Friday, August 18, 2023

Wilson's mistake

After the first World War, US President Woodrow Wilson promoted a number of steps (the “fourteen points”) to facilitate a durable peace. One of them was interpreted as the so-called right of the peoples to self-determination.

The Fourteen Points were a proposal made by the President in a speech before Congress on January 8, 1918, outlining his vision for ending World War I in a way that would prevent such a conflagration from occurring again (in that sense at least, he failed, as it did occur again). They also were intended to keep Russia fighting on the Allied side, to boost Allied morale, and to undermine the Central Powers.

During World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson promoted the concept of "self-determination," meaning that a nation—a group of people with similar political ambitions—can seek to create its own independent government or state. The idea is also alluded to in the fifth of his Fourteen Points, although the words "self-determination" are never explicitly used.

Point fifth says: “A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.”

The principle does not state how the decision is to be made, nor what the outcome should be, whether it be independence, federation, protection, some form of autonomy or full assimilation. Neither does it state what the delimitation between peoples should be—nor what constitutes a people. There are conflicting definitions and legal criteria for determining which groups may legitimately claim the right to self-determination. The United Nations has enforced the concept for groups under colonial control, but not for regions of developed countries with a significant number of secessionists.

According to Wikipedia, since the early 1990s, the legitimatization of the principle of national self-determination has led to an increase in the number of conflicts within states, as sub-groups seek greater self-determination and in some cases full secession. The 2000 United Nations Millennium Declaration failed to deal with these new demands, mentioning only "the right to self-determination of peoples which remain under colonial domination and foreign occupation."

Major problems remain defining "peoples" (or deciding which authority will decide who constitutes a people and who does not), respecting the rights of minorities, and dealing with distributive dilemmas when seceding groups are relatively rich and contribute financially to the welfare of other groups. "Partitions" are not like assembling and disassembling Lego pieces, as once said the economist Branko Milanovic. A meaningful application of the right of self-determination, interpreted as the right to secede, requires that the Planet be populated by non-overlapping well-defined “peoples” or “nations.” This assumption does not hold in practice. They are not well-defined and, to the extent that sometimes they are, they do overlap in many cases.

The written Constitutions of well-established democracies (all of those in the EU, for example) do not accept the right to secede of parts of a territory.

Israel and Yugoslavia are examples of the contradictions that are inevitably reached when real communities try to apply Wilson’s principle. Northern Ireland, instead, reached a (so far durable) peace agreement under different principles, faclitated by the existence of the European Union, and put in danger by Brexit. Ethnocratic temptations in India, in the US, in Russia (think of Putin’s referendums) are further reminders of the risks of projects that underestimate the practical difficulties and the moral dilemmas of creating new nation-states, expanding the current ones, or rejecting minorites from them. Federalist roads not taken in Africa or Latin America have degenerated into fragmented continents, but are a reminder of a better possible post-national future.

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