[First published May 22, 2005] The passionate cry of the anti-colonialist of the 1960s is now almost forgotten. It was for self-determination — the freedom of people to govern themselves. It is also the cry of a people against their dictators and for democratic freedom. It is the antinomy of the statist ideology — statist unity, or simply statism — that so much infects governing elites, even in democracies .
It is the cause of so much of the internal violence we see in the world. This is the desire of the rulers, or ruling majority, to maintain the boundaries of a state as is, and to forcefully, if necessary, prevent the people of some region, province, republic, or whatever it is called, from breaking off and forming their own sovereign state. Their are many reasons for this statism, such as a strong nationalist belief in the integrity — wholeness — of the state , the belief it would weaken the state, the loss of important resources, and moral imperatives, as in the American Civil War (anti-slavery sentiment mixed with statism).
Just consider the civil and revolutionary wars and widespread internal violence the that resulted from statism: Tibet and China controls by force alone a number of areas that ought to be sovereign on their own, such as Tibet, the rebellious whole Eastern region of Sinkiang (formerly Muslim and Caucasian Turkistan taken over by Mao’s Red Army after its victory over the Nationalists in 1949, as was Tibet). Then there is bloody Chechnya to which Russia refuses to grant self-determination. In Vietnam, the South was never part of the North until seized by North Vietnam; I’m sure if the people were free to separate from the North, they would do so in a moment — over a million fleeing Boat People attests to that. Burma’s war against ethnic groups, such as the Shan and Karens, carried on by military dictators has been ongoing for decades. Giving them their independence would resolve this. Nigeria fought a senseless war against the attempt by Biafra to split off from the country — about a 1,000,000 died or were killed in the civil war. And so on and on.
A special case of this is Iraq, with almost clear division of the country between Sunnis in mid-country, including Baghdad, the majority Shiites in the south, and the Kurds in the north. Ideally, in occupying the country and establishing an Iraqi government, the U.S. should have divided the country into three sovereign parts. This would have avoided much of the present terrorist violence. However, this argument neglects the practical reality. Turkey would not have accepted a sovereign Kurd state on its southern border, for as assuredly as water runs downhill, the Kurds would have aided and provided a safe-haven to their fellow Kurds across the border in Turkey who have been fighting for their own independence for many years. Assuredly, Turkey informed the U.S. that it would not allow an independent Kurdistan, with the implication it would take military action to stop it.
Then there were the Shiites in the south bordering on revolutionary Shiite Iran, and who could tell in 2004 how susceptible they would be to inducements or control by their fellow Muslims in Iran (now it is clear they will follow an independent course). All this is to say that the Bush Administration followed the most practical and politically desirable course (a hat tip to the realists for this).
However, if such political considerations don’t intrude, and they don’t in most cases, a people have a right to self-determination, whether of a colony or of a segment of a state in which an overwhelming majority desire self-determination. What the logic of this?
I argue that the moral justification for the state is an implicit social contract: we give obedience to the state in return for the protection and rights it guarantees us (you will notice a hint of Hobbes in this, with a heavier touch of Rawls). But, when a people no longer wish to abide by this social contract, but to establish a new one, then they have a right to do so that is derived from their fundamental right to freedom (and a bow to Locke). No rulers or democratic leaders have a right to prevent by force a people from exercising their right to self-determination, unless, and the only unless, a democracy is weakened in the face of a foreign enemy by such fission.
So, if the people of California, or Alaska, or my home state of Hawaii, or the liberal North Eastern states want to split off from the United States, and they would support it in a referendum by more than 2/3rds, more power to them.
To me, the right to self-determination, if chosen by an overwhelming majority of a people trumps any but a common defense argument against that freedom. If this bothers you, consider that in wartime, democracies accept that the a common defense supercedes individual liberty via the draft of young men, censorship, and anti-strike laws.
Lets bring back the cry of our fathers, the rallying cry against colonialism that was so successful —
Three cheers for the self-determination of a people
Link of Note
Epigraph: “To be self-determined is to endorse one’s actions at the highest level of reflection. When self-determined, people experience a sense of freedom to do what is interesting, personally important, and vitalizing.”