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Hazony on National Self-Determination

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

2,104 words

Read more on Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism here, here, and here.

The right of peoples to self-determination is one of the basic norms of contemporary international law. In the words of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, “National aspirations must be respected; people may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent.” In short, a nation cannot be ruled by another nation without its consent.

The right of self-determination is directed against all forms of despotic imperialism. If a people feels oppressed by another nation, then they have the right to self-government. If they are content without national sovereignty, they are not obligated to pursue it.

In other words, a right is a prerogative, not an obligation. A right to self-determination is not an obligation to pursue self-determination. It is merely the freedom to choose self-determination, should a people feel that it is necessary.

Rights do, however, oblige others to respect them. If a people has a right to self-determination, then other peoples are obliged to get out of the way.

Yoram Hazony rejects a universal right to self-determination. He seems to argue that a right to X means that X must be deliverable. Thus one cannot assert that people have a right to something that cannot actually be delivered: “. . . there is often too easy a transition from the recognition that something is a good to the assertion that all individuals or nations have a ‘right’ to this good. In reality, not everything that is good can be delivered to every individual or nation . . .” (p. 167). For instance, in response to the idea of a right to food, Hazony writes: “An obligation to prevent every instance of hunger can exist, potentially, only in a society possessing the economic and logistical resources to carry out such a mission . . .” (p. 168).

This argument seems to be premised on a basic misunderstanding of moral norms. For instance, does it really make sense to say that no individual has a right to life because some individuals are murdered? Of course not. People may have rights that are not respected, or cannot be respected, but that fact is simply wrong and needs to be rectified. When facts violate moral norms, it is the facts, not the norms that are in the wrong.

Hazony denies that Wilson’s idea of a universal right to self-determination is meaningful:

[Wilson] was . . . asserting a right of peoples not to be governed against their will, and therefore an obligation, to be borne by others, to guarantee this outcome. The assertion of such a right and such an obligation a world in which it is possible to make clear-cut determinations as to what constitutes a nation deserving independence, and in which there are resources sufficient to the task to securing an independent national state wherever a plausible claim to one is advanced. But the world of nations is not so clear-cut. Nor are there remotely sufficient resources for granting such a universal right in every case where a plausible claim can be made. (pp. 168–69)

Both of these objections can be easily dealt with.

First, if there is a right to self-determination, then this relieves the rest of the world of the problem of determining “what constitutes a nation deserving independence.” A right to self-determination means that every nation is deserving of independence. And whether or not a particular nation exercises that right is entirely up to the nation itself. It is not for other nations to decide whether any people has the right to self-determination. That’s what the right to self-determination means.

Second, since no nation need be economically autarkic or militarily invulnerable, the question of resources is really merely a matter of space. Currently, there are about 200 countries on the surface of the earth. If we partition some of these countries, they’ll all still fit on the globe.

As for the “obligation, to be borne by others, to guarantee” national self-determination, such an obligation is entirely possible to discharge. First of all, this obligation falls primarily upon the nation whose rule is being rejected. For example, the Tibetan people have repeatedly voiced their right to self-determination. The obligation to respect this right falls primarily on the people who are violating it, namely the Chinese. The Chinese are morally obligated to stop oppressing the Tibetans.

It is not unreasonable to demand that murderers not murder, rapists not rape, and imperialists not oppress other nations. And it fundamentally does not matter if this demand inconveniences murders, rapists, imperialists, and the people who wish to do business with them.

The rest of the world is, of course, also morally obligated not to oppress the Tibetans, but this is easy to deliver, since only the Chinese are occupying Tibet.

But is the rest of the world morally obligated to support the Tibetan cause? Yes, the rest of the world should give moral, diplomatic, and economic support to the Tibetan people. But there is no question, of course, of going to war with a nuclear power to liberate Tibet. However, other countries should do nothing to strengthen China’s hold on Tibet. They ought to economically boycott, divest from, and sanction China for its continued occupation of Tibet.

If the world were truly committed to the self-determination of nations, the international community would feel obligated to use diplomacy, economic pressures, and even military action to help oppressed peoples gain their independence.

Hazony fears that there is “no way to place a downward boundary on what may be reasonably called a nation” (p. 169). Obviously, this is untrue, since a clan or tribe must be larger than a single family. But it is true that there can be very small tribes and nations. For instance, in the United States there are Indian tribes with semiautonomous reservations that have only 120-odd members. Furthermore, we can definitely say that a viable nation can be as small as .44 square kilometers, which is the size of Vatican City, the world’s smallest independent state.

Hazony’s assertion that there is no downward limit to what could be called a nation is the premise of a slippery slope argument against universal self-determination. If a nation-state is composed of different tribes of the same nation that have joined together out of a desire for peace and prosperity, wouldn’t a universal right of self-determination threaten to reverse that process? “The principle of collective self-determination, if transformed into a universal right of independence for every tribe or clan that asserts it, is just the opposite of such an order of national states. . . . in trying to grant national independence to all, one in the end grants national independence to none” (pp. 169–70).

But this argument does not follow, because the right to national self-determination is not an obligation. If nation-states really do provide tribes with benefits, they won’t wish to withdraw. They would only exercise their right to do so if they felt they were being abused. A universal right to self-determination is a threat only to repressive and despotic states.

A bit later, Hazony elaborates what he means by the problem of “limited resources”:

To maintain its dependence, a national state must have not only internal cohesion but also military and economic strength and defensible territory so that it is not annexed by hostile foreign powers at the first opportunity, or overrun by criminal or terrorist organizations. When these conditions are lacking, there will be no independent national state. A nation or tribe that does not have these things can only hope to live in peace by seeking an alliance with a powerful neighbor, which is to say, as a protectorate. (p. 170)

None of this is true. First of all, sovereignty cannot require autarky or invulnerability. There is not a nation in the world with the economic and military strength and defensible territory to repel all potential attackers or alliances of attackers. But they still maintain their sovereignty. Indeed, some of the smallest states in the world are also among the oldest and the richest and have the least defensible borders. For instance, the Republic of San Marino is the fifth smallest country on earth. It occupies 61 square kilometers, has only 30,000 inhabitants, and is entirely surrounded by Italy. But it has a very high standard of living and has existed since 1301. Furthermore, as I pointed out above, small states do not need to become non-sovereign protectorates of larger states to preserve themselves, for sovereign states can form defensive alliances with one another.

Hazony then turns to a discussion of Realpolitik. It turns out that there are lots of reasons why one country might wish to deny the self-determination of another. Thus it would be foolish to affirm a universal right of self-determination. Instead, we should demand sovereignty for one’s own country and deny it to others when it suits us.

For instance, Hazony says that the United States was correct to drown the Confederacy in fire and blood because slavery is “evil” and the United States did not want to share the continent with a hostile competitor (pp. 170–71). Hazony also laments the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the grounds of national self-determination because it no longer served as a counter-weight against zee Germans (p. 172).

But all this rather misses the point. Extirpating evil and/or destroying competitors pretty much justifies every war in human history. We don’t need the restraint of moral principles and international law to get along with people who are just like us. The whole point of affirming the right of nations to maintain their sovereignty is to make it possible to share the globe peacefully with people with different values and interests.

Hazony sums up his position as follows:

Whether a people should be supported in a bid for independence is a determination that must be made in consider of a number of factors, including [1] the needs of the people in question; [2] the degree of its internal cohesion and the military and economic resources it can bring to bear; [3] its capacity, if constituted as an independent national or tribal state, to benefit the interests and well-being of other nations; and [4] the threat that this people, once independent, may pose to others. (p. 173)

If, however, the nation-state is the best form of government, and a world of nation-states is the best global order, then all peoples should have the right to sovereignty if they feel that it is the best way to preserve their identity and secure peaceful relations with their neighbors, and all nations should respect that right. Thus the only factor in Hazony’s list that really matters is “the needs of the people in question”—which are to be determined by the people in question.

I have already dispensed with the second condition.

The third and fourth conditions boil down to the same thing: whether or not a people’s freedom benefits others, which misses the whole point of national sovereignty, which means nothing if it does not guard one’s freedom to displease other people.

But, lest his own homeland wither under the cold gaze of Realpolitik, Hazony hastens to add that just because one rejects a universal right to self-determination, it would be “repugnant” to dispense with moral considerations altogether. A mind unburdened by any moral scruples can conceive of many different ways a nation might pursue its interests at the expense of others. But we can’t foresee and control all the consequences of our actions. Thus it is always possible that all our cleverness might make us worse off than if we had simply stuck to basic moral principles. This is, of course, why people adopt general moral principles in the first place.

The way to derive such principles is to envision an ideal world order — not the best, but the best possible — and then ask what principles would make it real. Hazony’s preferred world of nation-states at peace with one another and free to live in accordance with their identities can exist only if nations affirm a universal right of self-determination.

The happiest nations will be ethnically homogeneous. If nation-states have minority groups and aboriginal relict populations, the right to self-determination encourages the dominant groups to treat subordinate groups fairly and give them as much autonomy as possible. If different peoples find it impossible to continue living under the same state, the international community can come together to broker an amicable divorce.

The best way to bring about such a world is simply to dispense with Realpolitik and live by those principles today—on the condition, of course, that other nations reciprocate. Those who don’t reciprocate simply want to practice the bad form of nationalism, defending national self-determination for their own people but denying it to others.

 

12 Comments

  1. Esoteric Du30ist
    Posted February 11, 2020 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    I oppose national sovereignty for the Catalonians because the people calling for Catalan independence are left-liberal pukes. I support Scottish nationalism but oppose the SNP because it just wants to be a welfare queen rump state of the EU. I support Taiwanese independence because it destabilizes China and provides a distraction for the West’s preeminent geopolitcal foe, although. I support Palestinian independence for obvious reasons that have nothing to do with any sympathy I have for the wellbeing of the people there in any specific way.

    In other words, I don’t think we should dispense with realpolitik, because abstract appeals to “fairness” isn’t what is important here. The first consideration for state policy has to be doing what is good for our people and advancing our interests. If this can be done in a way that does not hurt or even mutually benefits others, that is great, even desirable. And if we have to pretend, so to say, that we care about equal rights in order to get to that point then that is also realpolitik and I am not opposed to it. However, appealing to fairness and equality as a matter of principle to me reeks of weakness, like a dog wimpering for table crumbs.

    Ours is the side with the ability to grow our food and our people already feed the world in a sense. We are not afraid of self defense and owning and practicing in the use of arms. We have the ability to create and maintain the mechanisms of civilization. We have the desire to create and sustain strong families. We have a spiritual ethic and a love for our own specific people(s) and for the land we live on that transcends the material world. That is to say, we have to demand sovereignty not because it is fair but because we are right and our enemies are wrong.

  2. Mark
    Posted February 10, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I still don’t understand why “imperialism” is always negative in Johnson’s writings and assumed to involve necessarily expansionism and domination of ‘foreign’ ethnic groups. A white/European ethnic imperialism as basically theorised by different right-wing political thinkers (Evola, Yockey, Faye, Lowell) is not incompatible with ethnic nationalism (‘ethnos’ being understood as ‘European’ rather than ‘French’, ‘German’, ‘Italian’, etc.). The two fratricidal world-wars were partly also the result of extreme nationalism that can easily resurface if the nation-state is held to be the ultimate political aspiration of the different European tribes. The catastrophic consequences for traditional Europeans of these two wars should make a pan-European, transnational super-state an obvious ideal, basically a racially-conscious, reformed EU.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 10, 2020 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      1. Of course imperialism is incompatible with ethonationalism if it has to derogate actual ethnicities and claim that the subjects of the imperium constitute a new ethnos. European is closer to a biological category than an ethnos. There is a common European cultural heritage, but is it really shred by all Europeans? There is no common European language. Really, the only thing that all Europeans have in common is biological whiteness.

      2. It is a baseless cliche to claim that the world wars were caused by
      nationalism. The major players were empires who were opposed to the self- determination of peoples.

      • Madden
        Posted February 12, 2020 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

        Re (2), I think you are overstating your case, but regardless of what might be said about WWI, WWII was totally driven by nationalism. Real existing nationalists didn’t care that they might be trampling on the self-determination of other nations. They prioritized their own nations’ interests.

        A major difficulty for universal nationalism is that there was no original division of the earth into national homelands, such that it would be easy to determine which territory rightly belonged to which nation. Rather, national territories were established by migration and warfare. This leaves most nations with potential territorial claims against their neighbors. Nationalist ideology is known for stirring people into an emotional frenzy in order to recover these territories. It is not at all known promoting peace and mutual respect for existing borders between neighbors. France and Germany are not at peace today because they are intensely nationalist, but because they are intensely liberal.

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted February 13, 2020 at 3:00 am | Permalink

          WWII came about because of the desire of the victorious empires to partition and keep down Germany. The players were: the UK (empire), France (empire), the USSR (empire), the US (empire), Germany (which had legitimate ethnonationalist claims and illegitimate imperial ambitions), Italy (playing imperial catch up), and the Empire of Japan.

          Like I said, there are good and bad forms of nationalism. I’m only defending the good form: nationalism for me and for thee.

          There are ways to rectify borders and minority problems that don’t resort to war.

          • Madden
            Posted February 13, 2020 at 5:04 am | Permalink

            In other words, if only Britain and France had been nation-states rather than empires, they’d have seen no reason to oppose Hitler’s expansionism? Hey, fine by me. Do you think normies will buy it?

            As for good vs bad nationalism, that’s awfully close to actually existing nationalism vs purely theoretical nationalism. I think you’d get better mileage from advertising universal nationalism as a different animal rather than just calling it “good,” but maybe that’s just me.

  3. Bertram
    Posted February 10, 2020 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Today, where everything is in disintegration and dissolution of boundaries, I have great sympathy for Far Eastern philosophy. It seems to me sometimes the only remaining consolation.

    https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/58081-to-put-the-world-in-order-we-must-first-put

    Western philosophy is a linear one, whereas the Asians understand life more as organic process, an eternal circle of becoming and passing away.

    It is not for me to fathom the intention of this Hazony guy. It is pointless to speculate about what drives these people to accelerate the degeneration process.

  4. D.M.
    Posted February 10, 2020 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    A universal right of self-determination for all peoples is hard to square with a “rejection of liberalism, root and branch.” Such rights are a part of modern liberal political philosophy, justified, for example, by appeal to a kingdom of ends (Kant) or choice from behind the veil of ignorance (Rawls).

    Do universal moral rights entail laws? Rejecting supranational forms of sovereignty seems necessary for any non-liberal conception of the state. No UN, no EU, no international courts or Nuremberg Trials . . . How do we get rid of these institutions if we recognize international law as protector of universal rights?

    And if nations have the moral duty to support oppressed peoples, then rights do entail not only negative duties not to harm but positive duties to render aid. That is a theory that goes well beyond liberalism, the latter of which maintains a distinction between negative and positive duties (Kant: imperfect and perfect duties). Positive duties do not always hold, since one would not be free to live one’s own life if one were constantly obligated to help others: that point is one of many damaging objections against utilitarianism. The justification for this distinction is based on individualism: persons require the space to develop their potentialities and pursue their own plans of life. Further, we have positive duties only to those to whom we are related or with whom we have intimate relationships (a main point of ethnonationalism).

    On contemporary liberal political theory, any nation has the right to act in support of oppressed peoples, just as anyone has the right to assist and defend an individual who is being attacked.

    I would think ethnonationalism would recognize positive duties to one’s own nation only.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 10, 2020 at 5:51 am | Permalink

      Liberalism as I see it is the idea that the common good does not exist, is not knowable, or cannot be attained by state power. The common denomonator is the rejection of the classical idea of the common good. It may well be the case that the best society for everyone has a large realm of individual freedom But that is not liberalism.

      • D.M.
        Posted February 10, 2020 at 6:11 am | Permalink

        I don’t think liberalism can be _defined_ as the view that there is no common good, though it does entail that view. For example, any form of ethical subjectivism entails that there is no common good or objective moral rightness of any kind–and those views are not the same as liberalism. As I see it, liberalism holds that: 1) there are individual rights against the majority and against the state, and 2) the function of the state is to allow space for individuals to develop and exercise their liberty, consistent with the rights of others. Mill of course had a non-rights based conception of liberalism, but he ended up endorsing individual rights when pressed (in On Liberty).

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 10, 2020 at 5:57 am | Permalink

      The idea that a nation has positive duties only to itself strikes me as flawed. There really are global problems and global goods that nations need to pursue together. One of the best ways to defend the sovereignty of ones own nation is to defend the principle of national sovereignty for all peoples.

      • nineofclubs
        Posted February 10, 2020 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

        Well said.

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