AJPS Author Summary – Inside Irredentism: A Global Empirical Analysis

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the American Journal of Political Science article titled “Inside Irredentism: A Global Empirical Analysis” (AJPS 61:1):

Russia justified its 2014 annexation of Crimea by pointing to the failure of the Ukrainian government to safeguard the rights of the ethnic Russians. For Russia, this created a legitimate demand for unification, but others regarded this argument as thinly veiled realpolitik. This is a classic case of irredentism, defined as a state’s use of military force to advance a claim over territory in a neighboring state by creating more congruence between the ethnic group and the state. Unlike secession– a decision to leave one state and to establish another one on grounds of an ethnic difference–irredentism is a governmental decision that appropriates territory from one state and adds it to another on the basis of shared ethnicity.

Although less common than secession, there are many examples of irredentism, since numerous ethnic groups have kin groups in adjacent countries. The mismatch between cultural and political boundaries is pervasive, but the international community does not condone irredentism. To mitigate international censure, irredentist states often frame their actions as humanitarian intervention to protect discriminated ethnic kin. Hitler’s irredentist action towards the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Armenia’s intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh, Serbia’s invasion in Croatia, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea all used similar rationalizations – blending realpolitik with jus bellum iustum (just war) logic and humanitarian justifications.

Irredentism poses significant danger to international order and human security. While previous studies offer various reasons for irredentism, Inside Irredentism tests several rival arguments and proposes a novel explanation using new data on all actual and potential irredentist actions between states around the world from 1946 to 2014. The analysis indicates that irredentism is more likely when there is an ethnic group that has a large demographic majority but relatively weak economic standing when compared to other ethnic groups in the country. This fosters grievances within the dominant ethnic group. These grievances are more likely to find an outlet (and are less likely to be countered by other groups) under “winner-take-all” electoral systems in more ethnically homogeneous irredentist states. This creates an opportunity for the kin group to pursue an explicitly irredentist foreign policy agenda. Where these grievances and opportunities intersect, irredentism is most likely because political elites, responding to their electoral incentives, seek to divert attention away from status inconsistency through the promise of ethnic unification.

Although claims of “protecting discriminated ethnic brethren” may help mobilize citizens to rally around the flag and justify actions, differences in discrimination appear to play little role in explaining irredentism, except rhetorically. The study shows that irredentist foreign policy is most likely when economic and political interests are at play in the kin state. Ethnicity is sometimes viewed as a problem in itself, but our results suggest that its effect on irredentism depends on how it maps on to economic competition and the political system. Policymakers would therefore do well to address the domestic sources of irredentism in the initiating state, in addition to the conditions of the co-ethnic enclave in the target state.

About the Authors: David S. Siroky is an Associate Professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and Christopher W. Hale is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at The University of Alabama. Their article “Inside Irredentism: A Global Empirical Analysis” was published in the January 2017 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.






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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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