The Grand Budapest Hotel and the Rule of Law


This is another entry in the WOTR series, Art of War. To submit to Art of War, email with “SUBMISSION” in the subject line.


Discerning followers of this column may have realized that this post is about a week overdue. This is because my home was recently burgled and it’s hard to regain one’s writing mojo after such a jarring event. I came back from a Rumi Forum trip to Turkey to a completely trashed house. Shattered glass and crockery were scattered over the floor; the whole house looked as if a tornado hit. Multiple police and forensics visitations later, I found myself sifting through my belongings, trying to identify what had been taken and what I still possessed. And as I sat there — more than slightly shell shocked — it occurred to me how easy it was for thieves to fundamentally change the facts of my life: where I live, what I own, and my own sense of safety. And then the burglars came around for a second pass, less than 36 hours later. Good times.

Of course, because I’m a national security geek, the parallels between my own situation and that of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine immediately sprang to mind. Russia was able to fundamentally alter the facts on the ground in Crimea through deploying its “little green men” to foment an insurrection — leading to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula — almost like a thief in the night. These actions have, of course, sent shockwaves through Ukraine and the region more broadly, the outcomes of which remain to be seen.

And because my mind works in mysterious ways, all of this — burglaries, Russia and questionably legitimate Crimean referendums — reminded me of Wes Anderson’s most recent film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Seriously. Bear with me.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

After a winding introduction, we meet a character named Zero, a bellboy under the mentorship of Gustave, the hotel’s concierge par excellence. Gustave is not only an effective manager of the hotel, he is also “devoted” to his elderly, blonde, female clientele. One in particular, Madame Desgoffe und Taxis (Madame D), dies under mysterious circumstances (likely at the hand of her son), and Gustave goes to the funeral, bringing Zero along with him. During the reading of Madame D’s will, the family learns that the elderly matriarch has bequeathed a priceless painting, “Boy with Apple,” to Gustave. This enrages her son Dmitri, who is unsatisfied with the fabulous wealth he has inherited; he wants the painting as well. With the help of a butler, Gustave and Zero smuggle “Boy with Apple” out of the late Madame D’s estate, and hide it at the Grand Budapest Hotel. The subsequent struggle between Dmitri and Gustave as the former tries to recover the painting and frame Gustave for Madame D’s murder drives the adventures comprising the remainder of the film.

Reflecting on “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a metaphor for contemporary statecraft, it occurs to me that Anderson is exploring several interesting questions that are, at a minimum, relevant to the Ukraine situation today. Among others, these include:

  • Whether the rule of law can prevail against corrupt oligarchs attempting to manipulate it; and
  • The unintended consequences of disrupting the status quo.

The Rule of Law

International law is, admittedly, a fluid concept. This is because the international system is structurally anarchic; unlike domestic polities, there is no globo-cop that can meaningfully and comprehensively enforce international law. That said, the demands of international commerce, security and other global matters require some kinds of rules governing international interaction at the state, corporate and individual levels. Without these standards, we wouldn’t be able to fly to Bangkok from Los Angeles or safely reduce our nuclear weapons stockpiles. So far, so good. But the question then becomes, to what extent can these agreements be built upon to further govern, and constrain, state behavior? Which behaviors by states are permissible, and which behaviors run contrary to the system of norms and laws that we’ve assumed are governing international interactions?

This is why Russia’s behavior in Ukraine is so damned vexing. For better or worse, we had assumed that Russia was interested in maintaining the elegantly crafted system of laws and norms of the post-Cold War period. We assumed that Russia had no interest in further territorial aggression against its neighbors after its actions in Georgia in 2008, or the de facto reconstitution of its imperial borders. We assumed that Russia wanted closer ties to the West, and that it would eventually become a partner of NATO. We assumed that Russia had eschewed the “might equals right,” brute force mentality of international statecraft. Some, if not all, of those assumptions appear to be wrong.

All this is bad enough, particularly if you are sitting in Kiev. However, perhaps more worrying from a strategic perspective is Putin’s apparent attempts to appropriate the carefully constructed norms and laws that are based on our (largely) Westphalian international system. By asserting his “right” to protect ethnic Russians in other territories — as well as holding a dubious referendum on Crimea’s political future — he has essentially laid the political groundwork for future land grabs. He changed the facts on the ground, and then created a thin veneer of legitimacy by distorting our own democratic, rule-of-law oriented systems for his own purposes. In so doing, Putin hasn’t just burgled Crimea, he’s also made the case for robbing other rooms in the house as well — and assumes we should all be smiling as he does so.

Back to “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Dmitri, now a fabulously wealthy oligarch, stops at nothing to try and recover the painting and ensure that Gustave is written out of the will. He pressures, and eventually has his thugs assassinate, his mother’s lawyer who is trying to ensure that the late matron’s last wishes are respected. He has Gustave framed for murder, and assassinates the only individual who can exonerate the concierge. Dmitri even initiates a massive gunfight at the hotel in order to destroy Gustave and recover the painting. Essentially, Dmitri is trying to use force to change the facts on the ground; Dmitri is the embodiment of the “might equals right” mentality.

But Anderson’s message is more hopeful. At the end (SPOILER ALERT), when our heroes are literally hanging by their fingernails off the edge of a balcony and about to die at Dmitri’s hand, Madame D’s second will is discovered and her final wishes known. It turns out that if Madame D’s death was suspicious (which it was), all her wealth should be transferred to Gustave. As a metaphor, the image is poignant: an oligarch about to close in for the kill, our protagonists’ lives in the balance, but ultimately saved by the rule of law. Things may appear dicey, but the rule of law, and the interests and intentions it represents, will triumph in the end.

All this reminds me that the real battleground in Ukraine isn’t necessarily in the East with little green men; rather, it’s over the rule of law, and which actors can legitimately (re)establish it. Whether Putin’s perversion of our norms and principles will hold over time, or whether his asymmetric and farcically “legitimate” tactics (such as the snap Crimean referendum) will be rolled back in favor of meaningful Ukrainian self-determination, only time will tell.

The Unintended Consequences of Disrupting the Status Quo

Anderson’s quirky aesthetic aside, objectively speaking the whole story is a bit strange.  Dmitri apparently poisoned his mother in an attempt to prematurely acquire her wealth.  Yet despite the fact that he had more money than he could possibly know what to do with, he fixates on the painting, “Boy with Apple.” He cannot rest until he wins it back and stops at nothing in order to do so.

But one wonders, if Dmitri had been satisfied with his wealth and chosen not to pursue the painting, would anyone have discovered Madame D’s second will? Indeed, if Dmitri had not murdered his mother, the first will — in which he inherited almost everything his mother possessed — would have stood. Dmitri first disrupts the natural order of things, and then fixates on consolidating his gains, like a dog with a bone. But he ultimately undermines himself, causes untold damage to the hotel and his victims, and loses everything in the process.

This is, perhaps, why Putin’s actions have been so mystifying to many observers. He could have accomplished his apparent objective — reasserting Russian supremacy — through a combination of patience and a shrewd energy export strategy. But, like Dmitri, patience does not appear to be Putin’s strong suit. One wonders if Putin will also end up undermining his own objectives.

I just took a call from police forensics; it appears that during the second pass at the house, the burglars left traces of DNA on the back door. As a result, the bastards who took my stuff might be caught. Similarly, Putin’s action in Ukraine — coming after its relatively recent aggression against Georgia — has reinvigorated NATO and caused the alliance to reconstitute its defense planning against a Russian adversary. Both the burglars and Putin may have overstretched in their pursuit of things that aren’t actually theirs, possibly prompting a chain of events that may undermine their own objectives.

Fingers crossed, anyway.


Kathleen J. McInnis is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Research Consultant at Chatham House. She served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006-2009. She is the editor of the WOTR series, Art of War. The views expressed are her own.


Photo credit: dasjo

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