The recent impotence of America’s leaders on the world stage has left many wondering where the strength, power, and resolve that used to characterize our nation’s foreign policy have gone. Some have located this in the administration’s preoccupation with domestic policy, while others view it as a concerted effort to roll back American influence. Politics aside, the origin of this inaction may be as easy to locate as your local high school’s world history textbook.
Russia provides the perfect example. Those who wonder why the administration refuses to recognize Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine for what it is – naked territorial conquest – can find the answer in the history education our country has provided to those who fill the staffs of President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the halls of the State Department.
Verity Educate recently reviewed a world history textbook from a prominent publisher that is currently in use throughout school districts in Florida, with disturbingly misleading information about the history of Russian involvement in Crimea (a small peninsula on the Black Sea that Russia has recently annexed from Ukraine.) There is a distortion of historical fact and misinformation conveyed in the most basic information American children learn in school, and this explains, in part, why our society and our political leaders fail to understand Russian intentions and the role of the Crimean region today.
The singular focus of this textbook, like many other world history books today, is on European imperialism – the military conquest of global territory by European and other Western nations. Russian actions in the region are viewed in this light. This particular textbook describes Russia’s historical intentions toward Crimea and the Black Sea region under the heading, “Europeans Claim Muslim Lands,” with the argument that “European nations expanded their empires by seizing territories from Muslim states.” Overemphasis on the crimes of imperialism, however, obscures the important strategic concepts that ring true today.
The textbook explains, “Each generation of Russian czars launched a war on the Ottomans to try to gain land of the Black Sea” and that “In 1853, war broke out between the Russians and the Ottomans.” The Crimean War is then described as a war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire over control of the Black Sea region. The only attempt the book makes at explaining Russia’s longstanding motivation in seeking to control this territory is the offhanded remark that “the purpose was to give Russia a warm-weather port.” Two empires fought a war because Russian sailors wanted a comfortable place to relax on shore leave?
This explanation is a paltry attempt to explain a key geostrategic reason for continued Russian expansionism in the southern Slavic regions of Europe. Russia did not simply desire a “warm-weather port” where sailors could discard their heavy parkas. Rather, Russia was in desperate need of a warm-water port that would not freeze over in the winter months. This was critical economically at that that time, primarily to ship grain, and also militarily. Despite its size, Russia had no other options for a warm-water port. Moreover, control of Crimea, which Russia acquired in 1783, was not enough, because the Ottoman Empire could easily block Russian ships from leaving the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.
The textbook glosses over a key Russian national interest – control of a warm-water port on the Black Sea with access to the Mediterranean – that has remained just as important throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The textbook fails to teach this vital lesson about history, world strategy, and international relations because it is focused only on teaching that “Europeans Claim Muslim Lands.”
When I taught the history of international relations to college students, I emphasized, repeatedly that Russia has always sought to secure for itself access to a warm-water port. Iced over ports have always constituted a geographic weakness the country seeks to overcome. This has always been at the heart of Russia’s southern expansionism on the Black Sea. I also taught that Great Britain, France, and Sardinia joined the Ottomans in fighting Russia in the 1850s in order to maintain a balance of power and check Russian expansion. But the fact that the two European countries most guilty of the crime of colonial imperialism fought on the side of a non-Western, non-Christian power contradicts the argument of Western crimes, and so it is omitted from many curricula.
These misunderstandings of history do more then just create confusion about international relations today. They make it impossible to understand Russia’s strategic motivations. It is no wonder, then, that American policy makers seem dumbfounded by Russia’s decisive movements into Ukraine. If they, and, in particular, the staff members advising them, learned history from our textbooks, it should come as no surprise that they have no understanding of what is going on or how to react.
One thing we can be sure of is that Russia suffers from no such confusion. They, and the students in their schools, understand their own country’s national interests – both historically and today.