Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
The greatest historical success of the United Nations was midwifing postwar decolonization through affirming the independence, self-determination and national sovereignty of scores of newborn states across Asia and Africa, freeing the majority of the world’s population from the exploitative clutches of Europe’s white-supremacist empires. Nationalism was the cri de coeur of liberation struggles from the late 1940s through the 1970s.
Paradoxically, this consecration of national sovereignty as the building block of a world order institutionalized in the U.N. has today become more of a hindrance than a help in achieving peace and security under circumstances far removed from the end days of empire.
As what the futurist Alvin Toffler chided as “a trade union” of sovereign states, each seeking to promote and protect narrowly defined national interests, the U.N. is maladapted to addressing today’s common planetary-scale threats that cross borders — climate change, pandemics, financial contagion, nuclear proliferation and containing frontier technologies like AI from getting out of control.
Europe’s alternative postwar experiment of sharing sovereignty while leaving a wide margin of autonomy for diverse countries within its realm turns out to be a better model for meeting the challenges ahead. For the builders of the European Union, nationalism was a scourge that reduced their continent to ashes, not a path forward.
Who Gets Self-Determination?
Writing in Noema, Kal Raustiala, explores the contradictions, conundrums and limits of the U.N.’s historical approach to global governance rooted in the concept of self-determination through national sovereignty.
For the author of “The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the United Nations and the Fight to End Empire,” there are “two structural weaknesses in the logic of self-determination. First, there is little political agreement on what constitutes a distinct people or how a ‘nation’ is defined. Second, postwar decolonization may have employed the language of peoples and self-determination. But it was not, in fact, peoples who typically gained self-determination. It was instead almost entirely territories that gained independence. Whether the territory in question contained a few or maybe dozens of distinct peoples, or whether some of those people were in fact divided among several territories, was typically ignored in favor of the felt need for stability — and for freedom from white rule.”
These structural flaws have come back to haunt the world in the present conflicts in Ukraine as well as the Middle East, shading how they are differentially regarded in the former empires of the West and the Global South of postcolonial states.
In the revisionist view of Vladimir Putin and Russian nationalists, Ukrainians are an “invented people” who have no place apart from the single Rus nation just as, in a symmetrically opposite way for those Israelis who reject a two-state solution, Palestinians are an “invented people” indistinct from Arabs who already have self-determination in their own neighboring states. Indeed, when he was Israel’s Housing and Construction Minister overseeing settlement expansion in the West Bank, Ariel Sharon made precisely this case to me in an interview back in 1991: “Don’t expect us to enable a second Palestinian state — there is one already in Jordan.”
“Many have noted how the West, shocked by Russian aggression, has nonetheless struggled to get the postcolonial world to treat the invasion as a major breach of the international order,” Raustiala writes. “The reconquest of a former colony would seem to violate both the core principles of non-aggression and self-determination. Yet the mixed and muted reaction in the Global South suggests something different.
In part, this diffidence reflects the fact that the racial dynamics that characterized postwar decolonization are simply absent. Russia’s colonial history with Ukraine does not fit the model of colonization in Africa or Asia. This is not Europe ruling overseas peoples, but Europe ruling Europe. (Were France to try to reabsorb Senegal or Algeria by force, the response in the General Assembly would surely be vociferous.)
And in part, this reaction also reflects the long Soviet support for decolonization during the Cold War. Many revolutionary movements received assistance from the U.S.S.R. as they fought Western colonizers. There is a widespread distaste for the hypocrisy of a rules-based order in which the powerful — in particular, the United States — appear to be able to evade and enforce the rules as they wish.”
On the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, a resolution was put forward in the General Assembly condemning the war and demanding Russia leave Ukrainian territory. “Thirty-eight states, aside from Russia, either abstained or voted against,” notes Raustiala. “All but three of those — China, Ethiopia and Iran — were formerly part of one European empire or another. Almost half were African.”
In the wake of Hamas’ horrific attack, Israel’s sustained bombing campaign over recent months has killed over 20,000 people and decimated Gaza, eroding the West’s defense of Ukraine even further. “We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South,” one senior G7 diplomat told the Financial Times. “All the work we have done with the Global South [over Ukraine] has been lost. … Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.” Many developing countries have traditionally supported the Palestinian cause, the FT story continued, “seeing it through the prism of self-determination and a push against the global dominance of the U.S., Israel’s most important backer.”
Beyond The Conundrum
From the Kurds to the Catalans, Ukrainians and Palestinians, the unresolved conundrum of the U.N. approach to securing peace and stability is being tested. The core issue going forward is how to accommodate an appreciable measure of self-determination for diverse constituencies not only within the territory of nations and supranational entities, but at a necessarily more integrated planetary level as well.
Above all, the price and precondition of achieving some sort of post-sovereign association is moral consistency. The rules can’t apply to everyone except the most powerful, nor can they be an excuse for terrorism by the weak.
“Like the federal states of the world, only more so, the EU’s complex, layered architecture provides a model of international cooperation that is effective, while still respecting the need for disparate peoples to rule themselves at least partially according to their own preferences,” Raustiala concludes. “In other words, Europe’s success offers hope that self-determination and international cooperation can coexist in an ever more challenging world.”
In the first half of the 20th century, Europe was the problem with its colonial oppression, clashing empires and world wars emanating from its soil. As the 21st century unfolds, its integrative endeavor may hold a solution most fit for the times.