When Downsizing is a Good Thing for a State

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This article was originally published by World Affairs on 13 June 2016.

The following is and interview with Ian Lustick, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

MOTYL: Professor Lustick, let’s begin the conversation with your provocative theory of “right-sizing” states. What’s the gist?

LUSTICK: The basic point is pretty obvious. If a person is too thin, gaining weight is a good thing, but not if the weight gain is all in the stomach. To take a more extreme example: If a person is overweight, losing pounds is a good thing, but not if it is achieved by decapitation or sawing off one’s right arm. “Right-sizing” a state is the idea that—although it is dangerous and usually wrong to change a country’s borders when those borders have been settled and have taken on a sense of stability and naturalness—there are circumstances when it can be entirely appropriate to alter the size and shape of a state for the state’s own good and for the welfare of the nation, people, or population that identifies with it.

MOTYL: If the theory makes so much sense—and I agree that it does—why isn’t it practiced more often? What are the main obstacles to right-sizing?

LUSTICK: States commonly seek to get bigger, but more often than not they “wrong-size” themselves by doing so. Except for perhaps a temporary boost to the popularity of the leadership that promises that expansion will yield a bigger pie to divide among their followers, the costs of maintaining rule over far-flung territories and exploited and unhappy indigenous peoples usually vastly outweighs the benefits that can be sustained over a long period of time. That means, however, that many states are bigger than they “should be,” raising the question you have asked: why don’t more states shrink strategically? The reason is that getting smaller is almost always perceived as shrinking the size of the available pie and diminishing the prestige of those who identify with the state. So it is always more difficult to contract rather than expand, even if, strategically, it is likely to be very advantageous to do so. As you can imagine, it is far easier to label a leader who favors withdrawing from a territory a coward or a traitor to the national (or imperial) cause, than it is to challenge the patriotism of a leader embarking on a “glorious” campaign of expansion—one that would typically be characterized as being demanded by the historical (or divine) rights of the nation or its security requirements.

MOTYL: Such as Vladimir Putin in Crimea and the occupied Donbas?

LUSTICK: Exactly.

MOTYL: So the primary obstacles to right-sizing would typically be domestic? That is, while right-sizing may make states objectively stronger, the action will be perceived as an act of weakness by the political opposition?

LUSTICK: Generally speaking, yes. Whether it is an overextended army that would strengthen its position against an adversary by a strategic retreat to consolidate forces (think of Hitler’s generals trying to convince him to retreat from Stalingrad), or it is an over-extended empire or nation state trying to maintain control over territories it cannot rule effectively, the decision to contract, or right-size, is always made in anticipation that a short-term sacrifice will produce a longer term benefit. Naturally there will be some who genuinely and honestly disagree with such an assessment. There will also, always, be those out to score easy political points against opponents. They will cast the right-sizers as traitors, fools, or cowards—insufficiently confident in the cause, conviction, or resources of their political community.

MOTYL: What are some successful examples of right-sizing?

LUSTICK: In ancient times, perhaps the most famous example of state contraction as a route to right-sizing is Hadrian’s decision to withdraw the Roman Empire from the Mesopotamian territories beyond the Euphrates River his predecessor, Trajan, had conquered and sought to rule. Though unpopular at the time, Hadrian’s decision is widely recognized by historians as a prime example of wise and prudent statesmanship that helped secure Rome’s vital interests. Though fraught with danger to himself and the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle’s successful contraction of France from “Algerie francaise” was a major accomplishment to which can be attributed the continued success and stability of the Fifth Republic. Though Britain would have benefited from contracting itself out of Ireland earlier and more thoroughly than it did—thereby avoiding decades of civil strife and a near coup in 1914—the immediate post-WWI government of Lloyd George did manage to shrink the British state by withdrawing from 21 “southern” Irish counties in 1922.

MOTYL: Any unsuccessful examples?

LUSTICK: Prime Minister Gladstone in the 1880s and early 1890s, and Prime Minister Asquith (along with Winston Churchill) in 1911-1914, tried and failed to right-size the British state by devolving virtual independence upon all of Ireland via the First, Second, and Third “Home Rule for Ireland” Bills. Each went down in defeat as a result of mass mobilization against state contraction and, in 1914, real threats of civil war by Protestant settlers in Ireland, leaders of the Conservative-Unionist Party, and high-ranking military officers.

A spectacular failure of right-sizing, applied to the non-territorial size of the state, occurred in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev essentially believed it would be possible to greatly reduce the scope and power of the Communist-controlled state in the Soviet Union without that affecting its geographical definition. Given the weakly institutionalized status of Soviet boundaries, however, political perestroika swiftly entailed geographical perestroika as well, leading, not to a smaller, stronger Soviet Union, but its abrupt demise.

In the 1990s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party-led government sought to use the Oslo Agreement with the PLO to contract Israel out of enough of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to achieve peace by right-sizing the Israeli state. But this foundered as a result of Rabin’s hesitancy to risk a showdown with settlers and their ultranationalist and religious supporters. Ultimately Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish fundamentalist who accused him of treason because of his right-sizing policies. Since then, with more settlements, more violence, and unprecedentedly right-wing governments in Israel the prospects for state contraction are dimmer than ever.

MOTYL: So what combination of factors makes for successful right-sizing?

LUSTICK: One key element is that the core of the state is well institutionalized and not dependent for its legitimacy, or the naturalness with which its citizens relate to it, on its continued rule of the problematically ruled territory. Another is that the political echelons be able to take decisions about the fate of the outlying territory without worrying that key elements in the society will violently challenge their legal right to do so. Finally, in a democratic country, it helps if state elites do not face imminent elections, thereby allowing the downstream positive results associated with contraction to become apparent before they face an initially skeptical or angry public. All in all, one immensely difficult barrier to state contraction is the presence in the outlying territory of a politically influential population of “settlers” with close political and communal ties to leading groups within the core state’s military and within its leading political parties.

MOTYL: What are your recommendations for Israel? How have Israelis responded?

LUSTICK: After three and a half decades of advocating territorial right-sizing by Israel as a route to peace, I’ve regrettably concluded there is no plausible route to a “two-state solution” via negotiations between Israel and Palestine that can be based on territorial contraction of the Israeli state. I am therefore now suggesting that Israelis and Palestinians focus not on the specific political institutional and territorial features of the ultimate solution they would favor, and instead struggle, with respect to every specific issue that arises, for steps that produce more democracy for all inhabitants of the country between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, more equality between Jews and Arabs, and more respect for each nation’s right to non-exclusivist forms of self-determination. New political alliances will need to form, and they can only evolve organically—a process that will be fostered by the creative and passionate application of new thinking about the sources and drivers of the conflict.

I have found Israeli moderates deeply divided. Those committed to fighting in the same way they have been for years for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank are not ready to think differently, even though they despair about the prospects of that cause. But there are also moderates who find my approach inspiring because it justifies thinking and acting on the basis of values they are sure of without having to justify their search and their work by sketching an impossible blueprint for how, exactly, peace will be achieved.

In essence, it may be that right-sizing is simply no longer a useful approach for Israel compared to reconfiguring a single large state that does exist, ruling the country from the river to the sea.

MOTYL: Clearly, right-sizing can work. At the same time, it’s no magic potion. What would your general recommendations for Ukraine and Russia be? Who should right-size with respect to Crimea and the occupied Donbas—Ukraine or Russia or both?

LUSTICK: “Should” is a difficult word. Let’s imagine we don’t know anything about this particular case and are simply asked: “Should country ‘A’ withdraw from territory ‘B’, which it currently rules?” What should we try to know about the situation before attempting to answer that question in a way that assures our answer will be consistent with a general rule for assessing what states and peoples should rule what lands and territories. I suggest that the key factors are the distributions of power and sentiment inside Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, and the Donbas, along with relevant international distributions of power and sentiment. In light of those factors, we must then ask which territorial dispositions have the best chance, or even a reasonable chance, of eventually becoming accepted as “natural” and therefore stable, and not a subject for armed conflict, in the future. Different analysts will respond differently to this question, but the key thing is to encourage them to argue their positions in terms of what arrangements will in the long run be the more stable, rather than which arrangement best conforms to the ideological, emotional, or economic interests of this or that community. As a relatively uninformed but interested observer, my hunch is that no arrangement is likely to be naturalized any time soon, but that one reasonable candidate for the most likely path to that objective would include Russian rule of a Tatar republic of Crimea and an independent Kyiv-based Ukraine integrated into the EU but not NATO, leaving the Donbas as a territory whose future is to be determined by a plebiscite that should include choices for remaining within Ukraine, annexation to Russia, independence, or autonomous status within either Ukraine or Russia. Whether such a plebiscite would or could be held soon is less important than the principle of treating the region’s future as to-be-determined and therefore possibly distinct from that of Ukraine.

Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark, as well as a writer and painter. He served as associate director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University from 1992 to 1998.

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