Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 05/2010

We the Peoples? The Birth and Death of Self-Determination

Uriel Abulof

May 2010

Liechtenstein Institute on Self Determination, Princeton University


This paper traces the discourse of self-determination, its rise and possible demise. Self-determination evolved in three phases. The concept emerged from the intra-socialist debate on how to reconcile socialism and nationalism. The Bolshevik Revolution subsequently transformed this ideological debate into a "speech-act," an act predicated, practically and ethically, on a specific speech. The concept was then universalized by Western diplomacy. Drawing on both content and discourse analysis, I argue that while self-determination as a political concept is still alive, as a universal speech-act it may be dying. Three trends undermine self-determination's ideal of duality (pertaining to both the individual and the collective) and mutuality (for the self as well as for others): (1) overshadowing the self-determination of peoples with the other-determination of states; (2) increasingly excluding non-colonized and ethnic peoples from the realm of eligible groups; (3) defending existing states while denying statehood to stateless peoples, due to both globalization and the rising emphasis on the state'ses functions, to protect and to represent, as prerequisites for self-determination. I conclude by suggesting that self-determination may be gradually developing to focus less on advancing new polities and more on justifying existing ones.