The State and Self-Determination

I 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.

Probably 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 points. 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).

As Pat Buchanan 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!”

In 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.

From 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.

And 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.

Usually 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 Mercer, for example, says that "Israel is an attempt at an ethnically homogeneous nation-state."

I 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.

At 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.

Much 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.

So 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 flag.

For 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.

When 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 fashion.

It 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.

How 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.

The 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.

Deeper, 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.

From 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.

This 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.

These 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."

Libertarians, 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 purpose.

Such 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.

And 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:

The 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.

The 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 state.

Israel 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.

A 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 already."

As 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)

Exploring 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 Post on April 30, 2002, defending the idea of a Palestinian state as an indispensable element of the "solution" to current problems:

"The 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."

He 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."

As 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?

I 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.

September 25, 2002

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

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