54 40 or Fight

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 02-20-2022

The Olympics are over. And the first round of the real "world games" may be about to kick off in Ukraine. Perhaps they’ve already begun by the time you read this; there has apparently been intermittent artillery fire in the Donbas for the last 24 hours, on top of the occasional  small arms fire that has been going on for 8 years - and claimed 14,000 Ukrainian lives.

Over the past week I’ve had the chance to talk with a few folks from Ukraine (in the US now, but still with family in Ukraine) and they’ve been very hopeful - though realistic - that perhaps Putin is only bluffing. As one of them said: Putin watches out for Putin; he isn’t going to do anything to hurt his bottom line.

I hope that’s right, but I doubt it. One simple argument against this is that Putin is already rich, arguably he’s the richest man in the world. But, whether he is or isn’t is irrelevant. What he is, is powerful. And power is the ultimate drug. There was a movie a few years back called "Power,” and while the movie didn’t really explore the nature of power at the level of Tsar Vlad, the tag line summed it up: "More seductive than sex, More addictive than any drug, More precious than gold.” Just so. And while there are some very rich people around these days, money is a poor substitute for power. If you have enough power, you don’t need money. Senior government officials fly around in what amounts to private aircraft, are chauffeured around town, have people fawning all over them. Even the simple fawning that takes place when in command in the military - the captain of a ship, etc., can easily go to your head if you let it. As folks climb in rank that power becomes truly intoxicating. 

And even a brief look at Putin will reveal that he’s a man who likes power and knows how to wield it. His friend Emperor Xi likewise is also fond of power and has also learned how to wield it.

Does that mean that he’ll definitely go to war? No. But, it does mean that he won’t be stopped by last minute economic sanctions. Putin may or may not order an invasion of Ukraine in the next few days. But whether a war might affect his personal holdings - vast though they be - is a consideration that’s far down his list of concerns. Putin believes himself to be right; he believes Ukraine is part of Russia and should not be separated from Russia. 

And, whether he's historically correct or not, it no longer matters. In the last three decades there have been multiple international agreements, to which both Russia and Ukraine were parties, that clearly established Ukraine as an independent country. Putin really doesn’t care. 

Is there an easy or painless way out of all this? No. Putin, and likely his successor whenever he shows up, will want Ukraine. Ukraine is, geographically and demographically difficult to defend. Russia has nuclear weapons. Europe needs energy and Russia has energy. And so forth. This problem isn’t going away.

But there’s another question to be asked: Is Putin the only one who acts this way? Is Putin the only world leader who is clearly addicted to, one might say drunk on, power? And wants land that is recognized as independent? 

Consider Xi of China and his desire to control Taiwan. He, of course, maintains that Taiwan is part of China. This is, of course, nonsense. Taiwan has functioned as an independent country since the end of World War II. Taiwan is politically and economically viable, and politically and economically separate from any other country. Taiwan’s government maintains clear control over the island. Taiwan clearly has a raison d’être that is separate - very separate - from China’s. That all makes Taiwan by definition independent. You can call it anything you want, but what we have is a people and a piece of land that are geographically distinct, economically viable, politically viable, and with a clear “reason to be” that marks them as distinct from any other nation; that is the classic definition of an independent nation. Further, Taiwan was recognized by the UN as a separate state for more than 25 years, was a member of the UN General Assembly and had a seat on the UN Security Council. Then it was kicked out in 1971.

That may change how others look at them. But it doesn’t change the fact, and Taiwan never signed any agreement to dissolve.

Taiwan remains an independent country, even if others don’t want to recognize them as such (Taiwan still has diplomatic relations with a dozen other countries), and no one wants use the “I” word. Even if Taiwan had been part of China for a thousand years, it is not now a part of the PRC politically or economically or geographically. But Xi insists that Taiwan is part of China. 

Treaties, agreements, the law, elections, and human rights either mean something or they don’t. What was true 1,000 years ago, or 200 years ago, or 1 day ago no longer matters once you’ve signed an agreement that settles a border, or held an election and taken on all the characteristics of a nation.

Or perhaps Xi is right, and Putin is right. So let’s go grab some land. If you’ve forgotten your American history, go look up “54-40 or Fight.” And then lets go get back British Columbia, it’s ours.


What does all this mean? Well, we’re in for a long struggle. It will be difficult because there’ll be a desire to make things easier by bending the law, by bending agreements with our allies, by bending the internal laws, doing things without convincing the citizenry for whom they work. Presidents and Prime Ministers won’t want to debate, they’ll want things their way, they’ll want emergency powers when they have no cause, they’ll grab power and keep it when the law says they can’t.

We must never stop struggling to remain a nation of laws, and remain allied with other such nations. We must be careful about only entering agreements that we can truly honor, but once we make them, we need to honor them. We must insist our leaders understand - at all times - that they truly are servants, and they above all others must remain inside the law. If we’re going to stare down dictators abroad, we must remain a nation of laws, and we must begin by not letting petty dictators emerge here at home.