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Discuss Arguments for and Against National Self Determination

National self-determination in politics is seen as the freedom of the people of a given territory or national grouping to control their political status and the procedure they are governed without any influence from any other country. Ongoing conflicts determine which groups have the legitimate right to be self-determining. National self-determination has been a disputed issue for decades, ranging from empires to colonial empires where nations under the influence fought for independence and self-determination. However, there exists a mass argument on whether certain nations should be self-determining or not.

The revolt of British colonists in North America during the mid-1770s has been regarded as the first claim for the right of national self-determination. The revolts brought forth the ideas of natural rights for man and sovereignty to lie by the people governed. Thomas Jefferson ignited the idea that the people’s will was supreme, mainly through the ‘Declaration of independence,’ which sent shockwaves through Europe in the 19th century. The French revolution was motivated by the moves in the Americas and acquired the ideas of self-determination.

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In the 1800’s most of Latin America successfully achieved independence from Spanish rule, a move supported by the United States. The US also supported similar movements, such as the Greek War of Independence; however, National determination never officially became government policy for the US. With capabilities increasing, the US ignored the basis of self-determination with its purchase of Alaska and the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. 1

Woodrow Wilson then revived the American commitment to National self-determination introducing the fourteen points that called for colonial powers’ interests to be equal with the claims of the subjected people.1 Once in power, the Bolshevik’s view on self-determination was much more extreme than Woodrow Wilson’s as they supported the right of all nations, even colonies, to be self-determined. The Communist regime signed the Treaty of Brest-Litvosk, ending Russia’s involvement in World War 1 and brought independence to Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Finland and Lithuania.

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This would be the beginning of a string of countries becoming independent as the Austria-Hungry Empire was defeated and split into Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbia. Furthermore, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, forming the nations of Turkey and numerous Middle Eastern Allied mandates such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan etc. 2 National self-determination increased in the years of 1920s and 1930s as the UK granted independence to Australia, Canada, New Zealand as well as the Middle Eastern Mandates of Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan. By this time, national self-determination was undoubtedly recognized and the decline in colonization was close to completion. 2

As World War 2 was initiated, the Allies in 1941 signed the Atlantic Charter, which accepted the principle of self-determination. The following year twenty-six nations signed the declaration by the United Nations accepting those principles. Following the end of the war in 1945, the United Nations Charter was ratified. The right of self-determination was incorporated into international law. 2 Many positives come from National self-determination. A major one is a nation can’t flourish when dominated by another subject to its laws. Furthermore, for cultural preservation purposes, a nation must have self-dependence as when under the influence of a different nation holding different cultures and beliefs, these ideas might spread onto yours. 4

According to Miller, national autonomy is just as important as personal autonomy. He claims just as an individual who can’t act free in the world won’t express his feelings, a nation deprived of political independence will not make a distinctive mark on the world.4 Following the legitimization of the national self-determination principle, there has been an increase in conflicts within states. This is due to the fact-specific sub-groups seek increased self-determination, which can eventually lead to violence with the dominant state and other groups.3

This brings up the problems that come out of national self-determination, as there are numerous arguments against the idea. An important issue is the lack of a recognized legal definition of “peoples” in international law. Present international law does not recognize ethnic and other minorities as separate peoples. The definition may be that a people is a group of individuals who unanimously choose a separate state. If the “people” are unanimous in their aspiration for self-determination, it strengthens their claim. For example, the populations of federal units of the Yugoslav federation were considered people in the breakup of Yugoslavia, even though some of those units had very diverse populations.2

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Furthermore, national self-determination challenges the principle of territorial integrity of states because theoretically, it should be the will of the people that make a state legitimate. This implies people should be accessible in choosing their state and its territorial boundaries. However, there are many more self-identified nations than there are existing states, and as a result, there is no legal process to redraw state boundaries according to the will of these people.3 Similarly, the geographical distribution of population means state boundaries can’t be drawn up to correspond to national boundaries.

Almost every existing state contains national minorities, which means self-determination does not mean members of each nation equally decide on the future. There are favoured nations whose members dominate a state, severely restricting the influence of the minority group examples such as Kurds in the Middle East and Tamils in south Asia. This issue is of great significance as it has fuelled violent conflicts in many regions over many years. 4 Furthermore, to accommodate the demands of the minority groups and avoid secession, many states might devolve specific decision-making power to a new or existing subunit.

This would be available only to groups that abandoned secessionist demands, and the territorial state would retain political and judicial control, but only if they would remain with the territorially organized state. For example, in 1999, the United Kingdom devolved some power to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by introducing assemblies in each region. In addition, a nation attempting to enforce a policy can be severely constrained by other outside more vital economic forces and decisions of other nations. This puts the nation at a significant disadvantage as it will lack the influence other powerful nations possess and so, in reality, might still not be self-determining. 4

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Another issue is that many sovereign countries do not recognize the right of secession in the constitution. Many forbid it. For example, the 2003 draft of the European Union Constitution allowed for the voluntary withdrawal of member states from the union. There was much discussion about such self-determination by minorities before the final document underwent the unsuccessful ratification process in 2005. 2 Finally, once groups exercise self-determination through secession, the issue of the proposed borders may prove deeply controversial that could well lead to violent conflicts.

The bloody Yugoslav wars in the 1990s were mainly related to borders issues and the Palestine-Israel conflict. The Arabs opposed the idea Israel would have more land considering the much larger Arab population. In conclusion, national self-determination has increased in importance and recognition dramatically following World War 2, and almost all nations are now self-determined. There are, of course, many flaws that come with self-determination; however, a nation needs to be able to determine its policies to successfully develop the country in a way that would benefit the people of the country and not others.


  • Betty Miller Unterberger, Self-Determination, Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, 2002. pg 82-104
  • Murray N. Rothbard, National Self-Determination, 1990. pg 40-65 Martin Griffiths,
  • Martin Griffiths, Self-determination, International Society And World Order, 21-25
  • David Miller, on nationality 1995 pg 398-401
  1. Betty Miller Unterberger, Self-Determination, Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, 2002. pg 82-104
  2. Murray N. Rothbard, National Self-Determination, 1990. pg 40-65
  3. Martin Griffiths, Self-determination, International Society And World Order, 21-25
  4. David Miller, on nationality 1995 pg 398-401

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Discuss Arguments for and Against National Self Determination. (2021, Sep 23). Retrieved May 27, 2022, from