"The most believing Protestant could stand in the ranks of our movement next to the most believing Catholic, without ever having to come into the slightest conflict of conscience to his religious obligations." - Adolf Hitler, Mein KampfThe idea of national self-determination is closely linked to American President Woodrow Wilson and the post-World War I peace settlements. Nations are conceived of along ethnic, linguistic, racial and cultural lines. National self-determination provides that each group of people who constitute a definable nation has the right to their own national government.
The Democratic Party lauds Woodrow Wilson as a great President, a man of progressive (liberal) ideals who was also a man of peace and yet led the U.S. to its first great international war victory. A closer examination reveals a more complex picture, in which Wilson, a college professor turned politician, was a conservative racist who turned against his own idea of national self-determination as soon as he saw its global consequences, which did not sit well with his Aryan, racist agenda.
[Who's lying to you Litmus Test: if Woodrow Wilson was not a racist, why did racism remain legal in the U.S. after he had two terms as President?]
As I write this, ethnic and religious conflicts continue to escalate. Israel is bombing parts of Palestine it made into reservations for the natives when it got tired of its ethnic cleansing chore. Kurds are asserting their rights to recognition as a nation. The lines drawn by Wilson's colonial-era pals of the British, French, Dutch, and Belgian empires are still not working, largely due to their failure to correspond to natural national boundaries.
But there is another important consideration: the negative consequences of stressing ethnic cultures, religion, and nationalism.
After World War I Poland was created from former parts of Germany (and a bit of Russia). There was a substantial German-speaking population within the new Poland. The new Austria was German speaking, Roman Catholic, and highly anti-semitic.
Meanwhile, a lot of other cultural nations thought they should have the same rights as the Poles. Famously, Ho Chi Minh demanded independence for Vietnam, but he represented just one of hundreds of nations seeking self-determination. The Brits and French gave the right to self-determination to exactly one nation within their empires between World War I and World War II (the Republic of Ireland, but Britain kept Northern Ireland). The lesson was clear: only losers in wars might get dismembered into smaller nations with borders drawn on ethnic lines.
It should not be surprising that Hitler's Germany had strange allies in World War II (some in hostile neutrality, like Ireland). In almost every colony of the British, French, Belgian, and Dutch empires there were groups hoping Hitler would win, and in many cases fighting against the British or French.
While Britain won the war (and the French empire was re-instated), the cost was so high it was unable to maintain much of its empire afterwards. National revolutions, often led by Communists, lined up much more of the world along lines of national self-determination.
Many of the new nations had sub-nations within them. Vietnam had Roman Catholics and Buddhists who did not like communism or each other. India had many sub-nations that had be be invaded by Mahatma Gandhi's tanks to persuade them that they were not to be allowed to exercise their own rights to self-determination. Most African nations had multiple rival tribal or clan groups arbitrarily thrown together.
And a whole bunch of European Jews who survived the Holocaust decided they needed a land of their own, the land their ancestors had abandoned almost two thousand years earlier. They invaded Palestine, kicked out most other Palestinians, and set up a racist state they call Israel.
The United States of America, for all of its legendary past faults (genocide, racism, etc.), meanwhile has developed a new model. I just call it the Modern state. It is not based on race or religion, though there is nationalism. It is based on ideals tempered with pragmatism: liberty of conscience, a semblance of equality under the law, and pragmatic good government: good roads, fair schools, and not too much air pollution, even a bit of a social safety net, as long as taxes are not too high.
But this modern America had advantages in developing. Not just a lot of resources that were easily stolen from the natives, but a population (excepting black slaves) who came here more or less voluntarily at an exceptional time in history. At a time when people were questioning revealed religions like Christianity and Islam. At a time when Republics were a reality and were moving in the direction of becoming Democracies. And when agricultural and industrial revolutions were getting underway that would raise the standards of living for almost everyone.
I believe people have a right to self-determination, but I believe they should be cautious with that right. The Nazis determined that no Jews, atheists, or communists would be allowed to live in Germany. Then they decided to greatly enlarge Germany. That is not the example I am hoping other nations will follow.
When a people has been deprived of their own nation for a long time, and has been treated poorly by the nation(s) they inhabit, I think they might benefit from setting up as a nation-state. Thus I favor Kurdish and Palestinian states, among others. But ... I hope they are modern states, or turn into modern states. I hope the people choose to join the modern world, with modern values: equality and justice for all. Not states based on religious or ethnic tests.
When there is equality and justice for all, it does not matter which government rules us, nor which ethnic group we descend from or identify with.
It is sad that America's leaders after World War II (mirroring the equally culpable leaders of the U.S.S.R.) sought to create a new commercial-imperial global system run from Washington D.C. America's making enemies so readily, and imposing our will when possible with bombs, assassinations, rigged elections and embargoes, marred our international image and robbed our modern system of moral authority (as did discrimination in the U.S. against non-whites, until around 1970).
Adolf Hitler was not a self-made man. Germany, Austria and Turkey surrendered at the end of World War I, after Woodrow Wilson and his allies had promised a just peace. Instead the defeated Central Powers were treated to dismemberment and economic pillage. Hitler blamed this "stab in the back" on Jews and communists, and an angry nation elevated him to power. Nor were the Zionists who fought to create Israel in Palestine self-made: they were Hitler's creation. Hamas, in turn, was created by the Israeli Zionists.
We need the opposite chain-reaction. Self-determination based on nationalism or religion is not necessarily bad, but it is just as dangerous as imperialism. I hope when people assert their right to self-determination, they determine that they want equality and justice for all humans, not a new round of sectarian conflict.