Is self-determination a good idea?
In today’s international world order, self-determination is a good idea for a number of economic, political and social reasons. Post-World War Two notions of national self-determination and sovereignty, initially advocated by Woodrow Wilson, became integrated into international law and more reflective of the will of the people. Brownlie now sees the principle of self-determination as a definitive human right in deciding the question of the government and the governed, which the U.N. Charter confirms, specifically outlining the right to self-determination and the definition of the “peoples” such a right applied to. However, in reality, there are many countries where national self-determination has not provided an adequate solution, and further argument suggests that the effectiveness of self-determination is dependant on the way in which it is implemented.
At the centre of President Woodrow Wilson’s liberal world view was the idea of self-determination – ‘a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims…the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined’ (Lieven, 1999, p.197). America’s growing status as a world power meant Wilsonianism language acted as an attractive model for other states to follow – one achievable with western support – legitimising the principle of self-determination and national sovereignty in world politics. This thinking would help bring about the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the Baltic states from Gorbachev’s Soviet Union (Lynch, 2002, p.421). Wilson believed that America had a moral duty to protect and free people from autocratic government, however his idea of providing self-determination was flawed in its roots of the ‘Anglo-American tradition of civic nationalism’ (Lynch, p.424), and he was unable to grasp the importance of distinguishing the nation from the peoples constituting the nation. This would plague his attempts to apply the principle in eastern Europe. Thus, Wilson’s interpretation was a bad idea as self-determination was only seen as the ‘right of communities to govern themselves, not the right of every ethos to its own polity’. (Lynch, p.435) As such self-determination only occurred along pre-existing boundaries as defined by previous colonial powers or federal systems – it was applied under uti possidetis juris, a principle of international law providing that newly sovereign states be within the preceding state structure. American foreign interests instead took priority – Wilson openly admitted that the self-determination would have to be put secondary to other diplomatic, strategic or economic considerations. This was the case with the USSR, where the policy of self-determination was not adopted in fear of interfering with the the territorial integrity of the state at a time when the Bolshev...