The right to self-determination

The phrase ‘all nations have the right to self-determination’ has been around for one hundred years since it was first coined by American president Woodrow Wilson as he prepared to sail to Europe for the Paris Peace conference of 1919. But what did Wilson mean by this phrase and is it any clearer today?


Woodrow_Wilson,_New_Jersey_Governor_-_1911 (2)

In 1919, Europe was reeling from the horrors of the Great War; the Tsarist regime in Russia had collapsed into revolution; the Austro-Hungarian Dual monarchy had dissolved into its constituent parts; new countries had emerged in central and eastern Europe; national borders had shifted and the victorious powers were keen to punish the Germans and to grab whatever spoils they could especially in the Middle-East. Into this cauldron of confusion Wilson’s grand statement rang out but what did it mean? What defined a nation? The people that lived in a geographical area? People that share a language, or an ethnicity or a religion? And what did self-determination mean? Your own government in an independent country? Your own government within a larger political structure, as Bohemia had been in the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy? And how is that self-determination achieved? In Wilson’s day it was predominantly men but how would they vote? First past the post can deliver results that favour a minority position. In multi-ethnic states, e.g. Serbia, proportional representation could effectively disenfranchise certain minorities. And then of course there were those messy complicated  human beings who could define themselves in three different ways, live in a country but speak a different language or didn’t agree with the boundaries as they were drawn by far away civil servants.

If all of this seems like an exercise in historical navel gazing then consider some of the questions around in Europe today. For those in the UK who voted to leave the EU, take back control and regain their sovereignty we know there is no consensus on what those phrases  means. For some in Scotland self-determination has been achieved by the return of the Scottish parliament to Edinburgh. For others, the Holyrood parliament is merely a stepping stone along the way. For some of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland self-determination will only be achieved when they join a completely different country. How can the issues of self-determination be finally settled  in Catalonia? The response of the Spanish Government to the 2017 referendum exposes the difficulties when self-determination comes up against an established larger ethnic group. And when we look at the Middle-East, one of the great victims of imperial greed, we see the tragedy that is Israel where the right to self-determination of the Palestinian and Jewish people are in direct opposition to each other.

History has a long reach and the past one hundred years in Europe has seen the consequences, some good and some bad, of the decisions taken at the Paris Peace Conference. Great phrases such as ‘the right to self-determination’, ‘take back control’ and ‘Brexit means Brexit’ have their place as political slogans and in rousing speeches but when the applause dies down it is time for some quiet reflection, some measured discussion and some clear explanations.

We live in a crowded Europe and the right to self-determination, no matter how strongly held, needs to be pursued with at least one eye on the consequences for our neighbours. Self-determination cannot be used as an excuse for, at best, the toleration of ‘others’ and, at worst, their exclusion and expulsion. At the end of 1919, Wilson, never a man to admit his own faults, told the US Congress that he had not considered the practical consequences of his famous phrase or that so many ‘nations’ would appear demanding their right to self-determination. Perhaps it might be an idea if some of our politicians learned a little of his humility.


For a more detailed look at Wilson’s attitudes to self-determination see Peacemakers by Margaret Macmillan, (John Murray publishers, 2002).

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