Kal Raustiala is the Promise Institute distinguished professor of comparative and international law and director of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA. His most recent book is “The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the United Nations, and the Fight to End Empire.”
The global expansion of self-determination over the past century was an essential step in human freedom that reversed centuries of racial domination, liberated hundreds of millions from European colonial control and yielded dozens of newly sovereign states. This proliferation of states nevertheless exacerbated a core weakness of the international order: the ability of humankind to solve the most dangerous challenges of the 21st century. From climate change to pandemics, many of the most pressing problems seem to require not more (and more fragmented) autonomy, but rather more collaboration.
How to square the circle of meaningful self-determination with more effective collaboration is thus a question of the utmost importance. Short of a still-undefined form of planetary politics or a radically revamped United Nations, Europe may provide the most compelling model for the future — one that properly respects self-determination but embeds it in an entity large enough to tackle the truly global challenges of today.
Meanwhile, the norm of self-determination faces a more direct attack, one that looks not forward to a post-Westphalian future but backward to an imperial past. Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine’s independence is an attempted reversal of self-determination, a disturbing shift after decades of movement in the other direction. It also directly challenges a largely unspoken notion: that peoples should not only enjoy self-determination, but also self-definition.
Russia is hardly alone in manipulating self-determination for its own ends. China oppresses minority peoples in Xinjiang and Tibet. The United States contains over 500 Indigenous nations as well as islands, such as Puerto Rico and Hawaii, with strong independence movements. Scotland seeks to break free of the United Kingdom; France faces Corsican and Basque nationalism.
Our world of 200 or so independent nations could easily be broken up into 300, 400, 500 sovereign states. (Indeed, the median state in the world today is already smaller than Los Angeles County in population.) True respect for the principle of self-determination might demand — or at least permit — such an outcome. Whether the world can function effectively is another matter.
The Unfinished Business Of Self-Determination
Who is a people? Which peoples should get a state? These questions have long bedeviled the international system. Already seen as critical by the end of the First World War, when Woodrow Wilson made self-determination one of his Fourteen Points, the concept gained new currency in the interwar period.
The creation of the U.N. by the victors in the Second World War helped to enshrine self-determination as a core norm of the postwar order. The U.N. Charter opens not with “We the States” or “We the Allies” but with “We the Peoples.” After the horrific destruction of the war, building a new order on the foundation of peoples governing themselves gestured at an important break with the past. Soon colonialism, long defended and even valorized, was not only largely dismantled but discredited.
Though the winding down of empire remains unfinished — just ask the Catalans or Kurds — liberation from colonial rule gave hundreds of millions of people, especially people of color, greater control over their political destiny. Sovereignty, a European concept that Europeans had long delimited, became widespread, and Europe’s long reign over the globe came to an end.
Still, as a practical matter, self-determination in Asia and Africa appeared daunting in the 1940s. Many colonies contained multiple peoples. To grant each its own state was bound to be highly disruptive and to directly conflict with another core postwar norm: territorial integrity. States had traditionally been forged through warfare; disparate peoples had long been absorbed, repressed and ultimately cast into “imagined communities.” None of this was really possible in a postwar order committed to peace, security and human rights.
This context made the invocation of self-determination in the U.N. Charter appear utopian. Indeed, few participants, aside from key proponents such as the American diplomat and Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, who saw self-determination as a project of global racial justice, believed it was or ought to be a central goal of the postwar order. As a result, almost no one foresaw the shockingly swift transition from empire to sovereignty — and the accompanying quadrupling of the number of states — that followed.
Indeed, as the U.N.’s soaring campus in New York was being constructed in the late 1940s, there were fewer than 60 member states. The architects were tasked with designing a building to accommodate anticipated growth of perhaps 20 new members. By 1955, the year of the landmark Bandung Conference of non-Western nations, the U.N. had already crashed through that number. By 1960, some three dozen new states had been ushered into the international system. And by 1970, the buildings were crammed with 127 members. Today, they hold 193.
The U.N. campus quite literally concretized the 1940s mindset that European empires, however odious or anachronistic, would be very slow to unravel. Events quickly proved otherwise.
Who Draws The Borders?
The new states of Asia and Africa largely inherited existing borders. What had been “the Belgian Congo” on June 29, 1960, became the state of Congo the next day. The problem was that many of these borders were entirely arbitrary. Cast on maps in drawing rooms in Europe by diplomats who often had no real knowledge of the territories they claimed, they mixed and divided various peoples. These groups in turn competed for control of the central government. The results were sometimes incendiary.
Congo’s huge territory, for instance, subsumed over 200 language groups. Within weeks, the joy of liberation was clouded by civil war as the most prosperous province, Katanga, sought to break away. Using the language of self-determination, Katanga’s leaders claimed that they were “seceding from chaos.”
Was this in fact self-determination? As a matter of principle, the claim could not be readily dismissed, even if in practice it seemed merely to mask the machinations of Western mining interests who supported the breakaway government. That fall, however, at the annual meeting of the General Assembly, support for Katangan independence was almost entirely absent. Indeed, the overwhelming view among the nascent “third world” was that true self-determination meant territorial integrity for whatever entity had gained independence from a colonial master — in this case, Congo. In the rising struggle between stability and self-determination, stability triumphed.
The legal doctrine of uti possidetis (“as one possesses under law”) undergirded this approach. As the International Court of Justice later explained in a 1986 case involving two former French colonies, Mali and Burkina Faso, the principle’s “obvious purpose is to prevent the independence and stability of new States being endangered by fratricidal struggles provoked by the challenging of frontiers following the withdrawal of the administering power. … At first sight this principle conflicts outright with another one, the right of peoples to self-determination. In fact, however, the maintenance of the territorial status quo … is often seen as the wisest course, to preserve what has been achieved by peoples who have struggled for their independence.”
This approach seemed neutral and rational. It promoted peace. But it also starkly reflected a critical aspect of the political context of decolonization. It was the racial divide of empire that gave the decolonization movement much of its fuel.
Colonialism had long been defended as bringing civilization and Christianity to those who lacked both. But it was fundamentally grounded in white supremacy. Self-determination’s global rise was ultimately a rebuke to this fixation on racial hierarchy, a fixation that reached its nadir in the Nazi fetishization of a Nordic master race. (As the N.A.A.C.P. leader Walter White acidly noted, some in America had “practiced Nazism long before Hitler was born.”) Germany’s defeat hastened the demise of such thinking, adding force to the growing critique of white rule in Africa and Asia.
Seen in this context, freeing Congo from Belgium was a salutary reversal of white domination. By contrast, an independent Katanga, backed by Europeans, was simply an attempt to divide and weaken black rule on the African continent.
That freedom from white rule was a master key to the dramatic process of decolonization also helps explain another critical postwar moment. Goa, a small territory on the Indian coast, had been a Portuguese colony for nearly 500 years. In 1961, India, then perhaps the most outspoken of the postcolonial states, forcibly annexed Goa. In the Security Council, the immediate question was how this violation of the prohibition on the aggressive use of force would be punished. (The answer, ultimately, was not at all: The Soviets wielded their veto to protect India.)
In the General Assembly, the debate was very different. It was Portugal who was condemned; India’s recapture of Goa was seen as a long overdue rejection of white control, one that restored Indian dignity and sovereignty.
Goa underscored that the norm of self-determination, if applied by the right actors against the wrong actors, trumped even the norm against territorial conquest.
Who Gets To Govern Themselves?
The focus of postwar decolonization on rejecting European rule in Asia and Africa meant that land empires, such as the Soviet Union’s, were generally treated as distinct. (That many of the land empires belonged to great powers helped protect them from censure.) This distinction did not go unchallenged, however. Facing increasing demands in the 1950s for independence for Congo, Belgium proposed that all minorities — including America’s Black population and the U.S.S.R.’s various national minorities — also receive self-determination.
This poison-pill argument ultimately went nowhere. But Belgium was not wrong in noting that the principle of self-determination, if taken seriously, should not be limited to distant territories. The “Belgian thesis,” as it came to be known, foreshadowed a broader challenge for self-determination in the coming decades. Indigenous peoples, for instance, were rarely part of any “colony.” Yet they clearly had been colonized. So too, perhaps, the Scots, Catalans, Kurds and many other stateless peoples.
Ukraine poses a related question. Long a constituent part of the Russian Empire, the Soviets nonetheless treated it distinctively. In 1945, for instance, Ukraine signed the U.N. Charter separately, as if it were already a sovereign entity. The breakup of the Soviet Union gave it full independence; more than 90% of Ukrainians voted in favor. Russia’s violent seizure of Crimea in 2014 was, as a result, broadly viewed as illegitimate.
But, perhaps taking a leaf from India in Goa, Russia defended the annexation as an effort to reunite Crimea’s inhabitants, many of whom are Russian speakers, with their Russian brethren. When the General Assembly declared the annexation invalid, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. said that Russia “could not refuse Crimeans their right to self-determination.”
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was justified in even more extreme terms. Putin claimed to be simply uniting a single people divided by borders. Ukrainians are Russians, he argued. Ukraine’s sovereignty was fictional, he continued, for it “never had a tradition of genuine statehood.”
These claims strike at the core of the postwar conception of self-determination by denying that a given people — the Ukrainians — exist at all. Since only peoples have the right to self-determination, the history and delimitation of peoples becomes a crucial battleground. The amorphous nature of the concept of a people could perhaps be glossed over when the real issue was the emancipation of a distant territory — especially one that encompassed a different racial population. It is harder when the population in question resembles, and maybe even is historically intertwined, with its neighbors. To be sure, Ukrainians vociferously disagree with Putin’s characterizations. But the close linguistic, cultural and historical ties between Russia and Ukraine give it surface plausibility.
In a similar fashion, Israeli leaders have long denied that Palestinians are a distinct people. Last year, for example — well before Hamas’s attacks in October — the Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich claimed “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” In this, he echoed a common sentiment in Israel, dating back at least to Golda Meir, who in 1969 declared that there was “no such thing” as the Palestinians.
Similar views can be found on the American right. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, himself a historian — ironically, his Ph.D. thesis was on the Belgian Congo — has said that the Palestinians are “an invented people,” historically part of the Arab community. Here too it is difficult to conclusively defeat this argument, in part because there are no widely agreed upon criteria for peoplehood and in part because these claims highlight a social fact — Palestinians are clearly connected to the surrounding Arab world — that makes it easy to obscure differences and highlight similarities.
These arguments place a finger on 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.
This dynamic was dramatically explained by the Kenyan ambassador to the U.N., Martin Kimani, in 2022. In the Security Council in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kimani noted that African states had inherited borders that made little sense. But rather than try to sort peoples into territories — thereby enabling a truer form of self-determination — nearly all of postcolonial Africa accepted the patchwork, overlapping status quo.
“At independence,” Kimani eloquently explained, “had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later. Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the border that we inherited. … Rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.”
In short, African states accepted peace over peoples. Self-determination, in practice, turned out to be less about self-rule and more about ending European rule.
And this, Kimani suggested, was a pragmatic approach. Even if Russia’s claims about historic ties with Ukraine had validity, such ties, he argued, were commonplace around the world: “All states formed from empires that have collapsed or retreated have many peoples in them yearning for integration.”
After all, he continued, “Who does not want to be joined to their brethren and to make common purpose with them? However, Kenya rejects such a yearning from being pursued by force. We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression. We rejected irredentism and expansionism on any basis, including racial, ethnic, religious or cultural factors. We reject it again today.”
In saying this, Kimani rightly highlighted the dangers of Russia’s revisionist approach to self-determination. Far better, he argued, to simply take borders as given, even if many peoples were mixed and divided as a result. Stability must trump self-determination.
The war in Ukraine has surfaced these nettlesome issues in a dramatic fashion. 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. 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.
Indeed, on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a resolution was put forward in the General Assembly condemning the war and demanding Russia exit Ukrainian territory. Thirty-eight states, aside from Russia, either abstained or voted against. All but three of those — China, Ethiopia and Iran — were formerly part of one European empire or another. Almost half were African.
Managing Collective Threats
The U.N., nearly four times its original size, is approaching its 80th year. Is it best understood as a universalist institution that promotes diplomacy and peace among disparate sovereign states or as an organization that actively manages complex global problems? Is the U.N. a stage for global politics, or is it an actor?
It aspires to be both. But any honest assessment of it must begin with the realization that it was designed primarily for stability. The Charter’s chief goals are peace and security rather than change and evolution. While centrally important, these goals are in tension with a 21st-century world facing myriad novel collective and even global threats, including existential ones such as the climate crisis. Managing climate change requires not refraining from action but promoting it.
Compounding the U.N.’s tendency toward stasis is an unlikely success of its work: self-determination. Over the last 75 years, self-determination’s spread has led to a much more pluralistic — and simply much larger — array of sovereign states.
A system of almost 200 states inevitably yields slow and cumbersome processes of cooperation. This challenge is compounded when the states involved have diverse and opposing views. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, part of a long history of maritime rulemaking, still took over a decade to negotiate. The latest round of World Trade Organization negotiations commenced in Doha over two decades ago; there is no sign of it reaching completion. Climate change negotiations, such as the ones recently completed in Dubai, have continued in various forms since the Rio Summit in 1992. While tens of thousands of participants have labored through many dozens of meetings, progress has been agonizingly slow — and largely outpaced by the rapidly growing problem.
These challenges highlight an unexpected aspect of self-determination’s fixation on territories rather than peoples, and its concomitant failure to give all peoples self-governance. A world of true self-determination — one based on peoples rather than territories — would be far more fragmented. It is impossible to say how many peoples exist in the world today. Europe alone once contained hundreds. Would a system of 400 states be governable? What of 500 — or 1,000? There is no natural or normal number of states in the world.
True security in the 21st century will require deep collaboration among myriad sovereigns — but the more of them there are, the harder that is. And so arguments in favor of “minilateralism” and so-called club approaches to common problems have arisen. These ideas are not new, but they have taken on greater urgency in recent years, most notably as Earth’s temperature racks up record upon record.
Nearly 30 nations in Europe, the ancestral home of the sovereign state, are now joined together in the EU. This experiment, ongoing now for several decades, points to an alternative geometry, one where differing levels of governance address differing topics. Though not perfect, the EU system allows a more cohesive approach to policy on those matters that are most international, and more national control on those issues most local.
To be sure, dissatisfaction with EU governance and its endless committees is high. But Europe is in no danger of dissolving; indeed, it is more likely to grow than shrink over time. 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. In other words, Europe’s success offers hope that self-determination and international cooperation can coexist in an ever more challenging world.