“If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war. The United States does and must assert its authority, wherever it once had power; for, if it relaxes one bit to pressure, it is gone, and I believe that such is the national feeling.”
– William Tecumseh Sherman, Letter to the Mayor and Councilmen of Atlanta
Ukraine’s new president, Olexander Turchynov, warned today of the threat of separatism in Eastern Ukraine, where there have been demonstrations in favor of the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. Whether such fears are overstated or not is a matter of discussion, as while Ukranian parlimentarians have reported “dangerous signs of separatism”, others have disputed how viable such a movement really is. But I’m not interested in discussing the viability of Ukranian separatism. I’m interested in discussing the obsession modern political dialogue has had with the concept ever since Woodrow Wilson preached “self-determination” in the lead-up to the Versailles negotiations, and believed in it so fervently that about half of his famous Fourteen Points are just stating it in one region or another, whether Turkey or Poland. For it’s not just in Ukraine that we’ve been seeing this new wave. On September 18, Scotland will host a referendum to determine whether it should leave the United Kingdom and become its own separate country. The Kurds in the Middle East still seek to create their own country, and let us not forget how at the height of the American occupation in Iraq, the fashionable idea of the day was that the country should be split into three, with a Sunni, a Shi’ite, and a Kurd section. Self-determination seems to be a simple solution to a wide variety of problems. The idea after all, is that if a people can create their own separate state which is separate from others, then that should promote peace. And at a first glance, it seems reasonable enough. But the reality is that there are no shortcuts in life – and when something proposes to be a simple solution to a wide variety of problems, then one should take a second look and wonder how effective that solution truly is. Self-determination is fundamentally a myth, for the reality is that there generally is no such thing as a clear demarcation line between one people and another.
Self determination proposes, as I discussed above, that a people should be able to create their own separate state. But what is a “people?” Political theorists can point at a map and declare that the Germans live here, the Poles lives here, and the Austrians live here, but reality is never so simple. There is always migration, intermingling, and cultural exchange. When Wilson and his colleagues got off their knees, satisfied that they had redrawn the borders to their satisfaction ( and they in fact were literally on their knees since the maps were so large), they left substantial German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland – something that a certain German ruler, preaching this very language of self-determination, would use to occupy those countries. One of the common examples of the supposed benefits of self-determination, the idea that somehow Africa would be all right if only the Europeans had split the continent up into its supposed ethnic boundaries, ignores this, and that’s not discussing the fact that said ethnicities were in themselves legacies of colonialism. There is no way Europe could have possibly split up Africa so that all of ethnic group A lived on one side of a border, and all of ethnic group B lived on the other. The result then, would have been similar to what we have today – groups of Africans fighting with each other over what is properly Yoruba or Hutu lands.
When India was partitioned in two, 500,000 were killed in the resulting chaos as Hindu and Muslim were forced to flee to their respective countries – and it’s not like the two countries have been at peace ever since that chaos. If Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, or Eastern Ukraine becomes it own separate state, does one truly think that there will be peace and goodwill between Scotland and the remnants of the UK? No. The bitterness and resentment of the passing creates further strife. Some compare self-determination to a divorce, but divorcees are not forced to see and interact with one another every day like two bordering nations must. And let us not talk of the fact that one split engenders a precedence for further splits, as Sherman noted in his letter about why it was necessary for the North to preserve the Union.
Self-determination can be useful every now and then, in circumstances such as the dissolution as the Soviet Union. But too often, whenever there is the least bit of civil strife between two conflicting parties, the solution seems to be that the two groups should split the land up and go their own separate ways, and that this will fix things. But reality is never so simple. Self-determination should only be thought about as a true, total last resort, and not as a tool of nationalistic flag-waving – and the corpses which it has brought should serve as a reminder of that which happens when it is used carelessly.