A Coffee House Paper on War and Peace

05/04/2015 10:41 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016

Co-authored with Andras Toth and Janos Boris

This is a Budapest coffee shop paper. You know how it goes: three friends sipping the world's best coffee and musing on the state of the world. Overhead the buzz of planes connecting the busier capitals of the planet. And a few hundred miles to the east troops facing each other in an effort to set an effective border between Russia and Ukraine.

What to do? The 3000 participants in the recent Munk Debate in Toronto leaned toward deterrence as the best available response, moved by historian Anne Applebaum's arguments that this was the only language that a power-crazed Vladimir Putin would understand. In the States, political theorist Stephen Cohen maintains his lonely stand in print and on radio that peace must be given a chance, seeking to counter the arguments of what he calls the "war party" in both the U.S. and Ukraine. And, finally, other voices argue that the search for peace, though probably one that will prove to be "dirty" or lousy, should not be abandoned in this case.

What can we three add to the dialogue on this trying issue? Well, we agree, we should seek a Hungarian position, just as Ivan Krasztev has recently sought a Bulgarian or Polish position. After all, modern Hungary has experienced similar problems to Ukraine's. It too has been subject to unspeakable calamities of history --territorial division, foreign occupation, population decimation, and large immigration tides. The remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a mosaic of intermingled nations and ethnic groups, was offered a seeming solution by the Wilsonian peace proposal: the creation of homogeneous nation states. Split up the country based on ethnic boundaries -- is this the solution to the current struggle in Eastern Ukraine?

We take another sip, and the political scientist observes:

The Paris peace conference of 1918 gave rise to two competing principles that have shaped our perceptions of what constitute legitimate borders for states. One is the principle of stability, originated from the 1648 Westphalian treaties: Regardless of how and why these borders came about once upon a time, they should be preserved. Sometimes they are the result of wars; sometimes they are relatively recent creations of big powers' decisions; sometimes they enclose homogeneous populations; sometimes they result from civil struggles within countries. The other principle, first introduced by President Wilson in 1917, is that of self-governance of nations and their right to carve their own (nation) state through secession from pre-existing multi-ethnic states or empires.

We nod, and he concludes,

There are really only one alternative to violent or clandestine armed struggle available to us to resolve internal strife when peaceful and that is to allow self-determination by means of referendum, or rather a series of referenda. This way we could legitimately adjust boundaries according the choices of people living all along the area in dispute. Referenda not only can be used to split pre-existing states along their friction lines, but may also reunite into one political community previously warring groups of population.

There's a pause, and then: "OK," says the writer among us,

Let's talk about 1917, and 1938 as well. Would the referendum tool have worked then and there? Just think about it for a moment -- it's a reasonable idea, to be sure, but and utterly impracticable. Referenda under the gun? We have an ongoing war here and an aggressive power on the move. A power that thinks in terms of old-school "Geopolitik", something that the West no longer does.

The analogies that come to mind are pretty hard to overlook when Putin employs virtually the same strategy as Hitler did in the 1930s. The alleged injustices suffered by ethnic Russians are being used as a pretext for pushing into the neighboring states, fighting them for territorial gain and political influence. Russia already bit off a piece of Georgia, and we have a full-fledged war in Ukraine today. Most of the states involved were established after the collapse of the Soviet Union. What the ultimate goal is is anyone's guess. Economically Russia is in a decline, is poverty increasing; but Putin is giving Russians the fantasy that this is a replay of World War II, a rerun of the fight against 'fascism". Already in the 1920s Marshal Pilsudski said that Ukrainian independence was a necessity for a free Poland so that it doesn't have Russia at its border. The same goes for Hungary.

Briefly, the conversation turned wonkish: How big a majority vote would the referendum need to produce? What happens to minority "islands" that begin to appear inside the evident borders? And how, in any case, will minorities be protected within the redrawn boundaries?

Then the sociologist spoke up:

We've developed some effective social technologies where people of different views can express themselves, listen to others, and arrive at reasonable solutions. I'm thinking of sustained dialogue, which brought the leaders of Egypt and Israel together in the 1970s, and public deliberation, in which people and power structures all over the world have shown they can move toward consensus. These methods, combined with solid referendum procedures, seem worth trying to me. And besides, as a pacifist, I always think it is best to exhaust positive peacemaking efforts before waving the weapons.

The mention of peacemaking was followed by a lull in the conversation. Really good coffee also evokes a mellow haze. And so the three decided, of course, to meet again the following week. Same place, same time.