Self-Determination - The wilsonian response: principles and practice

President Wilson was now in possession of two totally divergent views on self-determination. Whereas Trotsky had pushed the principle to its limits, advocating that all peoples, not just a selected list, be liberated from foreign rule, Secretary Lansing had drawn his sword against Trotsky and negated the usefulness of self-determination in settling world issues. He insisted that if the present political and social order was to be preserved, then the principle of the legal sovereignty of constituted states must take precedence over any consideration of the popular will of minorities.

The president was at odds with both points of view. At the core of his belief, self-determination meant the moral necessity of government by consent of the governed. Self-determination was to Wilson almost another word for popular sovereignty; vox populi was vox dei. Rousseau's "general will" was for him not merely ideal will, but the actual will of the people, which had only to be freed from the ill will of autocratic governments for its innate goodness to be manifested. The idealization of democracy was an essential part of Wilsonian ideology. Firmly convinced of the goodness of the people's will, he believed in the possibility of building a new and better international order on the basis of national sovereignty, in which he assumed the democratic will of the people to be embodied.

To put it in another way, Wilson's belief in the goodness and power of world opinion, which might be termed the general will of humanity, and its identity with the general will of every democratic nation, enabled him to hold the view that the self-determination of nations and national sovereignty was a possible basis—indeed, the only basis—of world peace. The president never conceived of these principles as divided or as being applied separately. He had concluded that the primary cause of aggression by one state against another was a desire for territorial and economic security in the absence of international political security. The hallmark of this lack of international security was the bipolar alliance system that operated in an atmosphere of struggle for the elusive balance of power. This being the case, the president reasoned, if national security could be restored to the various states, then the motive for political and economic aggression would be removed from international politics. Wilson believed that an international organization of states, through the common resources of a community of power, would provide the required security. Once states adjusted to operating for the common welfare of humankind, without resorting to the exploitation of one state by another, then the existing inequities regarding points of sovereignty could be resolved by an international organization based on the principle that government must be with the consent of the governed. This was Wilson's long-range view of the application of self-determination. Even before the United States entered the war, he had come to regard the League of Nations as central to his thought.

Nevertheless, the day after receiving Lansing's letter opposing the Bolsheviks, President Wilson revealed, in a conversation with the retiring British ambassador, that while he sympathized with the Bolshevik desire to settle the war on the basis of self-determination, he was also deeply influenced by the views of his secretary of state: "In point of logic, of pure logic, this principle which was good in itself would lead to the complete independence of various small nationalities now forming part of various empires. Pushed to its extreme, the principle would mean the disruption of existing governments, to an indefinable degree." Wilson's introduction to his Fourteen Points speech appeared to be a direct answer to the challenge presented by the German-Russian negotiations then being conducted at Brest-Litovsk. His deep concern with Russia's plight seems apparent from a reading of his eloquent passages concerning that nation. Apparently seeking to impress both the ruler and the ruled, he did not call for the overthrow of Bolshevik power as a condition for renewed cooperation. Moreover, fully resolved to continue the crusade regardless of all suggestions for a negotiated peace, Wilson refused to abandon Russia's borderland to the tortured interpretation of self-determination put forth by the Central Powers. Thus, the sixth of the Fourteen Points called for an evacuation of all Russian territory and the adoption of diplomacy by all other nations of the world, of actions that would permit an unhampered and unembarrassed opportunity for Russia's independent self-determination under institutions of its free choosing.

Even though the United States later, under tremendous pressure from the Allies, participated in expeditions to Siberia and northern Russia, Wilson justified these departures from his clearly enunciated principles on the ground that he was seeking to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia and the ultimate right of self-determination for its people, while at the same time "rescuing" the Czech legion presumably trapped in Russia and preserving the Open Door policy in the Russian Far East and northern Manchuria against suspected Japanese imperialism. But perhaps even more important, he was seeking to retain the goodwill of the Allies, whose support was vital to the success of a League of Nations, the capstone of his Fourteen Points. Thus, to block Japan and further the league, Wilson followed a policy that appeared to be totally at variance not only with the principle of self-determination, but also with the principles of his proposed league. Wilson, above all the man of principle, found himself caught, as had the nation itself many times since its inception, in a debatable situation where, despite deep convictions, none of his principles could be rigorously applied.

Wilson was in a somewhat similar quandary in relation to the tenth point, concerning Austria-Hungary. From the U.S. entry into the war, he had disapproved of the dismemberment of the Dual Monarchy. In doing so he hoped to divide Vienna and Berlin by strengthening those elements in Austria-Hungary that favored an early negotiated peace. Although sympathetic to the desires for self-determination of the oppressed nationalities within the empire, he could not accept "the extreme logic of this discontent which would be the dismemberment of Austria Hungary." Thus, in the tenth point Wilson stopped short of a clear-cut endorsement of independence by placing his emphasis on providing the peoples of Austria-Hungary with the free opportunity for "autonomous development" within a Danubian Confederation of States.

In January 1918, Wilson had reason to believe that such a policy might still keep open the door to a negotiated peace with Austria-Hungary. However, subsequent events, especially Czech belligerency against the Germans in Russia and the failure of his efforts to negotiate a separate peace with Austria-Hungary, led Wilson to give up his dream for a Danubian Confederation and support an independent Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, it should be noted that although Lansing and the State Department had presented strong arguments for the recognition of Czech independence on the basis of ethnicity, language, and shared historical experience, Wilson would accept none of these. It was only Czech belligerency in Russia against Germany that provided the rationale for his recognition of the de facto independence of Czechoslovakia.

Curiously, the first of Wilson's territorial points dealt with the colonial problem. Here the president very cautiously advocated "a free, openminded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims." Regardless of how broad or narrow the interpretation of "colonial claims," Wilson insisted that their settlement be based upon the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty, the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the governments whose title was to be determined. Lansing's caution surely had an effect. Once again, the president appeared, perhaps without realizing it, to be seeking some reconciliation of the historic conflict of principles.

An examination of the remainder of Wilson's points on self-determination reveals that only in the case of Poland did the president offer an outright and unqualified commitment to independence. The thirteenth point, then, contrasted sharply with Wilson's application of the self-determination principle in the preceding seven points. It must have been evident to Wilson that the national and language conflicts destined to emerge with the rebirth of Poland were likely to be intense. It is therefore noteworthy that Poland was given specific political and economic guarantees. First, Wilson publicly proclaimed Poland to be in need of a "free and secure access to the seas." Second, this economic and strategic safeguard was further supplemented by Wilson's proposal that Poland's "political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant." His thirteenth point, which gave an international guarantee for the independence of Poland, might be looked upon as the link to the fourteenth point, which called for the establishment of the League of Nations.

Although millions rallied to the idea of a League of Nations as the essential guarantee for a perpetual peace, Wilson—without even mentioning peace—chartered an association of nations in order to secure "mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity." Peace was the ultimate objective, but the immediate function of the league was the preservation of the territorial arrangements that would emerge from the peace conference. The association of nations was meant to be a sort of midwife to nations about to be born; it would help them pass from the precarious stage of infancy through adolescence, to full maturity in a new "community of power."

Even the president himself possibly did not realize the full significance of the explosive principle that he had done so much to set in motion. Certainly a fundamental weakness of Wilson's ideas was his failure to realize how indeterminate a criterion nationality might be, and how little assistance it might sometimes give in deciding actual frontiers. Moreover, although he had spoken of self-determination as though it were an absolute principle of international right, from the very beginning he perforce allowed competing principles to influence his decisions and derogate from its claims. Yet by and large the peace conference of 1918 proceeded on the theory that, insofar as possible, boundaries should be readjusted by balancing the principle of national self-determination against other factors. The new boundaries would then be guaranteed against forcible change.

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