Two often-cited principles, each with established roots in international law, are frequently in conflict — the territorial integrity of states and the self-determination of peoples.
This recurring and inevitable conflict is evident in Russia’s diplomatic recognitions of the two separatist Russian-majority republics of the Donbass, in which, as in the former Soviet regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea, all diplomatically recognized as independent states by Russia (in Crimea’s case, prior to its reintegration into the Russian Federation), as well as in Kosovo, most of the people clearly wished to separate from the country to which they had been internationally recognized as belonging.
No one should be surprised that the principle which any government will proclaim to be absolute — or at least to take precedence and be controlling — in any particular instance is the principle which is consistent with the result which it prefers in that instance.
Western states which are currently trumpeting the absolute and universal applicability of the principle of the territorial integrity of states had no problem with supporting the self-determination of peoples in Eritrea, East Timor, South Sudan and, with a heavy helping hand from 77 days of NATO bombing in flagrant violation of international law, Kosovo.
The barest majority of UN member states (97 out of 193) currently extend diplomatic recognition to Kosovo. Decisions in this regard are inevitably influenced by potential precedents close to home. Of the five EU member states which do not recognize Kosovo, two, Cyprus and Spain, have concerns with separatist movements on their own territories, while Greece withholds recognition out of solidarity with Greek Cypriots.
It is also logical that China, notwithstanding its “stronger than an alliance” relationship with Russia, has just reaffirmed its profound attachment to the principle of the territorial integrity of states. China is acutely concerned with separatist sentiments in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.
An outstanding example of extreme flexibility in applying these two “principles” is provided by Kosovo itself. Having relied on and exploited the principle of the self-determination of peoples (and NATO bombs) to achieve its effective independence, this heavily Albanian-majority corner of Serbia (which, with echoes of “Kievan Rus”, viewed Kosovo as the beating heart of Serbian history and culture) has ever since refused to contemplate the reintegration into Serbia of the heavily Serbian-majority northern corner of the country, whose people, understandably, want nothing to do with Kosovo. In an apparent preemptive strike against a rational resolution of this dispute, the Kosovo government has even, uniquely, placed the map of its post-independence territory on its flag.
Finally, the U.S. government’s first-in-the-world status in recognizing Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the occupied Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara) — in all three cases, contrary to the wishes of the entire occupied people — makes clear that the only principle consistently adhered to by the U.S. government in such matters is the fundamental principle of contemporary international relations: It is not the nature of the act that matters but, rather, who is doing it to whom.
Most governments, particularly powerful ones, choose their “principles” from an à la carte menu in accordance with their preferred flavor du jour.