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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter five. The right to self-determination

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1We now pass to the first group of considerations usually adduced in favor of nationalism. They are narrowly state-oriented, using political and legal concepts, and concentrating more upon matters of state than on matters of culture and identity. At their heart is the claim of the ethno-nation to acquire, develop, and rule the state which it sees as its rightful property. Even very moderate nationalists prefer statehood:

It is indeed true that a people can have a sense of nation without having a nation, but what is also true is that this national consciousness, and the identities that go with it, are, under modern conditions, only secure when people with these national identities have control of the conditions of their existence by having the power that goes with having one’s own state: a state which protects and actively furthers these national aspirations. Cultural or multi-national states have not worked very well. They have not been protecting, to say nothing of enhancing, the social identities of their diverse cultures. (Nielsen, 1993, 32)

2I hasten to add that Nielsen is a very moderate and atypical nationalist: he even describes himself as a ‘cosmopolitan nationalist’. With tougher and more typical nationalists, the underlying conception is that of a ‘state-fortress’, the fully sovereign state, recalcitrant to external influences. How far the ‘rightful property’ aspect can go depends upon circumstances. Traditionally, national states have tended to homogenize their population by all means. In recent times, newly formed states of this kind have shown considerable readiness to follow the tradition: many have denied elementary citizenship rights to at least some inhabitants, at least unofficially, and some have gone so far as to do this officially, invoking the alleged dangers that the minorities in question present to the fledgling unity of the nation. (The appeal to such dangers makes one wonder whether the majoritarian community is really as united, and as dedicated to its own culture, as the nationalist claims: if it were, why would the mere presence of a cultural minority be seen as endangering its very existence?) In well-established states the nationalist argument turns around the preservation of its national ‘purity’ and full independence, or, using a more moderate vocabulary, preservation of its recognizable profile. Of course, some pro-nationalist authors settle for less—some kind of autonomy or home rule— but regard it as a somewhat abnormal second-best solution (see, for instance, the papers by Huw Thomas and Joxeramon Bengoetxea in Twining, 1991). Also, self-determination is not reserved for ethno-national groups, but is only particularly prominent in connection with them.


3The issue of self-determination is very often the main point of contention in the political debate about nationalism. The reason is clear: nationalistic politics is primarily geared to the ethno-national state, and the right to acquire and run a state is fundamental for aspiring nationalists. In the legal context, one talks about external rights—that is, the rights of the ethno-national unit in respect to other units—and internal rights (that is, the right to organize and run the internal matters of the unit). The main issue here is external rights.

4In order to make the discussion more lively (without burdening it with disagreements on actual political details) let me develop our fiction about the country of Lavinia (see chapter two). Imagine that, before acquiring an independent state, Lavinians were living within the great Carpathian Empire together with other autochthonous ethnic groups, each speaking their own language, some of them dominated by the imperial group of ethnic Carpathians, some more independent. Let us focus upon two groups of different standing within the Empire. The first are Lavinians; they were accorded a right to their own, somewhat meager cultural life (elementary schools, local choirs and folklore bands, a few newspapers of low quality), within a cultural/religious community. However, the official language in Lavinian territory was Carpathian: all university teaching was in Carpathian, as well as the TV and radio programs; a young upstart Lavinian had to speak Carpathian fluently in order to succeed, so that ethnic Carpathian youths had a much greater chance of serious political, cultural, and business careers than those of any other group. A second group, the Illyrians, had much better conditions within the Empire: they enjoyed a kind of cultural autonomy as regards language, teaching at all levels—including university level—their own high-quality media, and so on. Usually, Lavinians and Illyrians would react to a particular Carpathian measure—for instance, introducing tougher exams in Carpathian for state officials, or demanding that Lavinians give up some custom important to them but considered offensive by many Carpathians. The play of action and reaction in which the stakes are constantly being raised can lead to demands for greater autonomy or even for one’s own state. “We Lavinians have a right to determine our own future and decide our political destiny”, some of them would claim.

  • 1 To use the helpful analogy proposed by D. Gauthier (1994).

5This issue of self-determination can arise for both groups: for relatively discriminated-against Lavinians and for more fairly treated Illyrians. Does either group have the right to self-determination, even to the extent of creating its own state, and on what grounds? If Illyrians just decided that they simply did not want to live with the others, would that be enough to grant them the right to secede, given that no (major) injustice has been done to them? Is the ‘simple expression of their wish’ sufficient to give them the right to a state? Should separation be like a civil divorce?1

6Let me give the floor to our even-handed nationalist, John the Lavinian (see chapter two). His task will be to summarize for us the main points of the nationalist argument(s) as found in the literature. Here is what he would have to say:

Let me start my defense of nationalism with the line that most often comes to mind first when speaking of new nations, that is, the one appealing to the right of self-determination. The right has been enshrined in the important documents of the international community, starting from the United Nations General Assembly Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (1960) which states in the Preamble (para. 2) that “all peoples have a right to self-determination”. I take it that “all” means all, and that Illyrians as well as my own Lavinians would have the right to secede from the Empire under the terms of the Declaration. We Lavinians are a people, a nation, and we have a right to form a state if we choose to. This right depends upon nothing other than our thoughtful decision. If a majority of Lavinians decide to have a state, then we should be allowed to secede. Of course, we are going to respect the rights of minorities living on our soil, but with this proviso we need not ask permission from the central government of Carpathia in order to divorce them. Unfortunately, it is true that legal documents are ambiguous about the ground and scope of this right. The Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations of 1970 explicitly denies that the right “shall be construed as authorizing or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States” (quoted in Hanum, 1990, 35). However, the tendency to interpret the right more literally is gaining momentum with the events in the former Yugoslavia and with the dissolution of the USSR. The peaceful secession of Slovenia and the Baltic countries persuaded the lawyers to give in, and they were finally acknowledged as sovereign states.

7To return to my Lavinians and their right to self-determination, we should distinguish two kinds of considerations: the general right of Lavinians to decide, and the injustice that is being done to them. Strictly speaking, the first issue is independent of the second, and should be separated from it for the purpose of impartial evaluation. I submit they have the right on both counts: first a general one, based on the value of community, plus the will to acquire independence; and secondly, a more particular one, as a remedy for the injustice suffered. After all, people have a right to self-defense, and the collective right to self-defense is the same right, extended to a people.

  • 2 I was unable to find many examples of the pure variant in the literature. Nielsen comes close to i (...)

8As for Illyrians, if they want to secede they may do so, in spite of the fact that they cannot point to any injustice being done to them. Their life in the state is like life in a marriage: once you have had enough of it, you can walk out without having to justify yourself. The important ground is the autonomous will of the ethnic community.2 In short, the right to secession is a primary right, not just a remedy for injustice (a remedial right), as anti-nationalists often put it.

9Of course, I am aware that self-determination does not justify all the claims I want to propose. In particular, many writers assume that the right to self-determination flows from the free choice of a people, not from the value of the national community itself. It would thus be dependent upon choices of individuals, and not capable of dictating the choices in question. Well, I can go along with the assumption for the sake of argument, but I think that the value of community does play a role: the mere wish of an ad hoc group, united only by some short-term common interest, does not have the same weight as the will of a homogeneous community, which needs a territory to survive, fighting for its autonomy. Thus, although the right to self-determination does not justify all of my claims (the obligation of each people to have a state, duties of individuals towards their people), it fits nicely with them in a harmonious and meaningful whole.


10It is good to remind ourselves of the uncertainties—practical, moral, and legal—related to the right to self-determination and of the legal limitations built into it. To start with the legal aspect, our ethno-nationalist has to interpret the right in a particular and very strong sense, if he wants to use it for his own purposes. First, as to the scope, the right has to be interpreted as a right to secede. Secondly, as to the subject, it has to be the ethno-nation, in contrast to, say, a merely territorial unit (northern Italy would not qualify), or merely a community of belief (a large Amish community would not qualify either). Thirdly, as to the ground, it is either the value of community or the (democratic) will of the majority of the members of the ethnic community in question, as illustrated by our Illyrians (consequently, the seceding community may exercise its right even if no glaring injustice is being committed against it—no systematic harassment of its members and the like).

11The existing legal sources give no support to such a strong interpretation. Historically, they have been geared to a more territorial view of what a subject of the right is: in supporting decolonization, they have given their assent to the secession of territorially distinct entities, geographically separate from their metropolises. They were never officially interpreted as permitting the reshaping of sovereign, basically democratic states. The war in the former Yugoslavia and the dissolution of the USSR have created enormous pressure towards redefining the right, and it is now in the process of being redefined. We can represent the state of the debate by putting together three claims concerning self-determination which are often asserted together, even in official documents, such as those of the UN:

  1. All peoples have a right to self-determination.
  2. Self-determination involves secession, that is, a change of state boundaries.
  3. State boundaries must not be changed.

12Principles (1) and (3) have been enshrined in the documents of the international community; claim (2) is a conceptual claim about what self-determination is. Obviously, once (2) is accepted, the first two principles are difficult to reconcile. Many authors have warned about the practical confusion this difficulty engenders. To give just one example, The Report of the International Commission on the Balkans (under the presidency of Leo Tindenmans), entitled Unfinished Peace, identifies the conflict between the right to self-determination (principle 1) and the principle of the inviolability of state borders (principle 3) as one of the most important issues of the ‘unfinished peace’ in the region, and stresses the unacceptability of the nationalist interpretation of the right in question. (For an extended and principled debate, see Orentlicher, 1998.)

13There are several principled solutions to the problem. Our nationalist John has proposed acceptance of the right to self-determination (that is, principle 1), including secession (that is, principle 2), and jettisoning inviolability. The long-standing practice of the international community has been to reject principle (2) and to reinterpret the right to self-determination, so as not to involve secession and thereby the changing of state boundaries. The most radical anti-nationalist solution would be to accept principle (2), and then to reject the right to self-determination in favor of the inviolability of state borders (principle 3). Apart from the three principled possibilities, there are also variants allowing for massive exceptions. For instance, some jurists have argued that secession of federal units (say, Slovenia from Yugoslavia) does not ‘really’ violate state borders; this amounts to reinterpreting the principle of inviolability by redefining what counts as a state border.

14One clear guideline that emerges from the debate is that exceptions to principle (3) should be made and that the right should be granted to communities—not necessarily only ethno-national ones—which are either living within a harshly undemocratic state, or are under a direct threat which involves violation of basic human rights. This is a far cry from what the nationalist needs (nevertheless, we shall dedicate the whole of chapter six to this under the title of ‘self-defense’). Moreover, the debate about reinterpretation of the right is itself being held partly in terms of moral and general philosophical reasons for and against. It is fair to say that there is no legal consensus from which the nationalist could justify his conclusions: the right to self-determination in the strong sense needed by the nationalist is not an established right from which he could argue, but an extremely problematic principle, which itself stands in need of justification. Buchanan rightly notes that a generalized right to self-determination “denies the legitimacy of any state containing more than one culture (unless all ‘peoples’ within it freely waive their right to their own states)” (Buchanan, 1991a, 588). The nationalist’s claim, jettisoning inviolability in order to save self-determination-cum-secession, is indeed strong, and its justification should be practical and moral.

15However, a general practical justification for the nationalist formula, that is, self-determination-cum-secession minus inviolability, is not to be had. Many authors—most notably Gellner and Buchanan—have pointed out the practical impossibility of accommodating all existing ethnic groups—according to some estimates, there are more than five thousand of them. According to Gellner, “it follows that a territorial political unit can only become ethnically homogeneous, in such cases, if it either kills, or expels, or assimilates all non-nationals” (Gellner, 1983, 2). The argument is used by many anti-nationalists (prominently by Buchanan, 1991b, 329). But sheer number is only one problem. The next is the ‘Russian doll’ phenomenon: ethno-national groups, the usual candidates for breaking up, often share the same territory or part of it: a Carpathian majority encompasses a Lavinian minority, which encompasses another Carpathian minority, which itself has some Lavinian individuals on its territory. How do you disentangle them?

16Some philosophical defenders of nationalism, sensitive to the plight of internal minorities—most recently Miller (1998, 276ff)—go to great lengths to deal with the issue of what to do with them; they end up justifying the ‘exchange of populations’. Miller himself recommends it only in extreme cases, but notes the positive effect of such events upon the ‘sense of national identity’, using the example of Greece; he forgets to add that this sense, acquired on the basis of brutal cleansing, has resulted in a hundred years of xenophobic nationalist zeal that has made Greece the moral pariah of the European Community, often harshly criticized by other members for its nationalism. In general, the nationalist has to face the reluctance of most people to leave their homes just because nationalists think they should, and are constrained to use threats, if not downright violence. Exchange therefore often degenerates into a somewhat milder form of ethnic cleansing.

17What the generalized right to unconditional ethnic self-determination promises is just blood, sweat, and tears without end and without glory. Even in the case of oppressed groups one should be cautious: given the omnipresence of internal minorities, the nationalism of the oppressed asking for secession often threatens to become as ugly as that of the oppressors. We shall discuss this point further in chapter six.

18Let us briefly return to the impossibility of granting a state to every ethnic group. Pro-nationalists (for example, Oldenquist, 1997) point out that not all potential candidates will enter their claims (a good analogy is banks and savings; normally, all savers do not seek to withdraw their money on the same day). This is unacceptable on normative grounds for the following reasons: first, by his own views, they should do so, having a duty to preserve their national identity. Secondly, a generalized prescription cannot be defended by appealing to the possibility that it will not be obeyed. However, the reply might be factually adequate, in the sense that not many minority groups nowadays demand secession out of the blue. Then, however, a new—this time factual—question arises: Why don’t ethno-national groups rush to embrace secession if having an ethno-national state is so paramount for them, in the view of the nationalist? A plausible answer is that most people don’t care, and secondly, that members of a minority start caring only when they feel they have been discriminated against as individuals because of their ethnic belonging, which narrows the case to self-defense. This limitation confronts the nationalist with a whole nest of difficulties.

19Remember that one important nationalist line of argument is the tough one that secession is permitted unconditionally, in the complete absence of injustice. But the less injustice the group in question suffers, the less persuasive is the secessionist claim. When there is a lot of injustice, the general public in other countries tends to side with the group; the less injustice there is, the more the will to secede appears like a whim. After all, the Illyrians have pledged their loyalty to Carpathia, entered into some sort of contract with other groups, and thereby created legitimate expectations of their internal minorities (that is, minorities living on their historical territory); individual citizens will have married co-citizens of different ethno-cultural backgrounds, expecting to live in a multi-ethnic country in which their spouses and children will not suddenly become members of a minority. All these already undertaken commitments weigh heavily against the legitimacy of an unmotivated change of heart.

  • 3 Cf. D. Gauthier.

20Under normal circumstances, the price to be paid by many citizens for indulging the wish to be separated seems rather high.3 They might end up worse off after the separation. (Note the disanalogy with divorce after a childless marriage, where only a few persons, nowadays only two, are implicated.) Consider the situation in which there is no injustice to the minority group and the usual costs of secession. How probable is it that the minority group will really want to secede? Not very. The closer the situation comes to the one envisaged by our nationalist, the less relevant his argument becomes. Nielsen, one of the best defenders of the tough, unconditional line, actually admits the point:

I would...recognize a right to secede even under conditions in which the state is effectively, indeed flawlessly, performing all of what are usually taken to be the legitimating functions of the state. That a nation has such a right does not, of course, mean or entail that in such circumstances it should exercise that right or even that in all instances it is reasonable to do so... So it is unlikely that it will secede from a flawlessly just state. (Nielsen, 1995, 266)

21Let us take him literally: what this line establishes, given the realities of cohabitation, is that the situation in which a state will accept the right to secession as a primary right is one in which this right will never be needed. In short, the purer and more nationalistic the grounds for secession are, the less persuasive it sounds, and the less pertinent it is in the real world. (I leave aside situations in which a province rich in resources, such as Katanga in Congo, tries unilaterally to secede without offering recompense to the larger state, since the main motivation in this case is not germane to the issue of nationalism.) The upshot of the discussion is quite far-reaching: in a sufficiently just, multiethnic society, the network of spontaneously created expectations and obligations created in the course of living together will, under normal circumstances, tend to block the desire to secede.

22Let me add a brief remark about a linguistic trap into which some defenders of the unconditional right to secession often seem to fall. Our nationalist mentioned in his speech that a community might need a territory in order ‘to survive’. This appeal to survival is important and often made, but is burdened with ambiguity: a pop group—say, The Spice Girls—is said (collectively) to ‘survive’ if it stays together as a group; on the other hand, in the case of ethnic groups, one often tacitly takes ‘survival’ to mean (in a distributed sense) the literal survival of individual members. (For instance, the sentence ‘The Tasmanians did not survive’ normally means that all the individual members of the group died, whereas the sentence ‘The Spice Girls will not survive the marriage of Posh Spice’ is more likely to mean that the group will split up.) The nationalist argument sometimes gains an undeserved appearance of strength through the confusion between the two meanings of ‘survival’. For instance, the claim ‘a group needs territory in order to survive’ can mean two things. First, taken distributively, territory is essential for the life of each individual (or at least that of most individuals) in the group; if this holds, the members are probably morally entitled to some territory. Secondly, having ‘territory’ is essential to keep the group together (for instance, buying a beautiful summer-house will keep the Bloomsbury Circle together; otherwise, they will stop seeing each other). This collective meaning normally carries with it no justified entitlement to territory. A group may need a territory or a state to survive either because otherwise its members are physically threatened (others will seriously harm them), in which case it probably is entitled to it, or because it needs it as a collective to stop the members from leaving of their own free will. The nationalist has to make clear what he has in mind: if merely the latter, his argument does not prove anything (unless the mere holding together of the group is in itself, and independently of the will of its members, of high enough value to justify the reallocation of territory, which is usually hard to prove); if the former, we are led to the issue of self-defense, to be discussed in chapter six.

23Consider now the grounds for secession. All nationalists and some liberals endorse the right to self-determination (including the right to secede) for at least some communities and groups. One important difference lies in the kind of rationale each proposes. The liberal rationale is the right of individuals to decide their way of life. The particular content of their ideals—once the basic rights of the members are guaranteed—is immaterial: the liberal secessionist philosopher grants self-determination to any group, religious, ideological, or ethnic, that is large enough to be able to manage its affairs efficiently (provided the issue of harm to other groups is settled).

The collective right of self-determination is derived from the individual right of self-determination insofar as it is simply the individual right exercised by individuals in a joint effort or collectively. (De George, 1991, 4)

24On the other hand, the classical nationalist is typically concerned with the intrinsic value of the ethnic content. It is the value of the nation that legitimizes the claim to self-government, not the mere ‘whim’ of interested individuals. Of course, their wishes do count, but the primary legitimating ground is supra-individual and ethnic-national. It is therefore not clear that the nationalist can appeal merely to the will of the group as the ground of legitimacy. Such a voluntary ground is not in itself nationalistic; it depends only upon the will of actual members of a group, which might only contingently coincide with an ethno-nation, and adds little to the specifically nationalist political program. Moreover, the argument, even if valid, establishes only the right and not the obligation to form a state (as John himself states in his speech). Beyond this principled point, there are further difficulties

25As D. Copp (1997) has pointed out, one source of the trouble with the appeal to self-determination concerns the choice of the relevant group. Given the usual principles of citizenship, it is the territorial group, not the ethno-national group, whose opinion should be asked (if we keep the considerations of self-determination in their pure form). But then the issues of the ‘survival of the group’ in all cases in which there is no physical threat become irrelevant: the territorial group at any time is simply the aggregate of all people living in the territory.

26The weakness is not only theoretical, since very often the limits of the territory are themselves contested. In order to avoid the limitation to territorial groups only, our nationalist has to insist upon the ethnic basis of the right to secede, hoping to prove at least that when ethnic traits are at stake, it is the will of the members of the ethnic group that counts. This is certain to backfire because of internal minorities: if Illyrians should be asked about the future of their ethnic culture, then the Carpathian internal minority living within Illyrian territory must have a say about its ethnic culture. But in that case the relevant unit will again be all inhabitants of the would-be independent Illyrian territory, and we are back at square one, in multinational, pre-secession Carpathia.

27It seems that no general justification for secession on ethno-national principles will be forthcoming. The nationalist can turn to particular grounds for justification, either to situations of direct threat, or to the value of ethno-national culture. Since the most plausible ground for the exercise of the right to self-determination is a direct threat to the group in question, we shall dedicate a longer chapter to the matter. As for culture, we will discuss it throughout part two.


1 To use the helpful analogy proposed by D. Gauthier (1994).

2 I was unable to find many examples of the pure variant in the literature. Nielsen comes close to it in some of his writings, as does Couture in ‘L’art de la separation’, when she talks about the right of a society to further its ‘project’. Gauthier comes very close to it, but on the liberal side.

3 Cf. D. Gauthier.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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