A Question of Principle: The Place of Modern Struggles for Self-Determination

Conrad Copeland

“The customary principle of self-determination referred to in particular in Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations is, as the International  Court  of  Justice  stated  in  paragraphs 54 to  56  of  its Advisory  Opinion  on Western  Sahara,  a  principle  of  international  law  applicable  to  all  non-self-governing  territories and to all peoples who have not yet achieved independence. It is, moreover, a legally enforceable right erga omnes and one of the essential principles of international law.”

– Ruling of the European Court of Justice on 21 December 2016 effectively including the right to self-determination within the body of laws governing the European Union.

 Self Determination 

The Catalonian and Kurdistani independence movements are part of a resurgence of efforts to exercise the right to self-determination.  The right to self-determination, in its purest form, is the right for a people to choose their sovereignty and state-status free from interference. The reasons for the supposedly sudden reappearance of this concept and the increasingly mainstream efforts to realise independence and autonomy are found in a confluence of recent global changes and the reactions of liberals and progressives to these movements are misguided in their efforts to contain or even supress them.  These determinations to exert sovereignty are causing consternation for liberal democracies all over the globe, and their responses are as varied as the movements themselves.  As peoples and communities increasingly push for holding referenda and agitating for autonomy, central governments are being caught flat-footed and liberals and progressives are finding it difficult to align their fundamental principles with their confused opposition to these independence movements.

On the National Question: Hope and Hypocrisy

The idea of a right to self-determination itself was largely born out of the First World War and the revolutions of that period.  Its inclusion in liberal thought is usually credited to Woodrow Wilson, who pushed for its inclusion in the charter of the newly founded League of Nations and used it to effectively smash old European empires.  This is half true; Wilson did popularise the idea and his insistence on its inclusion in the League of Nations Charter was seminal for its later path into international law, but the only empires it was used to dismantle were the ones of the Central Powers – those who lost the war.  At the same time, the Bolsheviks took up the torch of self-determination for the left.  Hoping to undermine the states that invaded the newly born USSR during the Russian Civil War, the Comintern began to agitate for the rights of subjugated peoples around the world.  This outward policy was undertaken simultaneously with an internal policy of subsuming the various nationalities of the old Russian Empire under the umbrella of the new Soviet state: any serious push for autonomy within the Soviet Union was deemed incompatible with Bolshevik ideology.  These initial unequal implementations of the principle would foreshadow its future application throughout the twentieth century.

The concept of the right to self-determination was applied throughout the remainder of the century by various groups for various ends.  It was a touchstone in the decolonisation movement and was central to the efforts of the United Nations in helping the former African and Asian possessions of Western European powers achieve independence.  These movements used the promotion of self-determination to discredit and delegitimise as outdated the concept of imperial governance and colonisation; and they were extremely successful, with thirty seven new countries gaining freedom between the end of the Second World War and the 1960s.

In the 1990s self-determination was important to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the removal of communist governments in Eastern Europe.  The principle was a necessary aspect of the emergence of the former republics of the USSR as independent nations in the Baltic, the eastern edges of Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia; but it went further.  It was also important in the democratisation of former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, where self-determination contributed to the framing of the rights of the population to choose how they are governed and the popular movements for democracy.  This broader self-determination process finally spilled over into the collapse of Yugoslavia, the horrors of which contributed to the principle’s fall from favour internationally.

The unequal application of the right to self-determination through the last century led to the idea of it being wrapped up in the concepts of oppression, subjugation, and genocide.  The principle became one that was used to free a people that was being brutalised.  This was a natural shift since it was one of the only ways in which countries could justify its use against some states, but not their own: other states could always be characterised as uniquely oppressive while their own transgressions could be easily glossed over.  By removing the universality of the fundamental idea of consent of the people to being governed, it was turned into a cudgel to break apart deviant states.

The belief that it has largely disappeared from the world stage comes directly from this shift.  There are few perceptibly imperial and oppressive powers left that the nation states of the world want to tear apart and besides the exceptional cases of clear genocide (as in South Sudan and Timor-Leste) the international community is hesitant to support new applications for statehood.  These movements at the local level have never disappeared completely; they merely no longer find patrons in existing world powers.  What is new however, is local support for these movements.  From Scotland, Catalonia, and Kurdistan to Cameroon, Lombardy, and New Caledonia, there is renewed interest among people and rejuvenated support for independence and autonomy.

Global Forces, Regional Responses

The renewed vigour that many of these movements are experiencing comes from a uniquely modern intersection of forces: technological change, renewed efforts at state centralisation, and the pressures of globalisation.  These forces are creating an environment that can nurture these movements by making their claims more believable and their offered solutions more realistic.

Rapid technological change has brought to the world an unprecedented level of connectivity.  The ability of people to interact with each other and their governments on such a scale has never been observed before.  This makes it easier for populations to integrate with the world and coordinate with other peoples and regions.  This ease of communication and coordination has significantly reduced the costs of governance, where before legions of bureaucrats were required to maintain the smooth functioning of government services, states are increasingly experimenting with digitised services and pioneers like Estonia are making efforts to move the entirety of governance to the online world.  Regardless of the merits or detriments of many of these proposals and efforts, the ease of communication has made it immeasurably easier for citizens to interact with their governments and for their governments to provide services to them.  Smaller and poorer states in particular are experiencing the benefits of this with massively increased state capacity in many countries all thanks to wireless communication technology.

Similarly, this increased ability of individuals to communicate translates upwards into an increased ability of governments to coordinate, and consolidate.  Nations are finding it easier and easier to harmonise standards, create functioning trade blocs and customs unions, and enforce and police these agreements.  This integration of national economies into international groupings creates new opportunities and benefits, especially for developing countries which have seen a raft of these agreements being strengthened and improved in recent years.  Strategies for governments devised by the development community to help small, low income nations grow and thrive in the global economy have exploited technology to make the world economic community a less lonely place and a less intimidating landscape for small economies.

These technological changes have taken much of the potential pain out of the idea of being a small nation in a large world and have legitimised the claims of many sovereigntist groups that their regions will be able to make it in the world as independent states.  Further, the visibility of these technological changes to people on a personal level and the ease with which they can see the benefits have galvanised the idea that it is possible to be small and successful and so has ameliorated much of the fear of going it alone.

Shifts in technology have gone hand-in-hand with renewed efforts by central governments to consolidate their authority.  The increased ease of communication and integration is double-edged and similarly allows governments to increase the control they have over various regions and areas of authority.  The world of the third millennium has seen governments repeatedly using new technology and the spectre of security threats to expand the scope and depth of their influence.  At a local level this has translated into central governments exerting increased control over territories that were previously largely left to themselves and expanding the areas in which the central government exercises authority.

In previous decades, many regions and territories were effectively left to perform day-to-day governance functions locally – either in specific policy areas or more broadly.  This was essentially a compact between the central government and the locality that worked well for both: the central government would be able to retain control of the region without the expense of direct governance and the region would be able to chart its own path so long as it remained under the aegis of the larger state structure.  Naturally, this tacit compact was implemented primarily in areas that were traditionally hard to access, significantly different culturally, or newly incorporated into the larger state.

Recently, the reduced cost of administration and the increased ease of centralisation have caused many of these tacit agreements to fray.  Central governments are making efforts to encroach on previously reserved local powers either directly through legislative changes or through the use of restricted and pre-allocated financing.  These efforts have significantly eroded the ability of local administrations to provide the level of services previously offered to their residents and has created a situation where what was previously benign neglect has morphed into active neglect by central governments.

The combination of increased central authority and the penchant for national politics to be preoccupied with austerity has created a situation where local governments are no longer able to provide for their communities due to reduced authority and reduced financing.  Central governments that are increasingly seen to be uncaring or uninterested in local problems are wresting control of policy areas away from local authorities and subsequently neglecting policy implementation in those areas.  This translates into the increased feelings within states that central governments are not addressing local or regional problems and the difficulty these governments seem to be having coping with diverse regional interests.

The effects of globalisation have exacerbated this problem of regional neglect by fueling the disparity between cities and the countryside.  Larger cities are increasingly becoming hubs of the new global world and are attracting investment, global opportunities, and people.  This agglomeration of economic activity in urban centres naturally disadvantages those areas in the surrounding countryside that lack the concentration of people, infrastructure, and opportunities.  While this disparity has existed since the first cities were created ten thousand years ago, the difference now is the speed of the change and the disinterest in its effects.  The speed of urbanisation in the world has never been faster: fifty years ago around a third of the world’s population lived in cities, now it is more than half, and it is expected to grow to two thirds within the next fifty years.  This increase in urbanisation should not be a negative; if the transition is handled correctly it can create more efficient and more prosperous communities both within cities and without.  The problem comes in the unwillingness or inability of central governments to use their newly expanded powers to alleviate the hardships of the hinterland and smooth the urban transition.

Given this negligence of central governments, it is easier for the hinterland to service the regional hubs and urban centres than for it to be dependent on a distant and indifferent central capital.  Regions are taking advantage of this to create intra-regional integration and a symbiotic dependence between the regional centre and the regional periphery.  This emphasises efficient support systems within regions that tie their different parts together in more cohesive units.

The impacts of globalisation on integration between regions has accelerated this increased cohesion as it becomes easier for regions to integrate with other regions independently of their central governments both within their own countries and across different ones.  The emergence of global cities and the influence their regional leaders have on the world stage is emblematic of this as is regional integration efforts within organisations like the European Union.  Increasingly, regions are looking to other sub-national regions for coordination on global and local problems rather than their own central governments.

These disparate forces of technology, centralisation, and globalisation have driven regions to become more self-sufficient, more resentful of their central governments, and more assertive in their own identities.  This is the recipe that has made regional peoples more determined in their drives for autonomy and independence and has made the potential effects of such efforts more palatable.  Regions and peoples are increasingly seeing the benefits of more localised governance and looser inter-regional integration and they are making efforts to realise those benefits for themselves.  Where independence advocates were once considered to be fanciful dreamers, now they are seen to be firmly rooted in the realities of a globalised and interconnected world.

Monstrous Phantoms

The fears engendered by this rise of self-determination involve concerns about exclusionary nationalism and the supposed animosities that a large number of small states will generate.  These concerns are expressed to varying degrees by opponents of regions seeking self-determination or autonomy.  More often than not they are used disingenuously to dissuade the aspiring nation from choosing independence and for legitimising opposition to the notion of self-determination itself.

The natural bedfellow of self-determination is nationalism and nationalism is generally considered, and not unjustifiably so, to be dangerous for pluralistic democratic societies.  Nationalism is something that can be incredibly harmful if it is characterised by an exclusionary bent based on hard ethnic identities.  This form of nationalism leads to opposition to the ‘other’ and the promotion of xenophobia and insularity within the population.  In its most extreme cases, it can lead to repression, violence, and even genocide.  This type of nationalism should be checked and opposed in all cases, there is no place for xenophobic and exclusionary nationalism in a multicultural and global society.  The other forms of nationalism are more benign and are characterised by a liberal civic nationalism.  Theorisation of this more progressive nationalism involves the ideas of civic cohesion, consent of the governed to be governed by the state, and participation in national institutions.

All states foster liberal and civic nationalism to varying degrees, until recently it has been termed ‘state-building’ in development and democratisation literature.  This form of nationalism seeks to bind the citizens of the state together into a cohesive civic society that has a shared interest in the success of their society.  This form of nationalism is characteristically present in many current self-determination movements – notably Scotland, Catalonia, and Kurdistan.  These potential polities seek to be welcoming of everyone who wishes to make their home in the proposed states and are largely pro-immigrant, outward looking, and inclusive.  These nationalisms are anything but exclusionary and xenophobic and are prime examples of modern national movements that should be encouraged in their broad civic spirit, particularly in a period where we are seeing the rise of aggressive, illiberal nationalism in the United States and Western Europe.

The general fear of fracturing nations into smaller parts comes primarily from two historical examples of such situations: the Holy Roman Empire and Yugoslavia.  These two examples are used to claim that a set of small fractured states will perpetuate war and conflict between them, as was the case in the Holy Roman Empire and the successor states of Yugoslavia.  In both of these cases it is important to realise that the size and number of states had little to do with the violence inherent in them.  In the case of the Holy Roman Empire, more often than not war was perpetuated by great powers interested in seizing territory in Germany.  Aside from the European Wars of Religion, which had their own unique motivator, the various states of the Holy Roman Empire rarely warred against each other independently of a larger, pan-European conflict.  Not dissimilarly, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia had little to do with the existing states inherently and more to do with the history of the region and its governance and religious tensions.

The principal point is that there is no inherent reason why smaller states will be more likely to have more conflict; in fact the opposite has been claimed repeatedly in studies that investigate the determinants of conflict.  State capacity for war is often shown to be the primary driver of conflict among states historically and smaller states tend to have a lower capacity for and face greater costs from war.  This leads to the conclusion that properly integrated states that are small could produce a more stable and democratic international system.

Further to this, smaller, more integrated states can make governance more efficient if larger relationships are coordinated in international organisations like the European Union and NATO.  The coordination of trade and monetary policy would benefit small states in providing access to a wide market and potential insulation from large macroeconomic fluctuations.  Pooling military resources would support mutual defence and promote conflict de-escalation with collective security structures.  The ability of small states to coordinate and pool resources and efforts without any single state taking a disproportionate share of power in these organisations would make collective decision making more democratic and more stable.

Intrinsic, Not Irreconcilable

Hostility towards self-determination from those on the political right is understandable, the hostility from those on the left and liberals is less so; it seems to come from an ideological confusion and an inability to grasp the importance of self-determination to the struggle for political rights and freedoms.  In ceding the ideological ground to those on the right and aligning with them in opposition to national struggles, progressives and liberals are failing those whom they look to help and are abandoning fundamental political principles.

Progressives and those on the left need to reassert their internationalism and refuse to endorse the status quo of nations by supporting the right of peoples to self-determination.  Opposition to self-determination from the left is largely grounded in opposition to nationalism as inherently anti-internationalist and a belief that the fight for sovereignty distracts from supposedly larger social justice issues.  Both of these are inherently flawed suppositions.  Internationalism is about the global fraternity of all peoples and this includes the support of all peoples in any efforts to govern themselves as they see fit.  To deny this fundamental aspect of internationalism is to deny the premise of fraternity among all peoples.  In order for internationalism to be a truly liberational and anti-imperial ideology as those on the left perceive it to be, the self-determination of all peoples must be the core from which all other struggles for rights and equality comes.  The ability for peoples to govern themselves is the first step to those polities governing themselves in more equitable and liberating ways and makes the issue of self-determination the vanguard of social justice, not a distraction from it.

The opposition of liberals to the concept of self-determination is the most perplexing of stances.  The idea of self-determination was founded in liberal thought in the nineteenth century and was implemented as a right within liberal internationalism.  The crisis liberals are having with the idea of self-determination is born out of liberalism’s cooption by technocratic centrism, the idea of practical and scientific policy making.  This conflation of ideas, or rather conquest of one by the other, is the root of many issues liberalism is having around the world, but suffice to say the erosion of liberal ideology by the concept of scientific policy governance has removed the impetus for ideological underpinnings for fundamentally liberal concepts.

Liberals have lost their heart, and the inability to come to terms with concepts of fundamental rights impedes their embracing of the idea of self-determination.  The concept that a people must consent to be governed and can choose how it is governed is inseparable from the concept of individual liberty and fundamental human rights.  Liberals must reclaim the ideological ground they have abandoned for the expediency of governance and reassert their claims over liberal and civic nationalism, again taking up the cause of fundamental political rights of individuals and peoples everywhere.  The concept of civic or liberal nationalism is what was used by liberal democracies everywhere to bind their states together, it is the fundamental principle that allows multicultural and open societies to exist and it should not be shunned in a misguided attempt to bolster pseudo-internationalist credentials.  Civic nationalism is inherently internationalist in its openness and creates the foundation of a globally oriented society that is open to all those who wish to join its social contract.  Self-determination in the form of the idea of the consent of the governed is intrinsic to liberal ideology and it should again be championed in the spirit of liberal revolutions of the past and brought to the fore of the fight for inalienable rights.

Liberalism and progressivism and their adherents should be embracing the concept of self-determination as fundamental to their ideologies and should resist siding with reactionaries attempting to assert state power over individuals and peoples.  The causes of liberalism and progressive leftism are principally about helping citizens achieve rights and equality; regardless of the differences in perspective both these systems of thought should keep the ideas of political rights at their centre and the right to self-determination is foundational in this.  In order to arrest the ideological gymnastics, liberals and progressives need to accept the idea of the right to self-determination and fight for the preservation of that right.  Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with any one case for independence, the right to make that case and test it before the people should be defended everywhere.

Technological change and globalisation have made it possible for small nations to be successful, giving impetus to the arguments of those seeking greater autonomy and independence while the efforts of central governments have exacerbated the problems of centralised states.  These forces have come up against the expected opposition of statists and right-wing political ideologies, but they are also being opposed by their traditional allies in liberals and progressive internationalists.  Liberals and progressives should be supporting these efforts to exercise the right to self-determination even if they oppose the idea of independence itself.  The right to self-determination is fundamental in both liberal and progressive thought and should not be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency or status quo bias.

Small nations should be free if they so choose.