When Elon Musk posted a poll on Twitter suggesting, among other things, that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea could be made permanent as an outcome of Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine, it struck a nerve with much of the international community, eliciting anger from the country’s leaders and supporters.
Ire and indignation (and Twitter trolling) aside, the response to Musk’s statement got me thinking about the glaring hypocrisies in American foreign policy when it comes to calling out its enemies while too often staying silent, or supporting, the same unjust actions committed by U.S. allies.
The Ukraine war has taught us a lot of things, perhaps most notably that governments are not seen as equal nor held to the same standard in the lens of American diplomacy.
When Russian forces retreated from Lyman, a strategic city in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, just a day after Moscow annexed four regions in the east, including Donetsk, the international community responded swiftly and severely — as it should when any government uses its power to forcefully and illegally annex territory from another state. The U.S. sanctioned senior Russian officials, members of the Russian military industry and members of its legislatures for what it says is their role in “enabling Russia’s sham referenda and attempt to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken likened Russia's annexation to an "attempted land grab." Speaking at the U.N., he said, “Defending Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is about much more than standing up for one nation’s right to choose its own path, fundamental as that right is. It’s also about protecting an international order where no nation can redraw the borders of another by force.”
Again, an appropriate reaction.
But while it's encouraging to see the world united in condemning and punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin's illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, the U.S. needs to condemn these actions when any nation, whether adversary or ally, acquires territory by military force and then claims it as its own.
The Ukraine war has taught us a lot of things, perhaps most notably that governments are not seen as equal nor held to the same standard in the lens of American diplomacy. For example, there is a double standard in how the West treats and welcomes refugees from Ukraine versus how it has treated nonwhite refugees from the Middle East and Africa. It has exposed a double standard for when it’s OK for Western governments or businesses to call for boycotts and impose sanctions on athletes, musicians and notable figures from a country violating international law and norms. Now it seems Russia’s war on Ukraine has shown us how we view which annexations — when one country acquires territory by force and then claims that territory under its own sovereignty — are acceptable and which ones are condemned. As things stand, it seems there is one standard when our adversaries do it, and another when our allies do it.
Look at when Morocco, now a strategic military and counterterrorism ally of the U.S., annexed the Western Sahara in 1976, sparking the Western Sahara War that lasted nearly 16 years. The Western Sahara remains under Morocco's occupation to this day and in 2020 then-President Donald Trump formally recognized Morocco’s annexation of the territory, a move that has not been recognized by the United Nations or the European Union.
The U.S., under the Trump administration, recognized Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights. The Biden administration has not reversed that recognition, and shows little indication it will do so.
Then there's Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem in the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights in Syria during the Six-Day War of 1967. Again, both are still under Israeli occupation today and Israel’s annexation of both territories is widely condemned and not recognized by the international community. The U.S., under the Trump administration, recognized Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights. The Biden administration has not reversed that recognition, and shows little indication it will do so.
When asked about whether the Biden administration would continue the previous Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s claim over Syria’s Golan Heights, Blinken dodged the question, saying, “Leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, Golan is very important to Israel's security as long as Assad is in power in Syria”.
Journalist Peter Beinart, a frequent MSNBC political analyst, summed it up best when he wrote earlier this year: "America must be consistent. It cannot pick and choose when to follow international law."
To say the U.S. has been inconsistent is an understatement — unless we look at the pattern of which annexations are supported and which are not. If Musk’s prediction about Russia’s annexation of a Ukrainian territory prove to be true, we know it will be resoundingly condemned by the U.S., fitting squarely within the usual practice.
As Putin attempts to forge ahead with its annexation of Ukrainian territories, condemning the actions of an enemy is generally not that difficult. But if we’re going to have a leg to stand on, the same principal need apply to everyone, even when the U.S. doesn’t have something to gain.