The State and Self-Determination

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do not know in detail how the idea of self-determination — the notion
that a group, whether it be a nation, a race, or a religion, should
be entitled to have its own political organization and to decide
its own affairs – has evolved over time. That would in itself probably
constitute a major historical study. No doubt it is intimately associated
with the idea of a right to a homeland, and to be free of the interference,
the aggression or the say-so of outsiders. In an earlier, more rugged
formulation, it surely provided the motivation for the revolt of
the founding fathers of the United States of America against British
colonial rule in the 18th century.

the reason we are so familiar with the concept today is due primarily
to the pervasive influence of the ideas put forward to the US Congress
in January 1918 by Woodrow Wilson in his famous 14
. Since that time the idea of self-determination as a
right has become deeply embedded in the Western individual psyche
as a morally valid and even sacrosanct notion, perhaps because of
its supposedly redemptive powers to free that psyche from the guilt
and "unfairness" of the colonial oppression and exploitation
practised by some of our forbears (and which undoubtedly took place).

has stated so concisely, when [in 1919] Woodrow Wilson
"arrived in Paris preaching a doctrine of u2018self-determination'
for all peoples, his Secretary of State Robert Lansing realized
that Wilson had "let the genie out of the bottle." “The
phrase (self-determination) is simply loaded with dynamite. It will
raise hopes which can never be realized. … What a calamity that
the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”

Europe the notion is particularly associated with the post-World
War 2 era of decolonization, when the European empires in Africa
and Asia were dismantled and replaced by an increasing number of
politically independent states. The origins of that decolonization
however go back to the earlier years of the 20th century, and particularly
to Wilson, Versailles, and the aftermath of World War I, when vast
domains such as those of the Ottoman empire were first carved up
among the conquerors, and then straight lines drawn across the sand
to define new nation-states.

the 1920s onwards the national elites of these colonies, "mandate
territories" and burgeoning nations, educated in their respective
"mother-countries" or elsewhere, began to demand and achieve
political self-determination in the form of states of their own.
But, despite – or more likely because of – the virtuousness of Wilson's
prescriptions for future world peace, in doing so they often needed
to resort to force which, incidentally, was readily labelled "terrorism"
by the imperial powers which ruled them.

force often reared its ugly head again in the resolution of temporarily
latent internal disputes which later re-emerged within the new nations
and states. Different groups and interests which had banded together
to achieve political independence may or may not have been homogeneous
in terms of the nations or peoples within them, or may have been
"assisted" by outside forces. Once the main goal had been
achieved, it was not uncommon for conflict to erupt between different
ethnic, national, religious, or even political groups within the
new structure — the case of Angola, which suffered a civil war for
more than 25 years after formal decolonization, is one among many.
Other types of conflict within certain lands — such as those in
the former Yugoslavia — persisted on and off for centuries.

the collective identity that achieves statehood — formal existence
as a state recognized in the political structure of international
relations – is a national identity. But it may also take
on other forms: in the case of Israel, for example, I have always
been led to believe that the origins of the state lie in the creation
of a homeland for a group of people based on a religious
identity. Interestingly, however, some appear to see that identity
in broader terms. Ilana
, for example, says that "Israel is an attempt at
an ethnically homogeneous nation-state."

shall have to come back to the highly sensitive concept of ethnic
homogeneity at another time. For the moment, it is sufficient
to make the rather obvious point that the different forms of collective
identity within any given state — religious, national, and racial
– do in practice often overlap. This can cause tension and
suffering within such states, if, as has so often happened in the
past and still happens to this day, co-existence and harmony turn
to conflict, for whatever reason. More often than not, small groups
internally, or outside interests, manipulate these ethnic overlaps
deliberately: they "stir the pot" in the pursuit of their
own, often narrower agenda aiming at the exclusion — and in the
worst cases the removal or extinction – of other groups.

other times, immigration and emigration may, at first almost imperceptibly
and usually starting in small enclaves or areas of the state's territory
and then developing over a long period of time, completely alter
the balance of the population so that new collective demands start
to emerge — at least for minority rights, if not for self-determination
and outright political independence.

of the significance of a nation-state to the individual is symbolic.
States acquire or create symbols and trappings such as national
airlines, flags, institutions, special commemorative dates and heroes,
all of which reinforce people's often comforting sense of belonging.
In some countries, where there is internal conflict or dispute,
or the history of such, commemorative symbols such as the names
of buildings, streets, or cities are regularly changed as political
fortune favors one political party or interest, or another.

the city of St. Petersburg in Russia became Leningrad during the
era of the Soviet Union, and is now back to having its "historic"
name of St. Petersburg. In 1916, some two years into the first World
War, the Canadian city of Berlin, Ontario, was renamed Kitchener.
Similar things happen when a territory is taken over or annexed.
But either way, those symbols are designed to resonate and stir
up the feelings of loyalty to the group — such as patriotism – and
to reinforce the belief in the inherent strength of the underlying
collective identity. That is why — even though in themselves they
may be simple physical objects – they often become seriously contentious.
To give just one example, witness the fuss made in some quarters
about capitals of the southern states of the US flying the Confederate

individuals and nations, one of the big risks involved in creating
and consolidating a state of any kind is that the original idea,
which is based on a qualitative moral value such as freedom, independence
or self-determination, is usurped and distorted in favour of particular
ends, and ultimately corrupted. How does this happen? There is probably
no single cause: historical circumstances, the different ethnic
groups living within the land space, relationships of economic power
and disputes over control of exploitable natural resources all play
their part. But more often than not the original idea starts to
be manipulated by the oligarchies who, in the natural course of
events, and for reasons which have to do with all or some of the
factors just outlined, come to dominate the power structures of
the state – or, as many libertarians would have it — by the scum
that floats to the top.

this happens, those bedrock institutions of the nation-state such
as constitutions, laws, forms of assembly, and decision-making,
schools, all their symbols, and even the language and culture, which
were originally conceived in a noble cause such as liberty, or the
desire to be free of suffering and oppression, are usurped and converted
to the service of the powerful oligarchies who have come to control
the state apparatus. In the process of this take-over individuals,
still wedded to and profoundly attached to the symbols and values
on which their "free" state was founded, lose their critical
ability to judge whether the goals and actions of those oligarchs
are still in line with the original guiding principles of the nation-state.
They can no longer see what is happening. As in the rise of Hitler's
Germany, well-intentioned ordinary people become willing slaves
to all the particular ends that the oligarchy wishes to pursue,
which are presented, against the backdrop of some of noblest creations
of individuals of that nation such as music, as actions being done
"in the name of the people" or "with the people's
interests at heart," even when they are morally repugnant,
or are likely to lead to disaster for the collective identity over
time. When they have their origin in legitimate grievances, such
as, in the German case, the fact that the nation was humiliated
by the terms imposed at the Treaty of Versailles which followed
the end of World War I in 1918, those particular goals are even
more difficult for individuals to appraise in a critical and unbiased

is through psychological manipulation such as this, significantly
bolstered by mass propaganda — a black art which was refined and
perfected throughout the 20th century, the century of the masses – that the mistaken idea of the state as an entity which provides
individuals with effective security and meaningful reinforcement
of their identity becomes all-pervasive. The natural goodwill which
normally prevails in relations between peoples and nations is undermined
and usurped by the rulers, who mold, personify, and embody those
national identities and principles into the collective constructs
known as states, so that the idea of "having your own state"
comes to be seen as the only path to advancement and recognition
in the world. Without your own state, by implication, you are nothing,
you have no seat at the supreme forum for dialogue between states,
the glorious United Nations, you are not a people, not a nation.

often have we seen the existence of whole minorities simply denied
if they are not embodied in a formal state? — East Timor and others
under Indonesian rule, the Kurds, and the Armenians in Turkey spring
immediately to mind, and I dare say with some thought the list could
be expanded almost ad infinitum. Once again, what we see
here is a process whereby personal identity and diversity is subsumed
into a supposedly more effective and "safer" collective
identity. But in the long run nothing could be more misguided. It
is the exact opposite. It is the path to destruction, as Hitler's
Germany vividly demonstrated.

problem is that, unlike a nation or people, a state has no real
personality or character. And yet, as part of the technique of propaganda,
the state is attributed personal roles, and even the ability to
engage in such normally personal, individual things as "relationships" – as a "player" in international affairs, as a "provider"
of welfare and security, as an arbitrator of disputes and dispenser
of formal "justice," and even as an arbiter of taste.

moral qualities – inherent in individuals and in a national identity
and culture but not in the abstract notion of the state — are attributed
to it in order to personify the state and to make it more friendly
to the people, while other states or groups are also personified
in order to make them more unfriendly.

this point it is but a small step to defining qualitative differences
between states which determine their order and status in the international
hierarchy, and to using such impossibly relative terms to describe
them such as "viable" and "credible." Then,
as the need arises, it is easy to demonize another collective identity
— a race, a nation, a religious group, or a minority — on the grounds
that it constitutes a threat to your own identity, or to the position
of your own collective identity in the hierarchy of states.

whole process, typically performed by the rulers' intellectual apologists,
assists those in control of the state apparatus to usurp and appropriate
to their own ends people's genuine feelings of loyalty to their
homeland, religion, or nationality, and the near-universal desire
of people to live a productive and meaningful life and to see their
children grow up and be happy — goals which the state will tell
them they can only realize through its intermediation and under
its supervision and protection.

modern gurus — including the priestly caste of International Relations
academics, many of whom, largely unknown figures to the domestic
constituency, gravitate seamlessly in and out of "service"
in those government departments which deal with the outside world
— have their moral judgements about other states or nations or groups
sanctified through codification into supposedly objective "expert
opinion," which then comes to form the basis of government
policy. In the modern era of mass media communications, these intellectuals
also become ubiquitous media pundits, parasites wheeled on to the
evening news shows to do their stuff in tandem with sycophantic
television "hosts."

who, in Murray Rothbard's words, regard "all States
everywhere, whether democratic, dictatorial, or monarchical, whether
red, white, blue or brown…, as the supreme, the eternal, the best
organized aggressor against the persons and property of the mass
of the public" strongly condemn the usurpation of the feelings
and symbols of the collective identity by the oligarchs and the
narrower interests who control the state. They also strongly condemn
the enlisting of those sentiments and feelings of loyalty into the
service of the interests of the rulers. What happens, as I have
said earlier about Nazi Germany but which merits repetition, is
that ordinary, well-meaning people start to become unable to distinguish
when their loyalty is being harnessed to a narrower, oligarchical

condemnation is not to confuse national identity with statism, but
rather to object to the fact that values of the collective identity
— whether national, or religious – and its history and symbols,
are being harnessed and abused to serve the interests of statism.
The government propaganda machine, everywhere the instrument of
statism, deliberately sets out to confuse the two in the minds of
the people. The end result is that those true values and symbolisms
become just hollow shells, masking the much uglier and brutal realities
of the smash-and-grab of international power politics.

so we have before us, in September 2002, a new document from the
US government entitled "National
Security Strategy for the United States of America
," containing
on the one hand a sentimental echo of some of the noble sentiments
of the past and of the principles of the founding fathers, but which
on the other hand straddles the whole world in its scope and ambitions.
Here is what it has to say regarding the situation in Israel:

Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical because of the toll
of human suffering, because of America's close relationship
with the state of Israel and key Arab states, and because of
that region's importance to other global priorities of the United
States. There can be no peace for either side without freedom
for both sides. America stands committed to an independent and
democratic Palestine, living beside Israel in peace and security.
Like all other people, Palestinians deserve a government that
serves their interests and listens to their voices. The United
States will continue to encourage all parties to step up to
their responsibilities as we seek a just and comprehensive settlement
to the conflict.

United States, the international donor community, and the World
Bank stand ready to work with a reformed Palestinian government
on economic development, increased humanitarian assistance,
and a program to establish, finance, and monitor a truly independent
judiciary. If Palestinians embrace democracy, and the rule of
law, confront corruption, and firmly reject terror, they can
count on American support for the creation of a Palestinian

also has a large stake in the success of a democratic Palestine.
Permanent occupation threatens Israel's identity and democracy.
So the United States continues to challenge Israeli leaders
to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable,
credible Palestinian state. As there is progress towards security,
Israel forces need to withdraw fully to positions they held
prior to September 28, 2000. And consistent with the recommendations
of the Mitchell Committee, Israeli settlement activity in the
occupied territories must stop. As violence subsides, freedom
of movement should be restored, permitting innocent Palestinians
to resume work and normal life. The United States can play a
crucial role but, ultimately, lasting peace can only come when
Israelis and Palestinians resolve the issues and end the conflict
between them.

proper analysis of this piece would require an article all to itself.
But one example of the personification of the collective identity
stands out at once: "America" is described as having a
"close relationship with the state of Israel and key Arab states."
It would be interesting to know which states are not "key"
and what is to happen to them – and also to know exactly who in
America thinks they have a close relationship with the state
of Israel. It is also interesting to speculate what the people of
the lands presently administered by the state of Israel — which
includes, if I am not mistaken, some 6.5 million Israeli nationals
and around 3 million Palestinian people – would have to say about
this wide-ranging moral prescription for and disposition of their
lives. Despite the rhetoric and the noble sentiment, and the glimpse
of refreshing honesty in the admission of the Middle East's "importance
to other global priorities of the United States" (perhaps we
should all henceforth start using the spelling "ogp" instead
of "oil"), I get a strong feeling that self-determination
doesn't have a great deal to do with it: it has much more the flavor
of a false notion of objective balance, without regard to history
or any other aspect of the collective identities involved. Thus,
"if you'll line up and be good boys, then you too can have
your state. And that's only fair because the other side has one

for the Israeli view, Pat Buchanan hits the nail on the head when
he says, "Do Palestinians have a right to a homeland on the
West Bank with its capital East Jerusalem, when they are 90 percent
of the people there and Israelis 10 percent? Israelis say no, these
are covenant lands, biblical lands, given to us by God. Other Israelis
say we are entitled to this land by right of conquest. Others that
we must hold them for our own survival, self-determination be damned."
("American roots of 21st-century wars," WorldNetDaily,
June 2002)

these issues further would be too lengthy an exercise to which I
cannot do justice here today. Suffice it to say that there is plenty
more "moderate" opinion in favour a Palestinian state
"solution." Here is Tony Judt, in the New
York Review of Books
, May 2002, saying: "Palestinians need
a real state of their own and they will have one." And there
are Jewish writers in America saying the same thing. Here's Richard
Cohen, in an article in the Washington
on April 30, 2002, defending the idea of a Palestinian
state as an indispensable element of the "solution" to
current problems:

Palestinians do have a case. Their methods are sometimes – maybe
often – execrable, but that does not change the fact that they
are a people without a state. As long as that persists so too will
their struggle."

is not alone by any means. Leon Wieseltier in The
New Republic
, in his broad defence of the argument that
there is no longer any justification for the existential "ethnic
panic," which in particular afflicts American Jews when faced
with the memory of violence done to the Jewish people in the past
— symbolized forever by the terrible "night of glass"
of November 1938 — Kristallnacht – and the reality of the terrible
violence being done to them in the present day: "As long as
the prime minister of Israel continues to speak of the eventual
establishment of a Palestinian state, Kristallnacht is over."

a libertarian, I start to feel uncomfortable with so much heavy
fire-power and so much consensus in favour of the state. Since the
growth of states into empires and aggressors has historically not
done the ordinary citizens of those states any good, and has most
certainly not provided them with safety and security, the libertarian
instinct is to say to the Palestinians, is this what you really
want? And yet, because having one's own state has become so powerful
a symbol of the right to self-determination, because the prevailing
structure of international relations is operated through entities
known as states, and because the political world of today is a world
of states and nation-states – does this not too easily expose the
libertarian who puts this question to seemingly rightful accusations
of unfairness and injustice, of denying a right to self-determination?

do not know the answer to this. But I do know that the ultimate
goals of self-determination and happiness — and economic prosperity – cannot be achieved through the intermediation of the state. Only
a condition of freedom and tolerance, experienced directly between
living individual persons, not between abstract concepts, and not
a world where "some are more equal than others" or "some
have more rights than others," can perhaps begin to create
the climate and the context for achieving those goals.

25, 2002

Wall (send him mail) is a freelance
translator, specializing in the social sciences, who lives in Estoril,

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