THE BLOG
11/01/2014 08:08 am ET Updated Jan 01, 2015

Today's Empire Builders

Sasha Mordovets via Getty Images

Empire builders appear to be back in style. They are with us today both in reality and in fantasy. They present the world with the same dilemma that has troubled victims in the past -- how does the rest of the planet deal with them.

One of the recurring themes in human history has been the rise of the empire builder -- leaders who seek to conquer territory beyond their own borders. Historically, they have been autocrats or authoritarians of the ilk of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Catherine the Great, Hitler, Mao or Stalin. But even elected leaders of democracies in nations like Great Britain and the United States have seized land for their own ends.

The most despicable of these lawbreakers/marauders are usually intent on avenging past humiliations, reclaiming national glory, adding to their country's wealth, or embracing manifest destiny. War traditionally has been the only way to stop such interlopers. Alliances among besieged states ward off the aggressor's advances. Diplomacy helps. A return to balance of power assures the peace.

Today, we have faux and true-blue expansionists. There's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey, a leader who laces his speeches with no more than yearnings to re-establish the Ottoman Empire. However, there is also Russian President Vladmir Putin outspokenly calling for the reuniting of Russian-speaking peoples -- which he has already partly accomplished by slicing off South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, and grabbing Crimea and jarring loose eastern sections from Ukraine. There is Chinese President Xi Jinping who is asserting sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea -- in the face of the claims by Japan and South Korea -- as well as over the islands in the South China Sea, in open disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam.

There is the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, who, following in the footsteps of his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, talks about knitting together the states of South America under the flag of Simon Bolivar. There is Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei who fantasizes about reasserting his country's boundaries along the lines of the ancient 18th century Persian Empire. And there is the ISIS, which seeks to re-establish the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq and then spread to neighboring states. There are also inklings in countries like Hungary and Pakistan about pushing their frontiers outward.

In dealing with today's empire builders, the first line of defense has been the 69-year-old United Nations, an organization which was expressly set up to prevent aggressors from taking other states. The UN Charter, under Article 2 Section 4, bars countries from threatening "the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state..." But the UN's ability to settle border disputes and stop incursions is limited. The UN has no military, no navy, no airforce, no missiles, no financial assets, and can only act with the direct authorization of its Security Council.

The next layer of protection is the regional organization like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] which is currently applying economic sanctions against Moscow in response to Russian meddling in Ukraine. But only a few of such bodies have shown much initiative or muscle to act against invaders. And bodies like the African Union or the Arab League really do not have the sizeable strength or collective history to sustain any lengthy presence, barring any backup from stronger allies.

The third possible defense is that countervailing powers like the United States may occasionally act against expansionists but do so rarely, primarily because of a lack of political will or national consensus. In any case, few nations wish to police the world, especially when they may have to expend valuable resources or act unilaterally, outside the ambit of international law.

Finally, there are our planet's legal institutions, in particular, the International Court. The latter can produce carefully crafted judgments condemning the criminal activities of rogue states. But the court's edicts are voluntary, not compulsory, in nature, have a long lead time, and, in any case, do not have enforcement powers. It is extremely unusual to hear of useful outcomes through a juridical institution.

The only effective remedy seems to be a mix of all four constraints together -- the UN, regional bodies, powerful states, and legal pronouncements. The overall effect of these measures can sometimes create containment short of military action (without necessarily ruling it out) -- in the hope that internal weaknesses of outlaw nations may eventually lead to their collapse. This is at best a tenuous resolution but perhaps the only viable one in an age of genocidal actors, nuclear-armed states, loose weapons of mass destruction plus strident religious, ideological and nationalistic movements.