Article 1(2) of the UN Charter states its “respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” Footnote 1 Both 1966 international human rights covenants likewise proclaim that “all peoples have the right of self-determination,” by virtue of which “they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” Footnote 2 Self-determination also plays a leading role in the 1960 UN Resolution on the Independence of Colonial Peoples and the 1970 UN Declaration on Friendly Relations among States. As its positioning in these international documents suggests, self-determination is a central organizing principle of our postwar international system.
Yet self-determination has proved enduringly difficult to theorize. Among the many questions it faces are: How do we define the “self”? Does self-determination require democratic governance, or is it compatible with nondemocratic arrangements? How does it cohere with other international legal principles, such as territorial integrity? Does self-determination apply only to overseas dependencies, or also to internal minorities?
While the self-determination principle’s contours are disputed, international law clearly recognizes decolonization as a central application of it. As Antonio Cassese emphasizes, self-determination was “perceived and relied upon as a legal entitlement to decolonization.” Footnote 3 Most ordinary people agree that the liberation of colonized peoples was a moral triumph. There is widespread consensus that decolonization was not just a legal imperative, but a moral one as well.
This essay examines three philosophical theories of self-determination’s value, and asks which one best captures the reasons why decolonization was morally warranted. If we can get clear about the values implicated by self-determination in the colonial context — where our moral intuitions are strongest — we can then ask, in a second step, whether these values extend to further cases. This may enable progress in theorizing self-determination in more controversial areas, like humanitarian intervention, secession, federalism, or devolution. The associative view of self-determination I defend here does have implications for these issues, and I say more about these implications at the end of the essay. Ultimately, I believe that self-determination is not a sui generis value that applies to decolonization alone. Rather, our intuitions about decolonization can be justified only by invoking an interest on the part of persistently alienated groups in redrawing political boundaries. The same interest may justify self-determination in additional cases, such as autonomy for indigenous peoples, or greater independence for Scotland or Quebec. I argue that those who strongly support decolonization have reason to endorse self-determination for these minorities as well.
Consider three accounts of the reasons for decolonization:
(1) The Instrumentalist View: Decolonization was morally required because subject peoples were unjustly governed. What gave these peoples self-determination rights was the fact that colonial states failed to achieve minimally just rule.
(2) The Democratic View: Decolonization was morally required because subject peoples lacked democratic representation. What gave these peoples self-determination rights was their claim to be politically enfranchised.
(3) The Associative View: Decolonization was morally required because subject peoples were unable to affirm the political institutions their rulers imposed on them. What gave colonized peoples self-determination rights was their claim to be cooperative partners in a political institution they could reasonably affirm.
While the instrumentalist and the democratic views do provide us some reasons for favoring decolonization, I believe these accounts take a one-sided view of individuals’ interests in a self-determining political community. Neither view, I argue, can explain our intuitions about the full range of cases where decolonization seems appropriate. The instrumentalist view fails because it sees individuals’ interests in their political community solely from the perspective of a beneficiary, an institutional “taker.” But individuals have equally important interests in their institutions as political agents, or “makers.” While the democratic view recognizes these “maker” interests, it interprets them in an overly limited way. I believe the associative view accommodates the truth in the preceding views while also improving on them, by better incorporating this “maker” perspective. Political institutions are valuable for individuals in part because such individuals created those institutions together with others, and see those institutions as reflecting a shared project. My strategy in the essay is thus dialectical: it is by showing the limits of other — initially plausible — accounts that I make space for my associative view.
Before beginning, I offer a few clarificatory remarks. First, there is a widely held view of self-determination that I will not discuss in depth here: the nationalist theory. This view holds that each cultural nation has a prima facie claim to its own political unit. Territorial boundaries ought ideally to reflect cultural boundaries. Footnote 4 As a normative matter, I believe we should abandon the association between state and culture that inspires the nationalist position. If it is to treat its citizens with equal respect, a government should not privilege a particular culture, as doing so devalues citizens of other nationalities, implying that they lack a full “stake” in its institutions. Instead, I believe that a government should represent all the diverse cultural groups on its territory, extending each some public recognition and support (for example, through bilingual schooling, and a multicultural approach to official history and symbols). For that reason, I confine myself here to liberal-democratic arguments for self-determination.
Second, one might worry that the answer to my orienting question — why was decolonization morally required? — is too obvious to require extended analysis. Most colonial regimes were imposed on unwilling people through force and conquest. Perhaps decolonization can be justified quite straightforwardly, on grounds that it undoes a past conquest. I believe this explanation is too simple. Nearly every current state was established in part through conquest: France conquered Normandy and Languedoc in the thirteenth century; the United States conquered the Southwest in 1848 and Hawaii in 1893. Footnote 5 Yet surely we are not required to undo all the unjust conquests of the past. Nor can the issue be resolved simply by invoking the passage of time: Britain conquered Ireland and India much longer ago than the United States conquered the Southwest. Instead, I believe that decolonization was required because continuing political association between colony and metropole was morally problematic, regardless of how that association was initially established. The goal of this essay is to understand precisely what this moral problem with continuing political association is, and when it arises.
Third, I will not here provide an account of the right to establish a new state, for instance, through secession. Instead, I explore a more preliminary question: What is the value in collective self-determination? To argue for a right to secede, we must show that this value is of sufficient weight to hold others under a duty to allow the formation of a new state. This involves comparing the interests protected under the proposed right against countervailing considerations, such as other people’s interests in the territory, the costs of secession to their expectations, the risk of civil war, instability, and so on. And it involves comparing secession with other possible arrangements for protecting the interest in self-determination, such as internal autonomy, special representation rights, federalism, or devolution. I remain agnostic here as to whether secession is the best means of realizing self-determination.
Fourth, I acknowledge that a particular self-determination claim will have greater weight when it can appeal to more than one of the views canvassed here. When a group’s human rights are violated, and they lack political representation, and they are persistently alienated from their political institutions, they have a very weighty claim to self-determination. When a group is merely persistently alienated — but otherwise justly treated and enfranchised — their interest in redrawing political boundaries is less weighty, and may not always suffice to justify imposing highly burdensome duties on others. Still, I believe alienated groups do have pro tanto claims to reconfigure political boundaries, and these claims can justify the imposition of at least moderate costs.
Finally, I leave aside the question of the best institutional scheme for adjudicating and enforcing claims to self-determination. Who should judge when self-determination has been unjustly denied? How should self-determination be enforced: through self-help by the claimants, by the domestic state, or by the international community? Though these institutional questions are important, I cannot take them up. So I emphasize that my argument does not imply that when self-determination is denied, there is any unilateral right to claim territory by force. Instead, it only establishes a weaker thesis: that the claimants have a strong interest in redrawing political boundaries. The question of the best way of accommodating that interest is one I defer to future work.
I. The Instrumentalist View
Why was decolonization justified? An initial thought is that decolonization was justified because of the grave injustices committed by colonial regimes: this is the instrumentalist view.
This approach seems plausible when we examine the abuses associated with colonial rule. An egregious example is the Congo Free State, the brainchild of Belgium’s King Leopold. Footnote 6 Under Leopold’s rule, the Congo generated immense profits through the exploitation of native peoples in the production of wild rubber. To get men to collect rubber, Free State officials seized their families and held them hostage until they brought their quota. If a district fell short, its residents were tortured and raped until the rubber was provided. Tyranny in the Congo was so pervasive that it depopulated the country: up to 50 percent of the inhabitants died by the time Leopold’s rule ended.
Though the Congo Free State is a horrific case, it is not unrepresentative of colonial practices. Forced labor was also instituted in Dutch East India, French Equatorial Africa, and Spanish America. In the settler states of North America, Australia, and New Zealand, indigenous inhabitants were dispossessed, subjected to “civilization” campaigns, and sometimes exterminated. In almost all colonies, Europeans institutionalized systems of racial and cultural discrimination. Reflecting on these facts, our commitment to human rights may seem enough to explain why colonized peoples had claims to self-determination.
In the contemporary literature, Allen Buchanan defends an instrumentalist account of self-determination. Buchanan argues that a state is morally justified in exercising political power over a population and territory if it “(1) does a credible job of protecting at least the most basic human rights of all those over whom it wields power and (2) it provides this protection through processes, policies, and actions that themselves respect human rights.” Footnote 7 Basic human rights, for Buchanan, are interests constitutive of a decent life and necessary for individual flourishing. Footnote 8 He lists the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right against enslavement and involuntary servitude, the right to resources for subsistence, the most fundamental rights of due process and equality before the law, the right to freedom from religious persecution, the right to freedom of expression, the right to association, and the right against persecution on grounds of ethnicity, race, gender, or sexual preference. To protect human rights, on Buchanan’s view, a legitimate state need not always be democratically organized. Nondemocratic states can be legitimate in some circumstances, when democratization is infeasible or would threaten other rights. Footnote 9
Buchanan closely links his theory of legitimacy with an account of self-determination. No claim to self-determination can be justified against a legitimate state. Self-determination is a remedial right against a government that persists in serious injustices, such as “genocide or massive violations of the most basic individual human rights.” Footnote 10
Buchanan also includes a “Non-Usurpation” requirement in his theory, holding that “an entity is not legitimate if it comes into being by destroying or displacing a legitimate state by a serious act of injustice.” Footnote 11 This requirement is not grounded in his human rights account of legitimacy, however, and it is unclear to what additional value it appeals. While many precolonial peoples had sophisticated systems of governance, these regimes were not Western-style states that met Buchanan’s criteria for rights protection. In addition, all colonized territories were acquired before 1945, the “statute of limitations” Buchanan suggests. Footnote 12 So the displacement of precolonial regimes may not have constituted usurpation as Buchanan defines it.
Can the instrumentalist view explain why decolonization was morally required? The evidence is mixed. Certainly it can explain extreme cases, like Leopold’s Congo. But the view does not rule out that a colonial regime could be legitimate if it did a decent job at protecting human rights. Indeed, it might even be invoked to support “civilizing” colonialism, historically a common rationale for the subjugation of foreign peoples. Footnote 13 Particularly in the late colonial period, European colonizers often invoked arguments grounded in liberal principles to justify their practices. Colonial rule was defended on the basis that it would help abolish the slave trade in Africa, or that it would further the moral and material well-being of native populations, or advance commerce and development. The U.S. occupation of the Philippines, for example, supposedly aimed to improve “the well-being, prosperity, and the happiness of the Philippine people” and to establish “an enlightened system of government.” Footnote 14
These claims were not bare rhetoric: beginning in the late nineteenth century, significant efforts were made to bring colonial practices into line with “civilizing” ideals. Reformers such as the British Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society lobbied for humane practices, including the elimination of lynching, forced labor, and exploitation. While these reformers sought the amelioration of various abuses, they did not question the basic institution of colonialism itself. As one French critic of forced labor, writing in 1934, put it: “it is precisely because we accept the general and abstract justice of colonization that we desire, in the specific and concrete instance, to purify it of all that soils it.” Footnote 15 An important expression of this reform impulse was the establishment of the international Mandate System under the League of Nations in 1919. The Mandate System sought to ensure that colonial powers ruled in the interest of native populations. A Permanent Mandates Commission was established to exercise oversight and articulate criteria for good imperial governance. Often staffed by former colonial administrators, it required annual reports by mandatory powers and investigated and publicized abuses. Footnote 16
We could certainly debate the extent to which these reforms enabled colonial regimes to deliver decent governance to their subject peoples. Still, I believe the history of colonial reform points out an important flaw in the instrumentalist approach. Suppose a reformed colonial regime was reasonably successful in living up to its “civilizing” ideology. In that case, for the instrumentalist, no claim of self-determination could have been pressed against it: the view recognizes no difference between being ruled by a domestic government (as long as it protects one’s human rights) and being ruled by a foreign government (that does the same). But surely a subject people has an objection to being ruled by a foreign government, even if their colonizer protects their most basic rights. While not subject to grave injustice, they are still denied self-rule. The committed adherent of instrumentalism may dispute this, arguing that benevolent colonialism is not wrong. But I believe most people will agree that benevolent colonialism is problematic. For their sake it is worth exploring what precisely seems so problematic about it.
This problem arises because the instrumentalist sees the connection between the citizen and his political community solely from a beneficiary’s perspective. But citizens also have a distinct interest in deciding together how to order their collective life. They are not just the passive “takers” of their institutions; they seek to be active “makers” of them. It may be as important that citizens themselves create the institutions they live under (in their role as “makers”) as that these institutions be good ones (from their perspective as “takers”). Footnote 17 So while the protection of human rights may be a constraint on self-determination, it is not a sufficient justification of it. Perhaps we ought not to recognize self-determination claims that would lead to massive human rights violations. Still, human rights protection is not all that matters.
II. The Democratic View
One way to interpret this “maker” interest is to hold that certain forms of collective decision-making are intrinsically valuable, and that what is wrong with colonial rule is that it denies these to subject populations. As John Plamenatz puts it, “if it is right that governments should be responsible to the governed, then it is wrong for one people to impose their rule on another. Alien rule and democracy are clearly incompatible.” Footnote 18 This democratic approach is more plausible than the instrumentalist one, because it allows that self-rule is an important value. But the democrat understands self-rule in a specific way: it is an individual right to participate in a political decision, the right to vote yes or no on the policies that govern one’s life. What was wrong with colonial regimes is that they denied their subjects this chance to be enfranchised.
This approach links self-determination to the existence of fair procedures for collective decision-making. These include equal rights to vote for representatives, to associate in political parties, to express political views, and to compete for office. If such procedures exist, then according to the democrat, the laws reflect the decisions of a self-governing people, and as such they are worthy of respect. Like the instrumentalist, the democrat connects a state’s claim to self-determination to its legitimacy. But the democrat holds that legitimacy has a procedural as well as a substantive aspect. Even a substantively just state might be illegitimate, if its laws have not been authorized by those required to live by them.
If correct, this democratic argument accounts for a wider range of self-determination claims than the instrumentalist view did. Very few colonizers allowed their subjects electoral representation. Consider British India, for example. Although it is debatable whether an independent India in, say, the 1890s would have improved the protection of human rights, for the democrat, this is not sufficient to give Britain the right to rule India. Since Indians were denied the opportunity to have any input into the making of the laws by which they were governed, their institutions were not democratically legitimate. Footnote 19
Note that the democrat need not take a purely procedural approach, which holds that majority voting renders laws legitimate regardless of their content. Many people rightly find this position implausible. Instead, the democrat simply maintains that the legitimacy of political power is partly dependent on whether the laws were authorized in a fair procedure, leaving space for a hybrid theory that incorporates concerns about human rights within a complex proceduralist account.
For our purposes, the essential question is: can a commitment to democratic procedures explain why decolonization was morally required? To answer, we need a closer look at the reasons why democracy might be intrinsically valuable. Here I examine one popular argument for democracy’s intrinsic value, the public equality argument. This argument holds that disenfranchising people is wrong because it brands the excluded as inferior, or fails to treat their interests with equal concern. There are several versions of this argument. Jeremy Waldron holds that the right to enfranchisement is grounded on individuals’ claims to be treated as a “particular intelligence,” with a unique view of justice worthy of consideration. Footnote 20 Charles Beitz argues that among a citizen’s interests in the choice of a political procedure is an interest in the recognition of his equal status as a citizen. Footnote 21 Procedures that disenfranchise some people express the belief that their opinions are less worthy of attention and respect. Finally, Thomas Christiano claims that enfranchisement is required because “it is not enough that justice is done; it must be seen to be done.” Footnote 22 When one’s opinion is treated as of no consequence, one may reasonably suspect that one’s interests are not given equal consideration. These views each claim that disenfranchising people is wrong because it sends the message that they are second-class citizens, or that their interests deserve lesser consideration.
Can the public equality argument be extended to provide a justification for decolonization? Certainly most colonial enterprises did exclude their subjects from participation in public affairs. Still, I doubt the importance of democratic enfranchisement fully explains the value of self-determination. To see why, consider the following case:
Political Incorporation. Suppose that instead of extending support to the 2011 Libyan revolutionary movement, France had overthrown Qaddafi’s regime, occupied the country, and annexed Libya’s territory, much as it annexed Algeria in 1830. Further suppose that after annexation, France governed Libya justly and extended its inhabitants participation rights within a wider French republic. Imagine that there were no distinctions between French citizens and “the former Libyans” in terms of their democratic or other rights. Would the former Libyans have a claim to self-determination?
If the imagined political incorporation is wrong — as I believe it is — it is hard to see how the public equality argument can explain it. Because Qaddafi’s regime threatened humanitarian abuses, there was arguably a right to intervene in Libya in 2011. And because Libya was not a democracy, on the view we are considering, Libya had no self-determination claim prior to the intervention. Footnote 23 Instead, each Libyan had an individual right to be enfranchised in the political decisions governing him. But France responded to these individual claims by granting the Libyans democratic rights after the annexation. So it appears that as long as a colonizer is willing to enfranchise the people of a nondemocratic country, that group has no further claim to independence. But that seems wrong — even if the Libyans are enfranchised, they may prefer to retain their own political community.
The problem is that on the public equality argument, we ought to be indifferent between a wider democratic metropole — in which colonial subjects are enfranchised — and an independent democracy on the colonized territory. Both are ways that individuals might be enabled to say yes or no to the decisions governing their lives. But intuitively, we are not indifferent among these options. Instead, it seems that a colonized territory has a claim to independence when its citizens were incorporated without their agreement. Footnote 24
One might object here that a unilaterally imposed regime, like the one envisaged in Political Incorporation, cannot be democratically legitimate. The thought is that the incorporation itself was not democratic, even if later decisions were. But suppose that just prior to incorporation, a referendum had been held in the combined Franco-Libyan territory, and that a majority (composed almost entirely of metropolitan French) had voted in favor. Would the annexation then be democratically legitimate? If a democratic process simply requires that all involved individuals have a voice and vote, it seems it would: no individual has been disenfranchised here. Yet intuitively, the annexation still seems objectionable, because Libya has been denied a separate say. That explanation, however, appeals to a group claim to self-determination, which must be respected if the decision process is to be legitimate. But that group claim is not reducible to a set of individual rights to be democratically enfranchised, since the individual right to be enfranchised says nothing about the composition of the group in which any particular individual is to have a voice and vote. Footnote 25
In any case, it seems unclear what the democrat could say about a scenario where a subject people’s separate institutions have long since been abolished, and where they are fully democratically incorporated by their colonizer. Yet, colonizers have enfranchised their colonial subjects in several prominent cases. In the 1950s, for example, France granted full citizenship — with suffrage rights — to all adult men and women in its former Algerian colony. Footnote 26 A second case is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland: from the Act of Union in 1801 until its independence in 1922, Ireland formed an integral part of a wider Britain, electing its own Members of Parliament to the British House of Commons. Footnote 27
On the public equality argument for democracy, it is hard to see why Ireland and Algeria had any claim to establish distinct political units. They were enfranchised within the wider metropole. And though they had substantive grievances dating from their colonial history, arguably these grievances had begun to be addressed through the political process, and might have continued to be addressed in that fashion. But this ignores the alienation of the Irish and Algerians, and is inconsistent with popular sentiment of the period, which saw Irish and Algerian independence as quintessentially just causes. If these reflections are correct, then the public equality argument for democracy — while plausible — cannot explain why decolonization was morally required. Democracy may be a demand of justice, but it does not help us draw the boundaries of the political community.
III. The Associative Account
Recall that a key problem with the instrumentalist approach was that it focused only on citizens’ interests (as institutional “takers”) in benefiting from a reasonably just state’s rule. In response, we held that citizens have an equally important interest in self-rule, in being the authors (or “makers”) of the institutions to which they are subject. Are there avenues other than democratic participation by which to understand a citizen’s interest, as a “maker” of his institutions, in self-rule? I think there are. An individual has an interest in the self-determination of his political community if he reasonably affirms his participation in the relationship of political cooperation that undergirds its institutions. This view requires that our state be structured such that: (a) our personal freedom, as “takers,” is guaranteed by our political institutions; and also that (b) as “makers,” we affirm our participation in these institutions.
The associative view derives inspiration from Hegel’s notion that freedom has both an objective and a subjective component. Footnote 28 Objective freedom requires that political institutions protect basic rights, thereby guaranteeing citizens personal liberty (in this, it agrees with the instrumentalist). But Hegel argues that citizens’ freedom is not exhausted by these considerations: it has a further subjective sense. Freedom additionally requires that individuals who sustain state institutions together experience this activity as an expression of themselves, not as something that they are coerced into performing by an alien power. If citizens attain subjective freedom, they will see their state as a creation of their own free cooperation, not as an institution of subjugation. The idea is that there is an important good in achieving minimally just institutions through the willing contributions of those subject to them, rather than through their imposition by force. This is the same kind of good we achieve when we act on our own freely formed intentions, rather than being forced to act on the will of someone else.
I think interpreting citizens’ “maker” interests in these Hegelian terms captures many of our concerns about colonialism. What is striking about India or Ireland is that colonial rulers were unable to bring their subjects to affirm their association with the metropole. The alienation of these peoples had historical roots in past conquest, and in the fact that the colonizers set themselves apart as a superior class. But what is important is not the specific roots of alienation but the fact that a sense of oppression persisted and was difficult to eradicate, even once attempts to address these peoples’ grievances were made. Though an objective basis for affirming their institutions was perhaps in place, their subjective ability to do so was not.
Not every political association initially imposed by force remains incapable of generating affirmation as time goes on, however. Consider the case of Hawaii. The acquisition of Hawaii occurred through a process similar to the acquisition of India or Ireland: in 1893, a group of American plantation owners overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, and imprisoned its queen. Footnote 29 Five years later, Hawaii was annexed to the United States. There was a case for restoring the monarchy in the aftermath of annexation, and a nationalist movement pressed this case in the early 1900s. But over time, the situation in Hawaii changed. The political power of the plantation-owning class was destroyed, and racial discrimination against Hawaiians was gradually ameliorated. When Hawaiian statehood was submitted to a referendum in 1954, 93 percent of the population voted in favor. So sometimes a political relationship that was established through conquest can come, over time, to feature both reasonably just governance and widespread affirmation by participants. If so, then any reason to restore independence to the former colony is superseded.
To explain why affirmation matters, in addition to basic rights protection, I develop an account of when a particular state’s rule over a particular population is legitimate. My account begins by emphasizing that “the state” is not an entirely separate agency from the people who make it up. Instead, the state is reproduced by its members’ cooperative activity, including their obedience to law; payment of taxes; voting; and cooperation with the police, judges, and public officials. Several philosophers have offered theories of this sort of joint agency. Christopher Kutz, whose view I largely follow here, argues that joint action is undergirded by an interlocking structure of shared “participatory intentions.” Footnote 30 Roughly, I share a participatory intention whenever I think of myself as doing something because we are doing something together. A group is formed when we are mutually aware of these shared intentions, and they mesh in a way that allows us to act on our joint goal. Participants in joint intentional action have an awareness of the relation in which their action stands as a means to a group end, and they would not perform it otherwise.
I believe that sustaining the state can be understood as such a joint intentional activity — on a grand scale — among the citizenry. Of course, states usually feature formal governance institutions, such as the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, the police, and the bureaucracy. These formal institutions typically direct citizens’ activity. But it is the willing contributions of ordinary citizens — their intentions to “play their parts” — that make formal institutions effective and stable. In well-functioning states, citizens cooperate voluntarily with their officials, and they comply with their laws and policies without being forced.
In this way, ordinary citizens of well-functioning states willingly coordinate their behavior in many ways to make their governing institutions effective on their territory. What it means for something to be my property is simply to have my right over it generally recognized and respected by my fellow citizens. By paying taxes, the people contribute to the institutions that enforce their rights. Additionally, when their state is a democracy, the people also offer input into the shape of their cooperative activity. Though they do not know each other personally, then, citizens still participate in a joint enterprise together: they uphold and reproduce a shared scheme of law.
I recognize that the examples of civic participation offered here have a certain cultural bias: they reflect life in a modern, Western, bureaucratic state. But though the content of citizens’ intentional contributions will differ across political forms, I believe some structure of participatory intentions undergirds any widely endorsed political institution. As long as a political form allows for binding collective rule-setting and centralized enforcement, I believe we can apply the term “state” to it, in a suitably broad sense. A “state” need not have traditional Westphalian institutions.
To share in this joint enterprise, it is not necessary that each citizen actively intend all his state’s policies. But his intentional contributions — in the form of obedience to law, voting, payment of taxes, and cooperation with police, judges, and other officials — are causally linked to an ongoing collective process. His contributions support the public coercion of other people in the name of a particular conception of justice, and he can be expected to be aware of that fact. In this way, citizens have a grasp of the relation in which their contributions stand to a joint endeavor. Indeed, many characteristic civic acts — such as voting, or paying taxes — would make little sense if we did not expect our fellow-citizens to play their parts alongside us. Footnote 31
The “people’s” participatory intentions, however, are usually formed against the background threat of coercion by government agents. So we might wonder: Does this joint activity implicate the wills of those involved? Or is it simply something they are forced into? Because the state is a coercive institution, we need to pay special attention to whether people form participatory intentions solely as a result of manipulation or duress. Though states are coercive, I believe the wills of their members are often manifest in their joint activity. This is the case when citizens reasonably affirm their participation in their shared enterprise, according to the following conditions:
(1) Minimal Justice: Citizens’ relationship of political cooperation must be reasonable to value, because it protects a set of basic rights, including the personal security and subsistence of each member, and their ability to form and express political opinions;
(2) Subjective Legitimacy: Citizens, by and large, must actually affirm their political cooperation together, against these minimally just background conditions.
On the associative view, a state’s claim to rule a particular population is derived, not just from its protection of human rights, but also from the willing affirmation of a politically cooperative relationship by a wide majority of participants. I believe there are both instrumental and intrinsic reasons for valuing affirmation. Affirmation is an important instrumental good because without it, people will have to be “forced to be free,” which makes for a less stable, more repressive political community. And affirmation is an important intrinsic good because it allows citizens to see their political institutions as their own creation, which gives those institutions a relational value for them that goes beyond the benefits those institutions provide.
The instrumental reasons for valuing affirmation derive from the fact that it is better for everyone if states can achieve willing compliance, since this enhances the stability of just institutions. Colonial rulers must force people to cooperate in sustaining the governments they impose, and we can expect that — since it is likely to be resisted — their rule will be imposed with significant repression. If this kind of coercion is a disvalue, we have a reason to bound state institutions so that their subjects can be brought to willingly support them. In many cases, this will tell in favor of decolonization. Even those dissenters who prefer rule by the metropole benefit from the lower levels of insecurity, mistrust, and repression that decolonization brings: ending riots and social unrest produces public goods for everyone. But these goods cannot be privately distributed, since the reproduction of state institutions requires the participation of a critical mass of others. The interest of one person, or of a small number, is not sufficient to warrant redrawing political boundaries. But the aggregate interest of a sufficiently large group is often weighty enough to ground a claim to self-determination. Footnote 32
More controversially, I believe the existence of a community of willing cooperators is intrinsically valuable, since it enables citizens to see their political institutions as their common creation, rather than an alien imposition on them. Albert Einstein reportedly once said that “The state to which I belong does not play the least role in my spiritual life; I regard allegiance to a government as a business matter, somewhat like the relationship with a life insurance company.” Footnote 33 Einstein had no commitment to political cooperation together with any particular citizenry: if he were incorporated into an equally just colonial institution, it would make no difference to him. But people who affirm their civic relationship do not regard their state in this way. It is not a matter of indifference to them if their state is replaced by an equally just colonizer, since only this particular state reflects a shared project to which they are jointly committed. Unlike Einstein, these citizens see themselves as partners in a joint enterprise, acting together to shape the character of their political environment.
Nor are they wrong to take this view. By choosing to support their state, willing cooperators are forming, sustaining, and reproducing their governing institutions. No one citizen’s voluntary contributions are alone sufficient to create an institution, but the contributions of many citizens together are. This gives citizens an interest, not just in having some minimally just institution rule them, but in being ruled by the institution that is the product of their joint cooperation. As their creation, their state has a relational value for them that goes beyond the justice-functions it performs, which could be performed (in a slightly different way) by other institutions.
To see the difference between the state’s intrinsic and its instrumental value, compare the relation a tourist has with a state she is visiting with the relation a citizen has with her own state. When visiting Brazil, its system of law has instrumental value for me, because it performs an authoritative specification of property and contract rights, tort law, and so on, that I need in order to respect others’ rights. It is a good thing, from my point of view, that there is a state in place here. But my situation is much like Einstein’s: it is really a matter of indifference to me which state in particular this might be. If Brazil were annexed by Argentina tomorrow, I could still do justice to other people with whom I interact, only by complying with Argentine law rather than Brazilian law.
But matters look different when we consider the issue from the perspective of a citizen of Brazil. If he affirms the civic relationship, this citizen will not be indifferent between living under Argentine law or Brazilian law. He and his fellow citizens together created the legal institution that is Brazil, and he endorses their shared project and wishes to continue it. When a wide majority of citizens endorses their political cooperation in this way, I believe their governing institutions are appropriately seen as an extension of the freely shared agency of these willing cooperators.
Let me clarify a few aspects of this argument. First, I emphasize that citizens’ affirmation of a political relationship is valuable only when it is authentic, and basic rights protection is necessary to ensure this authenticity. For my will to be implicated in my state, I must not be manipulated or coerced into affirming it. Where my endorsement is expressed out of fear or indoctrination, it carries no moral weight. Guarantees of my personal security, subsistence, and of my ability to form and express my own opinions — including basic liberties of conscience, speech, and association — are necessary conditions for an expression of authentic affirmation.
While free background conditions require protection of very basic rights, on my view, they do not require full democracy. One can imagine a range of liberties that enable citizens to freely affirm their state, beginning with freedoms of speech and thought, and extending all the way to full political participation. Democratic rights — including the right to vote, to form parties, and to run for office — provide robust guarantees that citizens’ affirmation is authentic. But it is also possible for citizens to authentically affirm their participation even where the state’s institutions are not fully democratic, so long as they are free to form and express dissenting views.
Second, one might object that, in practice, a state can be empowered by the contributions of those who place no intrinsic value on their political relationships, people much like Einstein. Citizens can be motivated to collective political action for many reasons, including pragmatic calculation, self-interest, or even fear. I do not deny this. Yet another reason why people sometimes cooperate collectively is because they endorse a shared project and care about its success. When that is the case, their joint venture has a relational value for them that deserves our recognition. Prior to recognizing a self-determination claim, we need reason to believe that people do intrinsically value their civic relationship. This may tell in favor of conducting well-supervised plebiscites to allow people to freely express their views. But the importance of shared political projects to participants gives us pro tanto reason to recognize self-determining communities where they now exist, and perhaps also to reconfigure political boundaries in cases where subgroups currently fail to enjoy this value. Those reasons for respecting a shared political relationship are not equally present in cases where constituents sustain institutions out of fear, self-interest, or pragmatic calculation.
It might further be objected here that relatively few citizens actually conceive their state as a shared project. Most ordinary citizens are not politically active, knowledgeable, or patriotic. Do these people take any interest in “making” their state? I deny that citizens must be highly participatory or knowledgeable in order to affirm their civic relationship. Some evidence for this is given by other joint endeavors. While I greatly value my university, I do not attend college-wide faculty meetings or wear the university logo, and I cannot name all the deans. Still, I “play my part” willingly, and I would be upset if my university was destroyed or merged with a different one, even if my own terms of employment went unaffected. Likewise, the importance of citizens’ affirmation may become radically apparent in exceptional scenarios like annexation or foreign occupation, even if it is not apparent in everyday political life. Footnote 34
Further, one might think that political disagreement is a barrier to understanding states as shared projects. Are defeated political minorities meaningfully part of any joint endeavor? I concede that some subgroups are so intensely and persistently alienated that the civic relationship lacks any value for them. But I deny that ordinary political disagreement signals this. Again, we can draw evidence from other joint endeavors. While I often disagree with my colleagues about whom to hire, I prefer that we make our own hiring decisions together, even when that means accepting some decisions with which I disagree. Indeed, I would consider myself disrespected if the dean overruled our collective decision, even if the result was to impose my preferred candidate. Much ordinary political disagreement is similarly compatible with shared commitment to a joint endeavor.
Third, it is important to see that the value of affirmation emphasized here is not the same as a requirement of individual consent. It is not necessary that every individual endorse his or her state in order for the “public” good of widespread affirmation to exist. One might worry here that even if most citizens are willing cooperators, disaffected individuals — such as anarchists, or socialists — are wronged by being denied self-determination. But this is implausible, for two reasons. First, I believe each individual is subject to a natural duty of justice that he cannot fulfill without participation in some minimally just state. Without a state, many of our rights — including our property and contract rights — would remain indeterminate and subject to reasonable disagreement, and impartial mechanisms for their enforcement would be lacking. So if disaffected individuals refuse participation in any feasible state, then their non-affirmation should be discounted, as inconsistent with their basic duties to others. This natural duty argument is of course controversial, and I cannot fully defend it here. But there is also an additional reason to think disaffected anarchists or socialists lack self-determination rights. A group claiming self-determination must be territorially organized and possess broadly representative practices. Dispersed individuals are unable to fulfill this condition. As such, they are not the right kind of entity to make valid self-determination claims.
Finally, one might worry that my associativist view is not meaningfully distinct from the nationalist approach. In reply, I emphasize that on my view, “peoples” are not cultural groups, but rather groups defined by willing political cooperation together. The “people’s” relationship consists in a pattern of voluntary coordinated behavior that can support organized political authority. Though this pattern of cooperation may overlap with cultural ties, it need not. Citizens who have cooperated to sustain a multinational state — Belgium, India, or Canada — will count as “peoples” on my view, though they would not qualify as national cultures. Of course, “nationalism” can also refer to a shared sense of civic participation, and I accept that my view comes close to this use of the term. I should stress, though, that on my view there is no pre-political criterion for delineating “peoples,” beyond the fact that existing structures either succeed or fail at generating the willing cooperation of the ordinary citizens they rule. So I deny that “the people” is a pre-political entity: a people can only be brought into being by engaging in institutionalized cooperation together, and coming to affirm that cooperation.
IV. Redrawing Political Boundaries
On my associative view, a citizen will have an interest in his community’s self-determination if three conditions are met:
1. Political Relationship Condition: A group has established a politically cooperative relationship, either through a state or substate unit, or through constructing broadly representative institutions (e.g., a separatist party or organized national liberation movement, about which I discuss more below),
2. Minimal Justice: Their cooperative relationship is reasonable to value and affirm, because it can serve as the basis for institutions that protect the most basic rights of each member, and
3. Subjective Legitimacy: The citizens, by and large, do affirm their political relationship, under appropriately free background conditions.
My associative account sees claims to redraw boundaries as remedial claims that come into effect when the state’s legitimacy fails. One way the state’s legitimacy might fail is through severe human rights violations, as the instrumentalist emphasizes. But this is not the only way legitimacy can fail. When a territorially concentrated subgroup cannot be brought to affirm their state, they have a pro tanto claim to create minimally just institutions that they can affirm. Generally, members of a just state will respond over time by affirming its cooperative practices. But it is possible for some people to remain alienated. This is especially likely when there is a past history of coercion, conquest, and colonial oppression. It may also occur when a territorially distinct subgroup finds that its members’ political priorities on many issues go unrecognized by the majority. So despite the fact that a people is not a pre-political entity, sometimes existing political institutions fail to bring a willingly cooperative “people” into being. In such cases, I believe that territorially concentrated subgroups with broadly representative practices have pro tanto claims to create new political units.
Consider two types of case. The first I call warranted failures of subjective legitimacy. Here, some citizens very reasonably fail to affirm their state, despite the fact that its rule over them is minimally just. Such warranted failures often occur when the past history of the political relationship is oppressive. For an analogous case, take the wife of a former alcoholic. Her husband may now be perfectly sober and loving. He may sincerely regret their history, and have attempted to build a better relationship going forward. Still, when we consider his wife’s perspective, it seems reasonable that she may not identify with this relationship, and wish to discontinue it. Like other relationships, the value of a political relationship is in part a matter of a history of interaction, and we cannot “undo” this history.
I believe many colonial cases are warranted failures of subjective legitimacy of this kind. Subject peoples often experienced misdeeds that left behind a legacy of alienation. Even though better governance was established for Ireland in the late nineteenth century, for Algeria in the 1950s, or for U.S. indigenous peoples since the 1970s, these groups still have extreme difficulty bringing themselves to affirm a political relationship with their former colonizer. I submit that this is a “reasonable” reaction: it is one we could imagine ourselves having in their situation. The interest in redrawing boundaries is quite strong when it is grounded in a warranted failure of this kind. If a group:
(a) has a past history of coercion, conflict, or oppression at the hands of a now-minimally just state;
(b) finds itself unable, over a significant period, to affirm its political participation in that state;
(c) possesses representative practices of political cooperation that can be more willingly affirmed (perhaps through a substate political unit or organized national liberation movement), and
(d) has the political capacity to construct minimally just institutions on the basis of these practices,
then it has a strong claim to establish a new political unit. As noted above, this claim must still be assessed against countervailing considerations, such as the potential for civil unrest, instability, ethnic conflict, or human rights violations. But warranted alienation provides a weighty reason for redrawing political boundaries.
A harder type of case I call a simple failure of subjective affirmation. Here, a subgroup is alienated despite a reasonably good history with its state. We may not believe that we would have the same reaction in its members’ shoes. But I think their alienation should still be taken seriously, even when it does not spring from a colonial past. In Scotland or Quebec, for example, there are now significant separatist movements, partly due to a sense of distinctive political priorities, though there is no significant legacy of historical oppression. If Scottish or Quebecois alienation is sufficiently persistent, and if separate institutions can be more readily affirmed, then I believe there is a pro tanto reason to allow them self-determination as well. One way to characterize this reason is that the Scots and Quebecois persistently find themselves in the minority when it comes to fundamental issues about how to organize political life. They seek a sphere in which to shape their institutions in accordance with their distinctive shared goals. Granting them such a sphere would facilitate their sense of participation in a shared political project, and enable them to better enjoy the relational value of political cooperation.
Compare the case of someone who has enjoyed a good history with his family, but has now become severely disaffected. He finds himself persistently desiring to pursue goals his family does not share. He may still have duties to care for his children, or to pay child support. Still, if his alienation is genuine and long-lasting, much of the value of the family relationship is lost to him, in an irretrievable way. In this case, it is often better to allow separation, if separation can be achieved in a manner that is not too costly. I believe the case is similar for disaffected minorities. If a group is persistently alienated from its state, then the intrinsic value of citizenship — the sense of partnership in a valued shared enterprise — is destroyed for the members of the group. If self-determination can be achieved in a manner that is not unduly costly, and that enables both parties to pursue more widely affirmed political relationships, there is a pro tanto reason to allow it. Still, this reason may be weaker than in the case of a warranted failure. It may therefore be appropriate to impose higher “exit” costs on these groups, or to explore options for self-determination short of independence, such as federalism or devolution.
By way of conclusion, I make three final points. First, the associative account raises many problems of practical application. I can only offer a sketch of how these might be addressed. As already noted, in order to claim self-determination, a group must be territorially organized and possess representative practices that can serve as the basis for constructing minimally just institutions. Since any territory will necessarily include some who do not endorse the prevailing political project, it is important that the claimant group be broadly inclusive. Where a claimant group is intermixed with dispersed minorities, it is appropriate to demand that it grant these minorities special representation rights, or accommodations on issues of intense concern to them. Qualified claimant groups could include existing political subunits, separatist parties, and national liberation movements that represent an inclusive, territorial constituency.
It is also difficult to be mathematically precise about the level and intensity of alienation that triggers concern. But, as mentioned above, the associative view would support the use of plebiscites to ascertain people’s wishes on matters of their political status. Persistent majorities favoring independence, produced under conditions of high voter turnout, and sustained over a series of votes, would provide evidence to support a self-determination claim. Here, I believe the overarching state has a moral obligation to negotiate an institutional configuration that the alienated group can more readily affirm — by redrawing boundaries to create new subunits, granting more internal autonomy, or in severe cases allowing for political independence.
Applying the minimal justice condition may also be challenging, since it can be hard to ascertain whether a group can sustain rights-protecting institutions prior to independence. But this problem can be handled by a staged independence process, conditional on certain benchmarks being met. For example, a sphere of local governance might be granted initially, with a state or international authority standing ready to intervene if abuses occur. If good performance is achieved, greater independence — where warranted, even full sovereign statehood — could be granted over time. Footnote 35
Another worry is that on my account, both minimal justice and subjective legitimacy are valuable. But which has the higher priority when the two conflict? Suppose a colonial power now rules in a way that protects its subjects’ most basic rights, but its regime is not widely affirmed. If it decolonized, however, the native inhabitants would establish a repressive regime, because deeply rooted social cleavages would lead one segment of society to oppress another. Should the colonizers leave?
In reply, I highlight again that, on my view, minimal justice and affirmation are inherently connected. Because basic rights must be protected for affirmation to be genuine, I believe minimal justice should take priority over subjective legitimacy in cases of conflict. Were the colonizer to withdraw, this would not promote the subject people’s self-determination, since the successor regime would fail to safeguard the preconditions for it. Though people can affirm an undemocratic social order, this affirmation must be generated in adequately free background conditions (with, at least, protection for personal security, subsistence, and freedoms of conscience, speech, and association) in order to count as authentic.
The priority that my associative view places on minimal justice sets it apart from other views — like Michael Walzer’s — that emphasize subjective legitimacy alone. Walzer argues that outsiders should presume a certain “fit” between a community and its political institutions, even if the regime is highly oppressive, as long it does not commit grievous moral wrongs, such as massacre, enslavement, or expulsion of large numbers of people. Footnote 36 In contrast, I believe we are not entitled to presume “fit” unless citizens’ opinions are formed under sufficiently free conditions, and unless those opinions have some channel for public expression. The people’s affirmation must not be coerced or manufactured by their own regime if it is to count as genuine.
If a subject people cannot sustain institutions that meet these preconditions, then full decolonization may be delayed until they develop the political capacity to do so. Foreign rule can be provisionally legitimate during this period. It would be wrong, however, for a colonizer to have the power to judge that its own subject people lacks political capacity. Ideally, such judgments — and the responsibility for any transitional administration — should be delegated to an impartial international institution. The goal of provisional foreign rule should be to enable the subject people to transition to independence as quickly as possible. Some groups may lack the capacity to sustain minimally just institutions as a result of past exploitation, and in this case, the former colonial power may have a remedial duty to provide them material aid in developing that capacity. Footnote 37
Finally, one might still worry that my view could be invoked to support cultural nationalist movements. I do not deny that some alienated cultural groups might currently claim self-determination rights on this account. But this is not a necessary consequence of the associative view. To the extent that cultural minorities are presently alienated, I believe this often has its roots in the fact that many states have adopted an illegitimate “nation-state” ideal that privileges the majority culture. Such governments act as if the majority nation “owned” the state at the expense of other groups. I believe liberal states should instead reduce their association with the majority culture, and give culturally diverse citizens an equal stake in their institutions and public spaces. The more culturally “neutral” states become, the more likely they are to bring diverse citizenries to affirm their cooperation together. Were such a “cultural neutrality” requirement implemented, I believe that the practical implications of my associativist view would differ markedly from the nationalist one. Though current patterns of subjective alienation may reflect patterns of cultural distinctiveness, they need not do so.