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  • Writer's pictureUriel

A Century of Self-Determination

Updated: Aug 27, 2018

Few principles are more powerful, and perilous, than self-determination: It can tear states apart, and erect new ones; it can foster war, and promote peace. What are the biggest questions it poses, how significant has it been, and what ought we make of it?

A century ago today (February 11, 1918), global politics changed: US President Woodrow Wilson named a principle – until then spoken by few, practiced by fewer – and injected it, as a cure, into the political heart of a world engulfed in its first global war. “Self-determination” was not born then and there – key thinkers of Enlightenment begot it, Marxists turned it political – but it was Wilson, a month after his Fourteen Points speech (January 8, 1918), who transformed this principle into the moral cornerstone of global politics.

Wilson transformed this principle into the moral cornerstone of global politics.

A century later, self-determination is still with us, worldwide: Afghanistan, Cabinda, Catalonia, Crimea, Iraq, Kosovo, Kurdistan, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Palestine, Quebec, Scotland, South Ossetia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Ukraine – and the list goes on and on.

For many years now, I’ve been fascinated by self-determination. I was fortunate enough to join the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University (LISD), a unique academic hub for studying the many, multilayered, facets of self-determination. There and in my homeland, Israel – embedded as it is in the fight for, and over, self-determination – I have tried to figure out its emergence and evolvement, its effects and side-effects, its principles and practices. I have dealt with these matters in several academic books and articles, and today, on Sapienism, I’ll (very) briefly address three quandaries:

1. What are self-determination’s thorniest issues?

2. Is self-determination still important?

3. What ought the principle and practice of self-determination be like in the next century?

The Debate

What are the key puzzles brought about by self-determination? I think we can trace the answer right back to its origin, a century ago. In his Address to Congress, Analyzing German and Austrian Peace Utterances, President Wilson mentioned “self-determination” explicitly just once, but what a pronouncement it was:

“National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”

Right next to Wilson – but on the other side of the self-determination divide – stood Wilson’s own Secretary of State, Robert Lansing:

“When the President talks of ‘self-determination’ what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community? Without a definite unit which is practical, application of this principle is dangerous to peace and stability… The more I think about the President's declaration as to the right of ‘self-determination,’ the more convinced I am of the danger of putting such ideas into the minds of certain races… The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle in force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”

Samuel Johnson Woolf, Woodrow Wilson and Robert Lansing, 1931

A century later, we’re still at it – between Wilson and Lansing. All key puzzles are there before us: Who should be defining the self-determining “unit”? Can this principle be universally applicable? Is self-determination conducive, or detrimental, to peace?

If self-determination is a compass of global politics, it’s a confused – and confusing – compass.

Ultimately, however, I think it’s about hope. Self-determination is a principle of political hope – the hope that people, and peoples, can determine their own destinies, individually and collectively, without peace paying too high price. But does self-determination, as Lansing warned, “raise[s] hopes which can never be realized,” and, by doing so, make people yet more desperate, and possibly more violent? If Wilson’s vision appeals to “the better angels of our nature,” Lansing’s lament submits that “the enemy of the good is the better.”

Self-determination is a principle of political hope – the hope that people, and peoples, can determine their own destinies

This is the heart of self-determination, torn between Wilson and Lansing. Whose advice have we heeded? Whose advice should we heed? The first question is empirical, the second normative – I’ll address each in turn.

The Rise and Fall… and Rise?

How can we assess the importance and resonance of self-determination – its wavering between Wilson’s vision and Lansing’s lament? One way is to look, statistically, at national/nationalist activity: How many self-determination movements are there? How many of them demand independence? How many get it?

Another way is to look at self-determination discourse. What’s in a name? I ask that in a different post, about my son, but we can ask the same about self-determination. The talk and text on self-determination, throughout the last century, can be quite telling.

I explored both venues in a recent EJIR paper, We the Peoples? The Strange Demise of Self-Determination. As the title indicates, the finding suggested a curious decline in the practice of, and discourse on, self-determination over the second half of the last century. Here are two charts from that article illustrating these trends:

And here’s a third chart, demonstrating that the little that was left of self-determination discourse was increasingly uttered by academics:

Rather than politically preaching and practicing self-determination, the principle has seemingly been academized: we write books and articles about it rather than pursue its political aspirations.

In the said article, I argue that “powerful state actors and persuasive academics have sought to ‘tame’ self-determination as both principle and practice: retaining the term but altering its meaning from a source of threat into a resource for containing it.”

powerful state actors and persuasive academics have sought to ‘tame’ self-determination as both principle and practice

Still, I conclude with the following suggestion:

“Self-determination, however, has not been eliminated, and taming it may yet prove a Pyrrhic victory… By taming the self-determination of peoples, modern states may have pulled the normative rug from beneath their own feet, suspending their system in moral mid-air. The normative void may not be immediately felt, but can be acute nonetheless, especially if the balance between the West and rest is tipping in favor of the latter. With the “general will” of the people, and the peoples, undermined, Leviathan’s moments of weakness might become the occasion for Rousseau’s revenge, fostering yet another ‘spring of nations,’ worldwide. National self-determination may yet revive… There may well be ‘life after death’ for self-determination.

Has self-determination revived?

Drawing again on discourse, on a mass, public, scale, there may be reason to suspect self-determination is indeed on the rise, yet again. Recently, a new news corpus was released: The NOW (News on the Web) corpus, containing 5.6 billion words of data from web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present time. Below are shifts in self-determination discourse, across both time (since 2010) and space (ranking countries).

We need not make too much of this (big) data – as always, it can, at most, raise interesting questions, and sometimes suggest promising answers. Still, such findings can help both illustrate things past and indicate the shape of things to come. Possibly, if we know when and where people write/speak about self-determination (and search for it on Google), we may grasp better when and where to expect its next eruptions.

But then, how should we deal with self-determination – should we embrace it or fight it, try to tame it or make it blossom? This moves us into the normative terrain.

A Declaration on Self-Determination

To state the obvious, what follows is presumptuous, almost preposterous. And yet, if we are to hold on to political hope, we should, I believe, restart a conversation on what the principles and practices of self-determination should look like in the next century. Below are no “ten commandments,” merely ten tentative recommendations, a foundation for what I hope could be a fruitful engagement with our future.


1. Right and duty All people, and all peoples, have the right to pursue self-determination; states, individually and collectively, have a duty to encourage it.

2. Territorial integrity States and their borders are not sacred, but are means to an end: protecting people, and allowing them to flourish.

3. Freedom and liberty Self-determination ought to cultivate human freedom (choice) and demarcate liberty (control)

4. Positive and negative liberties (Who is in control? Over what?) Self-determination warrants both emancipation from domination (negative liberty) and the moral authority of people/s (positive liberty).

5. Duality and mutuality Self-determination is dual: encouraging the individual to determine her collective identity, and the collective, to assert its polity; it is also mutual: granted to the “self” to the extent that it is also given to the “other/s.”

All people, and all peoples, have the right to pursue self-determination; states, individually and collectively, have a duty to encourage it.


1. UNSDO: Living up to its titular denotation, the UN should establish a “UN self-determination organization” (UNSDO) to disseminate, implement, coordinate, and monitor the principles above.

2. Secession: Secession is a viable, but last resort, political path of self-determination. UNSDO will work with the “parent-state” and the self-determination movement to reach an accommodation that does not necessitate secession.

3. Referendums: self-determination plebiscite is an appropriate vehicle of political choice.

a. Initiation: Bottom-up initiatives are allowed, warranting a referendum upon crossing a threshold of manifest popular support – at least one tenth of eligible voters in the disputed territory sign the petition.

b. Moratorium: referendums are to be held no less than a year, and no more than three years, after gaining said public support.

c. Question/s: the self-determination movement drafts the option it advocates; the government drafts its own. UNSDO shall facilitate an accord.

d. Support threshold: the parties, aided by UNSDO, shall agree on a threshold for voting for change – no less than half the eligible voters, no more than two thirds of actual voters.

e. Implementation: UNSDO monitors the fair running of the referendum, sanctioning its final results.

4. Statehood:

a. Moratorium: referendum-approved secession shall initiate only after the parent-state is granted a chance to persuade the public to change its mind within a period of at least one year and no more than three years. At the parent-state’s request, a pre-implementation referendum may be held to possibly revoke the secession (Practice #3 rules apply).

b. Matryoshka Doll effect: Domestic communities affected by the change have the right to pursue the same cause and course.

c. Regime: statehood is predicated on state- and democracy-building, both aided by UNSDO

5. Association: the new polity may be allowed to join the IGOs and NGOs of the parent-country, predicated on meeting the same admission criteria.

Secession is a viable, but last resort, political path of self-determination.

Do you agree? I hope you don’t! That’s how fun conversations begin… Please tell us what you think. Maybe together we can make it better.


Abulof, Uriel. 2015. "The Confused Compass: From Self-Determination to State-Determination." Ethnopolitics 14 (5):488-497.

Abulof, Uriel. 2016. "We the Peoples? The Strange Demise of Self-Determination." European Journal of International Relations 22 (3):536-565.

Danspeckgruber, Wolfgang F., ed. 2002. The Self-Determination of Peoples: Community, Nation, and State in an Interdependent World. Boulder: L. Rienner Publishers.

Danspeckgruber, Wolfgang, and Uriel Abulof. 2015. "In Search of a Common Ground between Self-Determination and Grand Strategy." Ethnopolitics 14 (5):555-558.

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10 comentários

22 de fev. de 2018

I think the term "self-determination" should be accepted by countries ,but, only if their society meets the conditions of: Territory, Population and Government. If they don't, than the acceptance of their self-determination might cause damages. If there are serious Terror cells present in a country for example, it may imply the existence of a weak and unstable government, which doesn't have the control or their legitimacy. In cases like this- The question of what will be after self-determination should be taken seriously.

I really loved the UNSDO idea. Relating to these sections, i do have some reservations and thoughts:

1. Right and duty All people, and all peoples, have the right to pursue self-determination; states, individually and collectively, have …


tomer dayagi
tomer dayagi
21 de fev. de 2018

That post definitely raised some interesting and important questions about our definition of people (The people), self-determination et cetera. I did not think about your proposal thoroughly enough so I could have a solid opinion about all the points you raised. But I did find some basic difficulties to except your proposal.

I hope I am not miss read or miss interpreted your proposal and if so my sincere apologies. I think that some of the definition that are on the table here are a bit fuzzy )in the sense of scale like definition of pile of sand) what makes a proposal which look on that definition in a black and white point of view to miss some of the…


18 de fev. de 2018

@Samar, I agree, the status-quo, including territorial integrity, is not sacred, but, to combine with @Barbara’s question: what is sacred? Do we hold, ought we hold, any political principle as truly above and beyond all others? Some might propose peace, prosperity, equality and so on – but these too beg the same question – why? what makes this value/virtue, rather than another, worthy of an axiom-like status?

I think our moral confusion has permeated our politics – local and global – to such an extent, that politics itself increasingly seems senseless. In that regard, cynicism (even more than age-old authoritarianism and populism) has become our contemporary “flight from freedom.”

Still, I’m hopeful, not (just) because I’m naïve, but because we’re…


Thanks for this. 

You write that one of the primary questions is whether self-determination is conducive or detrimental to peace. That is true; if anything, it underestimate what is at stake. The ongoing debate about self-determination is about its relationship (compatibility, commensurability,..) with all other values we have reason to care about, not just peace: notably equality, personal freedom, fairness, altruism/generosity, etc.

Another important and related question is whether self-determination is a moral right — and if so, what grounds it. 


Or Oved Erlich
Or Oved Erlich
15 de fev. de 2018

With that notion(liberalism is one of the best existing options) I completely agree:)

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