That far-off chunk of land called the Crimea is all over the news these days. At first, I didn’t think the crisis was all that relevant to our day-to-day existence in Hawaii. But as the story unfolded, the situation in the Crimea started to look familiar to any student of Hawaiian history.
Here are the basics: the Ukraine is a former Soviet socialist republic that declared its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With it, Ukraine took a large peninsula on the Black Sea—the Crimea—out of the soviet orbit. This piece of land was transferred over to the Ukraine in the 1950s under the auspices and authority of Nikita Krhushchev himself.
Since independence, the Ukraine has struggled in finding or maintaining a democratic system of government. After the Russian-backed leader was overthrown and a new government formed, Russia started making moves to take the Crimea. And this month it looks like it has.
Russian armed forces have occupied all military posts in the peninsula. The Ukrainian flags were lowered and replaced with the Russian tricolor, and it even set all official clocks to the Moscow time zone.
Everybody outside of Russia says this is unlawful. This act of aggression flies in the face of international treaties, diplomatic resolutions, and all other agreements to respect another country’s sovereignty and border.
Our secretary of state, John Kerry, went on television and called Russia’s aggression “a 19th century act in the 21st century.”
The media has been using an old word to describe what happened in the Crimea. It’s a word that brings the crisis and sovereignty of a distant land home for almost anyone living in Hawaii: annexation.
Kerry’s description of the taking of Crimea aptly applies to our own country two centuries ago. The United States engaged in its own “19th century act” out here. In 1898, a minority of American businessmen overran the Hawaiian kingdom and encouraged the United States to annex the islands, not as a state on equal footing with the union, but as a territory over the objection of the vast majority of Hawaii’s citizens.
The invitation sparked a vigorous debate stateside. Many Americans felt that this would be an unjust act of aggression. Some argued that it would make the United States an imperial power no different than European nations who went all over the world accumulating colonies and territories. A democratic republic has no need for colonies.
The president at the time, Grover Cleveland, was in this camp. He refused to submit an annexation treaty to the Senate. His letter to the Senate could easily be used to describe our policy about the Crimea today:
“It has been the boast of our government that it seeks justice in all things without regard to the strength or weakness of those with whom it deals. I mistake the American people if they favor the odious doctrine that there is no such thing as international morality, that there is one law for a strong nation and another for a weak one, and that even by indirection a strong power may with impunity despoil a weak one of its territory.”
Unfortunately, President Cleveland did mistake the American people. His party lost the next election and pro-annexationist William McKinley was the new president. The American military occupied the islands and kingdom flags were replaced with the stars and stripes. Hawaii was a territory.
The United States’ imperial aspirations have cooled long ago, but annexation hasn’t left. Despite Kerry’s words, annexation is very much a 20th century thing. Hotly disputed territories are still found all over the world.
Gigantic portions of Poland were taken by the Soviet Union after World War Two. The Italians and the former Yugoslavia had their own turf war surrounding the city of Trieste in the 1950s. China and the Philippines both claim sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea. And England’s claim to six counties in Ireland is one of the oldest conflicts that continue to this day. Each situation present a different set of facts, but one thing is fairly constant: once annexed, it is hard reacquire sovereignty.
We are still feeling the effects of annexation in the islands. All of us know about small and dedicated groups seeking to reclaim sovereignty for the islands. Some take the position that the overthrow and annexation were unlawful and therefore the forms of government over the last 120 years are illegitimate. Others take a different route and have been lobbying for decades with Congress to relinquish some kind of autonomy for Hawaii’s indigenous people. So far Congress hasn’t budged.
If history is a guide, the Crimean people will be a conquered people long after the world moves on, scolds the Russians, and finds another diplomatic hot spot.