Of the many political and military conflicts in the northern hemisphere since 1918, many have been caused and most have been exacerbated by the poor political geography employed to create a plethora of new states, carved from the remnants of great land empires. The land empires in question are the Russian, Ottoman, German and Austrian.
Whilst the proximate cause of the Second World War was unbridled fascist aggression, a crucial underlying cause was countless disagreements over borders between new states. Whilst German fascist aggression remains the underlying reason for the world war, it is advisable to remember that during much of the 1930s every central and eastern European state with the exception of Czechoslovakia was ruled either by a right wing government or in the cases of Latvia, Lithuania, Austria and Hungary, by a far right wing government. There were few angels in the disputes which arose during Europe’s darkest decade.
Looking to the Ottoman Empire, without defending its many crimes against ethnic and religious minorities, one can see that in its Arab provinces at least, Ottoman vilayets (administrative units/provinces) tended to align much more closely to religious and tribal loyalties than did the states invented in the Middle East through the Anglo-French mandate system established in the Sykes-Picot agreement. Take for examples the three Ottoman administrative divisions that comprised what become the state of Iraq. Rather than a single unit made up of different sectarian groups that have caused huge problems for every successive Iraqi government, there were clear divisions. The vilayet of Basra encompassed a large Shi’a population, the vilayet of Baghdad included the historically cosmopolitan region around the one time capital of the Arab Caliphate, whilst in the north the vilayet of Mosul had a predominantly agrarian Sunni population. Smash these provinces together into a unitary state and endless problems start. In light of recent Iraqi history this mistake of history speaks for itself.
Turning to Russia, the system of Tsarist gubernias far better corresponded to the nature of local identities and ethnography than did the Soviet republics which replaced them. The place where this error of geography has had the most dire consequences is in the territory of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which grouped together former Tsarist gubernias in a haphazard way which after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, fostered deep political divides within the country, producing ethno-linguistic tensions, increased latent religious tensions and since 2014 bloody civil war.
History has shown that no borders are sacred and no governing unit is sacred. If this is so for the crumbled political units of the past, why are some so naïve to think current political units are sacred? No political unit has an inherent right to exist. People and cultures have an inherent right to exist, and sovereign states have the right not to be invaded by an external power unless this is done for legally defined reasons which ultimate derive from the concept of self-defence.
Because the problems created in the aftermath of the First World War still haunt the world today, the only viable solution is national self-determination and the most sincere method of establishing this is by allowing for referenda for a population inclined to political change.
Most states as well as organisations like the UN in theory favour national self-determination. But the hypocritical devil lies in the details. All nations are theoretically equal but to employ the Orwellian adage, some are more equal than others. If a group of people are held captive in a crumbling state which certain powerful countries support, their right to national self-determination is frowned on. If however a people are attempting to secede from a state that is considered a foe or disagreeable to the Great Powers, the right to self-determination will be applauded and often aided.
This is why NATO supports the independence of a deeply divided Kosovo yet spat on the self-determination of Crimea, which voted in overwhelming numbers to return their sovereignty to their historic country.
So long as these sort of double standards are applied, people throughout the world will be denied the rights the UN has granted them. It’s a sad state of affairs that it is often the most vulnerable people who get kicked in political football matches.