Were these wars worth fighting over sovereignty?

by Scott Manning on March 5, 2014

With a potential war over Ukraine’s sovereignty looming, it is important to understand the kind of war such a dispute could bring. 

Some of the largest wars started over what later seemed like a trivial matter. Before Thucydides recounted the dispute between Athens and Sparta leading up to the Peloponnesian War, he stated that he considered “the truest cause the one least openly expressed” (1.23). It was not the sovereignty of some Greek city-state, but instead Sparta’s fear over the growing power of Athens.

Still, it is worth focusing on the openly stated cause for a war to ask the basic question of whether that cause was worth the war it wrought.

Sun Tzu tells us “those unable to understand the dangers inherent in employing troops are equally unable to understand the advantageous ways of doing so” (2.8). Thus, anyone considering war over Ukraine’s sovereignty should be able to answer the following questions.

  1. Was the sovereignty of Ionian city-states worth the Greco-Persian Wars?

  2. Was the sovereignty of Potidaea worth the Peloponnesian War?

  3. Was the sovereignty of Messana worth the Punic Wars?

  4. Was the sovereignty of Byzantine worth the Crusades?

  5. Was the sovereignty of Silesia worth the Seven Years War?

  6. Was the sovereignty of Texas US worth the Mexican-American War?

  7. Was the sovereignty of Belgium worth World War I?

  8. Was the sovereignty of Poland worth World War II?

  9. Was the sovereignty of Kuwait worth the Persian Gulf War?

Verdun (March 24, 2012)

Verdun, March 24, 2012

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ted Savas March 5, 2014 at 11:07 AM

I really enjoy using historical examples to think about current events.

My concern with how this question above is formulated is that it is out of context and being asked in a vacuum. In other words, in my humble opinion the question is of secondary and only passing importance because in nearly every case the answer must be “no.” But that is first-stage thinking and in most cases, would be wrong.

Thucydides had it right: “the truest cause the one least openly expressed.” (1.23). It was not the sovereignty of some Greek city-state, but instead Sparta’s fear over the growing power of Athens. It is the bigger geo-political impact that is at stake (usually), and not some small strip of land somewhere that is of lasting importance.

So pick one or two of your questions: “Was the sovereignty of Belgium worth World War I?” (or Poland WWII?) In and of themselves–no. But if the Germans were allowed to invade a sovereign country with no real consequences, then hubris sets in, and weakness breeds brute force, from the playground to the invasions. Balances of power and alliances shift. Enemies and friends around the globe watch and learn. And plan.

Playing on the world’s stage is a lot like chess. Understanding the board as a whole, and seeing what is happening 2-3 moves ahead is the only way to control the board and win.

Great post. Keep up the good work.

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2 Scott Manning March 5, 2014 at 2:02 PM

Ted, thanks for stopping by! I agree with you that the questions asked in a silo can be misleading, but the answer do not have to be a simple “yes” or “no.” However, I think you are getting my point, which is to get people to think before suggesting war. As JD has shown, the answers can vary. My hunch is that many people would think the Persian Gulf War was “worth it,” many Americans did at the time. But if the war lasted 3 years longer and cost 1 million American lives, it would have been the greatest travesty in American history.

What I hope people consider is that anytime a war starts, we run the risk of it exploding, becoming something akin to the world wars, the Seven Years War, or hundreds of years of crusading. In most of these examples, the participants envisioned something quick, but years later, the wars were still raging. Years from now, I hope that no one is surprised by a lengthy war.

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3 JD March 5, 2014 at 12:55 PM

1 – Maybe?
2 – Probably not
3 – Probably not
4 – NO
5 – NO
6 – NO
7 – NO
8 – See what Ted said
9 – Yes

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4 TheHighwayMan March 6, 2014 at 8:43 AM

Did someone mention the Mexican War? Lincoln clearly laid out the case against the start of the war even after 10 months of “success.”

it is a singular fact, that if any one should declare the President sent the army into the midst of a settlement of Mexican people, who had never submited, by consent or by force to the authority of Texas or of the United States, and that there, and thereby, the first blood of the war was shed, there is not one word in all the President has said which would either admit or deny the declaration.

I think we can strongly dispute the “violation” of Texan sovereignty.

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5 Jimmy Dick March 6, 2014 at 10:32 AM

I have to agree with Ted in that the question is wrong. We see this in history all the time which is why I like how qualitative studies allow us to develop the questions as we conduct our research from a general topic or idea. We look to history to find answers to today’s questions. In that regard the question is worth asking as long as we explain the context of what we find in the past. Each situation is different. There is no simple answer and that I am afraid, is what people seem to want. Each case you proposed has a separate answer due to the context around each case.

Is the Ukraine worth a war today? No. However, that does not mean other means cannot be used or should not be used. What is the goal for the Ukraine? What is in their best interests? Historically the Ukraine sits between East and West in the shatter belt region which is that of a crossroads. These nations have always been caught between larger nations. Do we seek to preserve the Ukraine as a buffer against Russia, part of the West, or part of Russia? The situation just keeps creating more questions which to be honest we may not be able to answer as our interests are not European interests and certainly not Ukraine’s interests.

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6 Dan March 7, 2014 at 2:09 PM

Regarding the Mexican-American war, I think someone is mixing up their wars. Texas was a part of the USA already in 1846; the Texas revolution was in 1835-6 and Texas joined the union in December 1845.

I’ve never heard any claim that the Mexican-American war of 1846 was about Texas’ sovereignty. I’ve read obviously phoney claims that it was about US sovereignty. But even back then everyone knew it was actually about expanding US slavery.

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7 Scott Manning March 7, 2014 at 2:17 PM

Dan, the war started over the claim that Mexican troops had crossed the Rio Grande into Texas. So technically, it would have been the sovereignty of the US, but I think you get the idea.

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8 Dan March 7, 2014 at 3:25 PM

That was precisely my point – there was no such thing as Texan sovereignty in 1846. It had no more sovereignty than New Hampshire.

Ironic that in a post about sovereignty someone got this wrong.

My other point is of course that the territorial excuse was simply a smokescreen for taking more slave territory.

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9 Dan March 7, 2014 at 2:13 PM

So much nonsense has been spouted about Poland in 1939….they exchanged a domestic military dictator with a series of foreign dictators for two generations. The Poles hadn’t had a remotely representative government since…..well, never. In the 1930s they were foolish enough to count on France, cynical enough to court Germany, and idiotic enough to think they did not have to deal with the USSR.

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10 rcocean April 19, 2014 at 11:24 PM

I agree with some of the posts above. The Mexican-American war was not really about where the border of Texas and Mexico was. The Mexicans wanted not only stop American encroachment, they honestly thought they could get Texas back. And the US not only wanted to keep Texas, it wanted to add California, NM, and Arizona. We had already offered Mexico Millions of $$, but were determined – no matter what the public words – to take the basically empty territory by force if necessary.

Similarly, “poor Little Belgium” was simply an excuse for the British to honor their secret commitment to France, and Poland was a line in the sand the British drew to contain Hitler. The UK was quite prepared to sacrifice Poland in 1920 and in 1946 to the USSR, and was never particularly concerned with the issue of Polish Independence during WW I or 1oo years before that.

BTW, when’s the last time a US President brought up Tibet?

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11 rcocean April 19, 2014 at 11:28 PM

To use a more current example Kuwait. The war wasn’t really about Kuwait, it was about not wanting Saddam to control one of the biggest oil producers in the world and the Saudis were concerned about Destabilization. If Kuwait had no oil no one would’ve cared. I doubt any war would’ve broken out.

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