Reading and watching the news of late, one would be lead to believe that we are living in chaotic, unpredictable, and random times. At least, one would be told geopolitics, more than ever, are unintelligible. However, this is far from the truth. Indeed, recent global events—violence in the Ukraine and Gaza—are connected. The theme that ties these two together is American withdrawal. The Russian separatists and Hamas are both making irredentist claims—claims that undermine the international order. Yet, they are able to make these claims and act on them because the rules that used to govern international affairs, rules that one could count on, and rules that would be enforced, are no longer so. Expectations of state sovereignty and territorial integrity are going out the window because no country is able to rally the world when they are violated.

Irredentism refers to when a state desires to (re)appropriate land from another state based on ethnic or historical claims. The Ukrainian separatists believe themselves to be historical and ethnic Russians, and are thus fighting to join Russia. Russia supports these claims by providing training and support, both material and diplomatic, for the separatists.

Hamas too, believes that all the land that is currently Israeli is historic Palestine, and thus is making an irredentist argument to reclaim it. Why I say irredentism and not self-determination is because the claims are being made by or are strongly supported by a state, not just a lone ethnic group. Hamas has the backing of the Palestinian state, or at least just the Gaza component of it.

What is notable about the recent trend of irredentism is that it represents something the world has not seen in years: one sovereign state imposing itself on another with the intent to absorb it. Without exception, one country has not invaded another country with the intent to conquer and annex part of it since the myriad Soviet aggressions during the Cold War—to address some semantic criticisms I anticipate: the Soviet establishment of satellites is tantamount to annexation.

Recently, wars/conflicts have been engaged for the purpose regime change (Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan), humanitarian concerns (Mali, Yugoslavia), or self defense (Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon). Few modern wars, however, have been waged to capture enemy lands, and no wars have been explicitly concerned with capturing other lands. Thus, what we are witnessing with the rise of Russian backed separatists in the Ukraine and the resurgence of Palestinian terrorist elements, both making irredentists claims, is a startling departure from the nascent tradition of respecting a state’s right to exist.

Indeed, in none of the old conflicts I referenced did the intervening state deny the right of the invaded state to exist where it did. So, the question before us is: why this switch? Why is the world returning to its dangerous past where states fought for land and thereby denied their neighbors a basic right to exist?

The impulses that once motivated states to try to conquer their neighbors have never gone away. For a time, they were suppressed by America’s omnipresence, and hence were sublimated into competition, both diplomatic and economic, and other forms of conflict. When these desires manifested themselves in their traditional form, conquest, America and the world stepped in.

In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, America rallied the world in defense of the small kingdom because it did not want to set a precedent that competitors could settle disputes violently. In other words, America saw the international norms that govern how states behave with respect to other states being challenged, and it stepped in to preserve order.

Now, however, America has receded. President Obama’s foreign policy, characterized by a dearth of vision and strategy, has indicated to the world that the United States will no longer assert itself and its values when challenged. Indeed, Obama’s total lack of a grand strategy, save for a desire to keep America out of the fray, has the inevitable concomitant of America’s interests and values withering.

In short, the Russians and Gazans feel emboldened to make territorial claims because they understand that there is no longer a force in the world that will counter them by standing up for the rights of states. I am not saying that America should go to war in Gaza and the Ukraine to defend these values. However, America must show with more than just its words that this sort of aggression will no longer stand, and it can do so by endorsing a host of actions. The US can continue providing military aid to Israel and funding for its Iron Dome defense system. In the Ukraine, the US can begin to provide military and technical aid. Further, it can take steps to bolster our allies and Russia’s antagonists in the region, both to be prophylactic and assertive: commit to install the missile defense shield that Obama balked from early in his first term. America must make it clear that states have a right to their territory, and that aggression will not stand unchecked.