Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Self-Determination: A Deeper Look

Self-determination, as we have seen, became a primary theme of the Paris Peace Conference. I would like to examine this conception here in a bit more depth.

Even before American entry into the war, Woodrow Wilson had introduced into the public discourse on the territorial aspects of the war the expression "self-determination," not a new phrase in itself, but an old expression with a new meaning. Where "self-determination" seemed to be related to the individual will and freedom of action, Wilson and his Progressive friends applied the term to groups or peoples, meaning that each people should decide for itself how it should be governed. This expression, indeed, seemed tailor-made for peacemaking, since the staggering number of territorial changes to be overseen and codified by the Conference called for some overriding rhyme and reason. Indeed, Wilson proposed precisely this: that the changes made in European areas in particular - and to a lesser extent in non-European areas - be in accordance both with a "new diplomacy" of "open covenants openly arrived at" and confirmed by Self-determination.

Now in most minds, insofar as self-determination takes on a collective or group meaning, it goes back to the earlier content of mid-nineteenth-century nationalism. The great "nationalisms" of the nineteenth century eventually resolved themselves into a simple program: to make one's ethnic "nation" coterminus with one's country. Indeed, triumphant nineteenth-century liberalism gave rise to the national idea as a peaceful way to end the dynastic rivalries of Europe: if kings were always after territory, a state that ended at its natural ethnic or linguistic boundary had no right or indeed no reason to invade its neighbor. Nationalists before the 1860s or so were frequently influenced by universalist liberalism. Within the liberal national states, the nation was, as Ernest Renan called it in the 1880s, a "daily plebiscite," the result of individual choice and shared memories. The central proposition of Renan's famous essay is that individual choice is at the heart of the nation, and that the aggregation of individual choices "creates an ethical conscience, which is called a nation."

Clearly, the warm tones of this earlier sense of the word self-determination echoed in the rhetoric of the 1919 peacemakers. The problem was that the peacemakers most devoted to this proposition, above all the crusading Americans under Wilson, proposed to confer from Paris this self-determination on the peoples in question. Where the origin of the term was indeed associated with self-directed movements for true local control of governments, the peacemakers came to the board as social engineers who not only "imposed" self-determination from above, but also decided which groups were worthy of self-determination.

In this sense, self-determination as wielded in the rather Aesopian jargon of 1919 represented the opposite of secession. Where secession means the departure of a region from one state form in order to exist outside that state form, self-determination in 1919 meant that ethnic groups, at least certain ethnic groups chosen by the victorious powers, should possess a state which corresponded territorially to the land occupied by the ethnic group, meaning land where members of the language group lived. Further, the planners at Paris generally held that all members of an ethnic group would by definition choose to live in a state encompassing their group and only their group.

Here we see self-determination not in the sense of the "plebiscite every day," but in the sense of positivist "social science" and technocracy. "Tell me what is right," Wilson told his experts en route to the Peace Conference, "And I will fight for it."

Wilson recognized that not every individual decision was dictated by one's physiological heritage, but on the whole, the Paris peacemakers seemed to take a reductionist view of ethnicity, often practically equating ethnic or linguistic connections with political aspirations. The Council of Four was, for Wilson certainly and to a lesser extent for the other Allied leaders, a sort of Saint Simonian meeting of Presbyterian technocrats disposing over the peoples of Europe.

The upshot of this was that the various "deals" made by the Allies during the war, the various aims for territory involving power and empire, and other secret plans for territorial disposition nurtured by the victorious Allies at the Conference were often covered over with the sanctimonious phrase of "self-determination." We will see this phrase "in action" over the newt few days.

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Design of a Violent Century by Hunt Tooley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.