Skip to main content
Select Source:



Betty Miller Unterberger

The principle of self-determination refers to the right of a people to determine its own political destiny. Beyond this broad definition, however, no legal criteria determine which groups may legitimately claim this right in particular cases. The right to self-determination has become one of the most complex issues facing policymakers in the United States and the international community at large. At the close of the twentieth century, it could mean the right of people to choose their form of government within existing borders or by achieving independence from a colonial power. It could mean the right of an ethnic, linguistic, or religious group to redefine existing national borders to achieve a separate national sovereignty or simply to achieve a greater degree of autonomy and linguistic or religious identity within a sovereign state. It could even mean the right of a political unit within a federal system such as Canada, Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union, or the former Yugoslavia to secede from the federation and become an independent sovereign state.

Self-determination is a concept that can be traced back to the beginning of government. The right has always been cherished by all peoples, although history has a long record of its denial to the weak by the strong. Both the Greek city-states and the earlier Mesopotamian ones were jealous of their right to self-determination. Yet to the Greeks, non-Greeks were barbarians, born to serve them and the object of conquest if they refused to submit. The development of modern states in Europe and the rise of popular national consciousness enhanced the status of self-determination as a political principle, but it was not until the period of World War I that the right of national independence came to be known as the principle of national self-determination. In general terms, it was simply the belief that each nation had a right to constitute an independent state and to determine its own government.

The historian Alfred Cobban has said that not every kind of national revolt can be included under the description of self-determination. The movement for national independence, or self-determination, falls into the same category as utilitarianism, communism, or Jeffersonian democracy. It is a theory, a principle, or an idea, and no simple, unconscious national movement can be identified with it. Struggles like the rising of the French under the inspiration of Joan of Arc or the Hussite Wars are fundamentally different from the national movements of the last two hundred years because of the absence of a theory of national self-determination, which could appear only in the presence of a democratic ideology.


In this context, then, the revolt of the British colonies in North America has been defined as the first assertion of the right of national and democratic self-determination in the history of the world. Resenting domination from across the seas, and especially the imposition of taxes without representation, the American colonists invoked natural law and the natural rights of man, drawing inspiration from the writings of John Locke to support their view. Locke taught that political societies are based upon the consent of the people who compose them, each of whom agrees to submit to the majority. Man has a natural right to life, liberty, and property. Sovereignty belongs to the people and is therefore limited by the necessity to protect the individual members.

Thomas Jefferson emphasized Locke's theories as American ideals and epitomized the republican spirit of the century. In drafting the Declaration of Independence in June 1776, Jefferson stated his fundamental philosophy of government, upon which the modern concept of self-determination rests. He asserted that "all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and unalienable Rights ["certain unalienable Rights" in the Continental Congress's final draft], that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"; that the "just Powers" of government are established "by the Consent of the governed" to protect these rights; and that when government does not, "it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government."

In considering the American Revolution as the seminal example of the modern principle of self-determination, it is important to focus attention on both elements of Jefferson's view. He was concerned not only with throwing off the foreign yoke but also with ensuring that the government was that of the people and that their will was supreme.

Since the formation of the United States, American statesmen have continually expressed sympathy for the basic principle of self-determination. In 1796, President George Washington stated that he was stirred "whenever, in any country, he saw an oppressed nation unfurl the banner of freedom." Three years earlier, Thomas Jefferson, then the American secretary of state, had said: "We surely cannot deny to any nation that right whereon our own is foundedthat every one may govern itself according to whatever form it pleases and change those forms at its own will."

Jefferson's view, supported by his fellow Virginians James Madison and James Monroe, was widely accepted by the American public during the ensuing years although never actually implemented as official policy. Nevertheless, regardless of its original intent, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Declaration of Independence provided a beacon of hope both to European peoples struggling for independence against autocratic governments and to colonial peoples seeking to advance toward independence. Frequently, American idealists threatened to drag the nation into European affairs by demanding that the government underwrite a policy of liberation abroad. For example, when the Greeks staged an abortive independence movement against the Turks in the 1820s, the Monroe administration was assailed by Daniel Webster in Congress and by many others for its apparent indifference to the cause of liberty in other parts of the world. Although realists like John Quincy Adams opposed the expression of sentiments unsupported by action, President James Monroe nonetheless placed on record his public support of the Greek struggle for self-determination in his famous message of December 1823.


But it must be noted that while Adams recognized that American history fostered a sympathy for self-determination, that same tradition also had established as a cardinal priority the doctrine of nonintervention so forcefully enunciated by Washington in his Farewell Address. For Adams, concerned with the limits of American power in this period, the doctrine of nonintervention took precedence over the principle of self-determination.

Yet throughout the nineteenth century the American public frequently expressed sympathy for the struggles of oppressed peoples in Europe. This feeling was most vigorously demonstrated in relation to the Hungarians upon the failure of their revolution of 18481849. After the revolution had been crushed by Russian troops, Lajos Kossuth, the eloquent Hungarian leader, arrived in New York City in 1851 to the greatest ovation given anyone since the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette twenty-five years earlier.

When the Austrian chargé d'affaires protested to the State Department against the overt public sympathy expressed in favor of Hungary's liberation, Daniel Webster, then secretary of state, responded in a note explaining America's sympathy for Hungary as a natural expression of the national character, and assuring the Austrian government that such popular outbursts constituted no desertion of the established American doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries. Nevertheless, many persons in official positions demanded that the United States use its moral and physical power to support the freedom of Hungary. Furthermore, the government did not suppress the right of Congress to pass resolutions expressing the sympathy of the nation for struggling peoples, like the Hungarians, seeking freedom.


The attitude of the federal government changed at the outset of the Civil War, when the United States found itself in the embarrassing position of using force to suppress the will of a minority of the nation seeking to establish its own independence. Among the interested European observers of the American Civil War, there were perhaps as many partisans of the South as of the North. To some it seemed that the Southern states, by fighting for their self-determination as a nation, were striking a blow for political freedom and independence in the spirit of similar revolutionaries and national movements in the Old World. Southerners themselves contended that they were following the example of the American patriots of 1776, a view that appeared reasonable to many Englishmen. To the latter, Secretary of State William H. Seward made it clear that the United States could not regard as friends those who favored or gave aid to the insurrection under any pretext. In taking this position the United States pointed out that it was claiming only what it conceded to all other nations. Thus, the Civil War clearly determined the official policy of the United States toward self-determination. The United States in effect denied the right of communities within a constituted federal union to determine their allegiance, and that denial had been enforced by military power. Clearly, the doctrine of national sovereignty, supported by the principle of nonintervention, had officially and unequivocally taken precedence over the concept of self-determination.

This official view also influenced the policy of the United States in regard to the use of the plebiscite as a means of settling questions of sovereignty and self-determination. For example, Secretary Seward adamantly opposed a plebiscite on the abortive cession of the West Indian islands of St. Thomas and St. John in 1868. Again, in August 1897, in response to the Japanese minister's suggestion that a plebiscite be taken regarding the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, Secretary of State John Sherman drew upon the history of international relations to confirm the impropriety of "appealing from the action of the Government to 'the population.'" "In international comity and practice," said Sherman, "the will of a nation is ascertained through the established and recognized government," and "it is only through it that the nation can speak." The same principle in regard to annexed territories was asserted in the memorandum of the American Peace Commission at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. Thus, by 1899 the United States had emphatically asserted its adherence to the principle and practice of annexation without the consent of the peoples annexed.

On the fall of the Spanish empire in the Western Hemisphere in 1898, the United States gained colonial control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and enjoyed quasi-suzerainty over Cuba, from which it withdrew its military presence in 1902 while reserving certain rights for itself. This put the United States in the anomalous position of having fought a war against Spain at least officially for Cuban self-determination, only to deny that principle to the colonies acquired in the peace settlement. Those who opposed annexation constituted a powerful anti-imperialist movement, headed by many political and intellectual leaders. Deeply concerned over the concept of self-determination, although they did not specifically mention it, they clearly opposed annexation on the ground that it involved the suppression of a conquered people. Although the anti-imperialists could not defeat the peace treaty, they were able to bring the issue of imperialism into the open and to raise considerable national doubt as to whether the treaty was in accord with the direct traditions of self-determination as revealed by the establishment of the nation.

The nation's ambivalence concerning the proper interpretation and appropriate application of the concept of self-determination was exposed again when the American people were called upon to decide the novel questions of whether the Constitution followed the flag across the Pacific and whether democracy could be preserved at home in its new imperial setting. Anti-imperialists argued against the abandonment of American principles for the ways of the Old World. Imperialists, also calling upon American traditions, maintained that democracy could be extended only to a people fit to receive it. Self-government depended upon a nation's capacity for political action, and if a people was not ready for independence, it must undergo a period of political tutelage and protection. Thus, the imperialists joined the American conception of manifest destiny with Rudyard Kipling's call for the Anglo-Saxon nations to take up the white man's burden. In the curious reasoning of an official U.S. commission to the Philippines, "American sovereignty is only another name for the liberty of the Filipinos." And yet it must be noted that every president after William McKinley extended the prospect of freedom and independence to the Philippines until it was actually granted in 1946.

By 1899, then, the American conflict of principle in regard to self-determination might clearly be seen by examining two great heroes in American history. The popular reputation of George Washington rested less on his great work as the nation's first president than on his successful conduct of a struggle for self-determination, while Abraham Lincoln's rested on his success in suppressing such a struggle. Although pursuing diametrically opposite principles, both were judged right by posterityeven, in the main, by the descendants of the defeated sides. Later events have caused the Civil War to be regarded as waged on the issue of slavery, but at the outset Lincoln asserted that it was fought not to abolish slavery but to maintain the Unionthat is, to resist the claim of the Southern states to independence. Such a claim or right has its limits, andto state the matter from the cold standpoint of political philosophythe national government believed that in this case the claim was not within the limits where the principle properly applied.

Considerations like these induce one to reflect upon the limited nature of principles commonly accepted as universal; upon the conflicts that arise when two inconsistent universal principles come into collision; and how far such conflict may be avoided by recognizing that there are limits, with a debatable region in which neither can be rigorously applied.

Wilsonianism World War I and the leadership of President Woodrow Wilson provided the nation an opportunity for a supreme effort to reconcile the principles of self-determination and national sovereignty in a way that might provide a lasting peace. In a May 1916 address before the League to Enforce Peace, he announced as a fundamental principle "that every people has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live. " During the following two years, Wilson continued to proclaim vigorously and with passionate conviction his version of the right of national self-determination. He stated that "No peace can last or ought to last which does not accept the principle that governments derive all their just powers from the consent of the governed," and that "no right anywhere exists to hand peoples about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were property." The president's repeated affirmation of an abstract principle of justice that should be universally applied had a profound influence on the subsequent statements of both the Allies and the Central Powers. In a dramatic appearance before Congress in January 1918, Wilson crystallized his war aims in the famous Fourteen Points address. Although the phrase "self-determination" was not specifically used, at least six of the Fourteen Points dealt with some interpretation or application of the principle.

The Bolsheviks in Russia played a decisive role in the specific clarification and implementation of the American concept of self-determination. When the Bolshevik leaders Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky came to power in November 1917, they demanded an immediate, general, and democratic peace with the Central Powers, based on no "annexations and contributions [reparations] with the right of all nations to self-determination." On 3 December the Russians suspended hostilities with Germany and its allies, a state that lasted until 17 December. During this period the Bolsheviks used the concept of self-determination heavily on behalf of peace. After a powerful propaganda campaign, they were finally able to convince their opponents to allow more time for the negotiations, so as to permit the Allies to define their war aims and decide whether they wished to participate. During this period the Bolsheviks published the six points for world peace that they had laid down for the guidance of the peace conference. Five dealt with self-determination. Although the United States and the Allies failed to perceive it until Trotsky pointed it out to them, the points were directed at them as much as at the Central Powers. Indeed, the Russians had proposed five points that in essence were the same as five of the Fourteen Points of President Wilson, published only a few weeks later.

On 29 December, with six days remaining during which the Entente Powers could exercise their option to participate in the negotiations, Trotsky sent them an appeal, pointing out that the Allies could no longer insist on fighting for the liberation of Belgium, northern France, Serbia, and other areas since Germany and its allies had indicated a willingness to evacuate those areas following a universal peace. Some response appeared to be necessary, for not only did Trotsky call for violent proletarian revolution against the Allied governments, but he had also shrewdly based his primary argument on Wilson's principle of self-determination. Although probably not realizing it, Wilson was in an ideological corner; either he must accept the Bolshevik conclusion that all peoples in all states, including all colonies, had the right to immediate self-determination, or he must reject it but in its place offer some standard of what constituted an acceptable unit for the application of that principle.

While Wilson had been sympathetic to the principle of self-determination as enunciated by Lenin, he had no illusions concerning the German response to it. By the end of December 1917 it appeared clear that self-determination, as understood by the Germans, justified the severance from Russia of the territories occupied by the German army: Russian Poland, most of the Baltic provinces, and parts of Belarus. Indeed, by the middle of December the State Department was aware that the Ukraine, Finland, and Transcaucasia were in the process of declaring themselves independent under the auspices of Lenin's program of self-determination. Finally, it was apparent that if Russia was to have peace according to the German interpretation of self-determination, it would entail heavy territorial sacrifices. Wilson was opposed to such an interpretation of self-determination, and on several occasions declared his opposition to the dismemberment of empires. But in that case, what did Wilson's concept of self-determination really mean? Trotsky had made it clear that to demand self-determination for the peoples of enemy states but not for the peoples within the Allied states or their own colonies would "mean the defense of the most naked, the most cynical imperialism."

Since Trotsky's invitation presented an ideological challenge, an analysis of the American response becomes crucial. Secretary of State Robert Lansing totally opposed it. His attack was based on his social conservatism, his animosity toward Bolshevik ideology, and, most important, his insight into the logical and political requirements for a meaningful application of the principle of self-determination in foreign policy. His advice to the president betrayed the contradictions that still existed in his thinking. On the one hand, he argued that the president should refuse to make any response whatsoever to their appeals. On the other, he admitted that Trotsky's logic demanded some answer and that a more detailed restatement of American war aims might well be expedient.

In his analysis of the Bolsheviks' reasoning, Lansing apparently also sought to convince the president of the undesirability of settling territorial problems by means of self-determination. He pointed out that the existing concept of the sovereignty of states in international relations would be destroyed if the "mere expression of popular will" were to become the governing principle in territorial settlements. He reminded Wilson of the nation's decision in regard to popular sovereignty in its own civil war and stated: "We as a nation, are therefore committed to the principle that a national state may by force if necessary prevent a portion of its territory from seceding without its consent especially if it has long exercised sovereignty over it or if its national safety or vital interests would be endangered." The Bolshevik proposal, Lansing warned, would be "utterly destructive of the political fabric of society and would result in constant turmoil and change."

One of the strongest points in Lansing's analysis was his discovery that the discussion regarding self-determination up to that point had a major ideological flaw. There was no definition of the "distinguishing characteristic" of the unit to which the principle was to be applied. Trotsky had discussed the right of nationalities without defining what a nationality was. Was it based on blood, habitation of a particular territory, language, or political affinity? Clearly, accurate definition of the word was necessary if the terms proposed were to be properly interpreted; otherwise, they were far too vague to be considered intelligently. Lansing added that if the Bolsheviks intended to suggest that every community could determine its own allegiance to a particular state, or to become independent, the political organization of the world would be shattered. The result, he said, would be international anarchy. Lansing did not provide a definition of "nationalities." He surely must have perceived that his criticism of the Bolsheviks applied equally to Wilson's position.


President Wilson was now in possession of two totally divergent views on self-determination. Whereas Trotsky had pushed the principle to its limits, advocating that all peoples, not just a selected list, be liberated from foreign rule, Secretary Lansing had drawn his sword against Trotsky and negated the usefulness of self-determination in settling world issues. He insisted that if the present political and social order was to be preserved, then the principle of the legal sovereignty of constituted states must take precedence over any consideration of the popular will of minorities.

The president was at odds with both points of view. At the core of his belief, self-determination meant the moral necessity of government by consent of the governed. Self-determination was to Wilson almost another word for popular sovereignty; vox populi was vox dei. Rousseau's "general will" was for him not merely ideal will, but the actual will of the people, which had only to be freed from the ill will of autocratic governments for its innate goodness to be manifested. The idealization of democracy was an essential part of Wilsonian ideology. Firmly convinced of the goodness of the people's will, he believed in the possibility of building a new and better international order on the basis of national sovereignty, in which he assumed the democratic will of the people to be embodied.

To put it in another way, Wilson's belief in the goodness and power of world opinion, which might be termed the general will of humanity, and its identity with the general will of every democratic nation, enabled him to hold the view that the self-determination of nations and national sovereignty was a possible basisindeed, the only basisof world peace. The president never conceived of these principles as divided or as being applied separately. He had concluded that the primary cause of aggression by one state against another was a desire for territorial and economic security in the absence of international political security. The hallmark of this lack of international security was the bipolar alliance system that operated in an atmosphere of struggle for the elusive balance of power. This being the case, the president reasoned, if national security could be restored to the various states, then the motive for political and economic aggression would be removed from international politics. Wilson believed that an international organization of states, through the common resources of a community of power, would provide the required security. Once states adjusted to operating for the common welfare of humankind, without resorting to the exploitation of one state by another, then the existing inequities regarding points of sovereignty could be resolved by an international organization based on the principle that government must be with the consent of the governed. This was Wilson's long-range view of the application of self-determination. Even before the United States entered the war, he had come to regard the League of Nations as central to his thought.

Nevertheless, the day after receiving Lansing's letter opposing the Bolsheviks, President Wilson revealed, in a conversation with the retiring British ambassador, that while he sympathized with the Bolshevik desire to settle the war on the basis of self-determination, he was also deeply influenced by the views of his secretary of state: "In point of logic, of pure logic, this principle which was good in itself would lead to the complete independence of various small nationalities now forming part of various empires. Pushed to its extreme, the principle would mean the disruption of existing governments, to an indefinable degree." Wilson's introduction to his Fourteen Points speech appeared to be a direct answer to the challenge presented by the German-Russian negotiations then being conducted at Brest-Litovsk. His deep concern with Russia's plight seems apparent from a reading of his eloquent passages concerning that nation. Apparently seeking to impress both the ruler and the ruled, he did not call for the overthrow of Bolshevik power as a condition for renewed cooperation. Moreover, fully resolved to continue the crusade regardless of all suggestions for a negotiated peace, Wilson refused to abandon Russia's borderland to the tortured interpretation of self-determination put forth by the Central Powers. Thus, the sixth of the Fourteen Points called for an evacuation of all Russian territory and the adoption of diplomacy by all other nations of the world, of actions that would permit an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for Russia's independent self-determination under institutions of its free choosing.

Even though the United States later, under tremendous pressure from the Allies, participated in expeditions to Siberia and northern Russia, Wilson justified these departures from his clearly enunciated principles on the ground that he was seeking to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia and the ultimate right of self-determination for its people, while at the same time "rescuing" the Czech legion presumably trapped in Russia and preserving the Open Door policy in the Russian Far East and northern Manchuria against suspected Japanese imperialism. But perhaps even more important, he was seeking to retain the goodwill of the Allies, whose support was vital to the success of a League of Nations, the capstone of his Fourteen Points. Thus, to block Japan and further the league, Wilson followed a policy that appeared to be totally at variance not only with the principle of self-determination, but also with the principles of his proposed league. Wilson, above all the man of principle, found himself caught, as had the nation itself many times since its inception, in a debatable situation where, despite deep convictions, none of his principles could be rigorously applied.

Wilson was in a somewhat similar quandary in relation to the tenth point, concerning Austria-Hungary. From the U.S. entry into the war, he had disapproved of the dismemberment of the Dual Monarchy. In doing so he hoped to divide Vienna and Berlin by strengthening those elements in Austria-Hungary that favored an early negotiated peace. Although sympathetic to the desires for self-determination of the oppressed nationalities within the empire, he could not accept "the extreme logic of this discontent which would be the dismemberment of Austria Hungary." Thus, in the tenth point Wilson stopped short of a clear-cut endorsement of independence by placing his emphasis on providing the peoples of Austria-Hungary with the free opportunity for "autonomous development" within a Danubian Confederation of States.

In January 1918, Wilson had reason to believe that such a policy might still keep open the door to a negotiated peace with Austria-Hungary. However, subsequent events, especially Czech belligerency against the Germans in Russia and the failure of his efforts to negotiate a separate peace with Austria-Hungary, led Wilson to give up his dream for a Danubian Confederation and support an independent Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, it should be noted that although Lansing and the State Department had presented strong arguments for the recognition of Czech independence on the basis of ethnicity, language, and shared historical experience, Wilson would accept none of these. It was only Czech belligerency in Russia against Germany that provided the rationale for his recognition of the de facto independence of Czechoslovakia.

Curiously, the first of Wilson's territorial points dealt with the colonial problem. Here the president very cautiously advocated "a free, openminded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims." Regardless of how broad or narrow the interpretation of "colonial claims," Wilson insisted that their settlement be based upon the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the governments whose title was to be determined. Lansing's caution surely had an effect. Once again, the president appeared, perhaps without realizing it, to be seeking some reconciliation of the historic conflict of principles.

An examination of the remainder of Wilson's points on self-determination reveals that only in the case of Poland did the president offer an outright and unqualified commitment to independence. The thirteenth point, then, contrasted sharply with Wilson's application of the self-determination principle in the preceding seven points. It must have been evident to Wilson that the national and language conflicts destined to emerge with the rebirth of Poland were likely to be intense. It is therefore noteworthy that Poland was given specific political and economic guarantees. First, Wilson publicly proclaimed Poland to be in need of a "free and secure access to the seas." Second, this economic and strategic safeguard was further supplemented by Wilson's proposal that Poland's "political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant." His thirteenth point, which gave an international guarantee for the independence of Poland, might be looked upon as the link to the fourteenth point, which called for the establishment of the League of Nations.

Although millions rallied to the idea of a League of Nations as the essential guarantee for a perpetual peace, Wilsonwithout even mentioning peacechartered an association of nations in order to secure "mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity." Peace was the ultimate objective, but the immediate function of the league was the preservation of the territorial arrangements that would emerge from the peace conference. The association of nations was meant to be a sort of midwife to nations about to be born; it would help them pass from the precarious stage of infancy through adolescence, to full maturity in a new "community of power."

Even the president himself possibly did not realize the full significance of the explosive principle that he had done so much to set in motion. Certainly a fundamental weakness of Wilson's ideas was his failure to realize how indeterminate a criterion nationality might be, and how little assistance it might sometimes give in deciding actual frontiers. Moreover, although he had spoken of self-determination as though it were an absolute principle of international right, from the very beginning he perforce allowed competing principles to influence his decisions and derogate from its claims. Yet by and large the peace conference of 1918 proceeded on the theory that, insofar as possible, boundaries should be readjusted by balancing the principle of national self-determination against other factors. The new boundaries would then be guaranteed against forcible change.


Despite Wilson's efforts, the principle of self-determination was not explicitly written into the League of Nations Covenant. Therefore, many predicted that it would soon be forgotten. Moreover, after the war U.S. officials tended to regard the Slavic states of Europe as politically corrupt, economically unstable, and strategically insignificant. During the interwar years, U.S. concern for the region was limited to occasional statements on behalf of religious freedom and self-determination of peoples. U.S. officials never formulated any specific policies to achieve such aims for the simple reason that Eastern Europe lay outside the region of historic American interest. It was obvious, therefore, that America would not oppose any serious German or Russian challenge to the newly created states. Thus, when Nazi power destroyed Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939 and overran all of Eastern Europe in 1940, the American people were reluctant to offer anything more than deep sympathy. Nevertheless, nationalists in Asia such as Mahatma Gandhi in India and Ho Chi Minh in Indochina continued to seek national liberation, inspired in part by Wilson's ideal of self-determination.

However, as events were to demonstrate, the view that self-determination was merely an anomaly of World War I proved to be false. Amid the confusion of World War II, the outline of the future world settlement began to appear and take shape. Franklin D. Roosevelt was as challenged and as baffled by the idea of self-determination as Wilson had been. Just as Wilson believed that an international organization was needed to transform the doctrine of self-determination into political reality, so Roosevelt saw the United Nations, Wilson's grandchild, as hopefully playing the role in which Wilson had cast it. The United Nations was to accept "the fact of nationalism and the need for internationalism." Just as Wilson had experienced difficulties in interpreting and applying the doctrine of self-determination in the face of Allied objections, the secret treaties, and Bolshevik competition, Franklin Roosevelt had similar problems. In the Atlantic Charter of August 1941, he and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain joined to make known certain common principles and national policies on which they based their hopes for a better future. Once again the principle of self-determination of peoples was affirmed and the desire expressed "to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned." Respect was also reaffirmed for "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live" and "to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them."

As in World War I, both the meaning and the scope of these abstract principles were open to conflicting interpretations. For example, the Atlantic Charter ignored the burgeoning interests of the Soviet Union in European politics. For Joseph Stalin the charter's repudiation of any alteration in the prewar political and territorial status of Eastern Europethe only region that offered the Soviets any tangible and lasting fruits of victoryrendered it totally unacceptable as a basis of action. That the Soviet Union, unlike both the United States and Britain, suffered incalculable physical destruction and twenty million deaths at the hands of the invading Nazis made inevitable vast disagreements over the applicability of the Atlantic Charter to the territories of Germany and Eastern Europe. While both Britain and the United States recognized that without the continued and unlimited military efforts of the Soviet Union the West could hardly hope to defeat Germany, the Atlantic Charter assumed that the two Western democracies, even before the United States had formally entered the war, could dominate the postwar settlements in a region that comprised not only the historic territorial objectives of the Russian nation but also the area the Soviet armies might actually occupy.

Fighting for their existence, the Russians were in no position to antagonize their Western allies. At the meeting of the Allies in London in September 1941, they accepted the principle of self-determination; clearly, though, the Soviet Union would follow the precepts of the Atlantic Charter only to the extent that they served its security interests. That the immediate military requirements far outweighed ultimate political intention was illustrated in January 1942, when the Soviet Union and twenty-five other nations signed the United Nations Declaration, the opening paragraph of which accepted the purpose and principles of the Atlantic Charter.

In 1944, as the Allies began to free vast areas of Europe from Nazi control, their political differences could no longer be submerged. As the Russian armies rolled across Eastern Europe, what the United States had denied Stalin by refusing to accede to a spheres-of-influence agreement, now fell to the Soviet Union through rapid military advancement. But as late as April 1944, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, committed to the Wilsonian vision of self-determination, not only opposed any negotiation of spheres of influence with the Soviet Union but also promised the American people a postwar world based on the principles of the Atlantic Charter. Whatever security Stalin required along his western boundaries, said Hull, he could obtain through a strong postwar peace organization. When it became clear to Stalin that free governments in such nations as Poland and Romania would not do his bidding, he employed his military advantage to impose governments friendly to the Soviet Union through the agency of communist puppet regimes. This eliminated the possibility of any serious negotiation on the postwar Soviet frontiers of Eastern Europe. By 1945 the Western powers could no longer assure even limited self-determination for the Slavic peoples of Europe. What remained for the United States was the cruel choice of compromising the principles of the Atlantic Charter or sacrificing the alliance itself.


The principle of self-determination fared considerably better in other areas of the world. In effect, what World War I did for Eastern Europe, World War II accomplished in Asia and Africa. Between 1946 and 1960, thirty-seven new nations emerged from colonial status in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Roosevelt's efforts to implement the concept of self-determination were augmented enormouslyindeed, decisivelyby the rising tide of nationalism on these continents. Nevertheless, the United States was again beset with the problem of balancing its conflicting interests and its conflicting principles. As Cordell Hull wrote in his memoirs, the prime difficulty generally with regard to Asian colonial possessions was to induce the colonial powersprincipally Britain, France, and the Netherlandsto adopt American ideas with regard to dependent peoples. Yet they could not be pressed too far without jeopardizing the very close cooperation the United States sought with them in Europe. Fortunately for Roosevelt's objectives, the movement for national self-determination in Asia and Africa was greatly accelerated by the quick, total collapse of French resistance to German aggression and the Japanese conquest and "liberation" of European colonial possessions in the Far East.

These events profoundly changed the attitudes of the Asian and African masses. Moreover, Roosevelt himself sought to exert a beneficial influence on his allies. For instance, despite suggestions that the date for granting full independence in the Philippines be postponed as a consequence of the ravages of war and the cooperation of prominent Filipinos with the Japanese, the United States kept its promise and the islands became independent on 4 July 1946. Nor did Britain, in its old liberality and realistic wisdom, attempt to restore its Asian empire. From 1947 it brought to fulfillment the work of true liberation that had started throughout the empire even before World War I. France, resenting its humiliation in World War II and seeking to restore old imperial glory, deeply resented Anglo-American accommodation to changing reality. Britain was held responsible for France's loss of Syria and Lebanon, and American greed or innocenceor perhaps a combination of bothwas suspected of being behind the national liberation movements in Indochina and North Africa. Yet the American conflict of principles was revealed by the fact that France fought wars in Indochina and Algeria with the help of American arms and money.

On the other hand, the United Nations Charter reflected both the triumph of Wilson's concept of self-determination and the change in international relations that had occurred during the intervening years. Whereas the Covenant of the League of Nations ultimately had no references to the concept of national self-determination, the charter of the United Nations mentioned it three times. However, the charter did not insist on independence, but spoke only of self-government. The principle of federation was more promising than that of national independence. What was essential in the democratic traditionand here the charter drew largely from Wilsonian thoughtwas not national independence but self-government, government based upon the consent of the governed, and respect for the equality of the peoples involved. After 1960 the right of colonial peoples to self-determination and independence was reaffirmed almost annually by the General Assembly of the United Nations.


Yet throughout these years the United States continued to face the dilemma of which it became aware during and immediately following World War II. On the one hand, it hesitated to antagonize western European countries whose cooperation was needed in the postwar world. On the other hand, American idealists continued to express their deep-rooted sympathy with any people aspiring to freedom. The problem, however, was exacerbated by the onset of the Cold War and the American adoption of a policy of containment. Actually, the rationale for the policy developed in the Truman Doctrine drew heavily upon American ideological support of the principle of self-determination. However, the new interpretation changed America's early historic role of merely expressing sympathy to one of active and official economic and military support of the self-determination of "free peoples" who were "resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. " For the first time, President Harry S. Truman officially endorsed the necessity of actually assisting "free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way." From this point on, official American policy held that international communism violated the principle of self-determination and was irreconcilable with the right of each state to develop its own political, economic, and cultural life. Nevertheless, Washington supported the efforts of Marshal Josip Broz Tito to hold together a unified federal Yugoslavia as an effective counterweight to the influence of the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, while the United States paid homage to independence for the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union and provided token support for Tibetan nationalism in its claims against the People's Republic of China, because of the need to minimize the possibility of war or political crisis with the Soviet Union or the Sino-Soviet bloc, the United States did nothing to buttress these causes. The United States also sought to preserve existing states. It feared that the breakup of a state into its ethnic components would increase the risk of armed conflict and destabilize other multi-ethnic states. The United States not only favored the preservation of existing states, it also favored the integration of a number of states into multilateral groupings, such as the European community. Thus, the United States encouraged states of some ethnic diversity to join together and support one another in larger integrated communities.

The official pursuit of anticommunism raised pertinent questions concerning the nature and use of America's commitment to self-determination. For example, in the Western Hemisphere the Monroe Doctrine had been used by the United States to bar undesirable outside influence while securing the dominance of its own influence. Within ten years after World War II, the Monroe Doctrineextended, supplemented, and reinterpreted by the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty) in 1947 and the Declaration of Caracas in 1954gave the United States a claim to keep communism, now clearly accepted as incompatible with the concept of self-determination, out of the American states. In furtherance of this policy the United States intervened in Guatemala in 1954 to unseat the incumbent government. The invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 was an abortive attempt to unseat the socialist and populist government of Fidel Castro. When disturbances broke out in the Dominican Republic in 1965, the United States occupied the capital, Santo Domingo. President Lyndon Johnson justified this action in May 1965 by asserting that what had begun as a popular revolution committed to democracy and social justice had fallen into "the hands of a band of communist conspirators."

In Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the United States adopted a somewhat similar stance. The triumph of communism in China, the Korean War, McCarthyism at home, and the moral principles enunciated by John Foster Dulles, Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of state, enormously enhanced this position. Thus, the recognition that communism itself was a basic threat to the self-determination of virtually any nation, as well as a threat to the American way of life, led the United States to support almost any anticommunist regime or to associate itself with traditional authoritarian regimes whose days were numbered because they had alienated mass support: Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem in Indochina and King Faisal II in Iraq were only three such examples. The fact that their governments were pro-American and anticommunist qualified them in American eyes as democratic, or at least potentially so; by the same token, the United States opposed internal movements to overthrow them and condemned these as communist or procommunist. Moreover, such policies were implemented and elaborated by the formation of pacts like the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 and proposals like the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957. Such a response was typical of the apparent inability of the United States to understand the unique social and political nature of the struggles for self-determination of Asia and the Middle East. In the attempt to contain communism and thus maintain its new concept of self-determination, the United States became committed to the domestic, social, and political status quo throughout the world.


Nowhere did such a policy ultimately come to be regarded by the American public as more bankrupt than in Vietnam. When France was driven from Indochina by the communist forces of Ho Chi Minh in 1954, the United States established a noncommunist regime in South Vietnam in the hope of confining communism to the northern half of Vietnam. The objective was not only to help "free people" maintain their independence but also, the rationale went, to save neighboring Southeast Asian regimes that, it was believed, would fall like dominoes should South Vietnam fall. Then, communism would be in a position to threaten the Indian subcontinent. By 1968 the weakness of the Saigon government and the military success of the Vietcong had led the U.S. government to commit a military force of 550,000 soldiers and a budget of roughly $24 billion. But as President Johnson escalated the war and the costs and casualties mounted, public criticism reached a level that made the Vietnam conflict the most unpopular war in American history.

Such criticisms ultimately led to President Johnson's decision to announce a halt in bombing north of the seventeenth parallel and to stay out of the 1968 presidential election. Among the arguments used to oppose the war was the charge that not only had the United States betrayed its own revolutionary traditions by becoming the aggressor in a civil war between peoples of the same linguistic background who resented foreign interference, but that it was also violating the Wilsonian principle of self-determination by conniving at the flouting of the Geneva Agreement of 1954, which had stipulated that general elections to unify the country be held in Vietnam in 1956. In the early 1970s, as criticism of the war continued to mount, and particularly after President Richard Nixon authorized ill-starred incursions into Cambodia and Laos, serious peace negotiations were begun by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. But the Paris accords, which Kissinger negotiated in early 1973 with North Vietnam and South Vietnam, never worked. The pact promised discussions leading to reunification "without coercion or annexation by either party." By late 1973, however, full-scale war had emerged. In 1974 an economically troubled United States cut aid by 30 percent. By early 1975, South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu, forced to surrender two-thirds of the country, prepared to defend Saigon and called for President Gerald Ford to provide the American "full force" promised by President Nixon in 1973. In late 1973, however, Congress had prohibited the reintroduction of any U.S. forces in Vietnam. Furthermore, Nixon's 1973 promise was of no effect, for he and Kissinger did not make the promise public, while Congress never acted to make it a national commitment. In April 1975, South Vietnam fell into communist hands. After the failure of the United States to impose self-determination by military means in Southeast Asia, foreign liberation movements and separatist groups rarely attracted any sizable American constituency.

The military collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, combined with the serious pursuit of détente with both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China beginning in the late 1960s, appeared to offer the possibility not only of a redefinition of the American concept of self-determination but also of a modified implementation of the doctrine of intervention as a means of supporting it. The Nixon Doctrine offered to provide money, arms, and training, but no American troops. Nations seeking self-determination must now provide their own armies.

Yet it must be noted that throughout this period, Washington continued to oppose self-determination movements that appeared to favor any communist cause. This could be clearly seen even in the most cursory review of American policies in South Asia, Chile, and southern Africa.


On 9 August 1971, some three weeks after President Nixon had announced his visit to Peking in an effort to normalize relations, the Soviets signed a twenty-year treaty of friendship (and quasialliance) with India. The Indians feared another crushing onslaught from the bordering Chinese (as in 1962), while the Soviets were evidently eager to clasp hands with India against an increasingly menacing China. Although India and Pakistan had been enemies since the partition of British India in 1947, the United States had been supplying arms to Pakistan, an American ally. This unpromising Asiatic pot came to a furious boil in March 1971, when populous East Pakistan, separated by more than a thousand miles from West Pakistan, formally rebelled against alleged mistreatment by its West Pakistan overlords. The secessionists officially proclaimed the independent state of Bangladesh. The West Pakistan army, with alleged genocidal intent, undertook to crush the uprising with full-scale butchery, rape, and pillage. An estimated nine million destitute refugees began to pour across borders into already overpopulated and underfed India. In November 1971, responding to protests from India, Washington cancelled further shipments of arms to Pakistan. Then, early in December, India, after declaring war on Pakistan, proceeded to invade and free Bangladesh in a mercifully short clash of fifteen days. The United States, supporting the losing side, emerged from the episode looking rather foolish. Evidently seeking to counter a reported Soviet naval presence in the Indian Ocean and to display sympathy for its Pakistani ally, Washington hastily dispatched a powerful naval task force to the Indian Ocean. The transparent explanation given at the time was the necessity of evacuating a handful of U.S. citizens, most of whom had already left Bangladesh. This futile exhibition of old-fashioned "show the flag" gunboat diplomacy, with its "tilt toward Pakistan," probably gratified China, which was pro-Pakistan, but pleased neither the Soviets, the Indians, nor even the Pakistanis. Relations with India became frigid, especially after Washington cut developmental loans, charging that India was the "main aggressor" in the conflict. Nearly a year later, in November 1972, Pakistan withdrew from the SEATO alliance and in other ways indicated alienation from the United States. Thus, Bangladesh was born: a satellite of India, famine-ridden and impoverished.

In the meantime, leftist trends in Chile, once an outstanding democracy, had become especially worrisome to Washington. A left-wing coalition, which accused American copper mining and other interests of "milking" the country, won the 1970 election and elevated to the presidency Salvador Allende Gossens, a home-grown Marxist. As the first avowed Marxist to win a free election in the hemisphere, Allende posed an unusual problem for the United States. The dilemma intensified when he nationalized nearly $1 billion of American investment, opened diplomatic relations with the government of Fidel Castro, and signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. The United States retaliated by refusing to help Chile with trade or developmental programs. American banks and the Export-Import Bank cut credit. President Nixon secretly ordered the Central Intelligence Agency to follow a "get rougher" policy that encouraged anti-Allende demonstrations by middle-class Chileans. Kissinger whole-heartedly approved, in part because he was afraid that a successful radical left coalition might have contagious effects not only in Latin America but also in France and Italy. It was his own version of the domino theory.

Allende's inability to stop a rapid economic deterioration brought attacks from both conservatives and ultraleftists. In September 1973 a coup by army officers resulted in Allende's death and a right-wing military dictatorship. The United States quickly reopened its aid program; some property taken from American corporations was returned or paid for; and when the American ambassador protested the army's repression, which included torturing and imprisoning thousands of political opponents, Kissinger angrily told the ambassador "to cut out the political science lectures." By 1975 there was no longer any doubt that the United States had played a role in overthrowing the Allende government in Chile and replacing it with the ferociously right-wing General Augusto Pinochet.


American policy in Africa, although not so heavily involved, followed the same pattern. The dominant element after 1946 was opposition to communism and to the communist powers. As far as Africa was concerned, responsibility for pursuing these objectives was delegated to America's trusted alliesBritain, France, Belgium, and even Portugalwhose policies in the area were therefore broadly supported, despite minor disagreements that arose as American business became interested in Africa's potential. Inevitably, this placed the United States in opposition to an Africa seeking to win its independence from those same powers. However, when political freedom could be achieved peacefully, the United States was able to appear to Africa like a neutral bystander. In these cases the United States was able to adjust its policies and accept the new status of African sovereign states without any difficulty, although it continued to look at African affairs largely through anticommunist spectacles.

In southern Africa, practical support for the status quo continued unabated until after the Portuguese revolution in April 1974. Thus, despite America's verbal criticism of Portuguese colonialism, U.S. arms and equipment were used by Portugal in its military operations in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. Despite verbal opposition to apartheid, American trade and investment in South Africa were expanded, and the United States opposed any effective United Nations demonstration of hostility toward the apartheid state. The United States also fought a hard and largely successful rearguard action against the demands for international intervention against South Africa's occupation of Namibia (South-West Africa). Regarding the British colony of Rhodesia, the United States trailed behind British opposition to the white-minority regime of Ian Smith, watered down the sanctions policies it had endorsed at the United Nations, and criticized black African regimes for the vehemence of their opposition to the Smith regime.

In Africa the superpowers nearly confronted each other in a crisis that typified the new Cold War that was developing in the 1970s. Throughout the anticolonial war in Angola (19601974), the United States supported Portugal, not any of the nationalist forces. Supplying the Portuguese-backed National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) with money and military and other equipment while decolonization finally took place was thus a rather blatant attempt to place "friends" in political power in the new state. But the more effective Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) did not collapse. Instead, it asked for and received more arms from its supporters, including the Soviet Union, to meet a South African invasion of Angola in 1975. The MPLA also welcomed Cuban troops. When the FNLA demanded more help than the American administration could give without congressional approval, Congresswith the lessons of Vietnam still fresh in its mindrefused its support.

The Angolan debacle and other factors led toward a reassessment of traditional U.S. policies in southern Africa. Some Americans had long been urging support for the anticolonial struggle, and African Americans were beginning to take a greater interest in these matters. Also, trade with independent Africa had been growing and now included oil from Nigeria. The possibility that this trade might be jeopardized by proSouth African activities was no longer of merely academic interest to the United States. Moreover, guerrilla warfare in Rhodesia intensified after mid-1975, arousing fears of a repetition of the Angolan experience.

Black Africa welcomed Kissinger's Lusaka statement of 27 April 1976, which stipulated that majority rule must precede independence in Rhodesia and ruled out American material or diplomatic support to the Ian Smith regime. With some hesitation, Africa also cooperated with the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy later in the year. Africa hoped that "even at that late stage, the use of American power in support of majority rule could enable this to be attained in Rhodesia without further bloodshed." This Kissinger initiative forced Smith to shift his ground, but it did not succeed in its declared objective. Nor did it remove African uncertainty about the depth and the geographical limitations of the new American commitment to change in southern Africa.


With the election of President James E. Carter in 1976, the need to respect human rights became a focus of public attention and debate in the United States. This development reflected rising popular expectations around the world as individuals and groups expressed aspirations that included demands that government be more responsive to them. This trend appeared in many forms, from movements of national independence to devolution and demands for worker codetermination. In the United States, many saw the growing interest in the "human dimension" of world politics as a natural and healthy reaction to an overemphasis on great power diplomacy, elitist cynicism, and excessive secretiveness during the recent past.

The articulate and sympathetic stand adopted by the new administration on the question of human rights implied a distinct departure from the position of the Nixon and Ford administrations. The Carter administration's advocacy of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the widest sense had an important implication for America's policy regarding national self-determination. First and foremost, it implied an insistence on effective guarantees to safeguard the position of individual citizens in the societies to which they belonged, and particularly to protect them against infringement of basic civil rights and liberties, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and movementliberties inscribed in practically all modern constitutions, including those of the Soviet bloc. Second, to champion human rights involved supporting a long-established principle of international relations, reconfirmed in 1975 in the final act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE); this so-called Helsinki Agreement recognized the collective rights of peoples to self-determination and equal status in the international community.

In the ensuing months, the Carter administration demonstrated its commitment to human rights and self-determination by seeking to reestablish normal relations with both Cuba and Vietnam, and withdrawing its opposition to Vietnamese membership in the United Nations. In his inaugural address President Carter said, "Because we are free, we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere."

In the African nations of Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa, Carter and his eloquent United Nations ambassador, Andrew Young, championed the oppressed black majorities. However, the president's most spectacular foreign policy achievement came in September 1978, when he invited President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, in an attempt to promote peace in the Middle East. Serving as a go-between, Carter persuaded them to sign an accord that month in which Israel agreed in principle to withdraw from Egyptian territory conquered in 1967, Egypt in return promised to respect Israeli borders, and both pledged to sign a formal peace treaty within three months. Carter also concluded two treaties designed to turn over complete ownership and control of the Panama Canal to Panamanians by the year 2000.

These dramatic accomplishments were overshadowed by the ominous reheating of the Cold War with the USSR. Détente fell into disrepute as thousands of Cuban troops, assisted by Soviet advisers, appeared in Angola, Ethiopia, and elsewhere in Africa to support revolutionary factions. The worst fears of the West, however, were not aroused until the Soviet army in December 1979 invaded Afghanistan, next door to Iran, and appeared to be poised for a thrust at the oil jugular of the Persian Gulf. Only a month before, a howling mob of rabidly anti-American Muslim militants stormed the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran, and took all of its occupants hostage. World opinion hotly condemned the diplomatic felony in Iran while Americans agonized over both the fate of the hostages and the stability of the entire Persian Gulf region. President Carter slapped an embargo on the export of grain and high-technology machinery to the USSR, called for a boycott of the upcoming Olympic Games in Moscow, and requested that young people be required to register for a possible military draft. Meanwhile, the Soviet army met unexpectedly stiff resistance in Afghanistan and became bogged down in a nasty guerrilla war that came to be called "Russia's Vietnam."


Ronald Reagan, Carter's successor, took a hard-line stance toward the Soviet Union, characterizing the USSR as "the focus of evil in the modern world." He believed in negotiating with the Soviets, but only from a position of overwhelming strength. Reagan's view that self-determination was being constantly threatened by what he saw as the revolutionary hand of the Soviet Union seemed to be clearly demonstrated in Poland. Challenged by a popular trade union movement called Solidarity, the government of Poland imposed martial law. Relations with the Soviet Union nosedived, with Reagan imposing economic sanctions on Poland and the Soviet Union alike.

In the backyard of the United States, Central America rumbled menacingly. A leftist revolution deposed the longtime dictator of Nicaragua in 1979. President Carter tried to ignore the anti-American rhetoric of the revolutionaries, known as the Sandinistas, and to establish good diplomatic relations with them, but Reagan took their words at face value and hurled back at them some hot language of his own. He accused the Sandinistas of turning their country into a forward base for Soviet and Cuban penetration of all of Central America, and more specifically of shipping weapons to revolutionary forces in tiny El Salvador. Reagan sent military "advisers" to prop up El Salvador's pro-American government. He also provided covert aid to the contra rebels opposing the Sandinista government. In the Caribbean, Reaganconvinced that a military coup in Grenada had brought Marxists to powerdispatched a heavy invasion force to that tiny island in October 1983.

In his second term, Reagan found himself contending for the world's attention with the charismatic new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, installed in March 1985. Gorbachev was committed to allowing greater political liberty and the "restructuring" of the moribund Soviet economy by adopting many of the free-market practices of the capitalist West. Both these policies required great reductions in the size of the Soviet military that, in turn, necessitated an end to the Cold War. Gorbachev accordingly made warm overtures to the West. He sought without success the complete elimination of intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe when he met Reagan at summit meetings in Geneva in November 1985 and Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. However, it was at a third summit, in Washington, D.C., in December 1987, that they agreed on such a ban. Reagan, the consummate cold warrior, had been flexible and savvy enough to seize a historic opportunity to join with the Soviet chief to bring the Cold War to a kind of conclusion. History would give both leaders high marks for this.

The two most difficult foreign policy problems for Reagan were the continued captivity of a number of American hostages seized by Muslim extremist groups in civil wartorn Lebanon, and the continuing grip on power of the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. When Congress repeatedly rejected the president's request for aid to the contras, the administration grew increasingly frustrated, even obsessed, in its search for a way to help them. In 1985 American diplomats secretly arranged arms sales to the embattled Iranians in return for Iranian aid in obtaining the release of American hostages held by Middle Eastern terrorists. At least one hostage was eventually set free. Meanwhile, money from the payment for the arms was diverted to the contras. These actions brazenly violated a congressional ban on military aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, not to mention Reagan's repeated vow that he would never negotiate with terrorists.

In November 1986 news of these secret dealings broke and ignited a firestorm of controversy. President Reagan claimed that he was innocent of wrongdoing and ignorant about the activities of his subordinates, but a congressional committee condemned the "secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law" displayed by administration officials and concluded that if the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing he should have. The Iran-Contra affair cast a dark shadow over Reagan's record in foreign policy.


George Herbert Walker Bush was inaugurated as president of the United States in January 1989 at a watershed moment in twentieth-century history. As with 1918 and 1945, 1989 was a year when the old great-power order collapsed and the United States stood as preeminent in world affairs. In the first months of the Bush administration, the world was astounded as democracy arose everywhere in the communist bloc. Long oppressed by puppet regimes propped up by Soviet guns, Eastern Europe was revolutionized in just a few startling months in 1989. The Solidarity movement in Poland led the way when it toppled Poland's communist government in August. In rapid succession, communist regimes collapsed in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and even hyper-repressive Romania. In December 1989 jubilant Germans danced atop the hated Berlin Wall, symbol of the division of Germany and all of Europe into two armed and hostile camps. The two Germanys, divided since 1945, were at last reunited in October 1990, with the approval of the victorious allied powers of World War II.

But the changes that swept the heartland of world communism were the most startling of all. Mikhail Gorbachev's policies had set in motion a groundswell that surged out of his control. Waves of nationalistic fervor and long-suppressed ethnic and racial hatred rolled across the Soviet Union's constituent republics, overwhelming communist ideology. Old-guard hard-liners, in a last-gasp effort to preserve the tottering communist system, attempted to dislodge Gorbachev with a military coup in August 1991. With the support of Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, Gorbachev foiled the plotters. But in December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president and the Soviet Union dissolved into fifteen sovereign republics with Russia the most powerful state and Yeltsin the dominant leader. To varying degrees, all the new governments in the former Soviet republics repudiated communism and embraced democratic reforms and free-market economies.

By the time the Cold War came to an end, the international legal right of self-determination had been accepted in the context of decolonization. But it was not clear whether that right extended to noncolonial situations. Most scholars of government believed that the principle of political unity prevailed over any expression of self-determination within a state. However, events in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia at the close of the Cold War forced the international community to cope with the demands of groups seeking to break off from existing states. International law, with its traditional rejection of such claims, provided little guidance. The United States and the international community scrambled to respond, with decidedly mixed results.

More then twenty months passed from the time the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union took their initial steps in March 1990 toward independence to the dissolution of the USSR. U.S. policy toward the Baltics set a pattern that would be followed until shortly before the Soviet Union's dissolution. The United States did not support steps toward sovereignty for the Soviet republics in general, or even on a case-by-case basis. Rather, it adopted a wait-and-see approach as a means to a larger object: the survival of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in a mostly unified Soviet Union. The United States had diplomatic relations with Lithuania in the 1920s and 1930s and never recognized Stalin's annexation in 1940. Further-more, it had permitted a Lithuanian diplomatic presence in Washington throughout the Cold War. Nonetheless, when Lithuania moved toward independence in 1990, the United States tilted toward Moscow.

American reluctance to move toward recognition of an independent Lithuania continued for nearly a year and a half. On 1 August 1991, weeks before the failed coup by communist hard-liners in Moscow, President Bush warned against "suicidal nationalism" in the republics and stated that the United States "would maintain the strongest possible relationship with the Soviet government." Even after the unsuccessful Soviet coup was launched and the three Baltic republics reasserted their independence, the United States stood back while European governments took the lead in responding to their claims.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union appearing more likely during the fall of 1991, the United States shifted its policy. Following Soviet president Gorbachev's resignation and the formal dissolution of the Soviet government on 25 December, the United States announced recognition of the twelve remaining Soviet republics as independent states. However, the United States proposed establishing full diplomatic relations with only six of the new states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Ukraine, states that the administration claimed had made specific commitments to responsible security policy and democratic principles. However, Secretary of State James A. Baker's articulation of principles guiding the pace of U.S. recognition seemed governed more by political expedience than principle. Each of the four successor states that possessed strategic nuclear weaponsBelarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukrainewere among the first states to win U.S. recognition. This risked sending a dangerous message: that retaining nuclear weapons would offer the new states leverage with the West. Furthermore, the recognition of Armenia but not Azerbaijan may have exacerbated tension in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakhpopulated by Armenians but located in and administered by Azerbaijanby undermining the U.S. neutral position regarding the conflict. Concern, however inflated, that a policy of selective recognition could prompt the Islamic republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus to turn toward Iran prompted the United States to quickly accept perfunctory promises of support for democratic principles and to establish diplomatic ties. By the end of February 1992 the United States had granted formal diplomatic recognition to eleven of the twelve non-Baltic republics. It granted recognition to the final republic, Georgia, in March 1992, after its civil wars subsided and Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, offered appropriate commitments.


The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of all wars. In the middle of the apparent flood tide of democratization in Eastern Europe came Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait in August 1990. Clearly, democracy was not the issue; neither in Iraq nor Kuwait could there be much hope of fostering self-determination. Nevertheless, by acting decisively Bush might give more shape to what he now called the New World Order that was to be crafted by American leadership. Most Americans cheered the rapid and enormously successful conclusion of the war against Iraq early in 1991. The war had nevertheless failed to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power. Moreover, the United States, for better or worse, found itself more deeply ensnared in the region's web of mortal hatred and intractable conflicts, from which no possibilities of self-determination seemed to emerge.

Caution, inconsistencies, and political expedience also characterized the American and, to a lesser degree, the European Community's initial response to Yugoslavia's self-determination crisis. Until hostilities broke out in mid-1991, the United States and the European governments asserted unconditional support for Yugoslav unity. That policy reflected, at least in part, concern that any splintering of Yugoslavia would be violent. When Serbia's strongly nationalist president, Slobodan Milosevic, began campaigning for a stronger Yugoslav federal center, calls among Slovenes, Croats, and Bosnians for a looser confederation or for outright secession multiplied. Slovenia, the most homogenous of the republics, had already taken its first steps toward independence in September 1989. In the fall of 1990 the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly predicted a breakup of Yugoslavia, probably involving civil war. Nevertheless, days after the May 1991 referendum in which Croatia's population voted overwhelmingly to secede, the United States remained firmly committed to the "territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia. Fighting erupted in June 1991 after Croatia and Slovenia formally declared their independence. As the war in Croatia escalated throughout the summer and fall of 1991, the issue of international recognition for the Yugoslav republics became more controversial. It was Germany that led the European Community to an agreement on a process for recognizing the republics of both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In January 1992 the twelve EC countries, as well as several other European states and Canada, recognized both Slovenia and Croatia. The EC granted recognition to Bosnia-Herzegovina in April 1992, despite the fact that its referendum on independence had been largely boycotted by the Bosnian Serb minority.

U.S. policy evolved more slowly. In July 1991 Secretary Baker signaled a shift in policy when he indicated that the United States was prepared to accept any new political configuration negotiated by the republics. However, the United States was unwilling to grant separate recognition to any of the republics as long as the fighting continued.

UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, along with the United States, opposed the European Community's moves toward recognition, fearing that such action would fatally undermine UN and EC peace initiatives. U.S. deputy secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger warned EC members in December 1991 that early, separate recognition of Croatia and Slovenia would not only damage the prospect for peace but would "almost inevitably lead to greater bloodshed."

The issue was how best to prevent Serbian aggression while protecting the rights of the Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. After the EC announced its recognition guidelines, the United States reiterated four principles guiding its policies toward the republics of Yugoslavia, none of which acknowledged the prospect of secession, even though by December 1991 it could be fairly predicted as a strong possibility.

In April 1992 the United States recognized Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina as independent states. Despite its recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the pleas of that government for help against the onslaught of the Serb minority, the United States and the European Community were pitifully slow to initiate or support regional or international intervention to respond to aggression; "ethnic cleansing"; and other serious violations of international law, including international humanitarian law.

The war in Bosnia promoted a reappraisal of American foreign policy. Although President Bush had enunciated his support of a New World Order, in which weak countries would be free from fear of predation by the strong, American support for action against Saddam and his invasion of Kuwait rested on readily identifiable material interest, namely oil. Bosnia's misfortune was that it possessed nothing of vital interest or importance to Americans or other influential foreigners. Nevertheless, some who took the New World Order seriously believed that the United States would assist Bosnian Muslims despite Bosnia's lack of commercial commodities. Many of these likened the Serbs' ethnic cleansing to the Nazis' genocidal policies toward the Jews, and the failure of the United States and the other democracies to assist Bosnia to the failure to halt Hitler in the 1930s. Some Bosnia advocates called for direct American military intervention, even the introduction of ground troops. Others would have been content with the lifting of the international embargo of arms to the warring parties, claiming that it helped the better-equipped Serbs.

Opponents of American involvement in the Bosnia war pointed to the complexity of the Bosnian terrain and contended that military intervention would be costly and difficultfar more difficult, for instance, than intervention in the open desert of Iraq. They also insisted that only a political settlement could guarantee lasting peace between Serbs and Muslims (and Bosnian Croats), given the obvious determination of the Serbs; military intervention would be futile in the absence of a settlement. In addition, they even suggested that military intervention might be counterproductive, causing the war to spread beyond Bosnia.

Also, while the Gulf crisis had found the United States and the Soviet Union in agreement, the situation in Bosnia promised to be more divisive. Given Russia's long-standing role as the protector of the Slavic and Orthodox Serbs, it was difficult to predict how the Russian government would react to strong U.S. action. In any case, neither the Bush administration nor, beginning in January 1993, that of Bill Clinton could count on Moscow's cooperation. Finally, many Americans argued that the problems in the Balkans were Europe's problems. Throughout the Cold War, the United States had looked after Europe. It was now time, they said, for the Europeans to start looking after themselves. In fact, there was a resounding lack of popular enthusiasm for intervention. While both administrations supported UN initiatives to ease the plight of the Bosnians and pressure the Serbs politically to curtail their offensives, neither took the step of committing American combat troops directly to the battle.

The Cold War had provided the United States with the basic principles on which it had conducted foreign policy for nearly half a century; with the end of the Cold War, the Clinton administration groped for a diplomatic formula to replace anticommunism as the guiding mechanism in America's foreign affairs. The international environment was no longer one of great power confrontation, but of numerous global hot spots that periodically threatened to boil over into major regional conflagrations. The Clinton administration generally tried to persuade international agencies, especially the United Nations and NATO, to support multilateral peacekeeping efforts, but often the United States was left alone to try to keep the lid on these flare-ups.

The Middle East remained a major source of trouble. With Norway's help in 1993, Israel and the PLO negotiated the Oslo Accords, which involved mutual recognition and Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. In 1994 Jordan joined the peace process. In 1998 Clinton brokered a new set of agreements between the two sides in marathon meetings at the Wye Plantation in Maryland. This was followed by the Barak-Arafat summit of 2000. However, by the turn of the century, all of these agreements, which promised some measure of self-determination for the Palestinians, had proved ineffective.

Despite the failure of various attempts to change Serb behavior, Congress in the autumn of 1994 forced the Clinton administration to end its efforts to prevent Bosnia from receiving weapons. This move strained U.S. relations with the rest of NATO, but did little to halt the Balkan war. Neither did NATO air attacks, starting in February 1994, against Serbian planes and artillery. Despite these actions and the formation of a Croat-Muslim federation, Bosnian Serbs continued to displace Muslims from much of Bosnia. When Bosnian Serbs in July 1995 seized the safe havens of Srebrenica and Zepa and massacred thousands of Muslims within sight of UN peacekeepers, Washington flashed a green light whereupon the Croatian army overran Serb-held territory in northwestern Bosnia and NATO intensified its air attacks. As new refugees fled into Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic asserted his authority over the Bosnian Serbs and agreed to a cease-fire in October 1995.

At a peace conference in Dayton, Ohio, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke "cajoled, harassed, and pressured" the presidents of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia into an agreement. The Dayton Accords of December 1995 retained a Croat-Muslim federation and a Serb Republic within a single Bosnian state, with Sarajevo to remain a multi-ethnic capital. The United States agreed to contribute 20,000 personnel as part of a 60,000-member NATO implementation force that would separate the parties and assist in reconstruction. Four years later, some 8,000 U.S. troops remained in Bosnia, having sustained a fragile peace at a cost of more than $7 billion. Deadlines for removing U.S. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia were abandoned as it became clear that they alone could prevent new hostilities.

In 1999, Kosovo, a Serbian province whose population was overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian, became the next Balkan crisis to spark international consequences. There, President Milosevic ordered a brutal ethnic cleansing. After he rejected NATO demands to halt the persecutions and preserve Kosovo's autonomy, NATO in March began to bomb military and communication sites in Serbia. The bombing unleashed even more cruelties in Kosovo as the Serbs systematically moved against ethnic Albanians, massacring and raping them, burning their homes, and forcing 800,000 of them to flee as refugees to neighboring Albania and Macedonia. However, Milosevicbombed, encircled, and embargoedrelented in early June under an agreement to withdraw his forces from Kosovo, permit the return of refugees, accept a NATO security presence, and grant greater autonomy to Kosovo. The International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague indicted Milosevic and his top aides for atrocities against the people of Kosovo. The planned expansion of NATO in 1999 to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic increased incentives to prevent more fighting and to keep refugees from spreading into Eastern Europe.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States and the United Nations faced the fundamental question of how to manage demands for self-determination in a turbulent new world. The collapse of communism and the growing worldwide pressure for democracy had unleashed movements with broad public support. The number and variety of self-determination movements was growing, and bewildered governments and multilateral institutions tried to understand them and decide how to respond. Internal ethnic conflicts were proliferating, compelling national and international responses before considered policies could be developed. The United States and the world community faced the challenge of how to respond to the breakup of some nations and the restoration of others in ways that minimized violence and human suffering and maximized the chances for establishing democratic governments. The old assumption that the boundaries set after World War II were permanent had been shaken by events in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Although bold conditions for U.S. recognition were imposed upon the successor states of the Soviet Union, they were hurriedly signed off in an attempt to reduce the danger of nuclear proliferation and to contain Islamic expansionism in Central Asia. Regarding Yugoslavia, U.S. policy remained focused on preserving it as a state while the European Community took the lead in recognizing the new states of Slovenia and Croatia.

The United States was slow to accept collective military intervention as a response in some situations such as preventing armed conflict, delivering humanitarian assistance, defending a new state, advancing the cause of self-determination in certain limited circumstances, occasionally guaranteeing compliance with the recognition criteria, and in some cases defending an existing government from limited insurgency. The American people were reluctant to take on new international responsibilities and resisted new commitments that might drain resources from domestic needs and that could involve the United States in a new quagmire.


Bailey, Thomas A. Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace. New York, 1944. Contains a scholarly analysis of the implementation of Wilson's concept of self-determination.

Balzer, Harley D., ed. Five Years that Shook the World: Gorbachev's Unfinished Revolution. Boulder, Colo., 1991.

Barbour, Walworth. "The Concept of Self-Determination in American Thought." Department of State Bulletin 31 (1954). Presents an official view.

Barker, Sir Ernest. National Character and the Factors in Its Formation. London, 1948. A classic work originally published in 1927.

Birdsall, Paul. Versailles Twenty Years After. New York, 1941. Presents a "realistic" view of Wilson's efforts to implement the concept of self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference.

Carley, Patricia. U.S. Responses to Self-Determination Movements. Washington, D.C., 1997. A report of a roundtable by the United States Institute of Peace and the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State on strategies for nonviolent outcomes and alternatives to secession.

Cassese, Antonio. Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal. Cambridge and New York, 1995. A comprehensive legal account of the concept of self-determination.

Cobban, Alfred. The Nation State and National Self-Determination. New York, 1969. Presents the most nearly definitive history and political analysis of the general concept of national self-determination by means of a pragmatic approach.

Diesing, Paul. "National Self-Determination and U.S. Foreign Policy." Ethics 77 (1967). A provocative ethical analysis.

Eagleton, Clyde. "The Excesses of Self-Determination." Foreign Affairs 31 (1953). An excellent analysis of problems presented by the attempt to apply the concept of self-determination in the postWorld War II period.

Emerson, Rupert. Self-Determination Revisited in the Era of Decolonization. Cambridge, Mass., 1964. A good synthesis, containing a fresh examination in a new nation-forming setting.

Gerson, Louis L. The Hyphenate in Recent American Politics and Diplomacy. Lawrence, Kans., 1964. Especially helpful on the role of East European hyphenates in promoting self-determination during the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations.

Halperin, Morton H., and David J. Scheffer. Self-Determination in the New World Order. Washington, D.C., 1992. Reviews U.S. and international claims during and after the Cold War.

Jessup, Philip C. "Self-Determination Today in Principle and in Practice." Virginia Quarterly Review 33 (1957). An evaluation by a first-rate scholar of international law.

Johnson, Harold S. Self-Determination within the Community of Nations. Leiden, Netherlands, 1967. Presents a careful analysis of conflicting interpretations of the great powers.

Lansing, Robert. The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative. Boston and New York, 1921. Important for an understanding of Lansing's criticisms of national self-determination.

Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace. Arlington Heights, Ill., 1979. Necessary for an appreciation of how Wilson's principles influenced his foreign policy.

May, Arthur James. Contemporary American Opinion of the Mid-Century Revolutions in Central Europe. Philadelphia, 1927. Essential for the mid-nineteenth-century outlook.

Mayer, Arno J. Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 19181919. New York, 1967. Provides vital background for the Wilsonian position.

Musgrave, Thomas D. Self Determination and National Minorities. New York, 1997. Examines the historic and current status of self-determination in international law.

Sherwood, Robert E. Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History. Rev. ed. New York, 1950. Presents a glimpse of Roosevelt's efforts to secure support for self-determination from both Churchill and Stalin.

Shukri, Muhammad Aziz. The Concept of Self-Determination in the United Nations. Damascus, Syria, 1965. A scholarly study analyzing the attitudes of major powers.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the World Wide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994. Emphasizes the role of the Wilsonian concept of self-determination in the twentieth century.

Unterberger, Betty Miller. "The United States and National Self-Determination: A Wilsonian Perspective." Presidential Studies Quarterly 26 (fall 1996): 926942.

. The United States, Revolutionary Russia, and the Rise of Czechoslovakia. College Station, Tex., 2000. Traces President Wilson's efforts to implement his concept of self-determination toward Austria-Hungary and Russia.

Wambaugh, Sarah. A Monograph on Plebiscites, with a Collection of Official Documents. New York, 1920. A classic work with an excellent introductory chapter on self-determination.

. Plebiscites Since the World War, with a Collection of Official Documents. Washington, D.C., 1933. Presents a historical summary on matters of self-determination covering the years from 1914 to 1933.

See also Anti-Imperialism; Human Rights; Imperialism; Intervention and Nonintervention; Realism and Idealism; Revolution; Wilsonianism.


"Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

John Quincy Adams, 4 July 1821

"We are glad to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of the people for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and freedom of the nations can make them."

Woodrow Wilson, 2 April 1917

"This is a principle of the Atlantic Charterthe right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will livethe restoration of sovereign rights and self-government to those peoples who have been forcibly deprived of them by the aggressor nations."

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945

"A despotism of the present Soviet type cannot indefinitely perpetuate its rule over hundreds of millions of people who love God, who love their country, and who have a sense of personal dignity. The Soviet system, which seeks to expunge the distinctive characteristics of nations, creed, and individuality must itself change or be doomed ultimately to collapse."

John Foster Dulles, 1952

"The United States doesn't now and never has advocated open rebellion by an undefended populace against force over which they could not possibly prevail."

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1956

"We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy."

Ronald Reagan, 8 June 1982

"No society, no continent should be disqualified from sharing the ideals of human liberty. Abandonment of the worldwide democratic revolution could be disastrous for American security."

George H. W. Bush, 15 December 1992

"Our dream is that of a day when the opinions and energies of every person in the world will be given full expression in a world of thriving democracies that cooperate with each other and live in peace."

Bill Clinton, 27 September 1993

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Self-Determination." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . 25 Jul. 2017 <>.

"Self-Determination." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . (July 25, 2017).

"Self-Determination." Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from






Self-determination, in the most general sense, refers to the capacity to control ones own destiny, free of interference by others. Historically, the right to self-determination has meant the right of a subjugated nation or colonized population to establish a sovereign, independent stateto secede from a multinational state or to dissolve colonial ties of dependency to an imperial mother country. It has also been invoked in support of demands for local autonomy or self-government at the sub-state level as a means to preserve the culture or safeguard the security of national or aboriginal minorities. Since the 1960s, however, many social movement activists (particularly proponents of a postmodernist politics of identity) have sought to invest the principle with a much looser meaning.


The concept of national self-determination is a modern one, despite the fact that struggles by subjugated peoples against occupation, colonialism, and enslavement have occurred for many thousands of years. Its advent was predicated on the prior emergence of such defining features of capitalist modernity as the discourse on rights, the ideology of nationalism, and the European nation-state system.

A nation-state is a form of state power in which territorial sovereignty is ostensibly exercised on behalf of a specific nationa relatively homogeneous aggregation of people who typically share a common language, economic life, and cultural tradition as an imagined community (to use Benedict Andersons expression). The nationbuilding projects of modern European states were undertaken to strengthen their positions relative to major rivals and often involved attempts to unify and homogenize the population within the borders of the nation-state, usually through coerced assimilation or ethnic cleansing (including forced population transfers and genocide in some circumstances). For several of the major European powers, it also involved the conquest and colonial subjugation of other, far-flung territories and peoples with the aim of consolidating empires whose purpose was to enrich and empower the imperial nation-state or mother country. Political domination, military subjugation, and economic exploitation of colonies stimulated the emergence of anti-imperialist movements and nationalist projects within colonized populations otherwise divided along tribal, religious, and linguistic lines.

Independence struggles by the colonial possessions of the major imperial powers began long before the term self-determination came into use. The first such struggle was waged against Britain by several of its settler colonies in North America, and its success resulted in the founding of the United States of America in 1776. Encouraged by revolutionary events in France, the black population of Haiti rose up against French rule in the 1790s, eventually establishing an independent republic in 1804. By the late nineteenth century, Spain had lost most of its colonial possessions in the Americas. The success of these New World independence struggles heightened the nationalist aspirations of subjugated nationalities in the multinational statesthe Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empiresthat dominated much of Eurasia and the Middle East prior to World War I.

Within the imperial nations themselves, few supported the right to self-determination of national minorities at home or colonized peoples abroad. The major exception before 1914 was the international socialist movement. Thus, Karl Marx argued that English wage workers could never achieve their emancipation as a class so long as they remained complicit in the national oppression of the Irish. At its 1896 congress, the Marxist Second International adopted a resolution affirming the right of all nations to self-determination.

In Russia, Vladimir Lenin saw the aspirations of the oppressed nationalities of what he called the czarist prison house of peoples as integral to the broader struggle for democracy, insisting that the only way to forge working-class unity across national lines was to combat great Russian chauvinism and recognize the right of Ukrainians, Georgians, and other nationalities to establish their own independent states. However, Lenin distinguished between recognizing the right to self-determination and actually advocating independence. The right to self-determination, he wrote, is similar to the right to divorce; one can affirm the right without advising the action. After the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Lenin established the right of nations to self-determination as a fundamental programmatic plank of the Third (Communist) International, advocating national liberation struggles in the colonial world and waging an unsuccessful, deathbed struggle against the Russian chauvinist policies of Joseph Stalin and his acolytes in 1923. The subsequent consolidation of bureaucratic rule under Stalin transformed the Soviet Union into a Russian-dominated multinational state in which the right of the constituent, nationally based republics to secede was extinguished.

At the end of World War I, the principle of national self-determination found a new ostensible champion in the American president Woodrow Wilson, acquiring currency, for the first time, in liberal political discourse. Self determination is not a mere phrase, Wilson declared in 1918, it is an imperative principle of action which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril (Moynihan 1994, pp.7879). But Wilson soon qualified his support for the idea, recognizing the dangers that the principle could pose to European stability. Subsequently, U.S. advocacy of the right of national self-determination proved inconsistent. After World War II, the United Nations, under American leadership, upheld a principle of international law that affirmed the right of colonies to independence from overseas empires but that recognized no right of secession for national minorities within established states.

In the postWorld War II era, formal political independence was achieved by the great majority of former colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere, opening the way, in most cases, to their neocolonial economic and political subjugation by the great powers. However, the demand for self-determination continued to be vigorously asserted by Northern Irish Republicans and Scots in the United Kingdom, Québécois in Canada, Basques in Spain, Tamils in Sri Lanka, and by many would-be nationalist movements operating within the hundreds and perhaps thousands of imagined communities that had defined themselves as nations. Under the watchword of self-determination, the 1990s saw the rapid breakup of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav federation and the emergence of a plethora of new nation-states in Europe and Asia.

The dispossessed status of the Palestinian people, resulting from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the consolidation of a Hebrew-speaking nation on territory claimed by both Jews and Palestinians as a homeland, remains an intractable national problem at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Here the question arises: Under what conditions can two interpenetrated peoples reconcile their mutually conflicting claims to self-determination?


The radical ferment of the 1960s inspired a much looser definition of the concept of self-determination, such that it was often used to describe the aspirations of any group confronting putatively oppressive treatment. The original impetus to this redefinition was provided by the 1960s Black Power movement in the United States. Reacting against the liberal, integrationist perspective of the mainstream Civil Rights movement, many African American activists (notably Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panthers) embraced black nationalism. Having defined African Americans as an oppressed nation or as an internal colony (however problematically), these activists proclaimed the right of the black population to various forms of self-determinationsometimes through proposals for separation from White America but more commonly through demands for black control of the black community. It is notable that few of these schemes were implementedtheir most enduring legacy probably being black studies programs in higher education.

The stage was thus set for the emergence of a decidedly amorphous notion of self-determination, one with which other marginalized or oppressed sectors could easily identify. The concept was also extended to notions of empowering individual victims of abuse or poverty through community organizing. Self-determination merged with the broader notion of liberation and was invoked by activists who championed not only the rights but also the unique identities of racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, and the disabled. Indeed, for many advocates of a postmodern politics of identity, self-determination became virtually synonymous with unfettered expression of sectoral identity based not only on nationality but on gender, race, or sexual orientation as well.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Autonomy; Black Power; Colonialism; Colony, Internal; Communalism; Dependency Theory; Indigenous Rights; Lenin, Vladimir Ilitch; Liberation; Marx, Karl; Minorities; Nationalism and Nationality; Palestinians; Politics, Identity; Secession; Separatism; United Nations


Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London and New York: Verso.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. 1992. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lenin, V. I. [1914] 1977. The Right of Nations to Self-Determination: Selected Writings. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Löwy, Michael. 1998. Fatherland or Mother Earth? : Essays on the National Question. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.

Moynihan, D. P. 1994. Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murray Smith

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Self-Determination." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 25 Jul. 2017 <>.

"Self-Determination." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (July 25, 2017).

"Self-Determination." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from



The political right of the majority to the exercise of power within the boundaries of a generally accepted political unit, area, or territory.

The principle of self-determination is mentioned in the United Nations Charter and has often been stressed in resolutions passed by the UN General Assembly. The concept is most often used in connection with the right of colonies to independence. It does not relate to attempts at independence by groups, such as the French Canadians or the Nagas of India, who do not possess their own sovereign states.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Self-Determination." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 25 Jul. 2017 <>.

"Self-Determination." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . (July 25, 2017).

"Self-Determination." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from


self-de·ter·mi·na·tion • n. the process by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own allegiances and government: the changes cannot be made until the country's right to self-determination is recognized. ∎  the process by which a person controls their own life.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"self-determination." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 25 Jul. 2017 <>.

"self-determination." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (July 25, 2017).

"self-determination." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 25, 2017 from