Wars of Conquest: Mexico 1846 and Ukraine 2022 Compared
Why conquest in the 21st century is no longer an acceptable form of behavior from adults.
June 3, 2023
Russian protestors against Putin’s war in Ukraine are profiles in courage. In the first weeks of the invasion alone, around 15,000 individuals were arrested. Human rights groups documented instances of police brutality, inhumane conditions and even torture in custody.
Despite the Putin regime’s criminalization of dissent, organized and spontaneous public resistance has continued, mostly (but not entirely) nonviolently. These actions are conducted in the spirit of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s public plea: “We must show that we do not support the war. We call on Russians to show civil disobedience. Do not be silent.”
Civil disobedience and unjust wars
The concept of civil disobedience, many readers may know, goes back to an essay, first published in 1849 and titled “Resistance to Civil Government.”
It was penned by an American, Henry David Thoreau. He famously went to jail rather than pay taxes to support an unjust war.
Some might be surprised to learn just how uncannily the circumstances that led to that protest and essay resemble today’s situation in Russia and Ukraine.
Both involve a regional superpower attacking a weaker neighbor – in both cases, as it happens, a neighbor to the southwest.
Both attacks were launched under false pretenses. The U.S. government at the time acted on false reports that Mexico had attacked on U.S. soil in April 1846. (In fact, the Mexicans responded to a deliberate provocation in disputed territory).
Putin too used false claims – about supposed Ukrainian atrocities in Donbas – as justification, along with empty statements about “denazification.”
Mexico then, Ukraine now
Both invasions were launched to aid co-nationals as well. U.S. citizens had already settled in Northern Mexico – some at the invitation of Mexico and some illegally – and had then declared themselves an independent “Republic of Texas.”
The war aims of the United States included forcing Mexico to recognize the U.S. annexation of the rebel territory.
Similarly, members of ethnic Russian minorities in Donetsk and Luhansk, whose numbers had been swelled by Soviet migration policies, declared their own independence from Kiev in 2014, and received encouragement and substantial material aid from Moscow.
Russia’s war aims now overtly include annexation of these two self-proclaimed republics.
Where Russia failed, the U.S. succeeded
Both attackers attempted to seize their victim’s capital city. Here the United States succeeded, occupying Mexico City in September 1847 and receiving the Mexican capitulation shortly thereafter. Russia failed in its initial bid for Kyiv and had to recalibrate its war aims.
Both annexed huge amounts of their victims’ territory, well beyond what was settled by co-nationals. The peace terms imposed on Mexico ceded to the United States, in exchange for monetary compensation, most or all of what is now California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, plus parts of Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma.
Russia has seized by force roughly a quarter of Ukraine, and Putin’s government has declared the conquered territory to be now part of Russia (though the Russian military has since abandoned parts of it).
Parallels and their limits
What are we to take away from these parallels? Militarily, one obvious lesson is: If you are going to strike, do it cleanly. By not capturing Kiev, as the United States captured Mexico City, Russia is in no position to lay claim to contested territory and have that claim recognized.
The struggle for that territory can be expected to persist until either the Ukrainian army is defeated in the field or the Russian army is expelled.
Russia already squandered its main chance for the former at the outset – evidently due to poor planning, poor intelligence about Ukrainian capability and morale and overconfidence about Russia’s own battle-readiness.
But if one operation was well and the other poorly executed, they are both equally reprehensible. Wars are waged for many reasons, but wars of conquest – murder in service of theft – are flatly criminal.
That wars of conquest have been common throughout history does not make them any less evil. In the 1840s, it took a visionary like Thoreau to articulate that criminality – not as a partisan, but as a neutral observer of conscience – and take a stand against it.
Thoreau’s immense courage
Thoreau was not intimidated by centuries and millennia of precedent saying, essentially, that “boys will be boys” and shrugging as the winner takes the spoils.
Today, thanks in part to the precedent set by Thoreau (and systematized by others), any government planning to undertake a war of conquest can expect to face mass non-violent opposition by citizens of conscience.
Unfortunately, we have not yet reached a point where public opinion alone can check the aggressive whims of governments. However, the arc of history is bending in that direction.
The parallel between the two wars might raise some disquieting questions as well. If both wars were equally immoral, and Russia’s attempted seizure of Ukrainian territory is illegitimate, what are we to say about the status of the territory annexed by the United States in the 1840s? Should the United States give Texas and California back to Mexico? Would Mexico be right to take it by force?
One occasionally hears calls for such a transfer — usually, but not always, as a matter of satire. But even raising the question invites other claimants to enter the fray. Should not these territories belong rather to the native tribes that held them at the time of European conquest? And in that case, what about the claims of other native peoples that held them at earlier points in time?
The wrongs wrought by conquest are deep
The wrongs wrought by conquest are so deep and multi-layered that the idea of justice by redress is hardly feasible. Nor would it be desirable in most cases. For Mexico to attempt to seize land lost over a century ago, for example, would simply constitute another act of conquest, reproducing the evil.
To say that Russia has no right to seize the oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson isn’t to say that justice requires the land belong to Ukraine – land that, after all, has been contested, conquered and re-conquered since before the days of the Scythians. It is to say that conquest is no longer acceptable behavior from adults.
As colonialism has been progressively dismantled
In the 19th century, when the United States was conquering the “Wild West” and imperial Russia was similarly expanding to the east, and the Great Powers of Europe were engaging in an orgy of colonization around the world, there were very few rules governing the behavior of nation-states.
Today, not only has colonialism been progressively dismantled, but states themselves have undergone a process of domestication. There are now recognized standards of governance, and a workable (if imperfect) forum for discussion and conflict-resolution in the United Nations.
There is also a substantial body of international law and a fledgling international justice system. Standards of governance include recognition of human rights, the cultural rights of minorities and democratic accountability.
Pursuing national interests and cultural survival by nonviolent means
The upshot is that as time goes on, it should matter less and less what nation-state one lives in. True, the United States conquered Mexican territory. But, as a consequence, the nation is now largely bilingual, and rightly so.
North of the Great Lakes, where the British once conquered territory settled by the French, Canada is now bilingual as well, and similarly enriched by it. And native peoples in both countries today find it expedient to pursue their national interests and cultural survival by a wide variety of nonviolent means.
Helpful prognosis – or cold comfort?
Some might find that prognosis cold comfort. A grossly oppressed minority group might conceivably turn to violent means with some justification. But the raw fact of being a minority does not justify violent insurrection. And the costs of insurrection and national unification may be terrible.
Ask an Austrian today whether Hitler’s pan-German expansionism was worth the cost of World War II and its aftermath, and whether they are not proud of their separate Austrian identity.
Ask a Russian-speaking citizen of Donetsk, when the current war is over, whether their local interests (as distinct from Moscow’s imperial interests) were well served by eight years of civil war, and now Russian conscription and the leveling of villages and cities by dueling armies.
Minority rights matter
Certainly, Ukraine should have been more open-handed about ensuring language rights for the substantial Russian minorities living in the Eastern oblasts. Ironically, since in Europe cultural minorities enjoy robust legal protections, Ukraine’s ambitions to enter the European community of nations could have materially benefited the Russian-speaking minority that tended to resist Ukraine’s pro-Europe leaning.
There will always be national minorities, regardless of how national boundaries are drawn. Wisdom is to work within the borders we have inherited and make every country a better place for all nationalities to live.
The situation was summed up well by Kenya’s Ambassador Martin Kimani at a February 2022 U.N. Security Council meeting about the crisis in Ukraine:
Kenya, and almost every African country, was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropolis of London, Paris, and Lisbon with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.
Today, across the border of every single African country live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds.
At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later.
Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited. But we would still pursue continental political, economic and legal integration. Rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.
We chose to follow the rules of the OAU [Organization of African Unity] and the United Nations Charter not because our borders satisfied us but because we wanted something greater forged in peace.
Conscience demands that wars of conquest be categorically rejected and resisted. In Thoreau’s time, protestors had only their isolated voices and the knowledge that right was on their side.
Today, between pressure from below (i.e., the institutionalization of mass protest) and above (i.e., the emergence of international law and multilateral institutions), the scope for governments to engage in this evil is gradually diminishing.
If Russia’s attempted seizure of Ukrainian territory is illegitimate, what are we to say about the status of the territory annexed by the US in the 1840s? Should the US give Texas and California back to Mexico? Would Mexico be right to take it by force?
The wrongs wrought by conquest are so deep and multi-layered that the idea of justice by redress is hardly feasible. Nor would it be desirable in most cases.
Today, not only has colonialism been progressively dismantled, but states themselves have undergone a process of domestication. There are now recognized standards of governance, and a workable if imperfect forum for discussion and conflict-resolution in the UN.
The scope for governments to engage in wars of conquest is gradually diminishing, thanks to pressure from below (i.e., the institutionalization of mass protest) and from above (i.e., the emergence of international law and multilateral institutions).
True, the US conquered Mexican territory. But, as a consequence, the nation is now largely bilingual, and rightly so. It is enriched by it.
The raw fact of being a minority does not justify violent insurrection, not least because the costs of insurrection and national unification may be terrible.
The concept of civil disobedience goes back to an 1849 essay by an American, Henry David Thoreau, who famously went to jail rather than pay taxes to support an unjust war – that of the US against Mexico.
You may quote from this text, provided you mention the name of the author and reference it as a new Strategic Intervention Paper (SIP) published by the Global Ideas Center in Berlin on The Globalist.