The Proclamation of the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination and Its Present-Day Repercussions

Woodrow Wilson must have assumed that in a world that would gradually become more and more interconnected thanks to the free market, the right of peoples to self-determination would play a key role only for a limited period.

While the twenty-eighth president of the United States of America could be regarded as a political idealist, other figures in his administration, such as Secretary of State Robert Lancing or Finance Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo, were anything but idealists. The power-motivated policy they championed left its mark on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, specifically on the right of peoples to self-determination. To this day this remains the most sensitive legacy of Wilson’s proposal for a new world order. The most recent illustration of this is provided by the separatist movement in Catalonia, to which Madrid’s response has been to deem the very fact of holding an independence referendum an illegal act, since the country’s constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation. The conflict between the Spaniards and Catalans has thus highlighted the Achilles heel of the concept of the peoples’ right to self-determination—a question that is as vague politically as it is irresolvable in academic terms, namely: what constitutes a nation and what kind of ethnic unit may be agreed on below the level de ned by the concept of nation.

The right of peoples to self-determination played a major role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s as well as during the wars that brought about the end of Yugoslavia. It was not so much the vague definition of the term “nation” that mattered as the problem of areas in south-east Europe and the Caucasus with ethnically heterogeneous populations. Further problem areas included the defining of borders and the emergence of new minorities, which found themselves no longer in a multinational political system but as parts of a single titular nation within which they had to assert their minority rights. In a way, the granting of minority rights involves the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, albeit reduced to second- or third-class rights and that, in turn, opens up opportunities for permanent conflict.

A Stick to Beat Multinational Empires With

A case in point is the order the United States and the European Union imposed in the Balkans following the end of the wars accompanying the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. The primary goal of this settlement was to end ethnic cleansing (the expulsion of people belonging to an ethnic group other than the dominant one), which was part and parcel of the wars in former Yugoslavia and represents the dark underbelly of the right of peoples to self-determination. Just as this right is directed against the existence of large multinational, multilingual, and typically also multi-religious empires, the practice of ethnic cleansing that occurs during their disintegration has the aim of bringing about a situation where allegiance to a particular ethnic group is aligned with the state’s territoriality.

The right of peoples to self-determination played a major role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s as well as during the wars that brought about the end of Yugoslavia.

The process of establishing nation states originates in Western Eu- rope. By contrast, in the regions which until 1917-18 comprised multinational, multi-religious, and multilingual empires, the right to self-determination following the demise of the old order left a legacy of problems that still plague this part of the world. From the western Balkans to the Caucasus, stretching from the Black Sea and Ukraine in the north to Turkey in the south, it has proved impossible to this day to put into place a coherent process of establishing a nation state. We are dealing with territories characterized by ethnic and religious fragmentation which, in conjunction with the right to self-determination and outbreaks of political hostility, can quickly turn into war zones where identities play a far greater role than interests. Although the right to

In the regions which until 1917-18 comprised multi-national, multi-religious, and multilingual empires, the right to self-determination following the demise of the old order left a legacy of problems.

self-determination is not solely to blame for the notorious proclivity to wars that is typical for regions where empires have collapsed, it has nevertheless played an ideological and political role. These problems are even more complex in the Middle East, where after 1918 the right of peoples to self-determination was used as a façade to legitimize British and French conquests and justify breaking up the Ottoman Empire in a place where local social structures had yet to evolve something akin to a sense of national allegiance.

Inspired by Immanuel Kant

Nevertheless, none of this could have been predicted on January 8, 1918, when Wilson outlined his Fourteen Points in a speech to the two houses of the United States Congress. What would later be presented as a proposal for a new state order had originally been conceived as a program to motivate the American public, which had not shown great appetite for fighting, to support the government’s decision to enter the war and, at the same time, to help promote American interests in the world. A devotee of Immanuel Kant who liked to draw on the German philosopher, Wilson underpinned his argument by more or less explicit reference to Kant’s essay on “Perpetual Peace.” It is unclear whether the inspiration by Kant served solely as a propagandistic guise for America’s political and economic ambitions or whether it indeed played a decisive role in conceiving a liberal system of international relations directed against the old European order, as well as against the projects of Lenin and Trotsky.

A devotee of Immanuel Kant who liked to draw on the German philosopher, Wilson underpinned his argument by more or less explicit reference to Kant’s essay on “Perpetual Peace.”

If we look at the circumstances in which the Fourteen Points came to be written, we will understand why this question has to remain unanswered: the Allied Powers—the Franco-British Alliance, which Woodrow Wilson joined against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary)—were opposed to the proclamation of the right to self-determination as long as multinational Russia formed a part of their alliance and while the British and French were attempting to reach a separate peace deal with Austria-Hungary. Had they succeeded in extricating the Habsburg monarchy from its alliance with Germany, the latter would have been outnumbered by its enemies and could not have defended itself. However, the right of peoples to self-determination militated against Vienna breaking away from Berlin since granting these rights would have spelled the end of the multinational empire.

The Impact of Wilson’s Speech on the Allied Powers

Following the death of Emperor Franz Joseph there was a real prospect of forging such a separate deal. Only after this opportunity vanished and Russia left the Alliance in the wake of the Bolshevik takeover, did a path to proclaiming the right to self-determination open up—on the condition that the existence of the British and French colonial empires remained unquestioned. That is why it was clear from the start that rather than being a universally applicable principle of a new world order the right of peoples to self-determination was an instrument for breaking up the enemy coalition. Wilson’s project has never managed to rid itself of this congenital defect.

It was clear from the start that rather than being a universally applicable principle of a new world order the right of peoples to self-determination was an in- strument for breaking up the enemy coalition.

The fact is that in the autumn of 1917, after Russia left the Allied Powers, their prospects looked far from rosy: the Franco-British offensive against Germany on the Western Front had not enjoyed much success and following a number of insurrections among the ranks of the French divisions, the French army could be deployed only defensively. Russia’s withdrawal from the war enabled the Germans to redeploy powerful military forces to the West while Italy was left on the verge of collapse after the Battle of Caporetto in the autumn of 1917. However, Lenin dealt the greatest blow to the Allied Powers by deciding to publish its secret documents, thus depriving them of a chance to present themselves as credible fighters for the ideals of freedom and democracy.

Self-Determination of Peoples as a Propaganda Instrument

The Germans set out to form a number of nation states, from Finland through the Balkans, Poland, and Ukraine right up to the Caucasus, out of what was left of the former Russian Empire. The thinking in Berlin was that these states could supply supporting troops that might yet help Germany win the war. And although the newly established nations were vassal states dependent on the German Empire, by creating them the Germans made a greater contribution to realizing their political independence than did the Allied Powers.

This is why Wilson’s proclamation of peoples’ right to self-determination initially served mainly to score a propaganda victory. The need to bring hitherto neutral states onside eventually also persuaded the Brits and the French not to oppose this point in Wilson’s program. At the same time, because of their relative military weakness, they were unable to prevent the demand for the right to self-determination also being raised within their own colonial empires.

To proclaim peoples’ right to self-determination was one thing but its actual realization was quite another. A case in point is South Tyrol, which for military and strategic reasons was annexed to Italy, although any referendum would have resulted in the region remaining a part of Austria. Another example was Austria’s post-war attempts to merge with Germany, rejected on the grounds that this would make Germany stronger than it had been before the war. A further illustration is provided by the dispute between Japan and China over areas of East Asia and, in particular, the fact that the victorious Allied Powers did nothing to overcome Kemal Atatürk’s opposition and secure independence for the Kurds, as agreed in the Treaty of Versailles. Most importantly, the ethnic fragmentation in Central and Southeast Europe led to a number of armed conflicts between the two World Wars, resulting in repeated expulsions of minority nations who were able to appeal to their right to self-determination. And last but not least, Adolf Hitler was able to use it as an argument for carving Sudetenland o from Czechoslovakia.

The Germans set out to form a number of nation states, from Finland through the Balkans, Poland, and Ukraine right up to the Caucasus, out of what was left of the former Russian Empire.

Independence for Every Ethnic Group?

These negative examples are countered by the fact that the right to self-determination spelled the beginning of the end of European colonialism, from which European powers were no longer able to backtrack. Although this process did not begin until after World War II, the right proclaimed by Wilson could nevertheless be asserted by means of numerous cruel wars. However, the greatest problem that remains to this day is the fact that a number of these new states is made up of many different ethnic groups which could also, potentially, strive for independence.

Although on January 8, 1918, Wilson proclaimed that nations have a natural right to exist, he overlooked the fact that a nation’s de facto situation depended on the degree of its economic development and cultural context. He must have assumed that in a world that would become more and more interconnected thanks to the idea of the free market, the right of people to self-determination would play a key role only for a limited period.

In focusing on bringing about a peaceful world order he failed to take into account the disruptive potential of the right of peoples to self-determination. However, he released into the world an idea that has become a beacon for liberation like none before it.

Herfried Münkler

is a political scientist focusing on political theory and history of ideas. He is a full professor at the Institute for Social Sciences of Berlin’s Humboldt University. He is the author of a number of books and papers on, among other things, political thought in the era of Machiavelli, the Thirty Years’ War, and World War I. He was one of the experts who prepared the concept review for the future direction of German foreign policy (Review 2014—Außenpolitik weiter denken).

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