Year XLIV, 2002, Number 2, Page 92
Self-Determination or Self-Government?
The hope that the collapse of the Berlin Wall would bring peace and lead to the building of a new and progressive world order, has, so far, proved to be a vain one. The twenty-first century has brought with it a series of unresolved problems, hangovers from the last century: the political organisation of mankind into independent and sovereign states, the tendency to use force in relations between states, and the unequal distribution of the power to use the world’s resources. Increasingly, these problems can be seen to conflict with the great scientific and technological revolution of today, which is creating a closer and closer global interdependence among men and making peace, equality and solidarity in the historical interests of everyone.
It is not by chance, therefore, that we are currently witnessing two phenomena that in fact constitute two sides of the same coin. First, we are seeing growing sections of civil society, both in the advanced and the developing world, claiming the right to take back control of their own destiny, pressing for the globalisation of rights and of politics alongside the existing globalisation of the economy. As a result, globalisation is highlighting the need both to democratise the international bodies that direct relations between states, and to overcome mankind’s political division into independent and sovereign nation-states. Second, we are seeing citizens and local and regional bodies affected, in their daily lives, by phenomena that are running out of control. The national governments are powerless to oppose the negative phenomena produced by a globalisation that has evolved in the absence of a world government, i.e., terrorism and international crime, uneven distribution of wealth and speculative movements of capital, fluctuating employment, and illegal immigration. All this has fuelled the political demand for ethnic-regional closure, and generated a strong wave of opposition to centralised state institutions and even calls for secession.
This is an extremely dangerous trend. The evils of Nazism and of religious and racial conflict that historically Europe has known have not been defeated. The progress achieved with the creation of the European Union (1993) and the launch of the single currency (1999) have to be set against the disintegration of the Soviet Union and of the socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia, both of which began in 1991. And there is a growing risk that a Balkan-type phenomenon could also emerge in western Europe, which is currently witnessing a proliferation of ethnic nationalist political groups and a growing intolerance of cultural differences. Unless the process of Europe’s political unification is rapidly completed, there is every chance that these forces, today founded on ambiguous autonomist stances, could openly embrace secession. Elsewhere in the world (Rwanda, Kurdistan, Kashmir, Sri Lanka), ethnic, national, religious and racial conflicts are, without doubt, expressions of widespread democratic and social-economic deficits and of a lack of political order at local and international level, but they are also factors contributing to the destabilisation ofthe world power situation. The same applies to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has dragged on for over half a century without any political solution being found that is capable of guaranteeing the civil coexistence of the various Middle Eastern peoples. The world is thus faced with two dramatic alternatives: a rebirth of nationalism or the launching of the process that will lead to the political unification of mankind.
While the reasons for and possible solutions to this crisis clearly need to be discussed and examined in depth, to use the principle of self-determination as a means of justifying the creation of small ethnic states, each with its own currency and armed forces, is clearly quite unacceptable (this is, indeed, the flaw inherent in the solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict that, starting with its Resolution no. 181 of November 29, 1947, gained the support of the United Nations, i.e., to divide Palestine, already under British rule, into two independent states). Not only does the birth of new states through secession fail to guarantee the spread of democracy and respect for the rights of the individual and of minority groups, it also fuels international disorder and the spread of armed conflicts and exposes to discrimination the minority groups that are inevitably part of such states.
Given the world’s mix of peoples, races, ethnic groups, religions and languages, any state founded on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity is ultimately induced to assimilate forcibly, or to persecute, the minorities within its territory that have other national, ethnic or religious identities. This, of course, is likely to prompt reactions from the groups affected and from bordering states, which rise to the defence of these minorities, thus creating the conditions for border conflicts and “humanitarian meddling” and very probably inducing the governments involved to adopt an authoritarian and militaristic stance. None of this favours the spread of democracy in the world, the global development of the forces of production, or the affirmation of the international institutions that promote peace.
In the face of the current resurgence of nationalism and international instability, the objective of federalists continues to be the affirmation of peace in Kantian terms, through the gradual building of a world federal state, possibly the ultimate union of a number of continental or sub-continental federations. From this perspective, and given the United Nations’ acknowledgement of the right of self-determination, federalists must now seek to tackle this issue also within the context of the debate over institutional reform of the UN. This is, indeed, a decisive question: as long as it continues to uphold the principle of the absolute sovereignty of nations and of self-determination, the United Nations, like the League of Nations, will continue to lack the means both to curb potentially violent clashes between states and to bring about their peaceful coexistence.
As far as national, ethnic and religious conflicts are concerned, federalists cannot, in any case, go along with concepts and political initiatives that produce inequality among people, violation of the rights of citizens and minority groups, cultural, economic and social discrimination, the spread of weapons, border disputes, armed conflicts and the growth of international disorder.
Institutions for Peace and the Democratic Government of the World
The Federal State as an Instrument of Peace and Democratic Supranational Government.
Dominant political thought has yet to reflect in depth on the relationship between the growing interdependence among men and the need for an evolution of the structures of democratic government at international level. Federalists apart — and here we can cite, above all, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, The Ventotene Manifesto, 1941, and Mario Albertini, Lo stato nazionale, 1960 — no one has questioned the model of state, independent and sovereign (also definable as nation-state), which became prevalent in the wake of the French Revolution. This particular model was thrown into crisis at the start of the twentieth century, giving rise to two world wars, after which, it was renewed and propped up by the two hegemonic superpowers in the framework of the bipolar world order. Today, however, faced with the challenges of globalisation, the nation-state is proving incapable of defending its independence and exclusive sovereignty.
The line of thought that can be traced from Immanuel Kant (Perpetual Peace, 1795) right up to Lord Lothian (Pacifism is Not Enough, 1935) contains one firm point: the objective of peace must, and can, be pursued through the building of a world state. While Kant was not sufficiently familiar with the institutional model born out of the War of American Independence, twentieth-century political thought emphasised that such a state would have to have a federal structure, because this would make it possible to reconcile efficient government of relations between states at global level with the necessary decentralisation, to a number of levels, of the government of society, thereby ensuring the presence of institutions that are close to the citizens and equipped to deal with their problems. According to the federalist school, this is the only way that dominion of force can be replaced by the rule of law in political relations between states. It must also be added that the federal state throws into question the independent, sovereign state, i.e., the model of state that prevails in Europe, and in other parts of the world influenced by western political culture.
Despite being the model of a highly advanced form of political organisation, the nation-state, being bound by the principles of independence and exclusive sovereignty, has proved unable to guarantee peaceful international relations. No independent, sovereign state can peacefully extend its capacity for democratic government to the territory and citizens of another state. Even relations between democratically governed countries are based on the prevalence of strength. It is to be recalled that the great powers that triggered the First World War were, with the exception of the Russian empire, all supported by representative democratic regimes and that the conflict itself brought an end to the Second International and undermined the very legitimacy of the nation-state.
There does exist, however, a formula that would make it possible to achieve government of continental areas and world government, and also allow the nation-states’ limitations in international relations to be overcome, at the same time heightening the importance of internal objectives, such as civil coexistence and the presence of government institutions that are close to the citizens. This formula is the federal pact between state and citizens, basically, the application, to unions of states, of the federal structure.
The world already has a number of such structures. The United States of America, the Federal Republic of Germany, the confederation of Switzerland, India and Brazil, for example, are all federal unions. Western Europe, in the second half of the twentieth century, saw the unfolding of a real process (still to be completed) of federal unification of nation-states. This process boasts some interesting and original features: it constitutes the first time in history that a federal enterprise has sought to involve large and established states, states that were once enemies and are now reconciled, states whose economic and social interests concern, overall, around a fifth of the world’s GDP and, in the wake of the imminent enlargement of the European Union, over half a billion people. As declared in the 1950 Schuman Declaration, the founding act of the process of unification, its common objective is the building of peace among states and peoples that were once in conflict with one another. The European Union has already acquired a number of pre-federal characteristics, thanks to the direct election (since June 1979) of the European Parliament, the creation of the single currency (January 1st, 1999) and the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty on European Union (May 1st, 1999), which, through the introduction of the co-decision procedure and the vote of confidence in favour of the Commission, increased the powers of the European Parliament. These characteristics are, however, still precarious and need to be consolidated through conclusion of the federal pact, that is to say through the adoption of a Constitution-Treaty marking the founding of a federation (federal state) of states and citizens. The problem is a pressing one, and it is currently being examined by the European Convention.
Federal unions bring together, under a single government, a number of states and their citizens. The latter assume dual citizenship: citizenship of their state of origin and that of the federation. On an institutional level, this dual source of political legitimisation of the federal state is reflected in the structure of the parliament, which is made up of a lower chamber that represents the people of the Union, and a higher chamber that gathers together representatives of the member states. The political executive, or federal government, has exclusive jurisdiction only in the areas of foreign policy and security, customs and overseas trade relations, currency and the freedom of domestic trade, and the guaranteeing of cohesion. All other fields of political activity can be shared with the member states or be the exclusive prerogative of the latter. Disputes over jurisdiction between the institutions of the federation and those of the member states are decided by the Constitutional Court. In practice, the federal state achieves peace through the disarmament of the member states (centralisation of foreign and security policy and control of the armed forces), the introduction of a single currency (equal distribution of the power to use resources) and the safeguarding, for both member states and citizens, of respect for the law (federal Court of Justice, which acts as a constitutional court and as a court of final jurisdiction). Through the federal structure, it is thus possible to achieve coordinated government of independent political authorities (Kenneth C. Wheare, Federal Government, 1963), particularly in large continental or sub-continental areas. Through the federal region, the federal member-state and the federation of large world regions, this can also be organised on a number of territorial levels, ranging from the level of the local community to that of a world federation. In this way, federalism reconciles and guarantees both unity and pluralism of states.
A world federal state must necessarily be created following a diffusion of democratic states and the participation of the same in the formation of regional (continental or sub-continental) federations. The diversity of peoples — in terms of their historical background, their level of social and economic development and their cultural and religious experiences — renders quite impossible, on the other hand, both the creation and maintenance of a centralised world state, and the development of imperial or hegemonic-type unification processes.
The World Federal State and the Guarantee of Local Government.
By separating and balancing powers, safeguarding cultural differences, and creating efficiency in the administrative and fiscal spheres, the federal system can be viewed as the perfect liberal-democratic regime. In answer to those who fear a negative impact on democracy of the construction of supranational states, it must be pointed out that the federal state, being founded on the principle of subsidiarity, actually renders the institutions more democratic and more visible to citizens. The federal structure makes it possible to achieve maximum decentralisation and at the same time, through fiscal federalism, renders social justice complete. The distributional function of the federal budget (referred to by the expressions revenue sharing and Finanzausgleich) guarantees a solidarity between more and less developed territorial communities that completes the solidarity between social classes and age groups already guaranteed by the welfare state.
On a global level, the plan to transform the United Nations Organisation into a federal world state could become reality were the competencies currently attributed to the Security Council, and to other bodies, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) instead transferred to the federal government. At the same time, the United Nations’ secretariat could be turned into an out-and-out political executive, the Security Council into the High Chamber of great continental or sub-continental federations and the Assembly elected directly by the world’s citizens. Basically, it would be a question of uniting in a global democratic institution only those competencies that relate to the maintenance of international order (if necessary through recourse to constitutionally legitimate force), the government of the single currency and the safeguarding of freedom of trade at world level. All the other competencies of the modern democratic state (domestic security and judicial affairs, environment, health, transport and telecommunications, growth and fiscal policies, for example) could be shared and coordinated flexibly by the different levels of political power (ranging from local to world level), thereby guaranteeing, in accordance with the subsidiarity principle, the greatest possible degree of decentralisation.
Examples of all this can, indeed, be found in current experience. The process of European unification that is under way and the great sub-continental federations that already exist, such as the United States and India, provide clear examples of widespread local government and of flexible, concentrations of power at federal level.
It can be added that, in what is currently a transitory world power situation — a situation in which relations between great powers are characterised by balance rather than by hegemonic tension, and in which conditions favouring peace among states could prevail over conditions generating conflict, as will be the case when the world’s great regional federations are founded — these federations will be characterised by a strong inclination towards decentralisation and will, quite probably, restrict their jurisdiction to external relations, membership of a reformed UN, freedom of trade and their internal fiscal and distributional function.
Nationalism is Opposed to Peace
Overcoming the Principle of National Sovereignty.
What clearly emerges from these considerations is that neither a world state, nor even a regional continental or sub-continental state, can be founded on the principle of national sovereignty. Instead, as we already see in existing federations, it must necessarily be founded on recognition of the pluralistic structure of the population. This pluralism must be expressed at a number of levels: cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious, social-economic, as well as at the level of private associations and of the institutions. What is more, this pluralism, which characterises the social and government structures through which the life of the citizens of federal states is played out, fosters a sense of belonging to a number of different groups, be they of a political and legal nature — one can be a citizen of a town, region, state and federation — or religious, cultural, ethnic and linguistic.
In a global federal state and in continental federations, citizenship structured on several federal levels must be legitimised — in accordance with the excellent formula of “constitutional patriotism”, a term coined by Jürgen Habermas — through respect for the democratic values, including equality among men, that are guaranteed by the laws of the constitution and by local statutes, as well as by a belief in the objectives of peace and justice, including social justice. Such a state must necessarily reject any form of legitimisation that is based on the exclusive membership of its population to a particular ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious or national group, and, respecting constitutionally acknowledged freedoms, must guarantee the rights of all citizens and all organised groups. A foretaste of the pluralistic character of the future world state can be found in the UN Charter (see, too, article 7 of the Amsterdam Treaty on European Union, which assimilates the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms signed in Rome on November 4th, 1950, and the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights proclaimed in Nice on December 7th, 2000).
It is thus necessary to overcome the principle of a population’s exclusive membership of a single nation, ethnic or religious group or faith as a means of legitimising the existence of a state. Such a principle has, fundamentally, a totalitarian character, as shown by the racist extremes of nationalism seen in Europe between the two world wars, which led to the Nazis’ physical elimination of Jews, gypsies, and the mentally and physically handicapped, and latterly by the extremes of ethnic nationalism that have grown up from the ruins of the ex-Soviet Union and the former socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia. Today, the principle of the exclusive sovereignty of the nation-state, which Zionism has inherited from Europe, is preventing Israel, and all those involved in the quest for peace in the Middle East, from entering into a constructive dialogue with the neighbouring Arab states, despite the fact that the latter, as demonstrated by their support for the Saudi peace plan endorsed by the Arab League on March 28th, 2002 in Beirut, seemed initially receptive.
The Initially Progressive and Subsequently Conservative Function of Nationalism.
It was during the French Revolution that the principle of national sovereignty really began to be used to political ends. The republic that, in France, was formed following the deposition of the king and the abandonment of the divine right of kings concept soon found itself battling with a pro-restoration coalition of Europe’s remaining monarchies. At the end of the eighteenth century, democratic legitimisation alone was not enough to mobilise civilians and the military against an external enemy — an enormous undertaking — and ideological evocation of the nation in arms became a necessary expedient. The peculiarity of this national legitimisation in France stands out even more if one considers the fact that, in another historical period and in entirely different conditions as regards external security, the affirmation of democracy in Great Britain did not rely upon recourse to the national principle, and indeed to this day the United Kingdom unites, in the name of loyalty to the Crown, the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. American democracy, likewise, has not had to have recourse to nationalism as a source of its legitimacy; instead, this hinges on the Declaration of Independence and the Philadelphia Constitution, both of which were inspired by principles of equality.
On a historical level, there can be no denying the progressive function that the nation-state, called upon to support the ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood through which the French Revolution opposed the old monarchic and feudal order, initially fulfilled. In the same way, we cannot fail to acknowledge the progressive role played, this time in an endeavour to support the launch of the Industrial Revolution and the modern democratic state beyond the Rhine and south of the Alps, and to overcome a situation of regional political disunity, by the movements for German and Italian unification. In Italy, particularly, the liberal-democratic forces of the time soon realised that the economic and trade freedoms needed to launch industrialisation and sustain the growth of social classes that would support a modern democratic state could only be gained through political unification of the peninsula and independence from Austria. It can thus be argued that the national principle had to become established in Italy and in other European countries in order to overcome the conservatism of the Hapsburg empire.
The period in which the national principle can be seen as a progressive factor came to an end in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the spontaneous forces of the Industrial Revolution began to spread beyond the boundaries of the European nation-state and assume continental and today global dimensions (globalisation). This appraisal is shared by two authors as diverse in background as in political thought: the Bolshevist, Leon Trotsky (Der Krieg und die Internationale, 1914) and the federalist and liberal economist, Luigi Einaudi, who, in 1948, was to become the first president of the Italian republic (La Società delle Nazioni è un ideale possibile?, 1918 and Il dogma della sovranità e l’idea della Società delle Nazioni, 1918). As history has shown, it was not by chance that the close of the nineteenth century was characterised by the United States’ establishment as a great, continental-size democratic and industrial power, and by the emergence of the crisis of the European system of states and the quest, by the same, to obtain “vital space”. This crisis led to World War One and was ended definitively, after the horrors of Nazi fascism had contaminated the whole of mainland Europe, by the Second World War. The fever of nationalism, which hit the peoples of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, reflected the climate of war in the continent, which in turn was prompting all the countries to concentrate their power and to mobilise, on an ideological and military level, all their forces. It can be added that, in the crucial phase of the crisis of the European power system, nationalistic centralism, in its extreme form of Nazism, prolonged the sovereignty agony of Europe’s nation-states.
With the start of the historical phase of supranational economic integration, which coincided with the early part of the twentieth century, the national principle ceased to play a progressive role, and today could certainly no longer be used to legitimise the affirmation of modern democratic states covering entire continental or sub-continental areas. It was not by chance that the process of European unification began after 1945, precisely as a means of overcoming Europe’s division into nation-states, and rested on the general post-war reconciliation, first and foremost, that between France and Germany.
Responsibility for the Rebirth of Nationalism in Eastern Europe and the Balkan States.
But this does not mean that the national principle has definitively run its course. One need only think of the after-effects of the fall of the communist regimes at the end of the bipolar era — a fall that stripped the countries of central-eastern Europe, the ex-Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia of their ideological legitimisation. Communism, when it collapsed, was not rapidly succeeded in the Warsaw Pact area by an alternative political class or by democratic structures capable of legitimising power. From a global viewpoint, the end of the Cold War also meant the end of the confrontation between two universal views of the future organisation of the world — that of the partnership of democratic powers, favoured by the Atlantic Alliance, and that of the communist International, led by Moscow. However, unlike the period following the end of the two world wars, when the League of Nations and the UN were put forward as admittedly imperfect but nevertheless innovative proposals, in the wake of the Cold War, western political thought has not managed to come up with any quantum leap for the construction of a new world order. It must be pointed out that an effort in this direction was made by Gorbachev, who proposed a Common House, but the sudden end to his political career put paid to the project.
The difficulties that the ex-communist states are experiencing as they make the transition to democracy are understandable. The democratic state has never been an established reality in these countries, with the exception, briefly, of Czechoslovakia, where the attempt was undermined by the predominance of Slavic nationals over the German minority in Bohemia and over the Hungarian minority in Slovakia.
Added to this, there has been no development in the former communist countries of the supranational integration that has become so much a part of the civic heritage of the western European peoples over the past half century. What is more, all the relations established by the Warsaw Pact and by the COMECON came under the imperial control of the USSR. The Soviet Union and the socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia were federations only on a superficial level; in reality, the dictatorship of the sole governing party meant that they were centralised. In the Soviet Union, the communist party was dominated by the Russians and Ukrainians, and in Yugoslavia it was under the strict control of the Serbs. Given these premises, it was inevitable that the collapse of the communist regimes would generate the need to find a new source of legitimisation of power. And the emergence of ethnic-national legitimisation, through secession, constituted the picking up of the threads of an old argument left unresolved ever since the collapse, in 1918, of the Austro-Hungarian, German and czarist empires.
Moreover, while it is true that this form of legitimisation failed entirely to take into account the development of the process of unification that was occurring in Europe, it is also true that it was encouraged by active stances (on the part of Germany, Austria and the Vatican) in favour of the secession of Slovenia and Croatia, by the initial support lent to Serbia by France and the United Kingdom, and by Italy’s failure to react. This incoherent behaviour on the part of the western European states highlighted the incompleteness of the process of political unification and the limitations of the European Union’s intergovernmental method of reaching common foreign and security policy (CFSP) decisions. In short, the prevalence of national interests within the EU contributed decisively to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Alongside the responsibility of the west, it is also necessary to recall how the dominant political classes in Slovenia, Croatia, Lithuania and other Baltic republics helped to set in motion the processes of secession. The Slovenian government, in particular, played a key part in triggering the process of disintegration in Yugoslavia, preferring to increase Slovenia’s chances of gaining access to western Europe’s market economy, rather than tackle the problem of democracy throughout the federation, or offer solidarity to the country’s poorer regions through the instrument of fiscal federalism. Similarly, Lithuania’s secession contributed to the dissolution of the USSR rather than its transformation into a true and modern democracy.
With the exception of European federalists, no political movement or association has managed to show the peoples of the ex-Soviet Union and the former socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia that the road to democracy and membership of the global market is not that of self-determination inspired by ethnic nationalism. The western political system did not succeed in showing the USSR the road of democratic internal federalism, or Yugoslavia how to gain access to the European Union while at the same time preserving the country’s unity. Symptomatic of all this is the fact that, at the end of 1991, while the Maastricht European Council was approving the Treaty on European Union, the Soviet Union was dissolving into the unstable Confederation of Independent States and the secession of Slovenia had already set the ex-Yugoslavia on the road to its tragic disintegration.
The Dark Consequences of Ethnic Nationalism in the Balkans.
Overall, the result of this rebirth of nationalism cannot be regarded as anything other than totally negative, a chain whose final links were Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which triggered the NATO military intervention of 1999, and the secessionist follow-on actions of the Albanian minority in Macedonia in 2001. And Serbia is not the only country to stand accused. The newly-formed ethnic states lost no time at all in seeking to oppress the minority groups within their borders. The Baltic states in the former USSR began denying Russian and Polish residents political rights, and Georgians and Azerbaijani started to pursue, respectively, Ossets and Armenians. In the former socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia’s suppression of the autonomy of the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina in 1989 prompted Slovenia’s demand for secession. And Slovenian ethnic separatism paved the way for Croatian and Macedonian ethnic separatism, for ethnic cleansing of Serbs, by Croats, in Zadar and in Krajina, for the oppression of Bosnian Moslems by Croatians and Serbs, and so on, in a trail of massacres that extended to Kosovo and Macedonia.
The destabilisation of the Balkans left the Serbs trapped in a spiral of blind and intolerant nationalism and in their support of a group of corrupt ex-communists that formed around Milosevic. The story was not much different elsewhere. When not expressions of local crime linked to contraband and drug trafficking (for example, the UCK), the new republics’ governing parties were inspired, initially, by the former fascist movement of Ustashi (Croatia) or by Islamism (Bosnia). The destabilisation of the region favoured political centralisation and authoritarianism within newly formed and unstable states and, finally, triggered an international conflict over the problem of Kosovo.
It must be clearly underlined that in central-eastern Europe, outside the former socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia, only the prospect of membership of the European Union conditioned the new regimes, blocking at birth their internal ethnic cleansing programmes and conflicts over doubtful territorial claims: one need only think of the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Romania and Vojvodina, the Polish and Russian minorities in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The separation of Prague (Czech republic) and Bratislava (Slovakian republic) was decided by agreement and without bloodshed, partly because this was the only way both countries could keep alive their hopes of joining the European Union.
Clarification of the Terms Self-Determination and Self-Government
The Reactionary Nature of Self-Determination.
The term self-determination is generally used in reference to a political action whose aim is the creation, through secession from an existing state entity, of a new independent sovereign state, which has its own armed forces and currency, and whose legitimacy is based on the principle of the ethnic, national or religious group. Self-determination originated with the proposals that US president Thomas Woodrow Wilson advanced, after the First World War and in the wake of the collapse of the central European empires, as a means of restoring European political order on the basis of the national principle.
Wilson’s self-determination design was completed through the creation of the League of Nations, conceived not as a federal-type organisation, but as an international coordinating body whose task was to straighten out the power crisis in Europe. But in the absence of a supranational government, application of the principle of self-determination did nothing to help resolve the problems of peace and development in Europe, as the events of the twentieth century so dramatically demonstrated, but instead aggravated the political and economic fragmentation of Europe, accentuating border disputes, the oppression of minority groups, centralism and militarism, protectionism and international anarchy generally.
Subsequently, self-determination was invoked more successfully in support of the independence claims connected with decolonisation, and those advanced by ethnic or national minorities who enjoyed no or very little recognition of their rights. In this regard, we can cite some separatist claims that are still active, in the Basque provinces and in Quebec (where a recent referendum rejected the idea of secession), as well as in other parts of the world, such as Jammu and Kashmir, Tibet, and Kurdistan. These trends towards political fragmentation of the world, trends that find expression even within democratic countries, such as Spain, Italy, Canada and India, must be opposed and defeated, because they are not the way to defend the rights of individuals and oppressed minorities, they do not promote the affirmation of peace in international relations and in relations between individuals and social groups, and they are one of the causes of the crumbling of international order.
Referring specifically to the application of the principle of self-determination in the former socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia and in the ex-USSR, the setting in motion of the processes of secession has done nothing other than upset the civil existence of the populations affected, generate wars, grief, hatred and ruin, and jeopardise the affirmation of peace and democracy in two internationally sensitive areas. It must also be made clear that the international community’s recognition of the mono-ethnic states born from the ashes of the former socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union only favours these fragmentary trends.
Self-determination is, ultimately, an undemocratic and reactionary political principle, which threatens global order and the coexistence of peoples, prevents the affirmation of the world market and the development of the forces of production, and opposes the development of federalism.
The Democratic Principle of Self-Government.
Unlike self-determination, the concept of self-government is part of the framework of democracy. It is concerned with the protection of interests and autochthonous cultures of local regions and communities but does not undermine the unity of the state or the pluralistic make-up of society. Self-government is based on the principle of subsidiarity, on the democratic sovereignty of the electorate, on freedom of association among citizens and freedom of union among territorial institutions, and on the supremacy of constitutional law. A dynamic mechanism, it allows the political-institutional structures best suited to the different problems facing society to be identified. In the context of the application of the subsidiarity principle, self-government can be practised in the ambit of decentralised or federal states. As a rule, the constitutional laws of such states are flexible enough to allow the jurisdiction of a political decision-making centre to be horizontally extended or reduced (depending on whether the citizens wish to add to or reduce the spheres of intervention of a municipality, region or state), or vertically transferred between different levels of political authority (in instances when it is deemed appropriate to transfer jurisdiction for something to a higher, or lower, political authority). A concrete and recent example of access to self-government was the Nanavut region in northern Canada, inhabited by Inuit Eskimos. On April 1st 1999, this region won administrative independence from the federal government of Ottawa in the areas of education, health, social services and cultural and residential policy. An even more significant example has been the devolution programme carried out in the United Kingdom, where autonomy has been granted to Wales and Scotland, which on May 6th 1999 respectively elected their own assembly and parliament.
It is also worth recalling that it is the process of European integration that has strengthened the institutions of decentralised democratic government within Europe’s nation-states, and also helped in the overcoming of problems relating to the presence of national minority groups in certain border areas, such as South Tyrol — a prevalently German-speaking Austrian province that was acquired by Italy after the First World War. The easing of these difficulties has been favoured by the loosening of the borders separating EU member states and by the birth, upon the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty, of a common European citizenship.
Self-government, then, is a political concept based on the typically federalist principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, cooperation and coordination — and it is federalism that renders possible the building of mankind’s political unity, from local community to global level, in peace and in respect for the law, through the exercising of the sovereign democratic power of the citizen at various levels of organised political power.
The history of mankind is the history of the evolution of power relations between peoples and social groups. The spread of the democratic method of regulating these relationships, through universal suffrage, began only a few centuries ago. Today, there are still many examples in the world of hegemonic or imperial relationships, of a political, cultural religious and social-economic nature. What we should be asking ourselves, however, is whether secession sanctioned by the principle of self-determination constitutes the right way of overcoming these relationships, or whether the priority should, instead, be to promote the spread of democracy and the rule of law, and thus to launch the process of supranational unification in areas where this has not already been done. In concrete terms, should we be favouring the independence of Tibet and Chechnya, or fighting for the full affirmation of democracy and human rights throughout China and Russia; should we be supporting self-determination in Kashmir, or working for a reconciliation between India and Pakistan — the kind of reconciliation brought about in Europe between France and Germany — and the foundation of a federal state in southern Asia that could be extended, for example, to Bangladesh and Nepal? Should we allow Israel to remain a besieged state, constantly struggling to repress the Arab-Palestine revolt prompted by its effort to find “vital space” on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, or instead encourage it to play a vital role in a process of peace and civil, social and economic emancipation (within the framework of the creation, supported externally by the European Union and the United States of America, of a federal union of middle eastern states)? What is the point of promoting self-determination in Tibet, Chechnya, Kurdistan or Kosovo when, leaving aside the question of whether such processes could even be peacefully managed, the outcome would only be the formation of yet more states incapable of guaranteeing their people democracy and economic development? Has the self-determination carried out in the ex-USSR and in the former socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia helped the world to travel further along the road to peace, or instead set it on the pathway towards war and political disunity?
In reply to these questions, the focus of a coherent and gradualist strategy would have to be the launching of processes of social and economic expansion and the spread of democracy in the world, starting with regions inhabited by minority groups that currently do not enjoy the right of freedom of cultural expression and self-government. If this is the direction in which we wish to move, the priority must be to complete the federal building process in Europe, because this would certainly help to trigger other regional integration processes and favour the development of democracy within regions such as China, and the Islamic world, currently pervaded by fundamentalism.
It must certainly be acknowledged that the fight for self-determination has, in the past and because of the presence of imperial relations, in certain circumstances played a progressive role. The United States of America would never have been founded had it not entered into a struggle for democracy (“no taxation without representation”) against the fiscal power of the English Crown (1775) and without the Declaration of Independence (1776) of the thirteen colonies, which was followed by the War of Independence. Independence was, subsequently, at the heart of the Philadelphia Convention and underlay the affirmation of a democratic state model without doubt far more advanced than that which the English Crown might, at best, have been able to guarantee the north American colonies, and that which it subsequently guaranteed its own subjects in England. That said, the fight for democracy and for the political representation of the north American colonies in Westminster did come up against objective difficulties of a geographical nature. At that time (Obstat natura, as Edmund Burke put it), the Atlantic constituted a difficult barrier to cross.
That this was, however, an exception, is a truth demonstrated by the revolt of the southern slave states that prompted the call for secession and the American Civil War. The president at the time, Lincoln, defended the federal union, a legitimate stance given that the union was not founded on an imperial mechanism, but on racial equality, democratic government and the preservation of peace. Lincoln’s comment that anarchy is the idea at the heart of secession is politically valid today, given that efforts to achieve supranational integration (which in Europe’s case explicitly embrace also the objective of political unification) and forces of disintegration are both active in Europe, and elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, in view of the threat of a spread of weapons of mass destruction that hangs over mankind, a risk certainly exacerbated by the international disorder prompted by the end of the bipolar era, it is clearly necessary to favour processes of supranational political unification, in order to ensure peace and the responsible government of vast areas of the world, and in order to prevent the political fragmentation of mankind, a trend that opposes the growth of interdependence generated by the current processes of globalisation.