What Does “Self-Determination” Mean?

In the wake of the debacle that’s unfolding in Ukraine, I’m seeing an odd sort of argument being made. It goes something like this.

Various miniscule countries have a right to exist because of self-determination. They don’t have the ability to protect themselves from their neighbors. Consequently, we (the United States) have an obligation to defend them.

Note that’s what is meant by NATO these days: the obligation of the United States to protect other countries while the remainder of our NATO allies stand around, ready to hold our coat while we work. Or not as they see fit.

I think that’s the most bizarre definition of self-determination I’ve ever heard. What the heck kind of right to exist does a country that can’t or won’t defend itself have?

I completely understand why these countries want us to defend them. What I can’t figure is what’s in it for us. I don’t see that it strengthens our security, enhances our prestige, or furthers any strategic interest.

18 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    We have not yet figured out who we are, what we should do, or why we should do it, in the post Cold War world.

    This is something I’ve harped on at times, but the unique character of the American people requires a heroic narrative. Heroically standing up to the British, heroically pushing our frontier ever westward, heroically standing up to various evildoers (from the Spaniards in Cuba to Saddam Hussein), heroically winning WW2 all by ourselves, to heroically outlasting and outspending the USSR.

    The fact that the narrative is largely bullshit doesn’t alter the perception that we are special people, chosen by God to lead the world to freedom and democracy. But the story has become fatally attenuated. We’ve lost the thread. The myth has been damaged by facts, the simple faith has been undermined, most damagingly by Vietnam and Nixon.

    Now we’re characters in search of a plot. (Like pretty much everyone in Game of Thrones.) We re painfully, slowly adjusting to the reality that we ain’t so special anymore. We are not the only free nation or even the freest. We are not the only rich nation. You can’t take a people who believe in Destiny and God’s Plan and Exceptionalism and turn them into taciturn, world-wise, shoulder-shrugging Europeans overnight.

    tl;dr: We do it because it feeds our mythology and we, above all people, need myths.

  • I think you’re confusing the trunk with the elephant, Michael. That is a strain of American thought but it’s not the only strain. I don’t even think it is the most numerous strain but it’s the view held by a lot of American elites.

  • michael reynolds

    Elites create propaganda. But this isn’t just elite thinking. Watch the public react if you walk away from exceptionalism. Imagine Obama giving a speech and referencing us as “one of the greatest nations on earth.” For that matter, look at the agitation over the idea that we should hit singles and doubles, not always swing for the home run.

    We still define ourselves as being on a mission, always on the verge of some great new thing. Do the French think that way? No, they don’t. People aren’t moved much by reason or even enlightened self-interest, they’re moved by emotion, by myth and fantasy. It goes hand in hand with being the most religious people in the western world.

  • We still define ourselves as being on a mission,

    That’s just the view of the Wilsonians and, to a lesser degree, the Hamiltonians. Not all Americans are Wilsonians or Hamiltonians. To whatever extent Jacksonians, for example, believe that we’re “on a mission” that mission does not involve going abroad in search of dragons to slay.

    I don’t know that Jeffersonians believe we’re on a mission at all. If they do, the mission they’d see is promoting freedom here rather than abroad.

  • Cstanley

    I’m with Michael here. It’s not that the opposing view doesn’t exist, but it is in the minority.

  • PD Shaw

    Self-determination is a purpose of the U.N. charter:

    “The Purposes of the United Nations are: . . . To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;”

  • I don’t disagree with that, PD. My point is that when we pick and choose among whom we will support or not support and their alleged self-determination is dependent on that support it’s not self-determination at all. It’s U. S. imperialism.

    When you can establish and hold a country for yourself and are willing to sacrifice to maintain it, that’s self-determination. When you want us to sacrifice for it? Not so much.

  • PD Shaw

    There are multiple concepts in that quote. The first and primary one is to develop friendly relations among nations. That is, the U.N. Charter is an agreement between states, and a state’s first interest is peaceful relations between them. When a state invades another state, one can expect that other states will decry the breach of peace and the denial of self-determination to the extent that they feel threatened. Everybody in Europe feels threatened and ill-equipped now that the bear is at the door. I think the Administration is right in pointing out that the Europeans are not carrying their freight, and as I think Dave suggested at OTB, self-defense against a belligerent expansionary power should be Europe’s first concern. Arm the homes, inform the citizens of the threats to their independence. Russia needs to be isolated economically, politically and socially, though obviously turning ships of state around will take time.

  • Ben Wolf

    Dave, I’m sure you’d agree there is a strong messianic theme in white American culture, whether it’s lifting up little brown brother, leaving behind the spiritual corruption of Europe or acting to make the world safe for democracy. Belief the U.S. has a special destiny is in my experience all too common.

  • steve

    I am with Michael on this one. Americans like to fight. They claim it is to advance freedom and liberty. It is almost universal among conservatives, especially neocons (though not so much among pleas). It is also common among liberal interventionists.


  • mike shupp

    Well, yes ….. but …. there are some strands that appeared in US foreign policy after WW 2 that seem to suggest that European nations really ought to chop their defense budgets to the bone and leave the dirty work to Uncle Sugar. Basically, the post-war US wanted to call the shots during the cold war; it did not want petty, parochial, independent European states making matters complicated by pursuing their own interests. For a time, this was concealed diplomatically by the NATO alliance; SUEZ made US dominance blatant.

  • Cstanley

    I think mike shupp makes a good point too. For half a century, it suited our interests to provide defense for Europe. Now that it doesn’t, we can’t rightly put all the blame on EU. This transition should have been managed, starting in the 90s when the Cold War ended, but we really haven’t had a coherent foreign policy since then.

  • Dave, I’m sure you’d agree there is a strong messianic theme in white American culture

    Sure but it’s just one of several strains. It’s the strain that Walter Russell Mead has termed “Wilsonian”. When Wilsonians are Republicans they’re called “neoconservatives”. When they’re Democrats they’re called “liberal interventionists”.

    Jacksonians (nationalist pessimistic realists), as steve points out, like to fight but they fight in defense of the country. They’re frequently snookered by the Wilsonians into joining the Wilsonians’ crusades. Most social conservatives are Jacksonians regardless of their race.

    Hamiltonians (mercantile optimistic realists) and Wilsonians (optimistic idealists) form the ruling faction in the U. S. Since they tend to live with others who share their views, they think they’re much more numerous than they actually are.

  • This transition should have been managed, starting in the 90s when the Cold War ended

    Instead we bombed Yugoslavia. You’ve articulated pretty well why I’ve opposed U. S. participation in that and the several other mostly European projects since then. They were European problems that should have been handled by Europeans.

    As I’ve said before, I have a drastically different vision of American foreign policy than the one that prevails. Europeans should handle European problems, Africans should handle African problems, South Americans should handle South American problems, Asians should handle Asian problems.

    As of this writing of the Europeans only the French and Brits have the ability to project power beyond their borders and with recent cutbacks the UK’s continued ability to do so is seriously in doubt. Developments are moving in the wrong direction.

  • michael reynolds

    The problem with “You play over there, I’ll play over here” is that there’s no clear line between there and here, and the problems there have a tendency to come here.

    Americans managing solely American problems means the US stays out of the European theater in WW2. Which means the UK falls, the USSR and Germany fight it out with the USSR probably winning. So no free Europe, just a Sovietized Europe. Thus fewer markets for US goods. The massive growth in the American economy through the 50’s and 60’s never happens. The social changes that flowed from the war never happen, or happen much later. We don’t develop the bomb, the Soviets do – all those physicists the Nazis so kindly sent us? They end up working for the Russians.

    We turned a huge profit on WW2. A really astounding dividend for our involvement. Had we steadfastly stuck to our knitting the world would be a far worse place today, we’d be far poorer and more socially backward, great technological leaps might never have happened.

    So, might be attractive in theory, but in reality it would be a disaster. The world is a remarkably peaceful, pleasant place so long as you stay out of Africa and the ME. And it’s that way because we made it that way.

  • The world is a remarkably peaceful, pleasant place so long as you stay out of Africa and the ME. And it’s that way because we made it that way.

    Ignoring the rhetorical excess (Juárez?) none of that means that more American intervention would be better or that reduced American intervention today would be worse.

  • michael reynolds

    No, but I think it does mean that setting a strict ‘mind your own business’ policy is overly rigid.

    I’d love to see our world cop duties handed off to a capable international force distinct from the US military, but the fact is the world does need a cop. We’ve been it for the last 70 years and we’ve done some stupid things and some useful things, but on balance this is a pretty good time to be alive, and that’s largely thanks to the US military.

  • Guarneri

    “Americans like to fight…….. It is almost universal among conservatives,”

    Yeah, and white men can’t jump.

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