Back   Self-determination: origins and meaning

   

Written by David Fromkin for The Wall Street Journal (31 March 1999)

  

 

Much of the ideological muddle surrounding current events in the Balkans can be traced back to the last years of World War I, as armies clashed, empires crashed and revolutionaries toppled governments under the banners of hitherto suppressed causes. It was then that " self determination " gained currency as a political slogan. In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson used the term in two speeches to Congress, the first time in quotation marks, as a neologism, but only months later without them -- so rapidly had it entered the common parlance of politics.

" 'Self determination' is not a mere phrase," Wilson told Congress; "it is an imperative principle of action which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril." Later he referred to "the free self - determination of nations upon which all the modern world insists."

Nowadays when the U.S. considers intervening in such causes as that of the Kosovars, supporters and opponents alike refer to intervention as being inspired by America's Wilsonian doctrine of self - determination. In fact, the doctrine is neither America's nor Wilson 's.

When, in January 1918, Wilson first formulated America's war goals, the test case for nationalism and self-determination was the Hapsburg-ruled multinational Austro-Hungarian empire. It was in striving against that empire that Italy and Germany had unified and established themselves as modern states; and in 1918 it was against that same empire that Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia strove to carve out their own unified new national identities.

As he labored on the statement that became his Fourteen Points address to Congress, Wilson made use of memoranda prepared by young Walter Lippmann and other aides, but rejected the suggestion that he open the door to the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian domains. The Hapsburgs, he felt, could play a stabilizing role in the future. So Wilson told Congress that "The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development." There was the formula: freedom of existence and expression within the existing empire.

The next month, addressing Congress again, Wilson defined his position more fully. Recognizing the dangers that the principle of self - determination might pose for Europe, he cautioned Congress (in the fourth of his Four Principles) that "all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them without introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace of Europe and consequently of the world." This narrows the right to self - determination to such rare cases of peaceful parting of the ways as Slovakia's "velvet divorce" from the Czechs in 1993.

Writing in 1944, a quarter-century after Wilson 's addresses to Congress, Lippmann, by then America's foremost pundit, asserted that although Wilson eventually decided to break up the Austro-Hungarian empire, and at that time did invoke self - determination , "he did not believe in it."

"To invoke the general principle of self - determination , and to make it a supreme law of international life," wrote Lippmann, is "to invite sheer anarchy. For the principle can be used to promote the dismemberment of practically every organized state." Recent estimates of the number of groups claiming to be nations, and thus entitled to independence according to the principle, vary between 5,000 and 10,000, and a world divided into that many sovereignties would be anarchic indeed.

The principle of self - determination , according to Lippmann, is "simply un-American." The American ideal, he explained, was "a state within which diverse peoples find justice and liberty, under equal laws and become a commonwealth."

American beliefs in this respect are defined by history. In 1776 the colonies asserted a right to independence from a government across the ocean in which they did not participate. In the Civil War the Union denied the right to secede to parts of the country that enjoyed the right of participation in the government. In our time, through the United Nations, the U.S. has taken part in the creation of a rule of public international law that gives colonies the legal right to independence from overseas empires but seemingly extends no such right in noncolonial situations.

The U.S. has favored the doctrine that originated in the modern world in Latin America, and later was applied in Africa, called uti possidetis, according to which when European rule came to an end, the existing countries and frontiers, though artificially created by the departed Europeans, were to be retained. To allow their legitimacy to be called into question would bring one bloodbath after another. Thus the political realities of sub-Saharan Africa are tribal, but to tear down the entire state structure of the continent to allow each tribe independent self-government would result in bloodshed on a scale difficult to imagine.

After both world wars in our century, the U.S. proposed creating a peacekeeping world organization on the basis that all existing states and boundaries be respected. In the American theory, peoples within a country must learn to live with one another, under a rule of law that protects them all.

Of course there are exceptions. Kosovo may be one of them. But as a general rule we believe in the integrity of countries, not in the independence of nations.

Copyright 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

David Fromkin is the Frederick S. Pardee Professor, Professor of History and International Relations, and Director of the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston, USA