Article Review 480- "Bernath Lecture: The United States and the Curious History of Self-Determination"

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H-Diplo Article Reviews
No. 480

Published on 2 September 2014

H-Diplo Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Brad Simpson.  “Bernath Lecture:  The United States and the Curious History of Self-Determination”.  Diplomatic History 36:4 (September 2011):  675-694.  DOI:  10.1111/j.1467-7709.2012.01049.x.


Reviewed by Erez Manela, Harvard University

Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, was famously appalled by the President’s embrace of the principle of self-determination as the Great War drew to a close. “The more I think about the President’s declaration as to the right of ‘self-determination,’” he wrote, “the more convinced I am of the danger of putting such ideas into the minds of certain races.” The phrase, he wrote, “is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. … What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!” Perhaps this principle, Lansing conceded, should exercise a “measure of influence” on international relations. Surely, however, it should not be “a controlling influence.”[1]

Contrary to a still-common perception, the phrase ‘self-determination’ appeared nowhere in Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points Address of January 1918. Still, it is perhaps understandable that it is so commonly recalled as having been there, since its spirit permeated the address. Points X and XII, in particular, which decreed the right of “autonomous development” for the various peoples of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, were designed to respond to the growing clamor among the diverse populations of those empires for independence. Wilson was no expert on the history, demography, and politics of these volatile regions, but even he was well aware that demands for self-determination were at the heart of the violence that had prefigured and helped ignite the Great War. Did the war not begin, after all, with the assassination of an Austrian archduke in the name of the self-determination of the South Slavs?

If the Fourteen Points still left some room for ambiguity, Wilson’s subsequent statements went further. In February 1918, just a month after the Fourteen Points speech, he included the term “self-determination” explicitly in a major address before Congress. This term, he noted, was not “a mere phrase” but “an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.” Wilson recognized that he was not introducing a novel idea into the discourse of international relations, only endorsing one that was already current. Even so, his endorsement was not unqualified: only “well-defined national aspirations” would receive consideration, and only to the extent that they would not create or perpetuate “elements of discord.”[2]

Still, by the end of the war Wilson was convinced that self-determination must remain a central principle in the postwar world order, and he wrote this principle into the new machinery for international governance he wanted to create. In fact, his initial draft for the League of Nations covenant included a startling provision that allowed the new international body, by a three-fourths majority vote, to make any “territorial readjustments” deemed necessary due to “changes in present racial conditions or aspirations” or those “demanded by the welfare or manifest interest of the peoples concerned”.[3]

If we consider for a moment the full implications of this radical proposal for an international authority that could override state sovereignty we can hardly be surprised that Lansing, the international lawyer, was appalled, as were many others among the President’s advisors and, not least, his British and French allies. They were all too happy to delete these passages in the negotiations on the final text of the covenant, rewording this section to create what became Article X, a statement that guaranteed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of existing states but had no provision for overriding these rights in the name of self-determination. Wilson’s radicalism had thus been neutered, and turned into a doctrine of international stability.[4]

Yet Wilson’s positioning of self-determination as a central principle of international governance and legitimacy remained thereafter part of the DNA of American foreign policy, and was revived by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the eve of US entry into World War II when he compelled the reluctant British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to include it in the Atlantic Charter.  Roosevelt, moreover, took the principle further than Wilson had, particularly as it applied to the extra-European territories of the major European empires. While Wilson had recognized that, as a matter of principle, the right to self-determination was not strictly limited to Europe, the application of self-determination outside Europe nevertheless remained for him a low priority that could be deferred to an indeterminate future.

For Roosevelt, more than two decades later, the issue was more urgent. His visceral contempt for the record of British and French imperialism in Africa and Asia was palpably different from Wilson’s vague, intellectual concerns about the security implications of imperial competition. Roosevelt’s sentiment on this issue was apparent, for example, in his repeated pressure on Churchill to move toward Indian independence, in his insistence that France should not recover its colonial possessions after the war and, not least, his determination, in the face of resistance from many quarters, to elevate China into the ranks of the great powers through its inclusion as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a move intended at least partly to signal the arrival of non-European peoples as independent actors on the world stage.[5]

If we look at Roosevelt’s views, and more broadly at the wartime zeitgeist in the United States as reflected, for example, in former Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie’s 1943 bestselling anti-imperialist tract One World, we might be forgiven for thinking that the principle of self-determination would go on to serve as the core of Washington’s postwar foreign policy. In fact, as Brad Simpson’s shows in his important essay, Washington’s support for self-determination in the postwar era proved to be at best fitful and often, even as it was loudly proclaimed, transparently cynical and self-interested. On reflection, this is not surprising; after all, views such as Lansing’s that associated self-determination with instability, radicalism, and anarchy remained well-entrenched in the U.S. official mind and continued to shape U.S. policy in the postwar years.

By the late 1940s it was clear that Washington prioritized the containment of communism over support for colonial self-determination when it agreed to support the French return to Indochina to the dismay of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who had famously petitioned Wilson in 1919 and had been allied with the United States during the war against Japan. Such priorities help explain a long series of Cold-War episodes in which the United States proclaimed its support for the self-determination of emerging nations even as it worked to undermine it in the name of containment. At the same time, Simpson reminds us that the language of self-determination was often adopted by oppressed groups within the United States, most notably African Americans and Native Americans, as they struggled for their rights. Willkie had made an explicit connection in his book between the need to dismantle imperialism abroad and “our imperialisms at home.”[6]

As Simpson argues, it will not do to dismiss U.S. advocacy of self-determination as mere hypocrisy, a sonorous principle that Washington trotted out when convenient and cast aside when not. Rather, he wants us recognize and grapple with its centrality to Americans’ self-perception about who they are and what they stand for in the world. How, then, do we make sense more fully of Washington’s record, spotty at best, in upholding the principle of self-determination around the world? The answer will presumably be central to Simpson’s forthcoming book on the subject. In the meantime, one way to think about the strange career of self-determination is as part of a conflict of visions within the U.S. foreign policy elite. Both visions, it should be said, aim to build and perpetuate U.S. hegemony within international society, but they differ on the means by which this should be achieved.

One vision, descended from Wilson and Roosevelt and often described as liberal internationalism, places its faith in the persuasive power of the U.S. political and economic model. According to this perspective, other peoples, if only they could determine their own fates, would, on the whole, choose to adopt political and economic forms similar to the U.S. model, or at least congenial to U.S. interests; forms that are broadly oriented toward liberalism, democracy, and open markets. In this view, therefore, the promotion of self-determination around the world is generally in the interest of the United States since the spread of self-determination will tend to expand the range of desirable political and economic models and therefore help extend American global hegemony.

The second vision, associated generally with those who view themselves as foreign policy realists, agrees with Robert Lansing that the U.S. cannot count on other peoples, particularly those outside the West, to make the ‘right’ choices if given the chance to determine their own fate. The most feared ‘wrong’ choices shift over time—it was communism during the Cold War, now it may be Islamism—but the risk remains. Those who hold this view therefore see little benefit in advocating for the principle of self-determination, except perhaps opportunistically. They prefer instead to stake American security on the hard power of military force, rather than on the soft power of its political, economic, and cultural models.

These two visions have coexisted in Washington for at least century, vying for influence within the foreign policy establishment and, often, within the minds of individual policymakers. They will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. As long as they do, the principle of self-determination will remain suspended in U.S. foreign policy somewhere in between a ‘central principle of action’ and a phrase ‘loaded with dynamite.’


Erez Manela is Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2007) and the co-editor of The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective (Harvard University Press, 2010) and, with Robert Gerwarth, of Empires at War, 1911-1923 (Oxford, 2014). He is currently completing a book on the global eradication of smallpox.


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[1] Robert Lansing, The Peace Negotiations: A Personal Narrative (Houghton Mifflin, 1921), 97-98.

[2] Address to Congress, 11 Feb. 1918, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 46, 321.

[3] David Hunter Miller, The Drafting of the Covenant (New York, 1928), Vol. 2, 99.

[4] For more on this see Erez Manela, “A Man ahead of his Time? Wilsonian Globalism and the Doctrine of Preemption,” International Journal 60:4 (Autumn 2005), 1115-1124.

[5] The best treatment of Roosevelt’s views on colonialism remains Warren F. Kimball, The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (Princeton, 1991), esp. chap. 7, which was co-written with Fred E. Pollock.

[6] Wendell L. Willkie, One World (Simon & Schuster, 1943), final chapter.


A correction to the header information, Brad Simpson's Bernath Lecture was published in the September 2012 issue of Diplomatic History (not the September 2011 issue).  Simpson was the 2011 Stuart L. Bernath Lecture Prize winner.