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The self-determination of peoples is a fundamental legitimating principle of the international system; it justifies the system’s very existence. Through a vast diachronic corpus and pertinent data sets, this article nevertheless reveals a puzzling decline in the public discourse on, and practice of, self-determination over the last 50 years. I identify and assess four structural explanations for this decline: “lexical change” (replacing self-determination with alternative terms); “silent hegemony” (taking the norm for granted); “reactive rhetoric” (echoing conflicts and new state formation post hoc); and “mission accomplished” (rectifying the incongruence between national boundaries and state borders). Complementing these structural causes with agential reasons, I further suggest 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. Self-determination, however, has not been eliminated, and taming it may yet prove a pyrrhic victory.
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We the Peoples? The Strange Demise of Self-Determination
Forthcoming, European Journal of International Relations [2016]
Uriel Abulof,
** Post-Refereeing Version. Click here for the final version **
The self-determination of peoples is a fundamental legitimating
principle of the international system; it justifies the systems very
existence. Through a vast diachronic corpus and pertinent datasets,
this paper nevertheless reveals a puzzling decline in the public
discourse on, and practice of, self-determination over the last fifty
years. I identify and assess four structural explanations for this
decline: lexical change (replacing self-determination with
alternative terms), silent hegemony(taking the norm for granted),
reactive rhetoric(echoing conflicts and new state formation post-
hoc), and mission accomplished (rectifying the incongruence
between national boundaries and state borders). Complementing
these structural causes with agential reasons, I further suggest 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. Self-determination, however, has not
been eliminated, and taming it may yet prove a Pyrrhic victory.
Keywords: self-determination, nationalism, legitimacy, discourse
analysis, ethnic conflict, state-nation mismatch
*LISD, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University,
Uriel Abulof is an Associate Professor of Politics at Tel-Aviv University and an LISD senior
research fellow at Princeton Universitys Woodrow Wilson School. He studies political
legitimation and violence, focusing on nationalism, democratization, revolutions and ethnic
conflicts. Abulof’s first book Living on the Edge: The Existential Uncertainty of Zionism (2015,
Haifa University Press) received Israels best academic book award (Bahat Prize). He recently
completed his second book, The Mortality of Morality of Nations (2015, Cambridge University
Press) and is the co-editor of Self-Determination: A Double-Edged Concept (forthcoming,
At the twilight of World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson (1918) enthroned the
peoples right of self-determination as a paramount principle of international legitimation, and
warned: “‘Self-determinationis not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action, which
statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril. Robert Lansing (1921:97-98.), Wilsons
Secretary of State, acknowledged the power of self-determination,but lamented, “The phrase is
simply loaded with dynamiteWhat a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it
will cause!Whose advice have we heeded? Has the Wilsonian moment” (Manela, 2007)
extended to a century of self-determination, fulfilling this imperative principle,or have world
leaders instead sought to terminate self-determination, or at least dismantle its “dynamite”?
Wilson helped fulfill his own prophecy. Self-determination has transcended a mere
phrase to become one of the most powerful of the legitimation strategies that shape world
politics (Goddard, 2009). After all, if state sovereignty has provided the basic institutional
framework of the society of states, it was national self-determination that came ever more to
provide the political power and the moral meaning to the idea of an international society
(Hurrell, 2007:121; see also Barkin and Cronin, 1994; Connor, 2002; Fabry, 2010; French, 2013;
Hall, 1999). The preamble to the UN charter thus declares its ostensible founders as “peoples,
not states: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined…”
Self-determination appears ubiquitous. Recent clashes over the fate of Kosovo, Kurdistan,
Catalonia, Cabinda, Crimea, and Scotland are just the tip of the iceberg, with now over 100
stateless nations pressing for greater self-determination around the globe(Cunningham, 2014).
Throughout the last century, observers could comment, and often did, that we live now in the
age of self-determination(Ronen, 1979:119). In the 21
century, too, self-determination seems
to be invoked by groups all over the world The assertion of national self-determination is
increasingly common (Hechter and Borland, 2001:203). So much so, that there may be no
other term in modern political discourse which is used with more emotion and passion
(Neuberger, 2001:391). Thus, as Crawford (2001:65) maintains, the principle of self-
determination shows no sign of disappearing from the language of international relations with the
virtual demise of Western colonialism.And Weitz (2015:462) confirms that no phrase has had
greater political resonance in the last one hundred years than self-determination’.” Indeed, one
would expect the public discourse on, as the struggle for, self-determination to be persistently
salient. But is it?
We lack clear answers. Research on the origins, ethics, legality, diplomatic practices, and
political implications of self-determination abounds (Dahbour, 2003; Fabry, 2010; French, 2013;
Ronen, 1979; Weller, 2008). Much less prevalent is scholarship on how and why discourse
pertaining to self-determinationhas changed since its inception (cf. Chernev, 2011; Simpson,
2012). This lacuna is unfortunate, since the edifice of legitimations is built upon language and
uses language as its principal instrumentality(Berger and Luckmann, 1967:64). We can tap into
the changing language of legitimation by analyzing the conceptual history of justificatory
principles (Abulof, 2015c; Ball et al., 1989). Self-determination, a paramount justificatory
principle, is a clear case in point and its discourse, as both Wilson and Lansing recognized, is thus
of the highest importance.
This paper analyzes and juxtaposes the expression and execution of self-determination
throughout the last century, focusing on its second half. Beyond amassing key datasets on the
historical practice of self-determination, I have compiled and analyzed vast corpora of public
discourses from the last century across diverse genres (over 1.5 billion words) in order to analyze
the vicissitudes of self-determination.My corpus analysis unearths an intriguing puzzle: over
the last fifty years (bar 1988-1991), self-determination discourse has substantially declined,
reaching an unprecedented ebb in the 2000s.
The paper explains the decline of self-determination as a dialectical learning process,
moral and practical. I identify and critically examine four structural causes for this decline. First,
self-determination may have been replaced by alternative terms bearing a similar meaning
(“lexical change”). Second, self-determination may have attained a silent hegemony,becoming
so deeply embedded in the international societys norms as to render its explicit invocation
redundant (Goertz and Diehl, 1992; Hechter and Borland, 2001; Legro, 1997). Third, self-
determination discourse may be merely reactive rhetoric,echoing, post-hoc, ethnonational
conflicts and the creation of new states. As these have subsided, so has the discourse (Gleditsch,
2013). Fourth, national movements may have rectified the nation-state mismatch”—the
incongruence between national boundaries and state-borders (Miller, 2007; Wimmer and
Feinstein, 2010)—and thus no longer need to speak in the name of self-determination (“mission
Finally, the paper goes beyond the analysis of structural causes to interpret why and how
powerful state actors and persuasive academics have tried to tame self-determination as both
principle and practice: keeping the term but changing its meaning from a source of threat into a
resource for containing it. I show how the tamers,” mostly from the West, have dialectically
worked on dismantling self-determinations most explosive fuse: revisionist ethnonationalism.
Still, the taming of national self-determination has not terminated it, and may turn out to be a
Pyrrhic victory. Listening to Lansing’s lament, we should heed Wilson’s warning.
The Puzzle
Whether the modern nation is a sleeping beauty awaiting historys kiss or
Frankenstein's monsterfabricated by devious elites, its first expression is self-determination.
National self-determinations modern novelty lies in holding the peopleas the supreme source
of political legitimacy (Connor, 2002; Gilbert, 1998; Yack, 2012). Self-determination thus turns
Renans metaphor of the nation as a daily plebiscite into an moral imperative, often spliced
with referendums to infer the Rousseauian “general will of the people (Qvortrup, 2014).
Its Enlightenment origin notwithstanding, self-determination was reconceived over a
century ago as the love child of socialism and liberalism. Lenin was pivotal, infusing national
self-determinationinto the early discussions of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the
manifesto of the 1917 Provisional Government, and the 1917/18 Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations
(Chernev, 2011). Later championed by Wilson, self-determination likewise loomed over the
deliberations at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.
The Conference did not deliver on the promise of empowering all peoples, but it let the
genie out of the bottle. The universal prescription of self-determination surpassed the confines of
elite discourse, at last reaching its declared masters, the peoples, worldwide. Despite Wilsons
original intention, self-determination went beyond democratization and anti-imperialism (Walzer,
1982:1-28). Both proponents and opponents recognized self-determination as harboring
revisionist ethnonationalismand its abiding quest for both new states and redrawn borders
(Barkin and Cronin, 1994; Beissinger, 2002:18-19; Emerson, 1971:463; Gat and Yakobson, 2013;
Gellner, 2006; Gidon, 1994; Hurrell, 2007:121-142; Reus-Smit, 2001:534). National self-
determination was now at the center of the discourse of legitimacy in international relations,
establishing the self-determining nation-state as the only legitimate political form throughout the
globe” (Manela, 2007:5). The transition from 1648 to 1848—from a Westphalian interstate to an
international systemseemed well underway (Hall, 1999).
Self-determination acquired its original broad appeal from liberalism, socialism, and
nationalism, becoming their only normative common ground. It was the single shared principle to
which FDR, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler explicitly subscribed. The concept so dominated
-century political discourse that no prominent leader from any of these camps dared speak
against it. This may have prompted Hannum (1996:27) to conclude, Perhaps no contemporary
norm of international law has been so vigorously promoted or so widely accepted as the right of
all peoples to self-determination.”
How might we investigate the dynamics of this paramount principle over the past
century? IR scholars have shown how norms, often understood as standards of behavior,shape
politics while being shaped by identities, cultures, habits, emotions and norm entrepreneurs
(Barkin and Cronin, 1994), ascribing a lesser role to moral reasoning and public justification (cf.
Abulof, 2016b; Ben-Josef Hirsch, 2014). This is my focus: analyzing discourse to trace and
explicate the evolving values that inform political behavior. Ultimately, as this paper shows, ideas
travel through the interplay between their spatiotemporal spread and contraction (external travel)
and the shifts in their meaning (internal travel). Self-determination is no exception, featuring
change and continuity in discourse and practice alike. In this section, I expound my methodology
and data, and present the central puzzle: the marked decline of self-determination discourse.
Methodology: Unpacking the Language of Legitimation through Concepts Analysis
Political legitimacy is a notoriously elusive object for empirical inquiry. Political
legitimationthe process of legitimacy making (and unmaking)is more accessible. This paper
joins in the burgeoning scholarship that probes political legitimation through language, drawing
mainly on public discourse (Barkin and Cronin, 1994; Crawford, 2002; Goddard, 2010; Moyn,
The diachronic analysis of normative concepts is especially apt for tapping into the
language of legitimation (Abulof, 2015c). Such analysis traces the historical plasticity of
concepts to illuminate larger sociolinguistic processes (Ball et al., 1989). Indeed, to understand
conceptual change is in large part to understand political change, and vice versa,for by tracing
the emergence, transformation, and sometimes the demise of key political conceptsconceptual
histories contribute to genuinely historical thinking about politics” (Farr, 1989:25, 37). Normative
concepts have a unique place in this endeavor. They are not merely informative but appraisive,
and often signify prescriptive principles. Self-determination is a case in point, and considering
the importance of this concept in the modern language of legitimation, discourse analysis is vital
in decoding it (Castellino, 2000:7).
To explicate the diachronic discourse on self-determination, I combine corpus linguistics
and discourse-tracing. Corpus linguistics is the study of natural (real-life) language data on a
large, computer-aided, scale (Mcenery and Hardie, 2012). It utilizes vast collections of digitized
texts, representative of a particular language variety, to uncover linguistic patterns of change and
continuity, such as frequency, diachronic variation, and collocations (terms frequently occurring
near each other).
Discourse-tracing can help us validate or rebut the corpus linguisticsfindings. It signifies
the systemic and historically informed hermeneutics of talk and text, emphasizing content over
form, context over texture (Wodak, 2011). Subscribing to a Weberian Verstehen (understanding),
it stresses agential reasoning, and investigates it through the agentsown argumentative strategies
(Van Leeuwen, 2008:105-123). In political science and IR, it looks for the powerful and
persuasive agents best positioned to propagate their views. Together, corpus linguistics and
discourse-tracingboth adhering to non-naïve falsifiabilitycan uncover and decipher the
diachronic evolution of key political concepts, such as self-determination.
Data: Corpora of Public and Political Discourse
My analysis draws on several corpora. While most are Western, they include non-Western
discourses. The base corpora are the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), 400
million words, 1810-2009; the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), 425 million
words, 1990-2012; and the TIME Magazine Corpus, 100 million words, 1923-2006 (Davies,
2010). These three corpora (henceforth CCT”) provide the best available representation of
modern English public and academic discourses. Beyond Google Books, CCT are the largest and
the most widely used modern corpora. Unlike Google Books, COHA and COCA cover a wide
range of genres, divided between fiction, magazines, newspapers, non-fiction/academic books,
and—in COCAacademic journals and spoken sources (transcripts of nearly 150 different TV
and radio programs) as well. COHA and TIME provide an excellent long-term coverage, and
COCA complements them by focusing on discourses since 1990.
To further verify and fine-tune CCT findings, I have also compiled a dedicated corpus: the
Nationalism, Ethnicity and Self-Determination index (NESDi), consisting of all New York
Times (NYT) and Washington Post (WP) articles containing the term self-determination from
1881 to 2014 (over 15,000 full-text articles; about 15 million words of NYT and 7 million of WP).
The NYT is especially useful for its diachronically steady bias toward foreign news(Hamilton
and Lawrence, 2012:7). German corpora, such as ePol (1949-2011) and DWDS (20
further enrich the data beyond English sources. Finally, I have also included the best available
corpora of non-Western diachronic political discourses: BBC Worldwide Monitoring (1979-2014;
500 million words), focusing on Africa and the Middle East, and Google News (2002-2014).
While their shorter time span precludes robust conclusions, their data corroborates my findings.
To improve content validity, I examined discursive trends by conducting diachronic word
frequency analysis on both the number of tokens/mentions (in CCT) and the number of articles
(in NESDi) per year, measured both absolutely and relatively (tokens per million / articles per
thousand, respectively). Using advanced search functions (text string, date, genres, concordance,
and collocations) in both CCT and the ProQuest/LexisNexis databases, I created datasets on
self-determination” tokens/articles from 1910 to 2013 (supplemental data #1, #2, #3).
The Discursive Demise of Self-Determination
Word frequency analysis, in both absolute and relative terms, suggests remarkably similar
findings across all corpora. Charting the waxing and waning of self-determination discourse,
these corpora indicate its post-WWI inception, the relative decline thereafter, an eminent rise
during the 1950s and early 1960s, and an ongoing decline ever since (Figure 1).
Figure 1 - Trends in References to “Self-determinationin COHA, COCA, TIME (CCT),
BBC Worldwide Monitoring and NESDi/NYT, 1910-2013
The fine-grained NESDi/NYT findings (Figure 2 and Figure 6) indicate four major peaks:
(1) the Wilsonian moment(1917-1921); (2) the years leading up to World War II (1938-1939);
(3) the heyday of decolonization (1955-1962), with an all-time high in 1961; and (4) the twilight
of the Cold War (1988-1991).
Figure 2 - Trends in NYT References to “Self-determinationand New States Formation,
These peaks are interesting and indicative, but this paper’s puzzle lies in the various
declines, which refute a possible expectation that besides short-terms rises, self-determination
discourse remains constant. I am specifically intrigued by the last decline, which is also the
longest, exhibiting a gradual, fluctuating, fall, and is obviously the most relevant to contemporary
politics. All corpora evince that self-determination discourse has drastically and gradually
declined in the last fifty years (bar 1988-91), accelerating its fall in the last generation, and
reaching an unprecedented low in the 2000s (88% overall decline since the 1960s, two thirds of it
since 1992) (supplemental data #1). It is instructive to compare the ratio of self-determination
discourse per new states in the discourse’s three major peaks (Figure 2; supplemental data #3).
During the post-WWI period, self-determination discourse substantially outweighed new state
formation; during decolonization the trends evened up; and with the dissolution of the USSR and
Yugoslavia, the discourse fell behind. This suggests the fading of self-determination discourse
even during its presumed acme.
Recent qualitative studies on self-determination movements and their discourses likewise
indicate this downward trend (Eisenberg et al., 2014). Indeed, Western leaders have rarely evoked
the explicit language of self-determinationeither to endorse the independence of Kosovo and
South Sudan, or to oppose the secession of South Ossetia, Azawad, Kurdistan, or Crimea
(Oklopcic, 2014). Often enough, even separatist leaderships, such as the Scottish National Party,
have been wary of employing “self-determinationto legitimate their plea.
To be sure, self-determination is not dead. Actors involved in contested lands, such as
Kashmir, Nagorno-Karabakh, Western Sahara, and, most recently, Crimea, occasionally invoke it.
Moreover, as I propose in the conclusion, self-determination may be on the cusp of revival. But
over the last fifty years, self-determination discourse has been in decline. Why?
The Multicausal Mosaic
Numerous forces may have brought about the demise of self-determination. This section
expounds four plausible structural causes. Each shows whether self-determination has become
contested by other terms and meanings, whether it has remained prescriptive, and how much it
resonates with pertinent beliefs and practices.
1. Lexical Change
Self-determinations discursive decline may be due to a lexical change. Altered states of
matter and morality can induce such changes. The post-1941 substitution of World War I for
the Great War is a case in point. The signifier has changed; the signified has not. The same may
apply to self-determination: other terms, with similar denotation, may have superseded it. Related
political terms that have long been in constant use may be sufficiently analogous with self-
determination to replace it.
To assess the lexical changeaccount, I have conducted a diachronic word frequency test
on seven possible alternative terms (autonomy, independence, secession, self-government, home
rule, self-rule, and sovereignty) as well as “referendumor plebiscite.” Both COHA and TIME
corpora evince that over the last generation all these terms have been in decline, which often
started several decades earlier (Figure 3; supplemental data #4, #5). Notably, “autonomyrises
from 1960s-1980s, and only then declines, partly correlating with the rise of secessionist
movements (see below). Granted, actors may occasionally invoke these terms instead of self-
determination, but overall the lexical changeaccount is not very compelling. Moreover, it does
not in itself explain why such a change transpired.
Figure 3 - Trends in References to Alternative Keywords (COHA)
Paradoxically, the weakness of this account may be its main merit. It suggests that
something bigger than the mere rhetoric of self-determination has receded. Self-determinations
discursive decline has indeed left space for analogous terms to take its place. That this did not
transpire, and that those terms have likewise declined, may indicate that the demise of self-
determination has also undermined the rationale for their usage. It underscores self-determination
as a legitimating, prescriptive principle. Conversely, terms such as self-government, secession,
autonomy and referendum signify practical remedies for tensions and conflicts through the
possible implementation of self-determination.
Comparative collocation analysis corroborates self-determinations uniqueness. Drawing
on CCT and BBC, I examined how frequently certain words appear near self-determination,
compared with autonomy, self-government, and self-rule. The findings are remarkably similar
and robust across all corpora (supplemental data #6, #7, #8). Self-determination is closely and
strongly related to moral and national collocates (such as principle, right/s, people/s, nation/s),
whereas the other terms are closely and strongly related to demarcating terms (such as local,
provincial, cultural, interim, internal, and limited).
History has provided ample evidence for the distinctive transformative capacity of
uttering self-determination.For example, President Charles de Gaulles address to the French
nation on the Algerian War (September 16, 1959) reached its apex when he declared, I deem it
necessary that recourse to self-determination be here and now proclaimed. Horne (2006:346)
depicted this proclamation as a true watershed; nothing that went before was any longer
relevant, and nothing could be the same again. There could no longer be any convincing prospect
of Algérie française. The genie was out of the bottle; once the fateful word self-determination
was spoken, it could never be corked up again.”
2. Silent Hegemony
We expect discourse to correspond with belief. Even if speakers are insincere, they
usually expect their words to resonate with, and foster, their audience’s beliefs (Crawford,
2002:48-50, 144). Thus, a decline in a principles public discourse typically suggests its retreat
from public thought and practice. However, principles might also vanish from discourse because
they increasingly resonate with widespread beliefs and practices until taken for granted. A
hegemonic concept may lurk in the background without explicit invocation, silently informing
derivative utterances. This perhaps was the destiny of self-determination, its discourse becoming
redundant as it suffused the norms of the international society (Goertz and Diehl, 1992; Hechter
and Borland, 2001; Legro, 1997). This does not necessarily mean that self-determinations
mission has been practically accomplished (see below), only that its prescription has become self-
evident in common beliefs.
The silent hegemonyaccount faces some difficulties. If self-determination has become
commonsense, we should stipulate when it became so and expect a concomitant linear decline in
its discourse. Subsequent abrupt rises in the discourse would then make little sense. The corpus
linguistics findings, however, suggest several swift rises in self-determination discourse (1917-
1921, 1937-1939, 1954-1957, 1959-1964, 1988-1991). To be sure, it might be that self-
determination reached hegemony only in the last generation, but we should then be able to
explain why just then, and further expose the account to possible refutation if another discursive
rise transpires.
Moreover, if self-determination has ascended to a silent hegemony status, becoming
effectively de-contested, we should expect actors to regard its rhetorical remnants as trivial.
However, the precise meaning of self-determination, in both principle and practice, is still
fiercely debated, as recently demonstrated by the clash over Russias pretension to champion the
cause of the Crimean peoples right to self-determination. Indeed, the biggest challenge to self-
determination today is that it means different things to different peoples(Castellino, 2000:7).
This qualitative observation does not contradict the quantitative findings on the discursive
decline, but it does suggest that when actors do invoke self-determination, they often end up
debating its meaning.
Although the silent hegemonyaccount does not carry the most explanatory weight, it
should not be dismissed, for it highlights the need to explicate what actors mean by thinking
about, and saying, self-determination.” First, while actors debate who may exercise self-
determination and for what political goals, few denounce self-determination as such, creating a
hollow hegemony of sorts. In this regard, national self-determination became a doxa, an
unreflected, hegemonic idea(Weitz, 2015:464). Second, the equation of self-determination with
anti-imperialism and decolonization may foster a meaningful hegemony: the proscriptive norm
against colonialism has indeed reached a near-consensus in both theory and practice (Jackson,
1990). This, however, begs the question of what, and who, engendered such conceptual change.
3. Reactive Rhetoric
The preceding sections may make too much out of self-determination discourse. Self-
determination may have started as a prescriptive principle but over time has become a descriptive
principle: a reactive rhetoric used by observers to make post hoc sense of certain political
changes, most conspicuously ethnic conflicts, civil wars and the founding of new states. As these
have subsided, goes the third account, so has the discourse, and we should expect a high post hoc
correlation between these trends.
Quantitative findings are suggestive. Overall, interethnic cooperation is much more
prevalent than ethnic violence (Laitin, 2007). Moreover, ethnic and civil wars are not always
about self-determination, and not all secessionist wars are ethnonational (Sambanis and
Schulhofer-Wohl, 2009). Still, war, ethnic conflicts included, seems to be on the wane, partly
corresponding with the decline in self-determination discourse.
However, ethnic conflict trends
do not correlate well with the fifty-year decline in self-determination discourse. The post-1945
surge of armed conflicts reversed only in 1993, and leveled off in the early 2000s, returning to its
mid-1970s extent (Figure 4). Furthermore, since 1945 ethnonationalism has underpinned an
increased proportion of armed conflicts, eclipsing wars of conquest, interstate war, and non-
ethnic civil wars (Wimmer, 2013; supplemental data #11). Finally, the post-1988 correlation
suggests self-determination’s proactive, not reactive, role: self-determination discourse increases
before the rise in ethnic conflicts, and decreases before their fall (the same goes for secessionist
movements, see below and Figure 6). Interestingly, a similar lag boosts the correlation between
self-determination discourse and coups d'état; the former might breed the latter more frequently
than the other way around (data draws on Marshall and Marshall, 2013; supplemental data #11).
The findings draw on data combining UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset, 1946-2009 (Gleditsch et al.,
2002) and EPR’s Ethnic Armed Conflict dataset (Cederman et al., 2010). It also correlates with Walter,
2009 and Minorities at Risk Project, 2009. On the waning war thesis, see Gleditsch, 2013.
Figure 4 - Self-determination Discourse and Ethnic Conflict
Longer correlation exists between the rate of new states formation and the discursive
trends (r = .53): throughout the last century, the highs and lows of the establishment of new states
often coincide with the variation in the talk and text on self-determination (Figure 2). This
correlation is far from perfect, but seems hardly coincidental. However, as noted above, the ratio
of discourse to new states has greatly declined in the last century. Moreover, as with ethnic
conflicts and state instability, the data suggests a viable proactive role for self-determination
discourse. The latter has typically gathered upward momentum before and throughout the
establishment of new states, often accompanied by plebiscites. Qualitative studies likewise
accentuate self-determination’s prescriptive capacity. Agents turned to it to justify the
establishment of new states and the redrawing of state borders throughout the “Wilsonian
moment,Nazi expansion, and decolonization (Connor, 1967; Manela, 2007). Self-determination
has remained prescriptive in the twilight of the Cold War, rapidly diffusing among national
movements, most notably in Armenian, Baltic, Slovenian, and Croat discourses (Muiznieks,
The reactive rhetoricaccount is nonetheless a valuable piece of the puzzle. Self-
determination can be prescriptive for some, descriptive for others. And certainly, actors, not least
Western media, also employ self-determination to make sense, post hoc, of conflicts and new
states. Still, to the extent that state formation has become a mainspring for self-determination
discourse rather than the other way around, another question emerges. The threefold increase in
membership of the interstate system since 1945 (from 64 to nearly 200 today) has attracted apt
scholarly attention (Fazal and Griffiths, 2014; Wimmer and Feinstein, 2010). But we may equally
wonder about its flipside: Why dont we see more states, and more changes of their borders,
driven by peoples calling for national self-determination, a principle conceived to legitimate
transformation rather than to echo the status quo? The next account suggests an answer but
ultimately compounds the mystery.
4. Mission Accomplished
If self-determination has remained proactive, its mission is to alleviate the nation-state
mismatch”—to absolve modern politics from its chronic incongruence between national
boundaries and state borders (Barkin and Cronin, 1994; Connor, 1967; Gellner, 2006:1-7, 118-
130; Hurrell, 2007:121-142; Miller, 2007). Accordingly, we might expect a direct relationship
between the nation-state mismatch and self-determination discourse: the higher the mismatch, the
more nationalists speak in the name of self-determination. It stands to reason, then, that the
dramatic decline in self-determination discourse mirrorsand is driven by—a drastic reduction
in the incongruence between nationalities and states. There is simply little room or reason for
fighting and speaking in the name of self-determination. It has largely accomplished its mission.
Assessment of the relative weight of this persuasive account depends on how we measure
the congruence between national boundaries and state borders. The latter are easy enough to
decipher. There is no denying the worldwide rise of states in modern times (Wimmer and
Feinstein, 2010). In the 20
century, the international society has effectively rendered every land,
save Antarctica, into the real estate of a state. The number and borders of states are well
documented. But it is less clear how we should identify national identity, measure national
sentiment, and demarcate nations. Nation is a highly protean and heavily contested concept
(Gilbert, 1998). A persistent practice, especially in the US and the EU, is to conflate nation with
state (Muller, 2008). Obviously, if the two concepts are coextensive, their congruence is perforce
perfect. If states, and only states, are by definition also nations, the mission” itself makes little
sense. Indeed, the very notion of “national self-determinationbecomes untenable.
However, most scholars eschew such conflation. Some employ civic nationsto signify
societies as populations of discrete states, and ethnic nations to denote politicized peoples of
imagined kinship. This distinction may go too far, since the two heavily intertwine (Gat and
Yakobson, 2013:260-312). But it unearths what is implicit in the nation-state mismatch:
incongruence between intergenerational ethno-cultural communities and impersonal geopolitical
units (Van Evera, 1994; Yack, 2012).
To be sure, geodemographic realities prevent perfect congruence between states and
nations, let alone ethnies. Still, measured against optimal, not maximal, congruence, the
contemporary nation-state mismatch remain substantial. First, multiple (mostly ethnic) peoples
are still stateless; for example, Acehnese, Avar, Baloch, Bashkir, Basque, Cabindan, Catalan,
Chechen, Chuvash, Dargwa, Diola (Jola), Flemish, Igbo, Inuit, Kabarday, Kabyle, Kalmyk,
Karachay, Kurdish, Rohingya, Saharawi, Shan, Sikh, Sindhi, Tamil, Tatar, Tibetan, Tuareg,
Uyghur, Yorubaand this is a very incomplete list. These peoples have demanded, even fought
for, greater independence (not always statehood), and thus far failed to achieve it.
Second, modern states are multiethnic. Except for very rare instances of relatively
homogenous states (e.g. Albania, Bangladesh, Comoros, Japan, Norway, Portugal), nearly all
countries worldwide include ethnic minorities, occasionally close to their kin state (e.g. Nagorno
Karabakh, Crimea). In some cases, noted above, these ethnies constitute nationsby seeking
Third, even monoethnic states may partake in the nation-state mismatch. For example, the
two Koreas are monoethnic, but their very (separate) existences arguably go against self-
determinations mission to alleviate the incongruence between national boundaries and state
borders. “Religious nationalism” further complicates the nation-state mismatch. For example,
Lebanon, largely monoethnic, is riddled with religious sectarianism.
Tellingly, key datasets posit that while ethnic heterogeneity changes between states, it
rarely changes over time. Despite drawing on observations taken decades apart, data on
ethnolinguistic fractionalization, ethnic polarization, transborder ethnic kin, and politically
relevant ethnic groups stays in the mean within an interval of .06 (Figure 5) (Alesina et al., 2003;
Cederman et al., 2013; Desmet et al., 2012; Montalvo and Reynal-Querol, 2005; Posner, 2004;
supplemental data #12). Ethnic groupsaccess to political power has also remained largely
constant from 1946 to 2009, with the notable exception of Africa, in which political participation
swells from 1959 to 1960 and rises moderately in the 2000s (Figure 5) (Wimmer, 2013;
supplemental data #12). Whether greater political power suggests elevated or diminished
ethnonational identification and aspiration cannot be directly inferred (Sambanis and Shayo,
Figure 5 - Ethnolinguistic Fractionalization, Politically Relevant Ethnic Groups, and
Ethnic GroupsAccess to Political Power (EPR) by Continent
Granted, these invaluable datasets are imperfect. The elusiveness of ethnic identities and
national sentiments propels us to rely rather heavily on the ethnolinguistic proxy, which may
miss the political potency of civic national sentiments (e.g. Switzerland, US) and non-national
ethnicities (e.g. Maasai, Rusyns).
However, studies that synthesize statistics and case studies likewise suggest that
contemporary nations and states remain at odds, despite the seemingly impressive birthrate of
states. For example, the Center for International Development and Conflict Management
identifies 339 ethnic groups (1940-2005), of which 146 (43%) initiated a self-determination
movement, about half escalating to violence (Minorities at Risk Project, 2009). Overall, this data
indicates a general trend of an increase in self-determination movements since 1960, with a
sharp jump at the end of the Cold War(Cunningham, 2011:278; supplemental data #13). More
specifically, the number of secessionist movements indicates efforts to rectify the nation-state
mismatch. Not surprisingly, like self-determination discourse, secession ascended in the
Wilsonian moment and during decolonization. However, unlike the discourse, secessionism
continued to increase into the early 1990s, with more than fifty secessionist movements still
active today (Figure 6) (Fazal and Griffiths, 2014; supplemental data #14).
Figure 6 - Self-Determination Discourse and Secessionist Movements
Miller (2007) submits that since 1945 and into the 21
century, the world remains plagued
by both too few states(e.g. sub-Sahara Africa) and too many states(e.g. North/South Korea,
East/West Germany). Following Van Evera (1994), he surveys all major armed conflicts since
1945, showing that the end of the Cold War lowered neither their rate nor the proportion of
conflicts driven by the nation-state mismatch (which accounts for about 60% of all conflicts, both
before and after 1991). Walter (2009:3) further finds that self-determination disputes are the
most likely to escalate to war and the most likely to resist compromise settlement. Coggins
(2011:437) concludes: “The number of ongoing independence projects has not dipped below fifty
since World War II.”
Decolonization has not expunged the nation-state mismatch (Fearon, 2003; Posner, 2004).
While self-determination discourse increased during decolonization, elites who led
independence or national liberation movements under the doctrine of national self-determination
often had no nation to liberate(cited in Archibugi, 2003:496). Moreover, both quantitative and
qualitative studies on Africa and Asia suggest that to the extent that nation-building, as distinct
from state-building, succeeded, it often took an ethnic form and clashed with state borders
(Englebert, 2000; Jackson, 1990). Thus, Fabry notes, the process of decolonization did not put a
stop to demands of independence; they have arisen in both post-colonial and non-colonial
settings. There is widespread acknowledgment that the idea of self-determination has not
exhausted itself” (Fabry, 2010:219; see also Castellino, 2000:147-172).
The dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, heralding the postCold War era, are
typically understood as self-determination incarnate (Neuberger, 2001:391; Roshwald, 2011). The
former disintegrated into fifteen republics, the latter into seven countriesand still counting.
However, numerous state-to-nation imbalances remain in the newly formed polities (e.g. Estonia,
Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, and Russia
itself) (Cederman, 1997). In the post–Cold War era as before, the uti possidetis juris of states has
usually overridden national self-determination: preserving existent colonial borders upon
decolonization and administrative borders upon dissolution (Carter and Goemans, 2011). Perhaps
consequently, recent surveys suggest resurgent ethnonational sentiments across Eastern Europe,
especially Russia, with majorities believing that there are parts of neighboring countries that
really belong to us (Pew Global Attitudes Project, 2009:57). Thus, across most of Asia and
Africa, the mission of national self-determination seems far from accomplished.
The Americas and most of Europe present a different picture. In the Americas, civic
nations have largely prevailed. In Western and Central Europe, the nation-state mismatch has
substantially declined since the French revolution. It is not incidental that Europe—about a fifth
of Asias population and size, and a third of Africas sizehas about as many states as each
(about fifty). However, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. Czechoslovakias dissolution), this
process had already consolidated in the wake of the two world wars, with the establishment of
new states, the redrawing of their borders, and massive population movements. It cannot account
for the gradual decline in self-determination discourse since the 1960s. Moreover, the Western
nation-state mismatch has not been completely resolved, as evinced by the cases of the Québécois
in Canada, the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Flemish in Belgium, and the Scots and Irish in
the UK (Friend, 2012). About a third of Europes ethnic groups form the majority in at least one
statea ratio far exceeding Asia and Africa, but still one suggesting actual and potential nation-
state mismatch.
However, the mission accomplishedaccount is the most significant of the four. First,
while the nation-state mismatch remains high, and certainly has not declined to the extent of self-
determination discourse, it has abated. In certain cases, the mismatch has been largely resolved
(e.g. the unification of Germany, the split of Czechoslovakia). It was further reduced with the
dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia. While engendering states with substantial ethnic
minorities, often along the new borders, this process provided some ethnic peoples with states
they can call their own (e.g. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) (Roshwald, 2011). Many of
the remaining stateless peoples are rather small and weak.
Second, the mission of national self-determination is dynamic, involving, as human
affairs do, a learning process. Metaphorically, the hyphen of the nation-state is an arrow of
legitimation, its direction indeterminate. A stateless nation may engender statehood; a nationless
state may foster nationhoodoften through language politics (Laitin, 2007). New multiethnic
states, such as Estonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, East Timor and South Sudan, may yet create civic
nations, reducing the nation-state mismatch. The waning war thesis (above) may also suggest that
states and peoples have learned to handle the mismatch using non-violent solutions—modifying
their mobilizing aspirations to what they regarded as materially viable and morally valid, often
through autonomy and power-sharing arrangements (Abulof, 2016a).
Such learning processes, alongside the lingering nation-state mismatch, beg the bigger
question of the impaired practice, not merely the declining discourse, of national self-
determination. To make this puzzle yet more concrete, we should realize that the important
quandary of why the USSR imploded has a flipside: Why have such implosions not happened
more often, both before and after 1991? To answer that the USSR was the last empire is not
entirely convincing. Before the USSRs collapse, most observers did not consider or denounce it
as an empire”: “the real issue that needs to be explained is how a polity once almost universally
construed as a state came to be universally condemned as an empire(Beissinger, 2002:6). Time
will tell if other big multiethnic states such as China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria,
and indeed Russia, will not eventually be dubbed empires of sorts (Fazal and Griffiths,
2014:83; Gat and Yakobson, 2013:353-359). Moreover, considering the inception of self-
determination as the epitome of nationalism, not a surrogate for the anti-imperialism, we should
ask: Why did the USSR (much like Yugoslavia) implode as it didalong administrative, not
ethnonational, lines?
These quandaries also echo through the practical epitome of self-determination:
referendums. Of the various plebiscites designed to address the nation-state mismatch,
ethnonational referendums seeking to right-size” states according to their respective nations
reigned supreme from 1791 to 1949, repeatedly re-charting borders in Europe. Thereafter,
especially since the late 1960s, they all but vanished. Instead, non-Western peoples were typically
asked to vote in plebiscites about secession along colonial/administrative lines or about managing
their ethnic differences without violating the territorial integrity of their respective states.
A Missing Piece: The Taming of Self-Determination
The previous section pieced together four causes for the decline of self-determination,
roughly ordered from the least to the most compelling account. Still, in the social sciences, we
can enrich our explanations by complementing structural causes with the intersubjective
reasoning of agents. Natural selection is unconscious, but socio-political evolution is also driven
by deliberate, even deliberative, social actors. Political concepts are what we make of them, and
self-determination is no exception. After all, “conceptual histories must explain the emergence
and transformation of concepts as outcomes of actors using them for political purposes (Farr,
The four structural accounts raise important questions. How can we explain the lack of
alternative terms to fill the gap created by the decline of self-determination, its transformation
Data adjusted from Qvortrup, 2014; supplemental data #10. The 2014 Crimean plebiscite is a qualified
exception to this trend, and, as I suggest in the conclusion, a possible sign of things to come.
from an ethnonational to an anti-colonial principle, that self-determination often reflects, rather
than triggers, geopolitical changes, and that the nation-state mismatch lingers? The explanatory
mosaic above may have a missing piece, inviting us to shift our methodological gaze towards
interpretive inquiry. This exploratory section does so by revealing agents watering down the
meaning of self-determination in order to curb both its discourse and practice. It reveals key
actors seeking not to correct the nation-state mismatch but to master the principle of national self-
determination in order to manage its practice. Indeed, if a nation is a community of people
organized around the idea of self-determination (Nodia, 1992:11), then perhaps (ethnic)
nationalism itself is dyingor tentatively tamed.
Who precipitated the demise of national self-determination? First in line are state leaders
and diplomats, who have had much at stake when it comes to self-determinations revisionist
potency (Simpson, 2012). Well-established states did not require self-determination to justify
their existence, but state leaders could employ its discourse and pertinent practices (e.g.
population transfer and plebiscites) to legitimate themselves (e.g. Napoleon) and their policies,
not least for expanding influence and territory (e.g. Hitler, Putin). However, self-determination
could just as easily backfire: delegitimizing multinational states, unpopular regimes, and
imperialist policies. Indeed, even Hitler shied away from claiming areas where plebiscites had
drawn borders (e.g. the 1919 Schleswig Plebiscites). For states, this potent duality rendered self-
determination a perilous principle, explosive in the wrong hands—and mouths.
Seeing self-determination as a discursive wild card that must be tamed, strong state
actors could draw on their superior power over peoples to become effective tamers.”
Importantly, ever since the Wilsonian moment,states, not peoples, have determined self-
determination. When the President talks of self-determination’,” asked Lansing (1921:97-98),
what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community? Lansing
wanted states to master self-determination, and his reasoning resonated well with practitioners
and scholars alike (Weller, 2008; Woodwell, 2007:18-39). Sir Ivor Jennings (1956:56), a
distinguished British lawyer and academic, explained: On the surface it seemed reasonable: let
the people decide. It was in fact ridiculous, because the people cannot decide until someone
decides who are the people.States and experts readily dispensed with this ridicule to become
that decisive “someone”; in the chronicles of self-determination, the real rarely matched the ideal
(Abulof, 2015a).
The role of experts in substituting state-determination for peoples self-determination is
intriguing. Politicians, especially in autocracies and democratizing countries, hold sway over the
masses through the supply, and distribution of, information, often augmenting nationalism
(Snyder, 2000). However, politicians are tainted with bias and greed, their reasoning seen as
masking self-interest. Academicsrevered for scientific objectivity and intellectual honesty, and
Corpus linguistics on “nationalism” reveals strong correlation (r = .74) with the demise of “self-
determination” (supplemental data #15).
equipped with the knowledge to substantiate their contentionsare better positioned to
persuasively remake the publics notions of right and wrong, especially in liberal societies.
Granted, academics are not always listened to, they do not speak with a single voice, nor merely
echo their politicians. But when many academics do converge on a core message (e.g. global
warming), becoming an epistemic community,” they can add intellectual persuasion to state
power (Haas, 1992). Notably, disaggregating to genres the discourse on self-determination
reveals that its fall in newspapers and magazines coincides with its rise in scholarly works
(Figure 7) (supplemental data #9).
Figure 7 - Self-determination’s Tokens per Genre (COHA, 1910-2009)
In this section, I qualitatively trace how both politicians and academics, mostly in the
West, have sought to remove self-determination from the realm of revisionist ethnonationalism.
Hailing from the North America, the beacon of civic nationalism, and Western Europe, where
revisionist ethnonationalism has already reduced the nation-state mismatch, they have purported
support for self-determination while working on taming it.
I consider the taming of self-determination a non-linear learning process. The fluctuating
decline of self-determination reflects the learning curve of relevant social actors, tamers and
tamed alike—and here I focus on the former. It has been dialectical and dialogical—responding
to both geopolitical and moral changes. Learning to master this “double-edged wordhas been a
daunting task for politicians and intellectuals alike. Each peak and revival of self-determination
prompted the tamers to renew and refine their efforts. The Wilsonian moment impelled the statist
mastering of peoples (above); lessons from World War II qualified eligibility to non-ethnic and
colonized peoples; Yugoslavias implosion and globalization encouraged tamers to domesticate
self-determination by delimiting its exercise to the intrastate sphere. Throughout, the discourse
and practice of self-determination intertwined. State politicians, diplomats and intellectuals
sought to tame the principle in order to tame its practice, and vice versa. These tamers have not
been of one piece, occasionally diverging between and within ideological and geopolitical
spheres (e.g., Frances stance on Biafra and Spains view on Kosovo). Still, they have mostly
converged on the following taming strategies.
1. Qualifying Peoples
Who is entitled to exercise self-determination? The eligible self is typically equated
with a people, a collective rather than a collection of individuals, constituted by the latters
self-identification as such. After all, modern political ethics typically stipulate that all peoples
no matter how big, what their kind, how they emerged, what they have done to others, or what
others have done to themare the ultimate bearer of political legitimacy. Prima facie,
international law subscribes to the universality of this entitlement, formally stipulating, All
peoples have the right of self-determination(the Declaration on the Granting of Independence
to Colonial Countries and Peoples, 14 December 1960, UN Resolution 1514; the 1966 Human
Rights Covenants, Article 1).
This was largely lip service. From the outset, powerful state actors presented small
peoples” as inept to lead an independent political life (Emerson, 1971:469-473). Their arguments
combined the domino effectwith the Matryoshka dolleffect to portray the threatening
prospect of 5,000 homogeneous, independent statelets if all peoples get to have self-
determination (Hannum, 1996:454). But size was an early side-show in the larger project of
circumscribing eligibility. Later appropriate peoplehood was predicated on non-domination, both
inward (civic peoples) and outward (colonized peoples), disqualifying ethnic and non-colonized
The ethnonational reading of self-determination was congenital to its politicization, and
reached its zenith in the first half of the 20
century (Manela, 2007). It became disastrous with
Hitlers abuse of self-determination to justify his Lebensraum policy, including the intervention
in the Spanish Civil War, the 1938 annexations of Austria and the Sudetenland, and World War II
Tellingly, Western politicians and public opinion were remarkably receptive to this Nazi
discourse, explicitly accepting Germany’s right to pursue ethnonational self-determination.
For many liberals, it was a defining lesson on the dangers of national self-determination,
and in retrospect they recoiled: The Mazzinian doctrine, that peace could result only from
national self-determination, had left its followers in disarray(Howard, 1978:95; see also Reus-
E.g. The Times, 7 May 1937; Manchester Guardian, 14 March 1938; Washington Post, 19 March 1938;
Los Angeles Times, 13 September 1938; Hitler’s “state of the nation” addresses at the Berlin
Sportspalast, 30 January 1940 and 30 January 1942.
E.g. The Times, 1 October 1938; The Times, 7 May and 2 June 1938; see also self-congratulations to The
Times for promoting a self-determination solution to the crisis, 3 October 1938.
Smit, 2001:530-531). Their new narrative suggested it was the 1930s resurgence of German
nationalism, aided by the oblivious Westnot the preceding suppression of German nationalism
by the victorious Westthat bred the war. In this dialectical learning process, liberals have
disparaged ethnonationalism as prone to tyranny, violence, oppression, and racism (Vries and
Weber, 1997). Importantly, Germanys defeat also disposed of a key propagator of
While the Third Reich tarnished ethnonational self-determination in the first half of the
century, Afrikanerdom followed suit in the second half by leveraging self-determination to
justify Apartheid and Bantustans (Giliomee, 2003:458-460, 519-522, 534-536; e.g., New York
Times 23 December 1974). The death of Biafra (1970), not the birth of Bangladesh (1971),
epitomizes the destiny of ethnonational self-determination throughout the Cold War (Islam,
1985). In the postCold War era, liberal politicians and academics passed on the message from
the 1990s Yugoslav Wars: it was ethnonationalism, not the nation-state mismatch, which led to
carnage, evincing yet again the need to expurgate self-determination from ethnonationalism
(Gidon, 1994; cf. Nodia, 1992). Since self-determination made the right to have rights
dependent on membership in the national or racial community, it dashed the “emancipatory
hopes” it once inspired (Weitz, 2015:496).
To be sure, not all liberals hold that self-determination is what Hitler made of it (Carr,
2001 [1939]:lxxix). Some attempt to reconcile liberalism with nationalism, though often by
euphemizing nationalisms ethnic brand as “cultural” (Miller, 1995). Many share Etzionis
(1992:21) views on the evils of self-determination and US Senator Moynihans (1993:80)
contention that due to ethnicity, self-determination makes its way from the enlightenment of the
18th century to the darkness of the twentieth.Still, most liberals are reluctant to eschew self-
determination outright, ultimately conceding that self-determination without nationalism” (that
is, without ethnonationalism) is worth advocating (Dahbour, 2003:32, 215-230). Accordingly,
only civic peoplesdefined by geography, not alleged genealogycan exercise self-
determination (Buchanan, 1997). Judge Dillard’s (1975:122) dictum—that it is for the people to
determine the destiny of the territory and not the territory the destiny of the people”—has been
turned on its head. Thus, the West framed Kosovos independence not only as a sui generis, but
also as granting statehood to the Kosovar people, not the ethnic Albanians (Kostovicova,
For liberal tamers, the de-ethnicization of self-determination was both a moral and
practical imperative. For non-Western tamers, not least post-colonial regimes, it helped keep their
realm intact. Communist states further aided the cause by putting titular nations to the
territorial Procrustean bed, self-determining the USSR and Yugoslavia. Non-liberal leaders,
however, have been less morally reserved about ethnonationalism, which they occasionally have
found quite useful.
During the Cold War, socialists and liberals more evenly divided their taming task in
restricting eligibility to colonized populations—even if the latter did not consider themselves
peoples, let alone nations (Starushenko, 1963). Under the imperative of territorial integrity,
international recognition of statehood was restricted to colonies, constituent units of dissolved
states, and seceding entities that received the consent of their parent states (Fabry, 2010).
Whether driven by rejecting foreign rule, eschewing global capitalism, or advocating universal
human rights, this anti-colonial qualification turned much of the Third World, especially Africa,
into a realm of negative sovereignty”—states sustained more from without than from within
(Jackson, 1990:74-78, 151-154; Reus-Smit, 2001; Scott, 2012).
Most Western liberalspoliticians and scholars alikehave come to predicate self-
determination on extreme repression by either overseas or internal colonialism (Buchanan, 1997;
Crawford, 2001:37-38, 63-65). During the Cold War, this occasionally prompted a backlash from
conservatives who identified self-determination with the dangers of communism (Simpson,
2012). The equation of self-determination with decolonization prefaced the post-1960s ascent of
individual human rights [which] entered global rhetoric in a kind of hydraulic relationship with
self-determination: to the extent the one appeared, and progressed, the other declined, or even
disappeared” (Moyn, 2010:88).
2. Domesticating Self-determination
What polities might eligible peoples demand? At the principles political onset, Lenin
([1914] 1971) criticized Austro-Marxism for delimiting self-determination to the intrastate level
(Löwy, 1976). One often finds conflation of right with duty to statehood (Dahbour, 2003:1, 2).
Self-determinations appeal to peoples drew much on the possibilitynot necessityof
achieving statehood. But it is precisely that popular power of attraction that state actors, often
backed by academics, have sought to curb by defending existing states while depriving statehood
from stateless peoples, especially when it comes to ethnic and/or indigenous peoples (Gans,
Tamers have argued for the domestication of self-determination by stressing that untamed
self-determination endangers the international (read interstate) order. During the Cold War,
violent secessionism, such as the bids for independence of Katanga (1960-63) and Biafra (1967-
70), portrayed state-shattering self-determination as the harbinger of vain and vicious civil wars
(Islam, 1985). Walzer (1982:4) warned against that endless applicabilityof self-determination,
and acknowledged, If the process is to be cut short, it is unlikely to be by denying the
principlefor it appears today politically undeniablebut rather by administering it in moderate
doses. Thus autonomy may be an alternative to independence.” Here again, the titular shell of
self-determination” is preserved while its core is transposed to support sub-state arrangements.
The end of the Cold War fostered renewed efforts at domesticating self-determination.
Liberals became more confident with the demise of communism but also realized that preserving
state borders, once powerfully backed by the USSR, now required a renewed moral foundation
(Zacher, 2001). They also became increasingly critical of post-colonial regimesencroachment on
human rights and alarmed by Yugoslavias violent implosion (Moyn, 2010; Scott, 2012). Thus,
Horowitz (2003:6) forcefully advised, Efforts to improve the condition of minorities ought to be
directed at devising institutions to increase their satisfaction in existing states, rather than
encouraging them to think in terms of exit options. Indeed, even champions of self-
determination, like Philpott (1995:382), typically ascribe Balkans-like violence to the call, not the
lack, of self-determination, urging that a presumption against secession should be adopted; other
forms of self-determination should be sought.
In the last decade, the emergent responsibility to protect(R2P) has helped domesticate
self-determination. Prima facie, by pledging to protect populations in peril, R2P can foster self-
determination (Cooper and Voïnov Kohler, 2008). R2P, however, is a Hobbesian principle with
Lockean pretentions, precluding Rousseau. It prescribes a strong Leviathan: the obligation of
subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by
which he is able to protect them, for “the end of Obedience is Protection (Hobbes, 2006
[1651]:Chapter XXI). Focusing only on oppressed groups and regarding existing states as the
remedial vehicle, R2P lauds human rights but shies away from collective, let alone ethnonational,
self-determination. R2P thus carefully avoids a challenge to the state as the core of the
international system The principle of state sovereignty is no longer absolute, but,
paradoxically, it remains sacrosanct” (Tanguy, 2003:144).
R2P conjoins with what we might call the “responsibility to represent (R2R): the
normative obligation to foster representative government. An emergent norm since the 1990s,
R2R predicates external on internal self-determination: if either the existent state is democratic or
the claimant group is non-democratic, self-determination must fall short of secession, and settle
for cooption, consociationalism, and various degrees of autonomy (Gardner, 2008; e.g.,
Madeleine Albrights statement, New York Times, 7 February 1993).
Together, R2P and R2R offer the international society moral and practical guidance—and
pretexts. A case in point is Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov’s insistence that,
Upon the UN Charter, only colonial people, but nobody else has the right to self-determination.
After expelling the Azerbaijani population of Karabakh, to start telling that now Armenians will
define themselves? Where is the logic? And to talk about democracy in Nagorno-Karabakh is an
absurdity” (Trend News Agency, 4 October 2011). State-determination by Azerbaijan, negation of
the non-colonized Armenian peoples right to self-determination, evocation of Nagorno-
Karabakhs past violation of R2P and projected breach of R2Rall were employed to reason
Azerbaijans rejection of the right of the people in Nagorno-Karabakh to self-determination.
Globalization facilitated the domestication of self-determination. Tamers argued that since
self-determination breeds failed states, terror, and violent conflicts, which are harder to contain in
a globalized world, self-determination itself must be contained in the intrastate sphere,
anticipating that the era of national self-determination has finally come to an end(Rosecrance
and Stein, 2006). Furthermore, globalization might not only necessitate the domestication of self-
determination. Dwarfing state power, globalization may make statehood itself redundant (Talbott,
2000). Stateless nations could then find peace and prosperity in regional solutions within the free
global market (Gidon, 1994).
Powerful states, skillful practitioners, and an evolving epistemic community have exerted
a cumulative, partly habituating, effect on self-determination discourse and practice. The tamers
have apparently triumphed; national self-determination has seemingly fallen. While this paper
focused on the tamers, not the tamed, literature on the latter likewise indicates the formers
success. Granted, peoples are never homogenous, debating what kind of self-determination, if at
all, they should seek (Cunningham, 2011). Still, stateless ethnic peoples have often adopted, or
adapted to, the new precepts, subduing their sense of ethnicity (Catalans, Diola/Casamance,
Québécois, Kosovo, Scots) or retaining it while explicitly relinquishing demands for statehood
(Chechen, Igbo, Tamils, Tatars, Tibetans) (Abulof, 2015b; Kostovicova, 2005; Oklopcic, 2014).
Drawing on this literature and my interpretive analysis, the taming of self-determination
seems to have undercut its discourse in four ways. First, tamers have shied away from invoking
self-determination unless compelled to in the critical junctures of this learning process. Second,
tamedpeoples have abandoned revisionist aspirations and their justificatory self-determination
discourse. Third, the tamed have reasoned that invoking self-determination may sabotage their
moderate pleas by implying a more ambitious agenda. Fourth, the tamed have become
embarrassed by, even ashamed of, forsaking their national dream, and therefore have preferred
not to discuss the concept that evokes that dream. These four taming effects might well have
complemented the first four accounts in bringing about the fall of self-determination.
The tamers have tried to turn self-determination from the call of peoples into the leash
of containing them. Non-colonized and/or ethnic peoples have been disciplined not to stretch it
too much. Practically, the proverbial pulling on the leash resonates in the gap between
secessionist movements and actual independence: up until the early 1990s, the number of new
and ongoing secessionist movements continuously rose, but with their declining success, their
number has likewise begun to decrease (Fazal and Griffiths, 2014; supplemental data #14). The
number of secessionist movements unilaterally declaring independence follows a similar trend
(Fazal, 2014). Indeed, the ostensible increase in self-determination movements since 1960 may
be misleading: very few of these movements defied states and their borders, and after 1991,
hardly any new self-determination movements have emerged (Minorities at Risk Project, 2009;
supplemental data #13). The taming of self-determination provides a complementary interpretive
account for these trends (additional accounts include Barkin and Cronin, 1994; Carter and
Goemans, 2011; Coggins, 2011; Fabry, 2010; Roeder, 2007; Zacher, 2001).
Conclusion: Self-Determination, Redux?
This paper does not seek to issue a death certificate to self-determination, nor to lament,
or celebrate it. Introducing a new diachronic corpus on self-determination discourse, and
amassing pertinent datasets on the practice of self-determination, it revealed its fifty-year decline,
and offered a multicausal analysis of its vicissitudes. This paper could not, and did not, capture
the full richness of self-determination discourse. Analyzing the discourses of the tamed, in their
own language, is important. The economic and emotional dimensions of self-determination
discourse also merit investigation. Finally, two central questions remain unexplored. Was the
taming of self-determination worthwhile and worthy? Is it sustainable?
From this concluding vantage point, I can offer some tentative propositions to provoke
further study. The waning war thesis may indicate that the taming of self-determination has lived
up to its justification: promoting peace and stability. Still, the demise of self-determination might
turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, as it is implicated in a broader transformation. After all, self-
determination was not only the common ground of nationalism, socialism, and liberalism, but
their moral ground as well. Could the demise of self-determination indicate, and partake in, the
larger downfall of these major ideologies? Does the taming of self-determination echo the liberal
taming of socialism and nationalism, but ultimately compound the troubles of liberal
internationalism (Jahn, 2013)?
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 willof the
people, and the peoples, undermined, Leviathans moments of weakness might become the
occasion for Rousseaus revenge, fostering yet another spring of nations,worldwide. National
self-determination may yet revive. Without a moral road map, our interstate society seems
confused by the ethical and practical implications of repression (Chechnya, Tibet), intervention
(Afghanistan, Iraq), occupation (Palestine), economic crisis (UK, Spain), coups (Mali), revolts
(Libya, Syria), and revolutions (Ukraine).
The Kurds, the largest stateless ethnic group, is an important case in point, evincing how
the taming of self-determination may have led ethnic groups to long for their multiethnic state to
fail so as to legitimate the groups call for independence. When Massoud Barzani, the president
of the Iraqi Kurdistan, mentioned in 2010 that we believe that we are entitled to self-
determination,the backlash prompted him to clarify, through his nephew, that with what we got
in 2003 with the new Iraq, we decided to stay within a federal Iraq” (AFP, 13 December 2010).
With the fast erosion of the Iraqi authority in 2014, self-determination returned with vengeance.
Barzani now asserted that since al-Maliki has led Iraq down a slope, then the Kurdish
people will not back down on their right to self-determination as decided by their own free will,
calling for a referendum on independence (, 8 July 2014).
Over four decades ago, Connor (1967:53) noted that the pernicious and perhaps
unrealistic principle termed self-determination of nationsis far from spent as a significant force
in international politics. His assessment is equally valid today. There may well be life after
death” for self-determination.
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Full-text available
Because of the conventional phrasing of the self-determination right in international law, the question of what is “a” people is much debated in politics and literature on self-determination. In addressing this question, the literature on self-determination appears to assume a sequence: first the people, then self-determination. By contrast, in this article, author addresses the problem from an IR perspective, particularly the IR debate on identity, focusing on the role of international norms in making political communities recognizable and legitimate. The author argues that the norm of self-determination influences the constitution of the selves in the international system. The author draws on symbolic interactionism to point out that advancing individuality and originality is always dependent upon society by the mediation of symbolic resources, including norms. The norm of self-determination is a normative resource to project and construct a self that is amenable to perform in the international system and be recognized by others. The self that is proposed by the nationalist movement of the Sahrawi of the Western Sahara—with a delimited territory, a defined population, a collective consciousness and governing structures—illustrates the argument.
Cambridge Core - Social and Cultural Anthropology - The Edge of Law - by Alex Jeffrey
The right of peoples to self-determination lies at the heart of the modern quest for statehood. This century-old principle warrants a world of true nation-states, where national boundaries make state borders, not the other way around. I argue, however, that the concept of ‘self-determination’ has been effectively (ab)used to foil, rather than foster, its original goal, and explain why and how this paradox transpired. In theory, self-determination is a potent ‘speech-act’: by uttering, en masse, their demand for self-determination, people(s) can change their politics, even create new states. In practice, however, powerful actors have tried to tame self-determination – by appropriating this right from the peoples, and delimiting its applicability to oppressed, non-ethnic communities and to substate solutions. In the tradition of conceptual history, this paper traces the dialectal process through which ‘self-determination’ evolved, from its Enlightenment inception, through its communist politicization, to its liberal universalization and its current predicament.
Women representation in the media has attracted a lot of attention from scholars in different countries. Existing literature overwhelmingly focuses on media representation of women in the political sphere, with greater consideration for women who contested for or held political offices. At a time when the crisis of self-determination raging through many countries coincides with increasing women visibility in politics, this study examines the visibility of women in newspaper discourse of contested nationhood using the case of Nigeria. The current focus is important as women bear a great part of the brunt of crisis of contested nationhood. In content and critical discourse analyses of two-year straight news reportage of the debate over the negotiability of Nigeria’s unity in four newspapers, it was found that social actors from the establishment are more than twice as visible in the discourse as those from the civil society, with women from both sides excluded. It was concluded that the increased visibility, though marginal, that women are achieving in Nigerian politics does not result in them becoming visible in the country’s newspaper discourse of contested nationhood.
This article adds to the literature on political regionalism in the Weimar Republic at the end of the First World War. After four years of hardship at the hands of the central government, proponents of reform were prepared to countenance the dismemberment of Prussia – Germany’s largest state – in favour of autonomous tribal (stammlich) entities under the federal umbrella of the Reich. However, contemporaries soon learned that instead of acting as a catalyst of emancipation, the Wilsonian discourse of self-determination frustrated genuine change because the latter’s appropriation by ethno-regionalists threatened to unravel many of the viable compromises reached in the imperial period. The resulting inability to keep all parties engaged in dialogue generated verbal as well as physical aggression. The article suggests that these phenomena shed revealing light not only on the way in which ideas of space and the ‘othering’ of fellow Germans based on tribal allegiance shaped political conflict but also challenge more broadly the assumption prevalent in some parts of the historiography that when ethnic movements make demands for their own state, they automatically turn nationalist. Empirical evidence from the province of Hanover shows that regionalists could well make violent demands for secession from Prussia while at the same time affirming their identification with the German nation.
A remarkable feature of the Southern Sudanese liberation movement during the First Sudanese Civil War was its use of anti-colonial discourse and tactics. Soon into their struggle, the Southern Sudanese came to depict their situation as colonisation by the Muslim-Arab elite in Khartoum. As this article argues, this adoption of anti-colonial identity was the outcome of Southern Sudanese interaction with neighbouring Arab and African first-generation liberation movements, through which the future leaders of the Southern Sudanese liberation movement observed and absorbed the practices used against European colonialism. When the Southern Sudanese launched their liberation struggle, these practices shaped their struggle.
How does leadership’s desire for political survival in ethnically heterogeneous democracies affect the probability of states exchanging nationalist foreign policy? I define nationalist foreign policy as foreign policy that aims to fulfill national self-governance using a civic or ethnic frame. I argue that civic-nationalist policy disputing the territoriality of one’s own state is more likely, while ethno-nationalist policy favoring the leadership’s foreign co-ethnics is less likely, when the size of the leadership’s ethnic group is small and the level of democracy is relatively high. This is because the leadership, under such domestic conditions, has to mobilize support from other ethnic groups in order to stay in power. Civic-nationalist policy allows the leadership to increase domestic solidarity across ethnic lines and mobilize support from other ethnic groups, whereas ethno-nationalist policy would risk other ethnic groups criticizing the leadership of being ethno-centrist. These hypotheses are supported by quantitative analysis using an original dataset.
Full-text available
This article theorises salience – defined as the amount of attention granted to an issue – as an explanatory factor for the emergence and non-emergence of norms, and shows how salience affects existing explanations such as issue adoption by norm entrepreneurs, mobilisation, social pressure, and framing. The relevance of salience is demonstrated by exploring the question of why the norm against incendiary weapons was adopted in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in 1980, and why the norm against cluster munitions was not, even though both weapons were deemed particularly inhumane and thus, put on the agenda when the CCW negotiations started in 1978. Drawing on secondary sources and on original data from public and institutional discourses, I study the influence of salience on the emergence of the anti-napalm norm and the non-emergence of the anti-cluster munitions norm in the period of 1945–80. The results demonstrate that and how the discrepancy in salience of the napalm and the cluster munitions issues mattered for the outcomes of the two norm-setting processes.
Walker Connor is seemingly both a primordialist and a modernist: Nations emanate from basic human sentiments but emerged in late modernity. Is this not an aberration, a contradiction both conceptual and causal? Connor, a champion of academic clarity, obviously thought not, and he was right. What accounts for Connor's unique take on nationalism, and why, for many, does it still seem odd? The answer to both quandaries, I argue, lies in Connor's own unique splice: He effectively delved into, and fused, two thorny matters that most scholars shy away from, let alone try to bring together: human nature and legitimation. Both underpin his remarkable scholarship and its solitude standing. I explore both facets: first, Connor's take on human nature; then, more extensively, his analysis of legitimation – via ‘popular sovereignty’ and ‘self‐determination’.
Why are some regions prone to war while others remain at peace? What conditions cause regions to move from peace to war and vice versa? This book offers a novel theoretical explanation for the differences and transitions between war and peace. The author distinguishes between 'hot' and 'cold' outcomes, depending on intensity of the war or the peace, and then uses three key concepts (state, nation, and the international system) to argue that it is the specific balance between states and nations in different regions that determines the hot or warm outcomes: the lower the balance, the higher the war proneness of the region, while the higher the balance, the warmer the peace. The theory of regional war and peace developed in this book is examined through case-studies of the post-1945 Middle East, the Balkans and South America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and post-1945 Western Europe.
What are the origins of nationalism and why is it capable of arousing such intense emotions? In this major study, Azar Gat counters the prevailing fashionable theories according to which nations and nationalism are modern and contrived or 'invented'. He sweeps across history and around the globe to reveal that ethnicity has always been highly political and that nations and national states have existed since the beginning of statehood millennia ago. He traces the deep roots of ethnicity and nationalism in human nature, showing how culture fits into human evolution from as early as our aboriginal condition and, in conjunction with kinship, defines ethnicity and ethnic allegiances. From the rise of states and empires to the present day, this book sheds new light on the explosive nature of ethnicity and nationalism, as well as on their more liberating and altruistic roles in forging identity and solidarity.