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

Abulof, Uriel
Publication type

This working 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, the author argues 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’s functions, to protect and to represent, as prerequisites for self-determination. The author concludes by suggesting that self- determination may be gradually developing to focus less on advancing new polities and more on justifying existing ones.

Discourse Analysis,
Speech Act