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  the needs of the people in question;  the degree of its internal cohesion and the military and economic resources it can bring to bear;  its capacity, if constituted as an independent national or tribal state, to benefit the interests and well-being of other nations; and  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.