Betty Miller Unterberger

The principle of self-determination refers to the right of a people to determine its own political destiny. Beyond this broad definition, however, no legal criteria determine which groups may legitimately claim this right in particular cases. The right to self-determination has become one of the most complex issues facing policymakers in the United States and the international community at large. At the close of the twentieth century, it could mean the right of people to choose their form of government within existing borders or by achieving independence from a colonial power. It could mean the right of an ethnic, linguistic, or religious group to redefine existing national borders to achieve a separate national sovereignty or simply to achieve a greater degree of autonomy and linguistic or religious identity within a sovereign state. It could even mean the right of a political unit within a federal system such as Canada, Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union, or the former Yugoslavia to secede from the federation and become an independent sovereign state.

Self-determination is a concept that can be traced back to the beginning of government. The right has always been cherished by all peoples, although history has a long record of its denial to the weak by the strong. Both the Greek city-states and the earlier Mesopotamian ones were jealous of their right to self-determination. Yet to the Greeks, non-Greeks were barbarians, born to serve them and the object of conquest if they refused to submit. The development of modern states in Europe and the rise of popular national consciousness enhanced the status of self-determination as a political principle, but it was not until the period of World War I that the right of national independence came to be known as the principle of national self-determination. In general terms, it was simply the belief that each nation had a right to constitute an independent state and to determine its own government.

The historian Alfred Cobban has said that not every kind of national revolt can be included under the description of self-determination. The movement for national independence, or self-determination, falls into the same category as utilitarianism, communism, or Jeffersonian democracy. It is a theory, a principle, or an idea, and no simple, unconscious national movement can be identified with it. Struggles like the rising of the French under the inspiration of Joan of Arc or the Hussite Wars are fundamentally different from the national movements of the last two hundred years because of the absence of a theory of national self-determination, which could appear only in the presence of a democratic ideology.


Bailey, Thomas A. Woodrow Wilson and the Lost Peace. New York, 1944. Contains a scholarly analysis of the implementation of Wilson's concept of self-determination.

Balzer, Harley D., ed. Five Years that Shook the World: Gorbachev's Unfinished Revolution. Boulder, Colo., 1991.

Barbour, Walworth. "The Concept of Self-Determination in American Thought." Department of State Bulletin 31 (1954). Presents an official view.

Barker, Sir Ernest. National Character and the Factors in Its Formation. London, 1948. A classic work originally published in 1927.

Birdsall, Paul. Versailles Twenty Years After. New York, 1941. Presents a "realistic" view of Wilson's efforts to implement the concept of self-determination at the Paris Peace Conference.

Carley, Patricia. U.S. Responses to Self-Determination Movements. Washington, D.C., 1997. A report of a roundtable by the United States Institute of Peace and the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State on strategies for nonviolent outcomes and alternatives to secession.

Cassese, Antonio. Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal. Cambridge and New York, 1995. A comprehensive legal account of the concept of self-determination.

Cobban, Alfred. The Nation State and National Self-Determination. New York, 1969. Presents the most nearly definitive history and political analysis of the general concept of national self-determination by means of a pragmatic approach.

Diesing, Paul. "National Self-Determination and U.S. Foreign Policy." Ethics 77 (1967). A provocative ethical analysis.

Eagleton, Clyde. "The Excesses of Self-Determination." Foreign Affairs 31 (1953). An excellent analysis of problems presented by the attempt to apply the concept of self-determination in the post–World War II period.

Emerson, Rupert. Self-Determination Revisited in the Era of Decolonization. Cambridge, Mass., 1964. A good synthesis, containing a fresh examination in a new nation-forming setting.

Gerson, Louis L. The Hyphenate in Recent American Politics and Diplomacy. Lawrence, Kans., 1964. Especially helpful on the role of East European hyphenates in promoting self-determination during the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations.

Halperin, Morton H., and David J. Scheffer. Self-Determination in the New World Order. Washington, D.C., 1992. Reviews U.S. and international claims during and after the Cold War.

Jessup, Philip C. "Self-Determination Today in Principle and in Practice." Virginia Quarterly Review 33 (1957). An evaluation by a first-rate scholar of international law.

Johnson, Harold S. Self-Determination within the Community of Nations. Leiden, Netherlands, 1967. Presents a careful analysis of conflicting interpretations of the great powers.

Lansing, Robert. The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative. Boston and New York, 1921. Important for an understanding of Lansing's criticisms of national self-determination.

Link, Arthur S. Woodrow Wilson: Revolution, War, and Peace. Arlington Heights, Ill., 1979. Necessary for an appreciation of how Wilson's principles influenced his foreign policy.

May, Arthur James. Contemporary American Opinion of the Mid-Century Revolutions in Central Europe. Philadelphia, 1927. Essential for the mid-nineteenth-century outlook.

Mayer, Arno J. Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918–1919. New York, 1967. Provides vital background for the Wilsonian position.

Musgrave, Thomas D. Self Determination and National Minorities. New York, 1997. Examines the historic and current status of self-determination in international law.

Sherwood, Robert E. Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History. Rev. ed. New York, 1950. Presents a glimpse of Roosevelt's efforts to secure support for self-determination from both Churchill and Stalin.

Shukri, Muhammad Aziz. The Concept of Self-Determination in the United Nations. Damascus, Syria, 1965. A scholarly study analyzing the attitudes of major powers.

Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the World Wide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994. Emphasizes the role of the Wilsonian concept of self-determination in the twentieth century.

Unterberger, Betty Miller. "The United States and National Self-Determination: A Wilsonian Perspective." Presidential Studies Quarterly 26 (fall 1996): 926–942.

——. The United States, Revolutionary Russia, and the Rise of Czechoslovakia. College Station, Tex., 2000. Traces President Wilson's efforts to implement his concept of self-determination toward Austria-Hungary and Russia.

Wambaugh, Sarah. A Monograph on Plebiscites, with a Collection of Official Documents. New York, 1920. A classic work with an excellent introductory chapter on self-determination.

——. Plebiscites Since the World War, with a Collection of Official Documents. Washington, D.C., 1933. Presents a historical summary on matters of self-determination covering the years from 1914 to 1933.

See also Anti-Imperialism ; Human Rights ; Imperialism ; Intervention and Nonintervention ; Realism and Idealism ; Revolution ; Wilsonianism .

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