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Self-determination misunderstood?



I BRIEFLY discussed the notion of self-determination of “nations,” and by inclusion of “peoples,” especially as propounded by the American president Woodrow Wilson a century ago after World War 1. After clarifying the similarities and differences in the common and formal usages of “nations,” “states,” “nation states” and “countries,” I think several further distinctions would need to be drawn in order to further elucidate this notion in a more positive direction.

The first distinction pertains to perhaps this sub-notion of “self-determination.” By the eve of the First World War, most parts of the world had been occupied and subsequently colonized by the larger global powers-that-be. Britain, France and Japan on the Allied side, and Germany and the Ottoman Empire on the Axis side, all carved out their respective colonies on the global map. The Austro-Hungarian Empire from the Axis side, though not exactly a colonial power, was nevertheless itself a gargantuan conglomerate of many different peoples and nations held together gingerly by the person of the Emperor of Austria who was concurrently the King of Hungary. Even smaller powers such as Belgium and the Netherlands had their hands full in colonial ventures, the former in the Congo and the latter in Indonesia, for example. Many of these colonial or pseudo-colonial powers had to clash, sometimes violently, with each other and within their respective colonial possessions, as they rushed to maintain and expand their colonial empires.

It was thus thought that part of the causes for World War 1 had to do with colonialism at its height. After all, what almost immediately triggered the war was the assassination of the Archduke (and heir to the throne) of Austria in Sarajevo (Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) by Serbian nationalist elements. As such, in the euphoric atmosphere after the war, Wilson advanced the idea that to deter future wars, one of the main things to be done was for colonies around the world to be decolonized. He called this process of decolonization “self-determination,” in the sense that if the majority of the peoples who live in these respective colonies desired to be separated from the colonial powers, their wishes should be respected and these colonies should become independent states, equal in international status to their former colonial masters.

What the scholarly Wilson had in mind by self-determination was perhaps the model and experience of American Independence, which took place almost a century and a half earlier. At some point in the American colonial process, after many bitter colonial tribulations, many Americans decided that although most of them were descended from British ancestors, they would like to gain independence from Britain and assume, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence, “separate and equal station” as an independent national entity. That independence was of course effected by armed struggle through the American War of Independence. Wilson thought that after a few years of bloody trench war in Europe, the powers great and small which suffered horrendous casualties would come to their senses and allow their colonial subjects to peacefully achieve their independence for the good of all parties concerned.

Alas, that was not to be the case, Wilson’s lofty vision fell mostly on deaf ears among the gilded corridors of the Palace of Versailles in France, where the peace treaties were negotiated. Not only did the great-power victors of World War 1 refuse to submit their own vast colonies for self-determination (even the Americans, not echoing the noble decolonization call of their own president, refused to give up the Philippines, for example), they wasted no time in attempting to divide up the colonial possessions of the losers as war spoils among themselves. The German colonies in the Far East, for example, were divided between Japan and Britain, with the Japanese (which did not give up Taiwan) taking over the German possessions in China, and the British the German part of New Guinea. The Middle Eastern colonies of the Ottoman Empire were similarly divided between Britain and France, with artificial borders drawn in straight and diagonal lines more in line with mapping convenience then national traditions, precipitating the many modern woes of the region.

Perhaps only the gargantuan Austro-Hungarian Empire, which, like its Ottoman counterpart, collapsed after the war, gave rise to a number of newly independent nations, mostly in Eastern Europe. Nations, which “self-determined” (in actuality arranged or allowed by the great powers) as such mostly “resurfaced” (in the sense that they had approximate ancient versions) in Eastern Europe. Poland, Czechoslovakia (previously Bohemia and Moravia), Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia (encompassing many Balkan nations), the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and so on came onto the world stage, with their odd mix of kingdoms and republics.

But not for long. It was fashionable then to use “peace conferences” to settle international disputes in lieu of wars. A League of Nations was formed, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, supposedly as a peacemaking supranational organization which peace-loving nations should ascribe to. The headquarters, Palais Wilson (named, appropriately, after the propounder of self-determination) is today a luxury hotel on the shores of Lake Geneva. When I was working for the United Nations (which was inspired by the League) office in Geneva two decades ago, I stayed in an apartment in the back streets of the imposing compound. Of course, I reminisced like many others, of how the world could have been better and different if the League had been given a chance to work.

But it was only a fighting chance, as nations, which are member states of the League openly flaunted its rulings in international disputes, relegating the League to an essentially advisory role in international affairs. The asymmetric terms of the Treaty of Versailles also brewed resentments among the defeated powers of World War 1. Very soon, a virulent brand of nationalism raised its ugly head, and the world was plunged into another world war in fewer than two decades.

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Today’s Front Page February 27, 2020

Today’s Front Page February 27, 2020