The principle of ‘self-determination’ has infused modern western political thinking. But its intellectual underpinnings, and application, have been partisan and inconsistent. In this essay, Patrick Kirkwood illuminates the concept, its origins, and how it has been deployed in international politics across the twentieth century. Is it time that Western liberal democracies embraced the principle with more honesty? 


Versailles still haunts our world. This is not a particularly novel insight. However, this is not another article on a regional issue such as Sykes-Picot in the Middle East. Nor is it focused on the variety of similarly arbitrary lines drawn by victorious powers after World War One. Nor will it revisit the origins of World War Two, or the wider logic of ethnic cleansing loosed by the rise of the ideology of self-determination in the twentieth century.

Rather, this piece argues that the most fundamental assumptions that underpin our modern world were enshrined in the peace conferences of 1919, and that they necessarily reflect a great deal of the worldview of the long-dead colonial administrators, military men, politicians, and financiers who shaped them a century ago.

Modern controversies – whether around Brexit, Catalunya, Jerusalem, Kurdistan, or renewed (Brexit-fuelled) speculation on the Northern Irish border and Scottish independence – ultimately come down to questions of self-determination; that is, of nationhood, territory, and democracy. In the English-speaking world, self-determination is often presented as the brainchild of one man: the Ulster-Scots President of Princeton – and the United States – Woodrow Wilson. While this perception is based, in large part, upon the English-speaking world’s refusal to engage with other traditions in other languages, the Wilsonian narrative is a powerful one which continues to hold currency to this day.


Modern self-determination theory rests intellectually on justifications of why we should not, must not, allow various groups to self-govern. These ideas were rapidly institutionalised in the post-Versailles world.

Yet Wilson had many contemporary competitors, not least Vladimir Lenin. The Bolshevik leader’s vision won out in much of the Global South when colonial nationalists found to their dismay that self-determination and democracy, as promoted before and at Versailles by Wilson and others, were, in the words of Henry Labouchère’s “Brown Man’s Burden” of 1899, “good for whites alone”. Indeed, Wilson himself said in 1913 that his interventions in Latin America, including General Pershing’s later 1916 raid into Mexico, were designed “to teach the Latin American republics to elect good men!”

Discussions of ‘capacity’ for self-government feeding into the post-Versailles League of Nations mandate system (in essence, ‘nations on training wheels’) emerged from imperial discourses on incapacity. In short, modern self-determination theory rests intellectually on justifications of why we should not, must not, allow various groups to self-govern. These ideas were rapidly institutionalised in the post-Versailles world within the transatlantic policy establishment, including such noted bodies as The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), established in 1920, and the Council on Foreign Relations, established in the US in 1921.

A SHORT HISTORY OF ‘ANGLO-EXCEPTIONALISM’ (PART 1) 

In the English-speaking world, the ability to self-govern had long been understood as a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon inheritance. Whig interpretations of English, British, and American history were enlisted in support of this. Prime among the milestones cited in this exceptionalist mythology of the English-speaking peoples were Magna Carta (1215), the Glorious Revolution (1688), the accompanying English Bill of Rights (1689), and the American Declaration of Independence (1776). These events, adherents claimed, proved that the special capacity of ‘the Anglo-Saxon races’ for self-government, derived from their ‘unique’ history of resisting the arbitrary authority of Kings. Such Anglo-exceptionalism has been labelled ‘political Anglo-Saxonism’.

In effect, early twentieth century white English-speakers (including Woodrow Wilson) implicitly or explicitly judged others’ capacity to self-govern against idealised Anglo models. In practice, this meant questioning the ‘peoplehood’ – in other words, the linguistic, racial, cultural, and political unity – of colonised peoples. By extension, it also meant querying their capacity for establishing and, crucially, maintaining stable, ‘just rule’.

What did this mean? For rule to be considered ‘just’ by Anglo elites, self-governance among non-Anglos had to meet three broad tests. It had to be clean (incorruptible). It had to be efficient. And it had to be representative.


In effect, early twentieth century white English-speakers (including Woodrow Wilson) implicitly or explicitly judged others’ capacity to self-govern against idealised Anglo models.

English-speaking whites naturally assumed that simply copying Anglo models (whether that of Great Britain or the United States) was the quickest and most reliable route towards achieving this modernity. Indeed, this assumption shaped imperial regimes in both the British and American spheres. In the case of the American Philippines it resulted in a great deal of borrowing from prior British colonial efforts, principally India and Egypt. In Africa, one sees the same process at work in British administrators’ rhetorical use of past American experience of federation (the Constitution of 1789), when creating the Union of South Africa (1910).

Originally inflected by conservative schools of thought, by the time of the First World War, interpretations promoting the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as a distinct governing caste had largely given way to a dominant liberal model of ‘tutelage’. This held that gradual Anglo-Saxon instruction would raise up subject populations, over generations, and thereby advance whole areas of the globe toward the ideal of self-government. Such claims often embraced relatively recent history; for example, casting Abraham Lincoln and William Gladstone as the twin emancipators of the Anglo-Saxon world – one of African American slaves, the other of the Catholic Irish.

It is necessary here to pause and acknowledge the uncomfortable prominence of Scots, Ulster-Scots, and the Anglo-Irish in the assertion of Anglo-exceptionalist beliefs. For example, the Belfast-born and Glasgow-and-Oxford-educated James Bryce, a noted Liberal MP, scholar, and Ambassador to the United States, played a crucial role in popularising such racial exceptionalism. This was chiefly through publications such as his highly influential American Commonwealth of 1888, which overwhelmingly credited the success of the American Constitution “to the political genius, ripened by long experience of the Anglo-Saxon race.”


Robert Baden-Powell, William Taft, and James Bryce at the White House in 1912. Image: Harris & Ewing, Inc. [CC]

Indeed, several leading exponents of these ideas in the British Empire were of Scottish birth or background. For example, Philip Henry Kerr (later the Eleventh Marquess of Lothian, and a wartime Ambassador to the United States) served as Lloyd George’s personal secretary and ‘gatekeeper’ at Versailles. Even US colonial administrators such as the University of Michigan-educated George A. Malcolm celebrated their Scottish ancestry while promoting distinctly political Anglo-Saxon ideas in the Philippines.

Political Anglo-Saxonism was inculcated in leading colonial administrators, financiers, politicians, and others in both the United States and Britain during their time at university – whether Oxbridge or Ivy League. In the United States, such ideas were also spread through Kipling Clubs, as at both Cornell and the University of California-Berkeley, where they were established by the Edinburgh-born President-to-be of the American Historical Association, H. Morse Stephens. There, students were imbued with highly gendered and racialised ideals of ‘character’, as displayed in Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’. Many went on to serve important roles in the US-governed Philippines and Puerto Rico.

A SHORT HISTORY OF ‘ANGLO-EXCEPTIONALISM’ (PART 2) 

Anglo-exceptionalism was thus crucial to understandings of self-government in the English-speaking world during the early twentieth century. This involved repeated juxtaposition of a uniquely Anglo-American liberty against various forms of (continental) Absolutism. The latter might be represented by a range of political stances: divine right monarchy; racially distinct (especially Spanish) ‘Latin Government’; German ‘Kaiserism’; Russian communism; and – later – Italian and German fascism.

From the outset of World War One, however, it was clear that explicitly racial Anglo-exceptionalism, deployed to continually deny claims to self-governance in the colonies, had largely given way to a liberal-dominated discourse focused instead on norms of self-government. Increasingly the language of Anglo-exceptionalism, as it slowly morphed into that of Wilsonian self-determination, was used to justify the inclusion of eastern and central Europeans (e.g. the Czechoslovaks and Yugoslavs) as self-governing peoples, and to postpone self-governance for Asians, Africans, and others yet to the develop the self-governing ‘character’ necessary to stand alone.

This divide was formalised in the Covenant of the League of Nations. While European peoples received guarantees of their national independence, the mandate system divided colonial peoples seen as yet unfit to self-govern into three categories: Class A) provisional recognition of nationhood (formerly Ottoman territories); Class B) where additional Western guidance was required to guarantee ‘freedom of conscience and religion’ (most of German Africa); and Class C) territories ‘best administered under the laws of the Mandatory as integral portions of its territory’ (largely Pacific islands, but also former German South West Africa, today’s Namibia). There was, of course, no question in the 1920s of applying such models to British, French, or American-held territory.


The official opening of the League of Nations, 15 November 1920. Image: A. Frankl [CC]

Churchill’s later ‘Iron Curtain’ speech, delivered in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, and often viewed as the starting gun of the Cold War, stands firmly within this exceptionalist but norm-based tradition. In his speech, he calls on the (white) “English-speaking peoples” to:

“…never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”

But perhaps this Anglo-exceptionalism is best expressed in the pages of The Round Table, a journal of imperial affairs launched by a group of colonial administrators after their return from South Africa. Writing in defence of the Treaty of Versailles in December 1919, and neatly fitting the constitutional exceptionalism expressed above, they contended:

‘The gradual transition by which the powers of government were assumed by the people of England, while the King remained to discharge the office of president, was unique. It made England the shining example of free institutions. It also disposed the powerful dynasties of Spain and France to regard England as their natural enemy and work for her downfall.’


Such pleas for transatlantic Anglo unity demonstrate that in the minds of elites based in London, Oxford, Washington, and New York, Anglo-Saxon Britons and Americans were obliged to fulfil a special leadership role as the guarantors and enforcers of a just world order.

Furthermore, in November 1917, a full year before the Armistice, the Round Table group had set out the two principles on which they believed ‘the future peace of the world [would] depend’, in a paid advertisement in the pages of the then American progressive standard bearer The New Republic:

1. The maintenance and development as a world-wide self-governing democracy of the unity of the British Commonwealth of nations, which now contains within its borders more than a quarter of the world’s population.

2. The furtherance of close and friendly relations between that Commonwealth and the United States.

Such pleas for transatlantic Anglo unity demonstrate that in the minds of elites based in London, Oxford, Washington, and New York, Anglo-Saxon Britons and Americans were obliged to fulfil a special leadership role as the guarantors and enforcers of a just world order. This was further confirmed in the pages of The Round Table in a June 1919 piece titled ‘The Treaty of Versailles’. The article in question concluded that, ultimately, the ‘two great English-speaking Commonwealths’ (Britain and the United States) hold ‘the future of the Peace, in their hands.’

Given the later centrality of the United States and Great Britain to the consolidation of ‘the West’ during World War Two and the Cold War, this belief – however futile in the interwar period – was not entirely inaccurate.

MODERN APPLICATION: DUAL OR CLASHING IDENTITIES AND SELF-DETERMINATION 

Looking at contemporary events, it seems clear that Anglo-exceptionalism is again on the march. It is perhaps most evident in the mantra ‘make America great again’. Seemingly, this is to be achieved, in part, by excluding Spanish-speakers and most non-Christians from the United States. Across the Atlantic, this mindset is also present in the increasingly delusional claims of Brexiteers, within and outside the British government, about the opportunities which lie in wait after exiting the European Union.

The great difference today, of course, is that whilst after the Great War, British and American elites were seeking to cement an emerging world order under Anglo leadership, now self-proclaimed ‘populists’ are arguing implicitly (if not explicitly) for retreat. One enduring element of the governing elite’s position, however, has been its continuing hypocrisy on who can and cannot self-determine.

What is most striking in taking this longue durée approach to current struggles is the new necessary fiction maintained on dual or clashing identities within the West. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy contends, in effect, that the inhabitants of Catalunya as Spaniards enjoy the right of self-determination, yet as Catalans they do not.


A man stands with a Catalan flag during La Diada, the Catalan national day. Image: Ivan McClellan [CC BY 2.0]

Likewise, on paper, Iraq has a magnificently structured constitutional settlement, designed to defend the rights of its various ethnic and religious groups (Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds). Yet in practice, when Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum on its constitutional future in October 2017 (judged ‘free and open’ by the EU and other international observers), the US and Britain backed the Iraqi government when it – quite literally – sent in the tanks.

It might be argued that Catalonia has now, effectively, voted three times for independence. First to return a pro-independence government in 2015, then in the disputed (Madrid would say illegal) referendum of October 2017, and finally in December when pro-independence parties won an absolute majority (70 out of 135 seats) in the Catalan parliament. The last despite elected Catalan politicians rotting in Spanish prisons, or fleeing into exile.


The merry band of Brexiteers insist that it’s necessary to free Britain from foreign oppression (‘Brussels’, reimagined as some kind of Soviet-style super-state) while at the same time denying their fellow Britons (as Scots) the right to decide their own future in Europe.

Mirroring Rajoy’s stance in some respects, the merry band of Brexiteers insist that it’s necessary to free Britain from foreign oppression (‘Brussels’, reimagined as some kind of Soviet-style super-state) while at the same time denying their fellow Britons (as Scots) the right to decide their own future in Europe. This is seen most clearly in Scotland’s overwhelming (62 percent) Remain vote in the 2016 EU referendum, being overruled by the collective ‘leave’ vote amassed across England and Wales.

Made possible by the present Conservative government’s current tenuous parliamentary arithmetic, there is then the farce of a Northern Irish electoral minority appearing to dictate to the rest of the United Kingdom through much of 2017. Mysterious donations aside, it should not be forgotten that the Democratic Unionists notably failed to deliver Ulster to the pro-Brexit camp. Northern Ireland also clearly voted to Remain by 55.8 percent to 44.2 percent. While Scotland’s voice is ignored, the losing side in Northern Ireland is empowered.

THE PARADOX OF SELF-DETERMINATION

Self-determination is the most laudable of concepts underpinning our shared global system – yet it is arguably also the most dangerous. It represents, and facilitates, freedoms that large majorities around the world instinctively demand and support. Yet it has also been the justification of choice for tyrants’ expansionist campaigns throughout the modern period, including more recent dictatorial figures, chief among them Vladimir Putin.

Self-determination was enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles (though only selectively enforced). It was then used to tear down that same treaty system through staged expansions of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Currently, great powers in effect trade one case for another: my Timor-Leste for your Abkhazia and South Ossetia; my South Sudan for your Crimean Republic; my Kosovo for your People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. Similar tensions, and creative definitions of sovereignty and peoplehood, have been at play in the West’s relationship with China during the past century: consider the cases of Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.


Self-determination is the most laudable of concepts underpinning our shared global system – yet it is arguably also the most dangerous.

It is time for Western powers to acknowledge the imperial roots of this political schizophrenia. The West must accept that, in the case of its own states and allies, it is often as drawn to the Russian and Chinese obsession with so-called territorial integrity as those undemocratic powers. In short, the hypocrisy at the heart of the Versailles Peace Conference — that self-determination is truly only for some — endures to this day.

Alternatively, the West could, to borrow again from Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, ‘practice what we preach’. That would mean Britain, the US, and their allies insisting that self-determination applies equally to Kurds (as Iraqis), Catalans (as Spaniards), and ultimately the inhabitants of the constituent nations of the UK. In short, that the citizens of western powers and western allies enjoy the right of self-determination, regardless of their chosen national identity. One might reasonably argue this is a recipe for chaos. Maybe so, but it is intellectually honest and consistent with what the West has claimed to advocate for a century.

A PROMISSORY NOTE?

The historic reimagining of the American Declaration of Independence is instructive here. Looking back at a deeply flawed set of Founders and founding documents, Martin Luther King Jr., along with a new generation of American historians, framed US history by reference to an ‘uncashed cheque’. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, King stated:

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a cheque. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … So we have come to cash this cheque — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial. August 28, 1963. Image: Rowland Scherman [CC] 

This in practice meant overlooking the Founders’ actual intent, written into the text of the Constitution, on ‘other persons’ (enslaved African Americans) and Indians. This is also to ignore entirely a group overlooked in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, despite an incredibly eloquent but private plea to “remember the ladies” by Abigail Adams.

Instead, King’s vision, much like that of the nineteenth century abolitionists who preceded him, focused on the possibilities inherent in the Lockean (and Scottish Enlightenment) infused so-called ‘boilerplate section’ of the Declaration of Independence. This meant reinterpreting the claims of ‘inalienable rights’ to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, and ultimately the contention ‘that all men are created equal’ in the context of a new, more inclusive, society.

Although arguably first proclaimed internationally in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, set out to Congress in 1918, and endorsed by the peace conferences of 1919, self-determination is now enshrined in the United Nations Charter, originally signed in San Francisco in June 1945. Article 1, paragraph 2 states that the UN should: ‘develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace’. Given this was originally signed by only 51 nations, and there are now 193 sovereign states represented in the UN General Assembly, this was clearly not intended as mere empty rhetoric.


Self-determination is either a principle fit for all, or nothing more than a broken promise: a mere tool of dictators and empires.

However, for the principle of self-determination to mean anything, these documents must be seen as a kind of promissory note addressed to the various peoples of the world by the very flawed founders of our international system. In an increasingly dangerous period for democracy, it is time to live up to that ideal, or prove Putin and his ilk correct in their claims that Western democracy is morally and intellectually bankrupt.

Self-determination is either a principle fit for all, or nothing more than a broken promise: a mere tool of dictators and empires. Against the backdrop of recent shifts on the status of Jerusalem and posturing on Iran, the dangers of ‘bad cheques’ continuing to be written by Western powers and returned marked ‘insufficient funds’ can hardly be overstated.


Patrick M. Kirkwood is a Belfast-born Scot & European. He is a lecturer in history at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River in Independence, Missouri, and has published several journal articles on US and British thought on imperialism and self-determination during the early twentieth century. Follow him on twitter at @PatrickMKwood 


Feature image: Dignitaries gathering in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, France, to sign the Treaty of Versailles, June 28, 1919. [CC]