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Amongst all the media bombast covering the current crisis hailing Zelensky and the Ukrainians bravery, we don’t hear much conversation about Ukraine’s substantial oil & gas reserves discovered in 2012, that they’ve been unable to develop because of the annexation of Crimea and the conflict since. Or how Ukraine’s exploiting this resource would cut into the 54% of export revenues Russia derives from oil & gas exports, chiefly to Europe. Or how this in itself would form sufficient motivation for Russian invasion, even if Ukraine weren’t moving toward NATO and EU membership. Or how the expansion of NATO pushed Russia in this direction, which was completely predictable as well as unnecessary, being termed the greatest possible policy blunder of the post-Cold War era by none other than George Kennan, way back in 1997.

There’s significant hypocrisy in criticizing Putin in light of our generation of a generation of "shock and awe" for less motivation. Nevertheless, in the current context (bombing hospitals and shelters, only allowing escape into Russia—effectively deporting the population from those areas he wishes to permanently occupy, taking a page out of Stalin’s playbook), I think it is fairly obvious two wrongs don't make a right.

Having observed the ebb and flow of our national identity and that of other nations throughout my lifetime, considering the conflict / rapprochement / re-enemization of East and West, set me to thinking about what are the core understandings that explain the motivations of those who would be winners in any system, regardless of political affiliation or nationality. While I see nationalism as one of the scourges of humanity, this is because its potential positive aspects are usurped by those who use it as a tool to their own ends; but such has always been true.

The two wrongs I identify in The Problem with Empires are not the U.S. and Russia or Russia and NATO, as much as ARMS and OIL. These are the means and the end of those following the winners' rules, who manipulate national actors and national identities at will. These rules seem constant from the time of Alexander to the current crisis in which I see both sides playing by the rules set forth below.

I make no pretense of being the first to consider this but it seemed worthwhile to jot down the rules of nation-building and empire as I understand them. They have the advantage of being more concise than the works of Machiavelli and Clausewitz, whom I confess not to have read extensively.

Regardless what philosophies empires have espoused (or nation states currently espouse) to gain the necessary adherents for their nation-building projects, by my reading of it these are the rules they live and die by:


1) Create an “in group,” by convincing a targeted demographic of the superiority of their ideology as you define it. Appeal to a mythological utopian past based on religion and/or ethnicity. Compare this to the present, castigating current conditions as an affront to moral rectitude.

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2) Promulgation of rule #1 allows for the denigration, dehumanization and demonization of a designated “other” (or others), not deserving of full human recognition. Alternatively, a technocratic economic philosophy may be substituted to determine which qualities designate one worthy of full human consideration, and which not, in ignorance of lived experience.

3) Employ rules #1 & 2 to amplify false pride until a large enough contingent is so convinced of the rightness of their cause they are willing to unite in violent action against an “other” to right the “wrongs” that oversimplification and erroneous extrapolation gives to real circumstances and events. It helps to create the illusion of an attack where none exists to justify your “response.” Use superior economic power and/or below the radar violence to maneuver the “other” into a situation where they see no choice but to resist violently for their self-preservation, at which point they can be proclaimed to the world as the aggressor.

4) Implicit in the appeal of nationalist identity is an unstated promise that the spoils from the taking of others’ land, labor and resources will be shared in an egalitarian way with participants through membership in the group established by rule #1. In fact, share the spoils narrowly as possible, with as few members as are necessary for the maintenance of control.

5) When insiders become disenchanted with their share encourage outsiders to achieve insider status through participation in the group’s organized criminal activity, thereby sustaining sufficient numbers to maintain profitable ongoing conflict. Emphasize to original adherents that these newcomers are not fully of the group, thereby deflecting discontent by establishing hierarchy without any significant increase in the sharing of spoils.

6) As your nation/empire expands and encroaches against others, use superior economic power to forge alliances against targeted nations, employing first the method of siege (taking the form of sanctions and trade policies in the modern era), until they are weakened to the point of being susceptible to overthrow from within or destruction by violence from without, or can be brought peacefully under control. If resorting to violence is necessary, using proxies or enlisting subservient allies is preferable to give the illusion of broad support and belief in the morality of the enterprise.

7) Those at the heights of any empire have economic interests in common with others of their class in other nations, with whom they share the propensity to manipulate the actions of nations to their mutual benefit. On a personal level these generally take precedence over the identity they share with others of their nation, not of their class.

8) Repeat steps 1 through 6 as frequently as public taxation allows and controlling elites feel is necessary in order to police group adhesion to national identity, increase the empire’s grasp, and the wealth of its elites. A stagnant empire is a declining empire.