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Home > Self Determination: International Law & Practice > Self Determination & the Future of Democracy - Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein

Self-determination and the Future of Democracy

Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein
at The International Institute for Strategic Studies
25 January 2001

"...Let us accept the fact that states have lifecycles similar to those of human beings who created them. ..hardly any Member State of the United Nations has existed within its present borders for longer than five generations. The attempt to freeze human evolution has in the past been a futile undertaking and has probably brought about more violence than if such a process had been controlled peacefully... Restrictions on self-determination threaten not only democracy itself but the state which seeks its legitimation in democracy..."


It is an honour and a pleasure to speak here at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Institute is certainly one if not the most prestigious private institution that has worked over the decades on security and questions of strategic importance. The Institute has seen different threats to world security emerge and disappear.

After the end of the Cold War the danger of a nuclear or even a conventional World War has almost disappeared. Small conventional wars between states have lost their importance. The high costs and risks involved just do not justify the modest gains even under the most optimistic scenarios, as the recent example of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has shown.

Since the end of World War II another threat to security in the world has slowly increased and will probably dominate this century and perhaps the next: the civil wars or the wars of independence

In the past 50 years we saw the collapse of the colonial empires, of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia among others. Some have disappeared peacefully like Czechoslovakia, others through war.

Most people, even historians, usually look at rather short periods of human history and run therefore the risk of missing the elements which influence human history over longer periods of time. When we look at human history on this planet over several thousands of years, we see that states or empires are born, they grow and they disappear. Either they collapse or they are taken over by more powerful states and empires. There have been periods of time, when smaller states or decentralized empires prevailed, and other periods, when larger and more centralized states or empires dominated. If you can find out what elements influence human history over longer periods of time, we are not only in a better position to understand human history but also to make better forecasts about the future of humanity.

Experts say that the dog is one of the oldest and most faithful companion of mankind. The same can also be said unfortunately for another companion and that is war. Throughout human history war was the most important element which influenced the birth, the size and the death of states. It is interesting to notice that when technology favours the aggressor, large and rather centralized states or empires dominate, when technology favours the defender, small or decentralized empires prevail.

When the defender was able to hide behind walls, few people with limited resources could defend themselves efficiently against large armies. Small states survived and large states often broke up in civil wars. When city walls or castles offered little protection, large states or centralized empires dominated. In European history we have the examples of Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe for one period, the Roman Empire and the colonial empires for the other period.

It is of course not only military technology which tips the balance in one direction or the other. The success of the Roman Empire was largely dependent on a very efficient transport system. The Romans were able to concentrate enough people and resources even in a very remote corner of the empire, long enough to overcome a fortification like Massada in the desert near the Death Sea.

There have been many speculations of why the Roman Empire collapsed, in this case it was perhaps less a change in military technology in favour of the small states but probably more the incompetence to manage such a large empire. The eastern part of the Roman Empire survived for another thousand years.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire it took, at least in Europe, centuries to tip again the balance in favour of the large centralized states. Artillery was probably the decisive factor. Turkish artillery destroyed the walls of Constantinople in the 15th century. Artillery destroyed city walls and castles and laid the foundation for the large nation-state and the colonial empires. Like in Roman time improved transportation supported this process. 

But perhaps the most important influence in tipping the balance in favour of the large centralized state during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was industrialization. Mass production was much more efficient than handicraft, especially also in the production of weapons. Small countries with limited access to large markets or large decentralized states with all kinds of barriers against domestic trade could not compete any more.

After World War II, the balance started to change again in favour of the small states. Nationalism certainly played a part in the collapse of the colonial empires, but in most cases those people would have chosen independence long before and were usually forced into these empires and large states through military or economic pressure.

Military technology and a different economic environment were probably the more important agents for change. The United States as the most powerful state after World War II had no colonial empire but instead a highly competitive industry. Therefore, it was very much in the interest of the United States to favour a policy of free trade wherever possible. Free trade was not only favourable for the US, but it favoured also those small countries willing and able to open up and to integrate their economy into the world economy.

Also the character of industrialization changed. Profit margins in mass production started to fall, whereas they increased in sophisticated and rather specialized products. This was another reason to tip the balance into the direction of small states with a well educated population.

On the military side technology gave the defender very efficient weapons. As long as the correct strategy was used, a rather weak defender could inflict heavy losses on a much stronger army. Already the battle of Berlin in 1945 showed that weak infantry forces with rather cheap armor piercing weapons could inflict tremendous losses on the vastly superior mechanized divisions of the Soviet Union. 

The different Guerrilla Wars after World War II are good examples of the high costs a weak defender can inflict on attacking forces which are far superior in numbers and material.

The colonial empires became a burden, not only because of a changing economic environment but also because the military forces needed to suppress an independence movement willing to fight became too expensive. The very expensive highly mechanized armies proved to be not very cost efficient in wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan or now Chechnya.

If the assumption is basically correct that over longer periods in human history changes in the economy and military technology influence the size and structure of states, what developments can we expect for the future? 

More states will split or collapse, some of them peacefully like Czechoslovakia, others probably in warlike conditions. Whenever the balance changed in human history more wars were the consequence, civil wars when the balance favoured small states, wars of aggression when the balance pointed into the other direction.

You may now ask, what has all this to do with self-determination and the future of democracy? In my opinion self-determination and democracy are the only solution how we can handle those processes in human history peacefully. Throughout human history the birth, the growth and the death of states were decided with weapons in the hand. Although it was a rather uncivilized and for the victims often a cruel process, you can argue that humanity was able to afford it up to now. In World War I and World War II millions of people were killed but the world population is higher than it ever was, the battle fields and the sunken battle ships of those wars are visited by tourists today.

Unfortunately, modern technology gives us far more dangerous weapons than in the past. Atomic, bacteriological and chemical weapons have the potential to inflict tremendous destruction on the human environment which can last for generations. Small groups who have the technical background are already now able to produce bacteriological and chemical weapons. Scientific knowledge, especially in biotechnology is accumulating and spreading very rapidly over our planet. It is becoming more and more difficult to make forecasts, what kind of weapons can be developed in 20 to 30 years with this knowledge.

Therefore, we should think now on how to eliminate one of the major causes of war and terrorism in human history. Let us accept the fact that states have lifecycles similar to those of human beings who created them. The lifecycle of a state might last for many generations, but hardly any Member State of the United Nations has existed within its present borders for longer than five generations. The attempt to freeze human evolution has in the past been a futile undertaking and has probably brought about more violence than if such a process had been controlled peacefully. Our task is to make sure that all those inevitable changes are not solved on the battle-field with the weapon in the hand but at the ballot-box with the ballot-paper in the hand.

This can only be achieved if the states of this world are based on democracy. The vast majority of the Member States of the United Nations see democracy today as their guiding principle. Unfortunately, in many states only lip service is paid to this principle, and even in countries with a long democratic tradition the democratic principle is applied in a rather restrictive way. Democracy also means the right to self-determination, and the right of the people to self-determination stands prominently in the UN-Charter as well as in other international documents, but reality looks somewhat different.

In the UN-Charter the right of self-determination is limited by the respect for the integrity and sovereignty of existing states. Many states interpret this to mean that only during the decolonization process does the right of self-determination enjoy precedence over the sanctity of borders. Even states with a long democratic tradition have difficulties to accept the idea that their population has the right to put the existing borders in question. One of the arguments is that earlier generations have already made the choice to belong to this state or this nation and that the following generations are therefore bound by this decision.

To put such restrictions on democracy is in my opinion problematic for several reasons:

  1. With few exceptions present borders have not been established in a democratic process.
  2. Every democracy accepts the idea that its constitution and laws can be changed in a democratic process.
  3. In a democracy the majority decides. History shows that even in well established democracies the majority can suppress a minority. If there is not a clearly defined right of self-determination for a minority, the rule of law and with it democracy can be the first victims. This can easily lead to a collapse of the state either through civil war or some other mechanism.
  4. Restrictions on self-determination threaten not only democracy itself but the state which seeks its legitimation in democracy. Restrictions on self-determination cannot be the answer but rather the extension of democracy and self-determination down to the smallest community. Some people believe that such an extension of democracy and self-determination will threaten the political stability of the modern state. I think the opposite will happen.

A restrictive interpretation of the right of self-determination has in the past led to violence, civil wars, ethnic cleansing and the break up of states. The international community is usually only willing, if at all, to apply the right of self-determination to minorities of a certain size, who are different from their neighbours in race, religion, language and culture. 

One of the main problems is that there are not many states on this planet of a certain size, which are ethnically clean. Where minorities live within a state, there are parts where the minority is only the majority in an ethnically mixed background and other parts where they are again a minority. To split the state according to this interpretation of self-determination creates only new minorities and new problems. Very often we see that minorities are politically split. Some would prefer to remain in the original state as long as they have some autonomy, others prefer independence.

A better solution would be a new interpretation of the right of self-determination in the following manner: The right of self-determination should be given to communities like cities or villages, and independence could only come at the end of a longer process of different levels of autonomy. The communities would have to prove to their population over a number of years that they are able to handle the problems of self-government and self-administration. The advantage would be that such an approach would lead in most cases to the decentralization and not to the collapse of states.

Quebec might be an interesting example of such a new application of the right of self-determination. The different votes on the independence of Quebec were rather narrow, but if one analyzes those votes on a regional level, large areas and the capital Montreal have always voted against independence. If the right of self-determination lies at the community level, those areas, rich in natural resources, and Montreal would remain with Canada. Those communities who had large majorities in favour of independence would find themselves in a small and rather fragmented independent state. There have been surveys which show that in such a situation probably also those communities would change their opinion and vote for autonomy within Canada.

An example where the present approach on the right of self-determination has failed miserably is Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia might well have survived as a very decentralized state without the civil war and ethnic cleansing, had the international community applied, early on, pressure on Yugoslavia to grant the right of self-determination on a community level and to introduce different levels of autonomy before independence. A state which does not respect the right of self-determination on community level could be threatened by the international community that those suppressed minorities who ask for independence might be recognized and supported as in Yugoslavia and now in East Timor.

One might argue that even at the community level there are minorities who could cause a problem, should the community finally reach independence. This can of course not be excluded but the problem is certainly easier to handle. The community will first have to show that it is able to handle this problem during the autonomy stage. More autonomy forces the people to cooperate if they want to succeed. Minorities within the community who cannot accept the idea of independence have more time to move to another community in the neighbourhood during the autonomy stage without the stress of ethnic cleansing.

If this much more liberal interpretation of the right of self-determination is accepted it will change the way how we see the role of the state. The state as we see it today is the product of an agrarian society. Whereas the territory of hunters and gatherers is less well defined, farmers have usually a well defined territory on which they live all the year. The first states which emerged had usually a small city as the political, economical and often religious center which controlled the surrounding territory. The state had and still has basically an unrestricted monopoly on its territory and the people living there. The only threat to this monopoly was war or revolution. Over thousands of years religion was the most efficient legitimation for the political power of the state and its rulers. The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, science and the industrial revolution put a question mark behind the religious legitimation of the state.

We like to think that religious legitimation was replaced by democratic legitimation at least in the western world. As mentioned before, democracy has been introduced in a very restrictive way. In practice democratic legitimation was not enough and religious legitimation was replaced to a larger extent through ideological legitimation, like nationalism and socialism. The state replaced God with the expectation that it will create paradise here on earth, reward the good people and punish the bad ones. The last century showed the failure of this approach. Wars and persecution based on ideology killed more people in those hundred years than religion in a thousand years.

Can humanity return to the religious legitimation of the state? I doubt it. Will there be a better legitimation for a future state than democracy? Perhaps, but for the foreseeable future democracy with all its shortcomings is by far the best alternative.

If the international community accepts the concept of democratic legitimation including the right of self-determination at the community level, it would break the monopoly of the state on its territory and its people. The state would have to compete peacefully against other states in offering the best service at the best price to its customers. Those customers would be the communities within its borders and its population. If a state is not competitive enough it will lose customers to other states. This would then not be decided by wars as in the past or by emigration as it is the case today, but by a democratic vote inside the community.

The state will cease to be the product of an agrarian society but will become the product of a service society. The state will have to concentrate on those services which it can deliver better and cheaper than anybody else. This will lead to political decentralization inside those states with more power to the communities, regional organizations like counties or provinces. The private sector will compete for some of these services. There could be states which offer first-class services at a high price and others which compete with standard services at a low price, but states which offer bad services at first-class prices will lose their customers and soon be out of business.

John F. Kennedy, the former US President, once said: "Don't ask the state what it can do for you, but what you can do for the state". This is however only one side of the coin. The state and its representatives, either politicians or civil servants, should look at the other side of the coin as well and ask the following question: "Don't ask what the citizen can do for the state but rather what can the state do for the citizen in a better or more efficient way than any other organization." This other organization can be a private enterprise, a local authority or an international organization like the European Union or the United Nations.

Humanity is leaving the agrarian age which has shaped societies and states for thousands of years and is moving rapidly through the industrial age to an age which is dominated by services. The states have not even adapted to the industrial society, not to speak to the service society. The states still try to preserve the relics of the agrarian age, gentleman farmers with a strong lobby are protected by subsidies paid by the consumer and the tax payer. To move the state from the agrarian age to the service age peacefully, humanity will have to break the monopoly of the state on its territory and will have to accept the democratic principle and with it the right of self-determination. Many people will reject those changes but do they prefer the alternatives which are wars and revolutions?

I am convinced that if the international community accepts the principle of democracy and the right of self-determination, we will be able to eliminate wars and to a large extent the oppression of minorities. We will not be able to create paradise here on earth but at least improve the political and economical situation of most people here on our planet.

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