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Home > Self Determination: International Law & Practice > Self Determination in an Inter Dependent World - Strobe Talbott, US Secretary of State, March 2000

Self-determination in an Inter Dependent World

Strobe Talbott, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State 
"Foreign Policy" Spring 2000 Issue - 16 March 2000 
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, 
U.S. Department of State )

"...governments have a responsibility not just to defend the territorial integrity of the state but to establish and preserve the civic integrity of the population. That means ensuring that all who live within the boundaries of a state consider themselves fully respected and enfranchised citizens of that state. As a corollary to this principle, the way a government treats its own people is not just an "internal matter"; it is the business of the international community, for there are issues of both universal values and regional peace at stake. By extension, this principle gives American diplomacy a template for supporting self-determination without necessarily encouraging secessionism... Democracy is the political system most explicitly designed to ensure self-determination. Democracy can be a vehicle for peaceful secession, but it is also the best antidote to secessionism and civil war, since, in a truly democratic state, citizens seeking to run their own lives have peaceful alternatives to taking up arms against their government. This principle is global. It can, and should, be applied to conflicts deriving from demands for self-determination in Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere..."


Chechnya. Kosovo. East Timor. Aceh. Abkhazia. Nagorno-Karabakh. Transnistria. The characters and the settings are different, but the plot is the same: The people who live in a remote corner of a country resent, often with good reason, the powers-that-be in the far-off capital; they are a majority locally but a minority in the larger state; they want independence and are prepared to fight for it. Sooner or later, the resulting conflict becomes a challenge to American foreign policy, either because of the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis or because of the threat to regional peace and stability -- or both.

Nowhere on the shelves of the State Department is there a ready-made, one-size-fits-all blueprint for dealing with this scenario. In each instance, policy makers must consider unique historical and political circumstances; they must strike a balance among various interests and values, while weighing the competing needs and concerns of friends and allies.

Still, there is at least one general guideline for the American response to separatist conflicts, and it derives from how the world is changing. Independence is still a powerful impulse for the creation of new states, particularly among peoples who are ignored or repressed by central governments. 

But, in many cases, the rise of interdependence among states offers a remedy for conflicts within states that is better than secession: that is, to combine the promotion of democracy on the part of the central government with an effort to help would-be breakaway areas benefit from cross-border economic development and political cooperation.


Present at the Creation in Versailles

The United States itself has lived through a version of this basic story. In the 18th century, the American people fought a colonial power to win their freedom; then, in the 19th century, they fought on both sides in a much more brutal war pitting the Union against an independence movement called the Confederacy. But the state that emerged from the American Revolution and remained intact after the Civil War was fundamentally different from the states of Europe. The United States became a melting pot of immigrant nationalities, while in Europe, the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia had established, in place of the crumbling Holy Roman Empire, nation-states: a country called France for the French, a country called Sweden for the Swedes, and so on.

There are two difficulties with the concept of the nation-state. The first is that, carried to an extreme, it means that every one of the thousands of nationalities on Earth should have its own state, which would make for a very large United Nations and a very messy world. The other problem is that a pure nation-state does not exist in nature. Ethnographic boundaries almost never coincide with political ones. That is one reason why, for 300 years after the Peace of Westphalia, Europeans kept going back to war and redrawing the map of the Continent in blood.

World War I led to the breakup of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires and the birth of a new generation of nation-states. At Versailles, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's famous Fourteen Points -- the fifth of which declared that sovereignty should take full account of the interests of the populations concerned -- formed the basis for the treaty ending the war. Wilson's embrace of self-determination as one of the foundations of the Versailles peace aroused skepticism and foreboding even in his own time, and, for that matter, even in his own administration. His Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, confided to his diary at the time that self-determination would likely "breed discontent, disorder and rebellion," and that the phrase itself was "simply loaded with dynamite."

In the decades since, many scholars, statesmen, and pundits have depicted U.S. foreign policy in this century as a seesaw contest between idealism -- or "Wilsonianism" -- on the one hand and realism on the other; between high principle and raw power; between a bighearted, starry-eyed America and a two-fisted, hardheaded one. Wilson in his long coat and top hat has become the cartoon personification of the squishy-soft half of this stereotype. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, in his Rough Rider gear, is Wilson's supposed antipode.

This false dichotomy misses one of the most important, distinctive, and salutary aspects of American foreign policy: the United States' persistent effort to combine realism and idealism in the role it plays in the world. In public opinion polls and elections alike, the American people have made clear that they demand something nobler and more altruistic from their government and armed forces than the cold blooded calculus of raison d'etat or realpolitik in which European statecraft has often taken pride. Particularly in this century, the United States has explicitly and persistently sought to champion both its national interests and its national values, without seeing the two goals to be in contradiction.

While Wilson gave that principle a voice and put it into action, so did Roosevelt. In fact, Roosevelt preached the gospel of hardheaded idealism before Wilson did. In 1914, when Kaiser Wilhelm's army was brutalizing Belgium, it was Roosevelt, then in opposition, who cried out against a "breach of international morality" and who called upon his own country to come to the rescue. "We ought not," he said, "solely to consider our own interests." He also called for "a great world agreement among all the civilized military powers to back righteousness by force." That was a full two years before Wilson endorsed the idea of a League of Nations. If Roosevelt were around today, he would be mightily offended to hear himself depicted as a sort of Yankee Richelieu or Metternich.


Trying Again at Dayton

Wilson's role, too, has been subject to simplistic exploitation. It has become almost a matter of conventional wisdom that his concept of self-determination, as proclaimed at Versailles, led straight to the roiling chaos of the Balkans in the 1990s. Yet whatever the shortcomings of Versailles, Wilson and the other peacemakers gathered there did try, where possible, to put multiple nationalities together under the roof of a single state. One result was Czechoslovakia -- the land of the Czechs and Slovaks. Another was Yugoslavia -- the land of the South Slavs: Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

Those new countries did not survive the century in which they were born; but that was not so much because of the shortsightedness of the mapmakers of Versailles as it was because of the rise of fascism in Central and Southern Europe and the consolidation of communism in the East. The peoples of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were subject to the double jeopardy of having to live under both those forms of totalitarianism. They never had an adequate chance to develop democratic civil societies and federal systems. Their failures extended into the decade that just ended. Czechoslovakia broke up in the so-called Velvet Divorce eight years ago, while Yugoslavia came apart in a far more protracted and violent fashion.

Now, in the wake of the seventh Balkan war of the 20th century, here we are again, more than 80 years after Versailles, trying one more time to get it right: The United States is working with its European allies and partners, and with the people of Southeastern Europe, to remake the politics of the region without, this time, having to redraw the map -- without splitting up large, repressive, or failed states into small, fractious ministates that are neither economically nor politically viable. 

Rudolph C. R˙ser, in  On Line Newsletter of  Center for World Indigenous Studies, June 1999: "...Self-determination is a right guaranteed under international law to all peoples seeking to freely choose their social, economic, political and cultural future without external interference. ..The principle is unambiguous in its application to peoples having the collective right to freely choose their own future. The right to choose is what the United States and other states like France, Britain and Canada seek to deny Fourth World peoples... It is a stunning fact to consider that just as the United States, France, England, Germany, Russia and Italy roll their troops into Kosovo to preserve the peace and secure human rights and self-determination, these same states have become active leaders in the drive to rewrite international law ..."

We are trying to define and apply the concept of self-determination in a way that is conducive to integration and not to disintegration, in a way that will lead to lasting peace rather than recurrent war. That was the task at the Dayton Peace Conference on Bosnia in 1995, and it is still the task of U.S. policy toward the former Yugoslavia today.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the U.S. goal is to give all citizens reason to feel that they belong to a single state -- not so much a nation-state as a multiethnic federal state. There is reason for cautious optimism about reaching this goal. While the task is going to take a generation or more, at least the leaders of the communities that make up Bosnia have begun to put in place common institutions that embrace both the Serb entity, Republika Srpska, and the Muslim-Croat one, the Federation. The state of Bosnia and Herzegovina now has a flag, a national currency, and a national license plate -- all steps in the right direction. But there is a long way to go, especially in developing a political culture. After all, citizens of the former Yugoslavia also had the accoutrements of single statehood; but, in the end, they did not have the requisite sense of common identity.

Kosovo is an even more complex case than Bosnia. The Kosovars have historically wanted -- and under Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito enjoyed -- a high degree of autonomy. Then, under President Slobodan Milosevic, they suffered a decade of Serbian oppression and more than a year of ethnic cleansing. 

"..The struggle for Tamil Eelam is not about 'very moderate devolution' or 'modest devolution' or 'significant devolution'. It is not about devolving power from the higher to the lower. It is not about devolution. Period. It is about freedom from alien Sinhala rule. At the same time, the struggle for Tamil Eelam is also about how two free peoples may associate with each other in equality, in freedom and in peace. A meaningful negotiating process will need to address the question of working out a legal framework for two free and independent peoples to co-exist - a legal framework where they may pool their sovereignty in certain agreed areas, so that they may co-exist in peace. The demand for Tamil Eelam is not negotiable. But an independent Tamil Eelam will negotiate. And there will be everything to negotiate about. ... It will be idle to pretend that equity will be achieved through a negotiating process which does not itself commence on an equitable footing..." Nadesan Satyendra in the Singer Error, 24 March 2001

Now they want more than just self-determination: They want total independence; they want to break free completely -- constitutionally, juridically, and in every other respect -- from Belgrade, the perceived source of all their woes.

For the time being, under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, the question of final status is deferred. Kosovo today is administered by the United Nations and will be for some time to come, at least until that status is resolved. What ultimately happens there -- whether the people of Kosovo will come to accept a high level of autonomy within a larger, democratic, federalized, multiethnic state that has the same boundaries as the current Yugoslavia -- will depend in part on what happens in Serbia, the Balkans more generally, and Europe as a whole.

But this much is clear: It is neither reasonable nor realistic to expect a satisfactory and enduring resolution of Kosovo's status within the territory of Yugoslavia as long as Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, remains the leader of Belgrade.


The Great Experiment in Europe

Broader trends in Europe demonstrate why Milosevic is swimming against the tide of history. The old Westphalian system of nation-states -- each sovereign exercising supreme, absolute, and permanent national authority -- is giving way to a new system in which nations feel secure enough in their identities and in their neighborhoods to make a virtue out of porous borders and intertwined economies and cultures. The establishment of the euro as a common currency is only the most obvious example of the pooling of sovereignty in certain areas of governance.

Simultaneously, many European nations are also now secure enough to grant their regions greater autonomy and a higher degree of self-determination. On matters where communal identities and sensitivities are at stake, such as language and education, central governments are transferring power to local authorities. Within Spain's borders, for example, is an entity that calls itself the state of Catalonia, where Catalan is the official language and schools teach Spanish as an elective. The German Lander -- from Bavaria to Schleswig-Holstein -- have taken responsibility for affairs whose control once resided in the national capital.

 In Britain, the Blair government has sanctioned the establishment of a parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales, thereby actually making the United Kingdom more united, because the institutions of governance are more accommodating of the national communities that make up the state. In this fashion, Europe is managing and sublimating the forces that might otherwise trigger civil strife and conflict across borders. It is establishing a new culture of national and international politics in which healthy civil society and self-determination can flourish without requiring the proliferation of ethnically based microstates or encouraging irredentist conflict.

Helping Europe succeed in this great experiment is a challenge for the United States. One of the key multinational bodies through which to pursue that goal is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In various forms, the OSCE has existed for more than a quarter of a century. Its predecessor, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, contributed substantially to the ending of the Cold War. 

It did so by establishing an important principle, which President Clinton and other world leaders reaffirmed at last year's OSCE summit in Istanbul: On the one hand, international borders should not be changed by force -- either by wars of aggression or by wars of secession; on the other hand, governments have a responsibility not just to defend the territorial integrity of the state but to establish and preserve the civic integrity of the population. That means ensuring that all who live within the boundaries of a state consider themselves fully respected and enfranchised citizens of that state.

As a corollary to this principle, the way a government treats its own people is not just an "internal matter"; it is the business of the international community, for there are issues of both universal values and regional peace at stake. By extension, this principle gives American diplomacy a template for supporting self-determination without necessarily encouraging secessionism.

Within the OSCE's purview, Turkey and Russia provide two prominent though divergent examples of the effort to reckon with the issue of regional self-determination.

Turkey is America's ally in NATO and a close, trusted partner on a wide range of issues. It has struggled throughout its history with the "Kurdish question": how to grant Turkey's 13.1 million citizens of Kurdish origin greater rights without either abetting the separatist aims of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or undermining national unity. All too often, the answers sought by both sides -- violence and terror in the name of liberation, military repression, and suspension of many basic rights in the name of combating terror -- have accelerated the spiral of uprising and crackdown.

Now, after decades of tension and violence, there is genuine hope that the question of the Kurds will be resolved peacefully. In the wake of the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, many Kurds have dropped calls for a separate state and begun to realize that violence and armed struggle will not help them achieve their basic rights. For its part, the Turkish government has recognized that there cannot be a purely military solution to the Kurdish question: Any enduring settlement will depend on the government's willingness to safeguard human rights and open opportunities for all the people of Turkey.

The European Union's (EU) decision at its summit in Helsinki to consider Turkey as a candidate for membership is a positive step. It demonstrates a willingness by the EU to expand Europe's definition of itself and gives momentum to Turkey's own efforts to improve its record on human rights, thereby strengthening its qualifications for full membership.


The Post-Soviet Challenge

Russia is an especially complex case. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Russia and the other 14 Soviet republics made a historic decision: They affirmed the old interrepublic borders as the new international ones. To his credit, former President Boris Yeltsin, at several key points, repudiated the bellicose and irredentist claims of his noisier opponents. For example, he disavowed an incendiary Duma resolution laying claim to Crimea in Ukraine.

For all the problems plaguing the former Soviet Union today, they are nothing compared with the catastrophe that would have occurred if post-Soviet Russia had behaved like post-Yugoslav Serbia and Croatia and had used force to change borders along ethnic lines. The recent horror of the Balkans might have been replayed in Eurasia, across 11 time zones, with 30,000 nuclear weapons in the volatile and violent mix.

Yet Russia today is mired in war on its own territory. For the second time in a decade, Moscow is seeking to reimpose its rule over the Republic of Chechnya in the northern Caucasus. This time, Chechen-based insurgents reignited the war with dangerous provocations in neighboring Dagestan. The roots of the conflict, however, stretch back to pre-Soviet and Soviet imperialism and owe a great deal to the continued economic and social disadvantage of this blighted region.

U.S. policy on the status of Chechnya has been consistent. The United States supports the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and does not question the right of the federation to combat terrorism and armed insurgencies on its own soil. But as President Clinton stressed at the Istanbul OSCE Summit, the United States believes that "the means Russia has chosen will undermine its ends." Russia's military policy in the northern Caucasus may be confronting the people -- particularly the youth -- of Chechnya with an ugly choice: Either take up arms against the Russians or be interred by them. Neither option serves Moscow's stated long-term goal of a stable, prosperous northern Caucasus region as part of the Russian Federation.

Meanwhile, there are breakaway regions in Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia), and Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh). The continuing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh not only keeps the ethnic Armenian residents of that enclave in geopolitical limbo, it dramatically hinders the development of market-oriented economies in both countries. The United States is working within the OSCE to support efforts by the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to reach a negotiated agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Whatever differences each of these states has with its neighbors, each must face the reality of growing interdependence. For example, economic prosperity in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia will depend on the equitable distribution of water and the judicious management of transportation corridors. These issues demand cooperation among states that will be possible only if conflicts within those states are resolved.


The Global Imperative

The best way for an ethnically diverse, geographically sprawling state to protect itself against separatism is to protect the rights of minorities and far-flung communities. Democracy is the political system most explicitly designed to ensure self-determination. Democracy can be a vehicle for peaceful secession, but it is also the best antidote to secessionism and civil war, since, in a truly democratic state, citizens seeking to run their own lives have peaceful alternatives to taking up arms against their government.

This principle is global. It can, and should, be applied to conflicts deriving from demands for self-determination in Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere.

Indonesia offers two quite different examples of the problem of separatism -- and its solution. In 1975, Indonesia occupied the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. Brutal military rule made the local population determined to break free of Jakarta. The people of East Timor made that desire clear in a popular vote, and the Indonesian government has renounced its claim on the territory. Now, the United Nations, with the support and participation of the United States, is supervising East Timor's peaceful transition to becoming the first new nation of the new millennium.

Nearly 2,000 miles away in northwestern Sumatra, many of the people of Aceh are demanding an independent state of their own. Aceh has been a part of Indonesia since 1945, 30 years before the occupation of East Timor. The secession of Aceh, were it to occur, could send shock waves throughout the fourth most populous country on Earth -- an archipelago of 17,000 islands, with five major ethnic groups speaking hundreds of languages.

In his attempt to keep Aceh from pulling out of Indonesia, President Abdurrahman Wahid has pledged to bring to justice those responsible for past abuses. He has also promised that the Acehnese people will have a greater voice in local affairs and says he does not want to impose martial law. With this approach, he may yet be able to reconcile the rights and needs of the Acehnese with two important principles of international law: the inviolability of borders and the territorial integrity of established states.

Both these principles are severely tested today in Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, when decolonization swept the continent, the process was anti-Westphalian, and the results were, by and large, not nation-states. Independent countries were born out of old colonies, their boundaries bearing little relation to the lines dividing ethnic groups. It is partly against that backdrop that Africa has been wracked by ethnically based conflict in, among other places, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Horn. Today, no fewer than six countries are involved in ripping apart the Democratic Republic of Congo, threatening the fragile peace enacted through the Lusaka peace accords implemented last year.

But there are also signs of peaceful integration. In West Africa, President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali has been a driving force in the fostering of economic and political cooperation. South Africa has, in the course of only six years since the election of Nelson Mandela as President, gone from being the most extreme and notorious example of an ethnic minority suppressing the majority to helping other states in the region begin their own transformation to democracy and stability. In Mozambique, the political parties Frelimo and Renamo, bitter antagonists during 17 years of brutal civil war following independence in 1975, have now twice contested for power through the electoral process. And Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is on its way to consolidating a civilian democratic government after decades of dictatorship. These efforts, with their emphasis on democratic principles and good governance, will require the continued support and attention of the international community.

"...All too often self-determination is a right to be defended in lofty terms when it is politically advantageous and to be rejected when it is not... whatever answer the statesman or the philosopher may give to this question, the working answer is presumably the same: if other peoples, no better qualified for it than we, have been allowed to clutter up the international stage, why should a new set of rules now suddenly be invoked to deny us our equal right?.." - Rupert Emerson in From Empire to Nation, 1964

Federalism versus separatism remains an issue in the Western Hemisphere. For example, the people of Quebec still debate their province's relationship to the rest of Canada. The United States has always recognized this as an internal matter for Canadians to resolve within their constitutional, legal, and political systems. Canada is a model of how different people of different languages and traditions can work together on issues of governance through an unwavering commitment to social justice, elections, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.

While every case is sui generis and each will require policies carefully tailored to its own circumstances, all stand a better chance of resolution if the parties to the dispute take full account of globalization and its sub-phenomenon, regionalization. National sovereignty and national identity are still very much part of the international landscape. But the environment in which they exist is increasingly subject to forces that, for good and ill, cross borders -- forces that constitute what sovereign states have classically considered interference in their internal affairs.

The most successful states will be democracies that harness these forces and facts of life rather than deny them. There will be more such states in regions that have well-developed mechanisms for opening borders and societies, protecting minorities, empowering regions, pursuing transnational cooperation, and promoting the principle that differences in language and culture can be a source of strength within societies and states.

The United States has a special obligation to encourage these sensible ideals. As both the source and the beneficiary of many of the energies and innovations that constitute globalization, the United States is deeply invested in making sure that the phenomenon evolves in a positive direction. It is also the power most often expected to step in when, in far corners of the world, forces yearning for self-determination clash with those defending sovereignty. By fostering regional integration and cooperation along with democracy, the United States simultaneously advances its values and its interests. That is a guiding principle on which both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt would certainly agree.

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