme nationalism in the face of global problems like Ebola, nuclear weapons or climate change is counter-productive. De-territorialization is in fact happening all the time. Fighting over borders or issues of language are nostalgic throwbacks in an age of high-tech transnationalism.

Both these arguments, as rational as they may be, are very difficult to get across. The post-sovereign has his own rationality. The pre-sovereign is not interested in cosmopolitan rationality in discussions of the technological need for cooperation. The pre-sovereign is interested in national survival.

Discussions of sovereignty and the Westphalian state system established in 1648 have little resonance. The international state system is of limited interest to those focused on their own country’s existence. The official rejection of the Russian language in Ukraine – sensibly overturned in a country where so many speak Russian – was a clear manifestation of a need to construct a unique identity. Is it helpful to bring up why we are so involved in so many identity crises?

This identity crisis should not be seen only from Kiev’s perspective. The Soviet Union was a huge empire, a superpower for over 50 years. The Russian Federation is not the same thing. How do the Russian people accept their reduced status, or do they? Pictures of Vladimir Putin shirtless, flexing his muscles easily resonate in an enormously proud country that has been significantly reduced in size and stature. Putin’s actions in Ukraine are popular among the people as a statement of resurgence.  “We were a large empire that imploded, we were humiliated, and now we are flexing our muscles again,” he/they are saying.

Ukraine is trying to establish its identity and space. Russia is trying to re-establish its identity and space. The conflict in eastern Ukraine is what Richard Falk has called one of modern identity wars. Territory is part of the issue, but there are deeper emotional issues at play. Globalization has given us many benefits, but the fragility of identity has been a collateral damage. The post-sovereign is aware of the problem, but there are no simple answers for those involved in identity struggles.  For all the high-tech advances we are witnessing, basic emotional needs for bonding and belonging are still driving forces in politics, whether international or global. And the post-sovereign’s identity crisis is very different from the pre-sovereign’s, as different as the Euro from the Pound.

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