The dark side of self-determination

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

CAMBRIDGE: National self-determination seems a straightforward moral principle, but it is fraught with problems. After Russia sent troops into Georgia in August 2008, it recognized the independence of two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When few other states followed its example, Russia pointed out that the NATO countries had used force to help Kosovo separate from Serbia.

Self-determination is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. This is an important principle, but who is the self that is to do the determining?

Consider Somalia back in the 1960’s. Africans used the principle of self-determination to end colonial rule. Unlike many other African states, Somalis had roughly the same linguistic and ethnic background. In contrast, neighboring Kenya was formed by colonial rule from dozens of different peoples or tribes, with different linguistic backgrounds and customs. Part of northern Kenya was inhabited by Somalis.

Somalia said the principle of national self-determination should allow Somalis in northeastern Kenya (and in the southern Ethiopia) to secede, because they were one Somali nation. Kenya and Ethiopia refused, saying they were still in the process of building a nation. The result was a series of wars in northeast Africa over the Somali nationalist question. The ironic sequel was Somalia’s later fragmentation in a civil war among its clans and warlord leaders.

Voting does not always solve problems of self-determination. First, there is the question of where one votes. Consider Ireland, where for many years Catholics objected that if a vote were held within Northern Ireland, the two-thirds Protestant majority would rule. Protestants replied that if a vote were held within the geographical area of the entire island, the two-thirds Catholic majority would rule.

Eventually, after decades of strife, outside mediation helped. But this still does not address the question of when one votes. In the 1960’s, the Somalis wanted to vote right away; Kenya wanted to wait 40 or 50 years while it went about its nation-building, or reshaping tribal allegiances into a Kenyan identity.

Does secession harm those left behind? What about the resources the secessionists take with them, or the disruption they create in the country they leave?

For example, the victorious powers in World War I invoked the principle of self-determination, but after the dismantlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the Sudetenland was incorporated into Czechoslovakia, even though its inhabitants spoke German. After the Munich Agreement in 1938, the Sudeten Germans seceded from Czechoslovakia and joined Germany, which meant that the mountainous frontier fell under German control – a terrible loss for Czech defenses.

Similarly, when eastern Nigeria decided it wanted to secede and form the state of Biafra in the 1960s, other Nigerians resisted, in part because Biafra included most of Nigeria’s oil. They argued that the oil belonged to all of Nigeria’s people, not just the eastern area.

After 1989, the issue of self-determination became acute again in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the Caucasus, Azerbeijanis, Armenians, Georgians, Abkhazians, and Chechens all demanded states on the basis of self-determination. In Yugoslavia, the Slovenes, Serbs, and Croats managed to carve out independent republics in the early 1990’s, but the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina were less successful.

The war in Bosnia devastated the civilian population, and war-crimes tribunals were convened in The Hague, starting in 1996, to convict those responsible for the massacres. Part of what made the war in Bosnia so complicated for the international community was the problem of assessing how much of the fighting could be attributed to tensions among Bosnian Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, and how much of the violence was caused by Serbia’s intervention.

If this was not caused by simple aggression on the part of Serbia, then the only grounds for intervention would be to prevent a massacre. As with Rwanda in 1994, the international community was united in its condemnation of the Balkan violence, but was unable to agree on effective joint action until late in the conflict, in 1995, when a NATO peacekeeping force was sent to the troubled area.

Self-determination has turned out to be an ambiguous moral principle. Woodrow Wilson thought it would solve problems in central Europe in 1919, but it created as many as it solved. Adolf Hitler used the principle to undermine fragile states in the 1930’s. Today, with less than 10% of the world’s states being homogeneous, treating self-determination as a primary moral principle could have disastrous consequences in many regions.

The best hope for the future is to ask what is being determined as well as who determines it. In situations where groups have difficulties living together, it may be possible to allow a degree of autonomy in the determination of internal affairs. Internal self-determination could allow degrees of cultural, economic, and political autonomy similar to that which exists in countries like Switzerland or Belgium.

Where such loosening of the bonds is still not enough, it may be possible in some cases to arrange an amicable divorce, as happened when Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into two sovereign countries in 1993. But absolute demands for self-determination are likely to become a source of endless violence unless handled carefully.

Demands for self-determination in today’s world must be judged on a case-by-case basis that assesses the motives, means, and consequences involved, and that does so in a multilateral framework.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard and author of The Powers to Lead. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (

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