23 April 2014

Spheres of influence, then and now

One hundred years ago this week, American troops occupied Vera Cruz, Mexico. The government of Mexico had changed the year before in a process described by Americans, and by most of the world, as a coup d'etat. Mexico's powerful northern neighbor refused to recognize the new regime. The administration of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, reserved its right to intervene militarily in Mexico to protect Americans and American interests. On April 9, 1914, the junta arrested a group of American sailors by mistake but quickly released them. The Americans demanded a formal apology and the firing by the Mexicans of a 21-gun salute to the American vessel. The junta apologized but refused the salute. That refusal gave Wilson a pretext for the attack on Vera Cruz on April 21. The Americans occupied the city until November. By that time the coup leader Victoriano Huerta had fallen from power, the occupation having denied him an important supply line for his fight against Pancho Villa and other rebels. In 1916 Huerta died in an American military prison, accused of plotting with Germany to regain power and possibly wage war on the U.S. Meanwhile, American troops entered Mexico again to fight Villa. Ultimately, German appeals to anti-American sentiment in Mexico formed part of the pretext for the American declaration of war on Germany in 1917. This is what big countries have always done with small, or strong with weak. If it's wrong now it's always been wrong. Would the Obama administration like to apologize to Mexico after 100 years? If they won't, that itself won't legitimize anything happening now. But history lessons help remind us that no nation, or at least no great power, comes to these crises with clean hands. Least of all can the United States claim that no other country can claim a sphere of influence implicitly subjugating its neighbors. It may be wrong for Russia to claim Ukraine for its sphere of influence, but in the absence of a truly global tribunal capable of enforcing a single standard for international relations everywhere, opposition to Russian influence in Ukraine can only be seen as other countries claiming Ukraine for their sphere, with no more justice. The day when no nation is subservient to another will be the day when all nations are subservient to world government, and smart enough not to resent it.

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