Kevin Drum does me a favor by exposing, if accidentally, the hypocrisy and incoherency of the liberal case for intervention and wholly contingent defense of self-determination.
I supported the independence of Kosovo, for example, and I'd argue that circumstances there fully justified it. No liberation movement is ever pristine, the KLA among them, but Milosevic's treatment of Kosovo's Albanian population was simply bloodcurdling. There's just no comparison with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which may have chafed under Georgian rule but suffered nothing in the way of Kosovoan levels of violence and ethnic cleansing. Russia's persistent provocations in the Caucasus may have been partly inspired by anger at Western support for Kosovo's independence, but it's implausible to argue that the cases are really parallel.This account of the series of events leading to Russia's invasion of Georgia is argument-serving, but even were that not the case, the ethical rubric laid down here is awfully strange. South Ossetia may have "chafed under Georgian rule," but since there were no concentration camps, grin and bear it. That rule essentially obviates every independence movement of the last three centuries, going right back to our own American Revolution. Well, the counterargument might go, there is also a difference between seeking political self-determination and mere ethnic nationalism, but that, I contend, is a distinction without a difference, a privileging of arbitrary affiliation over cultural inherency, and a self-serving rationalization to justify one's own historic rebellion without committing to any consistent defense of the right of people to decide who will rule them and how.
None of which is to say that Mikheil Saakashvili was smart to let the Russians to goad him into giving them an excuse to invade. He wasn't. But that still doesn't mean that we have to blindly follow identical policies in every region. Maybe independence for Kosovo could have been handled more smoothly, but it was nonetheless pretty strongly justified by events on the ground. Russia's tit-for-tat demands for South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence aren't.
In any case, here the point is moot, because South Ossetia didn't secede; it didn't embark on a war of independence. There may or may not have been some geurilla activity in the region, and it's certainly true that the Russian habit of issuing Russian passports to ethnically Russian Georgians was a calculated provocation, but the precipitating event of the current conflict was the decision by Georgia's foolish and corrupt president to stage an internal invasion of the territory, and that blunder was in turn encouraged by our goofball American policy of pledging to defend free peoples (read "pro-American") here, there, and ev-er-ee-where, although we lack the desire, will, or wherewithal to do so.
As for the idea that we cannot just go around supporting independence movements willy-nilly because that would be "an admission that people of different ethnicities shouldn't really be expected to live together"--isn't it about time to admit that, perhaps, they shouldn't? Why, for instance, is it more morally admirable or politically practical for culturally and linguistically Russian people to live in an enclave within another, culturally distinct nation, rather than exist either independently or within the body of the Russian nation itself. Why is the multi-ethnic nation-state unit more desirable to liberals than the monoethnic, autonomous enclave? What imperative prevents us from allowing that through conquest, cooperation, and migration, the tribes will change, coalesce, break apart, adapt, adopt, etc., as they have for all of human history?
The liberal has no real replies to these questions, except to resort to a bowdlerized Hobbesian argument about perpetual warfare and misery in the absence of centralized authority. That argument is profoundly ahistorical. Warfare surely occured prior to the nation-state, prior to the age of empires, prior to large-scale societies, prior to agriculture. We are a violent species. But it was no more prevalent in any prior epoch, and certainly the more modest resources of smaller social networks made it impossible to wage war on the scale of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Likewise, most of the ethnic conflicts of the last several centuries have occured not where autonomous ethnic groups lived in near proximity, but where colonial and imperial meddling had forced them into political power-sharing arrangements within cobbled-together nation-states.
For those who want to write in response that talking about the massive devolution and dissolution of nation-states is preposterous and unrealistic, I reply in advance: yes, that's true. But no more preposterous and ridiculous than "national governments can and should treat ethnic minorities with respect and fair-mindedness." Because from the Cherokee to the Ainu to the ethnic Albanians, we know how well that's been working out.