From the Comments: New Republics, Westphalia, and Russian Strategy

Thomas L. Knapp (check out his two contributions to the most recent Cato Unbound symposium on voting) has a great comment about Ukraine (Russia) that deserves further scrutiny:

In order for Putin to “pull out of” Ukraine, he’d first need to be in Ukraine.

The new republics which seceded from Ukraine are not in Ukraine.

Knapp brings up an interesting point that most geopolitical outlets and experts rarely consider (the Washington Post‘s Worldviews is a notable exception, as is Ilya Somin over at Volokh Conspiracy), and because of that these outlets fail to provide any depth or light to the world around us. There are three aspects of Knapp’s excellent comment that I’d like to hone in on.

The new republics

First, what are these “new republics” Knapp mentions? If you don’t count Crimea (wiki), which Moscow formally recognized in 2014, then the new republics that declared their independence from Ukraine are Luhansk (wiki) and Donetsk (wiki). Both polities are roughly 3300 square miles in area and house roughly 1.5 million people (you can get the exact numbers from the wiki links I provided above). Here is a map:


Alarmingly, both republics style themselves “people’s republics” and (less alarmingly) have aligned publicly with Moscow. Russia, by the way, has not recognized these “new republics,” for geopolitical reasons I hope to make clear below.

Westphalian sovereignty

Russia does not like to recognize new polities (“republics”) because of its adherence to the ideal of Westphalia, which is state sovereignty (elsewhere at NOL Barry Stocker argues that the Westphalian ideal can be better understood as an early modern cosmopolitanism rather than state sovereignty). All throughout the Cold War Russia and China were staunch supporters of the Westphalian ideal (as were states in Africa and Asia that broke away from colonial empires), and they became even more so after the collapse of socialism in 1993. State sovereignty is the idea that states (“countries”) have sole control over what goes on in their own borders, and that any interventions of any kind, by any type of organization, needs to be approved by the state. It is called “Westphalian” because of the Treaty of Westphalia that was signed by a number of major and minor European states in the 17th century. The major states were able to maintain a balance of power and the minor states were able to assert more sovereignty over their territories than ever before because they were signatories of an international treaty. (Edwin van de Haar’s article in the Independent Review [pdf] on the balance of power as the most libertarian option available is worth reading, and is made stronger, I believe, by Giovanni Arrighi’s argument [pdf] that the balance of power led directly to the “capitalist oligarchies” that eventually pushed feudalistic institutions out of Europe beginning in the late 15th century.)

Russia, China, and other autocratic regimes prefer an international system that is respectful of state sovereignty because of the fact that this idea helps their governments to administer an amount of coercion on populaces that Western states consider immoral or rights-violating.

Russian strategy

Why did Russia hint at recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, but ultimately decide not to recognize them? Because the West has been recognizing separatist republics since the USSR fell apart, and it has done so in the traditionally Russian sphere of influence (noticeably carving up Yugoslavia at Serbia’s geographic expense). The West has not carved up post-Soviet space by simply recognizing the sovereignty of self-proclaimed republics, but also by incorporating these polities into the international system that it dominates. Russia wants to show elites (but not necessarily the public) that it is tired of policymakers ignoring Westphalian notions of sovereignty (which are enshrined in the UN charter that almost all recognized states have signed; when they sign it they get rent-seeking privileges, but that’s a story for another day…).

This is fairly straightforward logic on Moscow’s part. When the West supported Kosovo’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia before annexing them. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. When the West supported Montenegro’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting Donetsk, Crimea, and Luhansk breaking away from Ukraine before annexing Crimea. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. Both Russia and the West used minimal military resources to achieve their objectives, and both played the sovereignty card to back up their actions.


Western policymakers will never be able to bring liberty to Russia, and liberty will never be known by Russians if the rule of law is trumped by geopolitics. The West dominates the world’s international governing organizations. It has made the rules. It has drawn up the contracts. It has invited the non-West to participate. It has given concessions in order to gain the non-West’s support. So when the West breaks the rules it first outlined and drew up, the non-Western polities it convinced to join IGOs in the first place cannot be expected to take such rules seriously. The fact that Russia does play by the West’s rules, by taking seriously the claims of breakaway regions, suggests that the West has been in the wrong post-1993.

American media pundits and critical thinking

All of this leads me back to sensationalist headlines about nefarious Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Don’t believe any of that garbage. Firstly, look at how often American foreign policy pundits have been wrong. Just look! Amid the cries of Russian meddling in the Clinton-Trump contest you can surely hear the faint echoes about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Secondly, all good analyses of geopolitical affairs provide at least some bit of historical context to them. Does your foreign policy pundit use history as a guide? Thirdly (and lastly), when thinking about a country remember that most accounts will have a point of view that shadows the consensus found in the world’s political and financial centers, which are useful but will sacrifice important details in the name of efficiency (and efficacy).

American libertarians, of all the factions out there, realize this best. Unfortunately, until they can shake the isolationist dogma that has paralyzed the movement since the Rothbard era of the 70s and 80s, they will continue to be marginalized in contemporary discussions about foreign policy, either as token libertarians in a Republican administration or as token libertarians in the “anti-war” movement (I put “anti-war” in scare quotes because by now it should be obvious that this movement represents the Democratic Party [pdf], not an ideal; see, though, Michael Kazin’s excellent, if ultimately unconvincing, argument for a different take on the disappearance of the anti-war movement once Obama and the Democrats came to power). New republics, secessionist movements, and other endeavors of exit are often embraced by American libertarians because of their autonomist appeal, but if they don’t pay attention to how state actors view such movements, especially regional and global hegemons, they may end supporting some very nasty regimes in the name of liberty.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Pakistan’s ambitious naval delusions
  2. Diplomatic assassinations have a long and tragic history
  3. When tyranny takes hold
  4. Nullification and secession in America (review)
  5. A liberal global trading system without the United States
  6. Floating exchange rates and tariffs

A quick note on the Brexit debacle

I think Barry (here and here) and Edwin (here and here) have made the best contributions to the debate on the EU and sovereignty here at NOL to date, so I’m just going to add a couple of open-ended thoughts to the recent vote (which I think was a huge mistake).

One of the big theoretical debates over the years concerning the EU is the concept of European-ness and how it can never replace the nationalisms that already exist in each state across the pond. This makes no sense to me, though, especially if you buy the argument (as I do) that nations come and go largely in reaction to current events. German-ness or French-ness or British-ness could easily be subsumed by a European-ness.

I don’t want to be one of those doomsayers who claims that, because things did not go my way, all will be lost. The UK is going to be in for a little bit of hurt, financially, as is the European Union; losing the UK is a big deal, and so is leaving the EU. However, the UK is not exactly Sweden or Germany. The United Kingdom is poorer than Mississippi, the poorest administrative unit in the United States. It’s possible, if a bit unlikely, that the UK will be better placed to negotiate itself back to economic prominence if it doesn’t have to work through the EU to attain some of its goals. The UK has deep connections with a number of states and regions around the world thanks to its now-dead worldwide empire, and I don’t why a more Euroskeptic UK would decide to shun the rest of the world too, especially if the “rest of the world” was once a part of the UK’s empire (the glorious past of the UK seems to be an important talking point for Euroskeptics).

Immigration may not cease either. An irony here is that the Euroskeptics who won rode hard a wave of anti-immigration sentiment sweeping across the UK (and the rest of Europe, too). But it seems to me that, because of the UK’s deep connections to its former imperial provinces, most of the immigrants in the UK are going to be South Asian or Gulf Arab rather than Polish or Greek. Given that much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe stems from a deep distrust of Islam, I find it odd that British voters could be so gullible on this matter.

Does anybody know if this vote is the final say on whether or not the UK will leave the EU? [UPDATE: see Dr van de Haar’s comment for an answer to my question] It seems to me that there has got to be some legal mechanisms, via courts, that have been put into place in order to slow down things like mob rule mass voting.

The Re-Privatization of Security (World Peace edition)

Sean McFate, a political scientist at National Defense University in Washington, DC, has a fascinating article in Aeon about the reemergence of mercenary and quasi-mercenary security firms throughout the world. The whole article is fulfilling throughout, especially if you’re a well-read anarchist or a history buff, but I wanted to highlight this tangent:

With the fall of the South African apartheid regime, unemployed soldiers from special forces units such as the 32nd Battalion and the Koevoet (‘crowbar’ in Afrikaans) special police formed the first modern private military company, appropriately named Executive Outcomes. Unlike WatchGuard, Executive Outcomes was not a military enterpriser but a true mercenary firm, waging war for the highest bidder. It operated in Angola, Mozambique, Uganda and Kenya. It offered to help stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but Kofi Annan – then head of UN peacekeeping – refused, claiming ‘the world may not be ready to privatise peace’. Annan’s was an expensive ideology, given the fact that 800,000 people died. By 1998, the company closed its doors, but the mercenary market for force surged.

Two aspects are important here, one said and one unsaid. First, the unsaid. If this mercenary outfit was “waging war for the highest bidder,” why did it offer to go in to Rwanda to stop the bloodshed? I think scholars assume the worst when it comes to stateless actors and warfare. Why has Anheuser-Busch begun shipping free cans of water into Flint, MI? Why does Wal-Mart donate billions of dollars to charity? When it comes to reputation, costs may sometimes not make sense to outside observers who don’t have a sufficient understanding of benefits. Why on earth would a corporation built solely to wage war for the highest bidder be interested in offering its services to a country that would not be able to afford its services? To ask the question is to answer it, of course, but understanding incentives using a costs-benefits framework requires more effort than you might suspect.

There is simply no logical coherence to the idea that, in a world where stateless mercenary firms are the prominent form of security, violence and lawlessness will reign supreme; nor is there any evidence whatsoever to suggest that “[m]ore mercenaries means more war, as they are incentivised to start and expand wars for profit, and turn to criminality between contracts.” Indeed, as McFate notes in his excellent article, the market for security is already becoming freer and while he ends his piece on a depressing note, lamenting this indisputable fact of the present-day world, I couldn’t help but remember the now-famous graph on battle death trends produced by political scientist Jay Ulfelder (using data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program [UCDP]), which illustrates nicely the overall decline in deaths due to warfare violence around the world:

blog battle deaths
Notice that the most deadly conflicts are the ones involving states with armies that had been nationalized?

The always excellent Max Roser and his Our World in Data project has another graph worth highlighting, with this one using data from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature… and the UCDP:

blog battle deaths pinker data

Now, two graphs showing that deaths from warfare have been in decline for half a century does not necessarily mean that a freer market in security services has led directly to this overwhelmingly good news. I am confident in claiming, though, that the freeing up of security services markets, combined with the steady presence of a few, still-powerful nationalized armies has led to a reduction in war-related deaths (and violent conflict in general). Both graphs illustrate well what happens when there are too many nationalized armies vying for power and prestige. (It is worth noting here that the main goal of diplomats and policymakers everywhere, no matter their ideological orientation or citizenship status, is still to avoid another world war.)

Second, the said. Annan’s refusal to decriminalize mercenary activities led directly to the 800,000 Rwandan deaths. How is this moral failing any better than when a mercenary firm breaks its contract and ends up killing a few dozen more people than it was supposed to? Again, the graphs are useful here: When conflict is nationalized, everybody suffers; when it is privatized, atrocities happen but not on the same scale we have seen with nationalized conflicts. It’s not even close. Annan’s short-sightedness reminds me of economist Scott Sumner’s 2012 summary of Hillary Clinton’s view of the War on Drugs:

[…] in response to a final question on drugs (from a Latin American reporter), she said drug legalization would do no good because drug dealers are really bad people, and they would simply do other crimes. No discussion of how America’s murder rate fell in half after alcohol was legalized in 1933.

Like drug use, the privatization of security services causes many people, well-educated or otherwise, to bristle at the notion without quite thinking through its logical implications. While ugly, mercenary firms are far more efficient and effective at quelling “bush wars” than are nationalized armies and, in turn, mercenary outfits are far less capable of sowing the type of destruction that nationalized armies routinely carry out.

I don’t think that a world with a few nationalized armies and an abundance of mercenary firms is necessarily the best option going forward, though. It is, however, a better option than most scholars and analysts give it credit for. In fact, it’s the best option at the moment, and while the status quo may sometimes be ugly, remember the graphs. Privatization of security services has contributed, at least in part, to a more peaceful and less violent world.

In order to move forward from this status quo it is best not lament the way things are going, but to acknowledge that things are the way they are for a reason, and then look for avenues to alter the status quo without falling back on a blanket policy like nationalizing security services again. The horrors of the World Wars should still be fresh in our minds, and the horrors of those wars were enabled and encouraged by nationalized security forces.

The best way to move forward is by looking at where these “bush wars” are taking place and begin thinking about ways to incorporate these regions into the global order (such as it is). This policy represents a departure from traditional post-war thinking about international relations, but it doesn’t make it radical or unfeasible. Indeed, there is a long tradition of republican thinking in Western thought pertaining to international relations. The West needs to start recognizing the legitimacy of secessionist sentiments in the post-colonial world, even if it means friction with Russia and China.

Washington and Brussels will have to endure charges of hypocrisy when it comes to ignoring the lobbying efforts of places like Tibet and Dagestan, but Biafra should have become a member state of the United Nations long ago. Baluchistan should have access independent of Pakistan and Iran to the IMF and World Bank. Two or three soccer teams from the region known as Kurdistan could easily be present in all major FIFA tournaments. Examples abound throughout the world. The West should also be open to recognizing arguments made by Russia and China for the independence of regions. There is no good reason why Western diplomats should ignore Moscow’s recognition of places like South Ossetia and Donetsk; doing so only hardens Russia’s stance on recognizing secession in parts of the world where its influence is limited or non-existent and forces the West into bed with unsavory post-socialist regimes.

The West needs to start being more inclusive when it comes to its own federal and republican institutions, too. Morocco, for example, should have had its 1987 application to join the European Union taken seriously (same goes for Turkey). The US federation needs to be actively courting polities like Puerto Rico, Coahuila, Alberta, and Micronesia to join the union. Both the EU and US are contracts designed to dampen violent conflict by fostering diplomatic, economic, and cultural intercourse between provincial polities. The reasoning behind exclusionary policies simply doesn’t answer why these republican, supranational organizations should not be actively recruiting neighboring or geopolitically useful administrative units into their representative systems.

Without this change in mindset the status quo will continue, which again if we remember the graphs is not all that bad, but something worse may happen: There could be a reversion to the blanket nationalization of security services that we saw during World Wars I and II.

What’s the difference between Saudi Arabia and Islamic State?

One has captured the rent associated with being a state in the post-World War II world order. This means that one of these polities gets to build embassies in other states. It gets to participate in congresses. It gets to fly its flag at the United Nations and has access to the World Bank, military hardware markets (“for defense”), and FIFA tournaments.

Rent capture isn’t all good, of course. There are still costs. When Saudi Arabia beheads people, for example, it gets condemned internationally. Its reputation suffers. It has to repair relationships and launch rigorous public relations campaigns. Saudi Arabia has to do these things because if it looks intransigent to enough of its fellow states, there might be official repercussions for its actions. Saudi Arabia can’t just go around killing and looting and raping at will. It has to formalize its killing, looting, and raping through the international order by coming up with a national interest. (A national interest is also important for shoring up domestic support for such activities.)

But incorporating Islamic State into the international order is unfathomable. It’s an immoral action rewarding an immoral pseudo-polity. Besides, the sovereignty of the states of Iraq and Syria would be violated and their borders destroyed. It’s better to just keep bombing the region Islamic State claims to govern and arming the factions that claim to be its enemies. That’s been our policy towards the post-colonial world since 1945 and, while imperfect, it’s been working out well so far…

Philosophical Research on Seasteading

The Seasteading Institute has recently published my philosophical dissertation on ‘Seasteading’. You can find it in the key research section of their Law and Policy page:

Wayne Gramlich and Patri Friedman[1] founded the Seasteading Institute in 2008 in order to promote the seasteading movement, which has intellectually attracted mostly libertarian-minded individuals. The institute has also attracted funding from Paypal cofounder and early facebook investor Peter Thiel.[2]

A seastead is a permanent habitable dwelling on the ocean that preferably lies outside governmental waters. The Seasteading Institute believes that the creation of permanent societies on the seas can provide an experimentation space for innovative forms of socio-political organizations. The ultimate aim of seasteading is that newly emerging societies will inspire social changes around the world and contribute to human flourishing. First seasteads will be small-scale projects and they may even be constructed within existing governmental territories. However, seasteads could expand organically as technologies improve and innovative ideas of the functions of seasteads would emerge. One of the core ideas of seasteading is that an open experimentation space for social organizations will lead to progress in social rules and legislations, just as an experimentation space for new technologies leads to technological progress.

It is undeniable that social rules and legislations heavily influence all aspects of life, including technological progress and social well-being. One could for example compare North and South Korea, two countries that separated from each other in 1945. Both countries have had more or less the same culture and similar natural resources. However, what differs is their form of social organization; the North came under communist rule, whereas the South embraced western-style capitalism and democracy. Almost 70 years later, the differences in wealth, technological advancement, and social well-being are striking. South-Korea’s GDP per capita is for example 18 times larger, its internet penetration is more than 815 times greater, its life expectancy rate is 10 years longer, and the heights of South Korean pre-school boys are on average 4 centimeters longer. (Taylor, 2013, April 8).

The Seasteading Institute believes that, given that social progress and well-being heavily depend on how society is structured, mankind could make a huge step forward by letting social entrepreneurs start up seasteads to compete with governments in the industry of law-making and by letting millions engage in the experimentation with new forms of social organization.

In the paper, I provide a philosophical investigation of the concept of seasteading from a libertarian anarchist perspective. My investigation revolves around the following research question: “given that governments are resistant to structural changes of governance, how can mankind discover better forms of social organization?”

I argue that seasteading can fulfill that important role of moving mankind forward by experimenting with and finding new forms of social organizations that are best for human flourishing.

In the first chapter, I maintain that one core focus of political philosophy is to deal with the realities of value pluralism and political disagreements. I also contend that the most common form of social organization, representative democracy, does not satisfactorily deal with these realities. Hence, we should look for political possibilities beyond representative democracies. In order to discover these possibilities, we should experiment with new forms of social organization.

Chapter two discusses why there is currently little experimentation with social orders. I approach the issue from a meta-system level perspective and contend that all land on earth is more or less already claimed by states, which leaves little opportunity for people to start new societies on land. By applying the theory of monopoly economics, I maintain that the state’s monopoly on jurisdiction and coercion does not encourage them to provide good rules of law. It rather makes states extremely resistant to large-scale social changes. The obvious solution for finding better forms of governance then would be the introduction of competition into the industry of governments.

Chapter three deals with the epistemological attitude required for the experimentation space. I maintain that this attitude consists of having a sociological imagination, being epistemologically modest, realizing that social order can emerge spontaneously, and that the utopian dream of a single perfect society is impossible.

Chapter four discusses seasteading as the means by which the experimentation space could be realized. By homesteading the seas, a community can build and test new forms of social organization outside the scope of current governments’ control. It could generate new knowledge on social orders, thereby contributing to political philosophy and the social sciences. It could moreover also ease political tensions between citizens with different comprehensive doctrines.

Finally, I raise two objections to seasteading and address them accordingly.

If you would like to see an awesome seastead design, you should watch this video here:

[1] It may be interesting to know that Patri Friedman is the grandson of Milton Friedman and the son of libertarian anarchist David Friedman.

[2] Peter Thiel, previously a student of Political Philosophy at Stanford University, is also founder of the libertarian-minded newspaper The Stanford Review. He is a venture capitalist who is very much influenced by the Austrian School of Economics. With this in mind, it may not be surprising that the early mission of PayPal was to give its users more control over their money by enabling them to switch currencies. The goal of PayPal was to make it, in Thiel’s words (1999), “nearly impossible for corrupt governments to steal wealth from their people through their old means [inflation and wholesale currency devaluations] because if they try the people will switch to dollars or Pounds or Yen, in effect dumping the worthless local currency for something more secure” (Jackson, 2004).

Jackson, E.M. (2004). The PayPal Wars: battles with eBay, the media, the mafia, and the rest of planet earth. Los Angeles: World Ahead Publishing, Inc.
Taylor, A. (2013, April 8). A Crazy Comparison of Life in North Korea and South Korea. Retrieved from
Thiel, P. (2009). The Education of a Libertarian. Retrieved from

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The Two Asian Americas
  2. Is Hawai’i an occupied nation?
  3. A federal system for Britain
  4. Capitalists from Outer Space
  5. The Physics of Extraterrestrial Civilizations
  6. Humane Canada