The astute Martin Walker, once my editor-in-chief at United Press International, recently observed that Russia's Vladimir Putin is "a carnivore in a world of vegetarians." Indeed the Russian president's incursion into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is only his latest nibble off a menu of global expansion.
The unfolding events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine bring to mind the song Hitler sings in the original film version of Mel Brooks' classic The Producers:
"I don't want war! All I want is peace...peace...peace...!
A little piece of Poland,
A little piece of France,
A little piece of Austria
And Hungary, perchance!
A little slice of Turkey
And all that that entails,
And then a bit of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales!"
Putin's appetite is as voracious as his policies are unyielding. The promise of November 1989, as the Berlin Wall was brought down and freedom began to spread throughout Eastern Europe, has given way to a new period of uncertainty, one in which the forthcoming international order may look more like what once was than what we had all hoped it might be.
It is into this environment that the United States government announced after 5 p.m. last Friday - after most members of Congress had left town and most of the media was looking elsewhere - that it would surrender by 2015 the remaining control it has over the operations and infrastructure of the worldwide web to a non-profit group called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN for short.
ICANN is a U.S.-based, U.S.-chartered corporation formed more than a decade ago by the U.S. government to oversee a stakeholder-based model of internet governance grounded in American law and American ideas about freedom of speech, intellectual property, and free and open access to information.
Now that it has, as ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade puts it, "matured," he and other folks like Putin, the Chinese, the Brazilians, the European Union, and the International Telecommunications Union think it's time for internet governance to go global, to bring it under the auspices of a global stakeholder community where the role of the United States is reduced to that of one among many.
Such a move would be foolish. The backing of the United States, which is the country that built and paid for the internet in the first place, is of critical importance to continued freedom of access to the Net and freedom of publication. The Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, and the Islamic theocracies hostile to the U.S. are also hostile to the idea of freedom of information. To turn internet governance over to a global body where their combined influence is stronger than America's will likely change the nature of the Internet and reduce its value as a tool through which people gain political liberty and education.
It is nonsensical to believe that a country like Russia, which by invading Crimea and Eastern Ukraine turned its back on a 1994 agreement it signed with the U.S. and the U.K. to guarantee that country's territorial integrity, would feel bound in times of crisis to respect any agreements it made regarding Internet governance. Those who would pretend otherwise have their heads as deeply in the sand as those who failed to recognize what Stalin did to the Ukrainians in the 1930s.
It is unfortunate that Edward Snowden revealed to the world how the U.S. National Security Agency was using the web as a tool for spying. Atoning for that by giving up our remaining control of the internet is, however, too high a price to pay to win the illusive forgiveness of the rest of the world. It also ignores the very obvious reality that other countries do what the U.S. has been doing - and that they will continue to do so, especially if they are given a more significant role in determining how the net will continue to function and grow.
Moreover, the linkage to Snowden is most likely a fig leaf by which the current administration can provide a rationale for its decision. It has been obvious for some time, even before the Snowden revelations hit the front pages of the world's newspapers and web sites that a plan was underway to alter the governance structure in ways that would inevitably minimize the role played by the United States to keep it free and open.
A robust internet, where information flows at the speed of light without regard to ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, tribal affiliation, or economic status, can only be preserved if the United States continues to hang on to the keys. Giving them away is a mistake of global proportions.
Peter Roff is a former senior political writer for United Press International who appears regularly on the One American News Network commenting on various aspects of the public debate.