227. "The Evils of Self-Determination," Foreign Policy, No. 89, (Winter 1992-93), pp. 21-35. Reprinted in: Moresh, No. 2, Vol 2, (Oct 1993), p. 43-49. The Annals of the International Institute of Sociology, Vol. IV, (1994), pp. 163-176.


Self-determination movements, a major historical force for more than 200 years, have largely exhausted their legitimacy as a means to create more strongly democratic states. While they long served to destroy empires and force governments to be more responsive to the governed, with rare exceptions self-determination movements now undermine the potential for democratic development in nondemocratic countries and threaten the foundations of democracy in the democratic ones. It is time to withdraw moral approval from most of the movements and see them for what they mainly are--destructive.

All people must develop more tolernce for those with different backgrounds and cultures; with compromise, ethnic identities can be expressed within existing national entities without threatening national unity. If tolerance between groups is not fostered, the resulting breakups will not lead to the formation of new stable democracies, but rather to further schisms and more ethnic strife, with few gains and many losses for proponents of self-government. The United States, then, should use moral approbations and diplomatic effort to support forces that enhance democratic determination and oppose those that seek fragmentation and tribalism.

Historically, the principle of self-determination served well and justly those who sought to dissolve empires--governments of one people imposed on another that lacked economic reprocity between the metropolitan center and the outlying colonies. While historians tend to treat as distinct the emergence of nation-states from the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires and the liberation of former colonies in Asia and Africa following World War II, there are actually great sociological similarities between the two movements. In the Balkan peninsula, foreign empires imposed themselves on the indigenous people, roughly in the area of the modern-day countries of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, and what used to be Yugoslavia. The fporeing imperialists gained dominance by conquest, and the metropolitan core drew significant economic benefit from the "colonies," although that term is not usually used. When nationalism strenghtened the self-awareness of the Balkan people in the late nineteenth century, they rebelled against colonial rule. By 1914, Albanians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Montenegrins, Romanians, and Serbians had established their independence. Similarly, undemocratic, imperically imposed governments in Africa and Asia led to demads for, and eventually the establishment of, more fully representative governments. In discussing Africa and Asia in the post-World War II era, historians argued that the quest for a new self-expression and self-awarenesswas at the heart of those self-determination movements. In retrospect, it seems that the metropolitan government's failure to represent and respond to the needs and demands of the various subgroups constituting the empire's population was at least as important.

Nationalism, athen, functioned nopt only as a way to gain one's own flag, national hymn, and other symbols of selfhood, but, perhaps even more important, as a way to lay the foundations for a responsive government. It is true that not all emergent nation-states fashioned democratic governments, but where democracy was absent, the struggle for democratic self-determination continued. The wars of national liberation after World War II that yielded new countries from the former colonies of the British, Dutch, French, Germans, Italians, and Portuguese parallel the historical developement fo the Balkans in important ways. In both cases, the metropolitan countries were remote and at least in some ways exploitative. While some of the metropolitan governments, especially Britain's, were democratic, their democracy did not embrace the people of their colonies. Moreover, in Africa in particular, the demands for national self-expression were weak because the colonial borders drawn by the empires paid little attention to tribal, cultural, and linguistic lines. Most of today's African nationalism was generated after independence. In short, the driving force in the wars of liberation was the desire for democratization and a responsive government, not for ethnic self-determination.

That pursuit parallels the American quest for indepence from Great Britian in the late eighteenth century. The American colonial rebellion was most openly and directly a call for representation, not for national expression. Many pre-independence "Americans" saw themselves as British. The American sense of nationhood remained rather tentative, even during the Revolutionary War period, and grew largely after independence. The remoteness and unresponsiveness of the British government, not strong American nationalism, motivated the colonists' revolt.

The world witnessed the final round of the thrust against imperial governments in a most dramatic fashion from 1989 to 1991, as the Soviet empire crumbled with a speed only possible because the imposed government lacked legitimacy. The breakaway of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania can easily, though mistakenly, be understood simpy as a result of repressed nationalism. Closer examination, however, revelas that another factor was the unresponsiveness of remopte and exploitive Muscovite rule. The unresponsiveness of the "local" East European governments explains the collapse of Communist regimes in each of these countries; however, the breakdown of the Soviet-led system was rooted in the member countries' overwhelming sense that the system was dominated by an exploitive USSR that ignored their needs. The same must be said about the breakaway of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

With the latest attempts at independence, though, we see signs of a new and unproductive strain of self-determination. Far from enhancing democratic government, the drive to dismember the USSR has so far resulted in a shift of power away from the reforming parliament, the most freely elected to date, and toward a small group of republic heads, many of whome were not democractically elected.

There are so far precious few indications that the governments of the 12 non-Baltic republics will be more democratic than the Soviet government they replace. Uzbekistan, for example, is firmly under the control of the Communist party and by late 1991 showed very few of the signs of striving for democracy of the kind that were evident on the federal level, that of the USSR. And, as these lines are written, Georgia is under one-party rule, and has ousted a president elected by 87 percent of the popular vote. Several of the new republics have outlawed the main opposition party (the Communist party), and again in some of them the press is often muzzled, and Boris Yeltsin often reminds the Russian parliament that it was not quite freely elected, that it contains many Communists, and demands that his powers be increased whenever the parliament does not favor his policies. In short, self-determination in the former USSR ofte\n weakens democracy.

Independence without Democracy

From here on, those concerned with governments by and for the people, with the advancing of responsive governments, can no longer take it for granted that breaking up of larger entities necessarily provides for a movement in the desired direction--toward democratization. One may favor or oppose replacement of an empire with a group of local tyrannies; it is said, at least they are "ours". But replacing a metropolitan democratic government (which in the case of the USSR was beginning to evolve), with a bunch of local autocrats, is hardly a movement toward genuine self-determination.

True, there are some pockets of empire left. The people of Tibet and inner Mongolia may well need to break away from the remote, imposed, exploitative and undemocratic Chinese empire. And the Kurds may never find a responsive government in a tyrannical Iraq and in an authoritarian Iran. (Turkey seems to have enough democratic potential for us to encourage Turkey to be more tolerant and responsive to Kurds and grant them more local autonomy. This would become easier for Turkey, and for the Kurds to accept, once it will become clear that the international community will discourage a drive by the Kurds to break away and take with them, so to speak, a piece of Turkey). But recent developments in South Africa seem to be more typical portents of the future: little good and a fair measure of human misery was generated by the creation of separate black territories. (A break-away white nationhood is not under consideration.) What is evolving, one must hope and support, is a representative government responsive to people of both races living within one and the same territorial confines. That is, expression of the needs of various sub-populations, tribes, even cultures, through democratization without fragmentation.

The need to tilt in favor of fuller representativeness, responsiveness, and democratization, versus further extension of the historical thrust of self-determination by fragmentation, is most evident in those countries that are already basically democratic but within which one sub-group or another is, or feels that it is, unable to express its ethnic identity and culture, under-represented, or not fully sharing in the metropolitan democratic government.

African-Americans were among the first to understand this point. While some flirted for a while in the Sixties with the notion of a separate black nation somewhere in the United States, and others had previously promoted a separate state in Africa (in Liberia), African-Americans were quick to realize that their needs would be better served in a mixed racial state, in which they would continue to be a minority--as long as it ceased to discriminate against, and allowed them to express their distinct identity and sub-culture and accrued them full de-jure and de-facto political representation.

While it is hard to imagine what a union of the Southern United States would have looked like if the Civil War had ended with the Confederacy seceding, there is little reason to doubt that it would have been less responsive to its black citizens, and quite possibly to many of its white, than the government of the more encompassing United States.

The Indian government is far from a perfect democracy; however, few can expect that democracy would benefit if more territories, for example Kashmir, would break away and form another national state. People desire and deserve a government that is responsive to them but not necessarily a separatist one. In India this means finding ways that will allow areas such as Kashmir much more local autonomy, and their people proper representation in national politics, but not breaking up the nation further into numerous hostile, undemocratic and potentially warring territories.

Yugoslavia was at best a partial democracy; much was missing to make its government responsive to the various groups that constitute the country, to allow a truly free press, free elections and the other elements of democracy. However, one thing stands out so far: the governments of the fragmented countries that dismembered the federation are less democratic (for their own people) and murderous to all others. Similarly, recent events show there is very little reason to expect that the government of Slovakia will be more democratic after it will split from Czechoslovakia. Newly elected Slovak Prime Minster, Vladimir Meciar, has already moved to increase government control of the media, and announced in the Parliament that any ethnic politicians who fan national tensions would be considered "political criminals."

The same holds for the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada. However legitimate one judges the complaints of French-speaking Canadians to be, it is hard to compare their fate to that of Czechs or Hungarians under Soviet occupation, or even to that of Indians under British colonial rule. And one must see the danger of less democracy in a separatist Quebec, if not for the French-speaking Quebecers, then for the English speaking. One can then see the merits of enhancing the responsiveness of Ottawa (and some redefinition of the role of the central government versus that of the provinces) rather than a dismembering of the union.

While the Flemings and the Walloons do not live together in Belgium in what might be characterized as one big happy community, the basic reason they are spared the terrible fate that has befallen for decades the people of Lebanon, relieved from decades of horrendous inter-ethnic civil war only by a Syrian occupation, is that Belgium has a basically democratic government, responsive to both major ethnic camps. Indeed, it worked out in recent years that changes in the structure of the government has led these two groups to a more satisfactory self-expression; this was achieved without separation and within the framework of one shared responsive and democratic government. Few recall that Switzerland, now often held up as a model of a nation that can contain people of different origins, ethnic pride, tongues and subcultures resulted only after different ethnic groups, that fought each other for nearly a thousand years, formed one shared democratic government.

It might be said that self-determination seeks to preserve a separate ethnic culture, tradition, religion or language. For instance, Macedonian distinctiveness is said to be threatened within a Greek nation. However, as the preceding examples suggest, in a true democratic state patterns can be worked to preserve these distinct identities (as they are within the United States), without breaking up the encompassing societies. (We return to this point in a subsequent discussion of pluralism-within-unity.) To put it differently, in a truly democratic state there is no reason for one culture to try to suppress others, as long as these others themselves seek self-expression rather than cultural dominance or territorial separatism.

It is no longer possible to sustain the notion that once every ethnic group finds its expression in a full-blown nation state, flies its flag at the United Nations, and has its ambassadors accredited by other nation-states, that the process of ethnic expression and that of dismantling existing states will be exhausted. The basic reason is that most nations in the world have numerous ethnic enclaves within them, within which further ethnic splinters exist. For example, in the failed break-away state of Biafra in Nigeria, the population was composed of several ethnic groups, most notably the Ibibio, Efik and Ijaw.

Moreover, more and more new ethnic "selves" can be generated quite readily, drawing on fraction lines now barely noticeable. Subtle differences in geography, religions, culture and loyalties can be fanned into separatist sentiments, seeking their own symbols and "powers" of statehood. Few thought of Iraq as potentially three countries until it nearly broke into a Shiite southern state, a northern Kurdish state and a central Iraq Sunni state at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. In the United Kingdom, Scots and Welsh are asserting themselves again. Yugoslavia, already riddled by division, may fracture further still; Albanians, Yugoslavia's third largest national group, recently boycotted elections in Serbia and are beginning to stir for a republic to call their own. And so it goes throughout the world. In most places, centrifugal forces are forever present.

Thus, one may not take seriously the claims of the Sorbians in eastern Germany who want to establish the state of Lusatia, even if Alfred Symank, a Sorb and the chief lobbyist for Sorbian Nationality for Autonomous Lusatia argues that they "are a legitimate nation" and "want the world to recognize that Germany isn't just made up of Germans. The Sorbs are here too!" Symank speaks of the oppression of the Sorbs at the hands of the Prussians, Sachsens, Nazis, Communists and now unified Germany and wonders "If Lithuania succeeds, if Slovenia succeeds, why can't we?" (Wall Street Journal, August 28, 1991, page A1). All this before the ink had even dried on German unification.

But one cannot take lightly the demands of various groups within the Soviet Union's republics, such as the Ossetians who are in violent battle with the majority Georgians and the Turkic-speaking Gagauz, who have already proclaimed independence from the Moldavian-speaking majority, which they claim discriminates against the Gagauz. And one must consider how minority Serbians in an independent Croatia would be treated and would react.

Even the romantics of self-determination will have to pause before the prospect of a United Nations with thousands of members. The world may well survive the creation of ever more toy states, smaller than Lichtenstein and less populated than Nauru (population: 9,300). But what meaning does self-determination have when these minuscule states are at the economic and military mercy, indeed whim, of others -- in whose government they have no representation at all, and toward which they have no particular moral claims for responsiveness?

What can we do? First and foremost just as the call for self-determination used to elicit almost reflexive moral support, especially in progressive circles, now one should withhold moral support unless one faces one of the exceptional situations in which fragmentation enhances democracy rather than retards it. Especially people who see themselves as oppressed put great values at gaining moral support from other people. As a rule, we should tend to encourage them to work out differences within their existing national communities rather than break way. Second, we should point out the economic disadvantage of separatism (discussed next). And finally urge on the governments that face ethnic challenges, such as Canada, to provide more local authority, more democratic federalism, to avoid fragmentation. (How far one can dilute the central government without loosing the over arching community is a subject to which we turn after the economic points are made).

Are there exceptions to the rules? Will, for instance, the Israeli Palestines, who have full citizens' rights and are strongly represented in the Israeli Kennecet, be more "self determined" if they would join a Palestinian state? A case can be made that after more than fifty years of hatred and wars both sides would be better off if a Palestinian state would be created and a voluntary population exchange would occur. But this is an argument in favor of not waiting for generations of mutual violence to separate people to an extent that reconciliation and living together might become impractical. On the other hand, a strong case can be made that every young body in the region would be better off if Palestinians would join an expanded Jordan rather than form one more tiny splinter-state, as long as Jordan would substantially democratize in the proces. In comparison, a separate Palestinian state, which may well do wonders for its citizens pride, is likely to be economically foolish, a source of additional wars, and not more democratic than other Arabic states. Why should the international community favor such a development?

The Economics of Secession

When fragmentation is objectively assessed, the economic disadvantages stand out. Countries that fragment into smaller economies, will pay heavy economic penalties. Take one example. Slovakia is a source of many raw materials; the Czech republic -- a place were the raw materials are often turned into finished products. The pipelines that carry oil from the former USSR to the Czechs runs thorough Slovakia. Czech officials have already tried to get another line through Germany but have run into resistance from environmentalists. Slovakia is the source of most petrochemicals for both parts; Czechs supply much of the electricity, and so it goes. One reason Quebec's ardor for separation seems to have somewhat cooled recently is that its business leaders have realized the great economic losses independence would entail. The mere possibility that Quebec may one day secede is already reflected in the costs of its credits; when it issued bonds in 1990, it had to pay higher interest to attract investments than it paid in previous periods and that was paid at the same time by other Canadian provinces (Wall Street Journal, April 13, 1990).

Theoretically, in a world of real free trade, it would not matter where national borders are drawn. However, under existing conditions, national borders have considerable economic significance, ranging from tendencies to buy from people of your own country (even when legally there are no restrictions on imports), to capital made available by the national government for development of new businesses, for R&D, training of workers, etc., allotted mainly to enterprises within a given national state. Moreover, many environmental issues cannot be dealt with in fragments of countries; the acid rain produced in one, rains on the other; the pollution dumped into a river upstream by one country, appears in the drinking water of a country downstream. (It is of course also a problem for long-established countries, but it points toward the need for more cross-nation community-building and the difficulties posed by additional fragmentation.)

It might be argued that the Croatians and Slovenians (and other such groups) will first find their nationalist self-expression and then form common markets. However, this argument is akin to suggesting that a married couple running a mom and pop store will, after divorce, be more able to work together on behalf of their joint business than during marriage; it rarely happens this way. Indeed, the African experience has shown to one and all the great difficulties, indeed near impossibilities, in forming new unions once various territories have become independent states, once considered but a transitional stage between Western colonialism and African unity.

Furthermore, economies of scale are becoming increasingly important. Economists have long stressed the efficiency of large-scale division of labor and exchange. However, it is only in the last decades that we have developed the technologies of communication and management that allow us to run very large scale enterprises on a truly continental, even cross-continental, scale. In recent years, even many of the stronger economies, such as those of Western Europe, found it to their advantage to join together. For example, to maintain a viable steel airframe or computer industry, several European countries found they had to combine their efforts. And the United States has responded to economic competition by forming a free-trade area with Canada and is now considering adding Mexico.

The economies of scale are not the only factor. Some small countries, such as Singapore are doing relatively well, while much larger ones, such as Brazil, are doing quite poorly for now. But holding all other factors constant, few would contend that larger countries, say Brazil, would benefit, indeed not be seriously damaged, if broken into parts. Or that smaller countries would not benefit from economic mergers. This is a reason so many have or are trying to form economic unions. (E.g. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay are hoping to form a union by 1994.) In short, from a sheer economic viewpoint, the way to well-being, which all these people seek, is not fragmentation but its opposite: community-building.

Moreover, it is highly questionable whether groups of autonomous nations can successfully form common economies, which entails much more than shared markets and trade zones. A major reason the European Community is now considering adding varying degrees of political unification to its economic efforts is the difficulties, if not impossibilities, of an economic union without a political one. The crucial point is that forming economic policy requires drawing on political consensus and specification of shared goals.

Governments routinely seek to affect the rate of inflation, unemployment, and economic growth, and so on, as Germany did in July, 1992 when it chose to increase interest rates because its people fear inflation more than unemployment and low growth. If these decisions were to be undertaken by institutions not subject to elected governments, they would lack consensus and legitimacy. Hence without a European parliament and government, and the attendant building up of legitimation, a European economic unification without political unification, may well be impractical (and if achieved -- will have some of the alienating flavor of an empire because it would be undemocratically imposed).

It would be the ultimate irony of history for countries to dismember existing communities of a nation, say break up India, only to find out that they must re-unite politically to provide their citizens the blessings of modern economies which their citizens keenly desire. Such irony may satisfy the observer, and provide a fascinating experiment for social scientists, but it imposes on the people of the countries involved large-scale and pervasive human suffering.

Economic penalties for those who fragment, as prohibitive as they might be, are the lesser of two evils. The main drawback of excessive self-determination is that it works against the democratization of countries seeking to establish democratic government and threatens democracy in countries that have already attained it. The main reasons are two: one structural and one socio-psychological. The first one concerns pluralism; the second, tolerance. By necessity we explore those one at a time although there is a deep connection between the two.

The structural foundations of democracy entail much more than regular elections. Elections were conducted frequently both by authoritarian countries such as Egypt and by tyrannical ones, such as communist USSR. An institutionalized, non-violent change of those in power in response to changes in the preferences of the populace is essential for democratic structure. Such changes ensure that the government can be responsive to the changing needs and desires of the people, and that if the government becomes unresponsive--it will be changed without undue difficulties.

To ensure that the variety of needs within the population will find effective political expression, democracies require that the government in place not "homogenize" the population in some artificial manner (e.g. imposing one state-approved religion; Quebec prohibiting outdoor signs in English). For it is the plurality of social, cultural, and economic loyalties and power centers within society that makes it possible, at each point in time, for a new need, group or sub-culture, to break into the political scene, find allies, build coalitions and have its effect. (E.g. the Great Society reforms in the early Sixties in the United States were, politically speaking, the result of rising black groups forming a coalition with white liberals and labor unions.)

Aside from keeping the government and its closest allies in the population at check, the pluralistic array of groups also keeps one another at bay. In contrast, when historical processes or deliberate government policies weakens all other groups and leave only its supporters within the society organized, as the Nazis did in post-World War I Germany, the foundations of democracy are undermined. In short, social pluralism is a major sociological factor that supports democratic government.

While there are several bases along which social pluralism can be sustained, the best are those that cut across other existing lines of division, dampening the power of each and allowing for a large number of possible combinations of social bases to build political power. Thus, a society rigidly divided into two or three economic classes (say, landed gentry, bourgeois and working class) may have a structure that is somewhat more conducive to democratic government than a society with only one class. However, the potential for democracy is much enhanced when there are other groups that draw on members from various classes, so that loyalty to these groups cuts across class lines.

Historically, ethnic groups have "cut-across" socio-economics levels within the US, thus dampening both class and ethnic divisions. Thus, American Jews may be largely middle class, but there are many in the middle class who are not Jewish and there are Jews in the other classes. WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) may be "over represented" in the upper classes but are also found in large numbers in all other classes and so on. The fact that both classes and ethnic loyalties cut across regional and other geographical lines and loyalties further helps cement the foundations of pluralism and hence democracy.

In contrast, the net effect of break-away states that are based on ethnic groups is to fashion communities that are sociologically much more monolithic than the states they break away from. Thus, Quebec obviously would be much more "French" and the remaining Canada "English" than the existing composite. This polarization is heightened by the great intolerance break-away states tend to have for minority ethnic groups composed of people who were in the majority or in power in the country they broke away from. In short, ethnic based break-away states tend to see more ethnic homogeneity, less pluralism, and this is one reason they often lack the deeper sociological foundations of democracy.

Tolerance of people of a different background, sub-culture, religion, or language is a crucial psychological trait democracy requires; the same trait is needed for new communities to solidify. Democracy requires tolerance (which in turn is based on impulse control and ego distance) because it is the psychological basis for playing by the rules; for being willing to accept the outcome of elections--even if they favor a party or coalition of groups one is strongly opposed to; and for being willing to accept compromises.

Community requires the same basic psychological trait. The capacity to bind people of different backgrounds and traditions; the ability to work out differences with people whose religions, histories and habits one does not share. When those are absent, the predisposition to fragmentation is high.

To put it differently, tolerance is a psychological trait that is essential both for inter-ethnic peace within one country and for democratic government. People who beat to death members of other ethnic groups within their turf, burn their houses to the ground, or otherwise engage in massive violence--because of some alleged or real indignities or injustices--are most unlikely to be able to sit down with other groups they disagree with and work out the kind of compromises or community-wide consensus the daily working of democracy requires. Violence is of course only the most extreme and highly visible sign of intolerance. Wide spread prejudice and discrimination suffice to prevent a community and a democracy from functioning properly.

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