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Woodrow Wilson and the legacy of self-determination

By William Hill - posted Friday, 29 April 2016

Across the world at present we are seeing national people's movements seeking independence from their present governments and sovereignty within their own borders. Outside of Europe these struggles usually involve tremendous use of violence by all sides threatening the stability of substantial parts of the world. International law, political opinion and state interest combine in order to support the efforts of those seeking self-determination which often has the unintended effect of prolonging conflict and deepening sectarian divisions. Prime examples of this include: the Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, the Kachin, Karen and Rohingya in Myanmar, Tibet and Xinjiang in China, the Aceh and West Papuan insurgencies and the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

Nation states are becoming increasingly vulnerable to efforts by secessionists and their international supporters to dismantle the territorial integrity of existing states and the establishment of new states in their place. I posit that this tendency in the modern age is an incredibly dangerous idea and one that should be re-examined. Secessionist groups draw much encouragement from international opinion and always seek to engender ostracism of the countries that they are in conflict with. This is an effective recipe for prolonging conflict and encouraging state governments into evermore repressive actions in order to maintain their territorial integrity and stability.

The foundation of self-determination in the modern era largely traces its intellectual origins back to Woodrow Wilson and his famous declaration, 'The Fourteen Points', which effectively established the precedent for international backing of national independence movements.


Self-determination in the sense Wilson meant it is quite different from today's understanding. Wilson sought to return sovereignty to specific components of specific empires. In the years since the Second World War and decolonisation nation-states have come into existence across the world that are amalgamations of many different peoples and territories. Countries such as Indonesia, the People's Republic of China, Sri Lanka and India have forged strong ideas of nationality and national destiny. They all believe that they are indivisible and a single people. The rejection of this by minorities within their borders is clearly not something they will tolerate when it threatens their sovereignty and sense of unity.

Wilson's idea of self-determination was concerned with the dismantling of imperial polities and the return of self-government and territorial integrity to pre-existing states that had fallen under, more or less, recent imperial conquest. Wilson broke up the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire's and re-established states with a history of self-government and historical existence. His legacy has since been re-imagined and has come to be applied to all national groups who do not have a state of their own. This has conflated different cases with destructive consequences.

Wilson was a fierce critic of Japanese aggression against China though regrettably Wilson was unable to dissuade Japan from abandoning its conquests and other intrusions into China. China was a long established state but unable to defend itself from a more powerful neighbour when Japan sought to dominate Manchuria in China's northeast.

Manchuria was a long integrated part of the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China, populated overwhelmingly by Han Chinese. There was no justification for the Japanese annexation of Manchuria, no historic attachment or connections to Japan and the international community of the time was broadly supportive of the Chinese position. That is after all why Wilson supported China during his presidency despite his inability to affect Japan's designs on China and its resources.

This is quite different from the cases of Tibet and Xinjiang that have centuries of attachment to China and long been integrated into China's society and politics. Both these regions have also attracted substantial attention and support from international figures who are pro-independence. The extension of Wilson's vision to Tibet and Xinjiang presents potential dangers for the world in the present and the near future. China like Russia (and India and Indonesia to some extent) were two land empires that transitioned into modern nation-states. As such they include minorities of people who believe themselves not to be a part of the primary national identity that shapes the entire country.

The readiness of figures in the Western world to support the often violent campaigns of those seeking to separate themselves from their home countries is not an answer for greater peace. If China saw Tibet and Xinjiang detach themselves, wouldn't China be highly motivated to take them back through force and thus prolong the misery in these two regions? It is yet to be established whether or not either Tibet or Xinjiang could emerge as viable states able to maintain their quality of life or their national borders which would be considerably porous in both cases. The growth of support for micro-national independence movements risks the spread of state failure and the violence that comes with it.


For decades now there has been strong international sympathy for the Kurdish people who are one of the largest national groups yet to achieve statehood. Given the deplorable treatment they have received at the hands of their host governments, a wide cross section of international opinion has endorsed the idea of an independent Kurdistan. Whatever the borders of an independent Kurdistan may be they will involve the transfer or even seizure of territory of other states. The likely affected states include Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. This creates a conflict between the self-determination rights of the Kurds against the integrity and national aspirations of the effected states. If the Kurds are in the right pressing and fighting for their rights then it stands to reason that Turkey and others are right to resist in the name of their people and countries.

The nation-state is a far more harmonious actor in international affairs than are empires or fragmented countries. Empires have a natural impulse towards expansionism as was seen in Europe and East Asia in the first half of the last century. Likewise in the post-Cold War environment the presence of countries without a strong overriding identity and an effective state to enforce order has resulted in serious transnational threats to international security and stability.

The survivability of small states that have long been a part of a larger entity is a serious question to consider. Prosperous regions seeking independence like Quebec, Scotland, Catalonia, Lombardy and Flanders have so far not been able to secure independence through democratic means. Their nationalistic supporters live in free societies and have economic interests that are guaranteed by remaining within the dominant country rather than risking independence.

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About the Author

William Hill is a graduate from the Australian National University with a Bachelor of International Security Studies. He has a strong interest in political science and issues of foriegn policy.

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