Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Phrases Loaded with Dynamite

Territorial integrity. Self-determination. Sovereignty. Human rights. Non-intervention. Responsibility to protect.

Each of these is an important principle in international politics. Taken together, however, they cause problems.

From Versailles after World War I, U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing expressed in his diary the angst he felt regarding Woodrow Wilson's call for "the self-determination of peoples." He wrote:
The more I think about the President's declaration as to the right of "self-determination", the more convinced I am of the danger of putting such ideas into the minds of certain races. It is bound to be the basis of impossible demands on the Peace Congress, and create trouble in many lands. . . .
The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end, it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle into force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause! Think of the feelings of the author when he counts the dead who died because he uttered a phrase! A man, who is a leader of public thought, should beware of intemperate or undigested declarations. He is responsible for the consequences.
Lansing, one of the founders of the American Society of International Law and the author of a book on state sovereignty, clearly leaned in his views in the direction of territorial integrity. Wilson leaned toward human rights and the breakup of multinational empires. In part because Wilson insisted on throwing open the gates of "the prison of nations" (to use the phrase that Soviet propagandists, referring to Russia under the stars, had coined), there is today a Ukraine--and a Crimea intent on holding a vote on secession from Ukraine.

On Saturday, Peter Baker wrote in the New York Times about the tensions between the right of self-determination and the territorial integrity of states as the two principles are exemplified in the Crimean crisis. As Baker points out, fifteen years ago when Kosovo sought to secede from Serbia, Russia and the United States took positions opposite where they stand today.