03/20/2014 05:47 pm ET Updated May 20, 2014

Self-Determination, Redux?

The West could have held the upper moral hand in the Crimean crisis, but chose not to.

In his annexation speech (March 18, 2014), Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin resorted to the principle of self-determination to justify his claim to Crimea: "Ukraine used this right, yet the residents of Crimea are denied it. Why is that?" A fine question indeed, one that the West should have addressed, but decided to ignore. This is unfortunate, since wishing self-determination away would only make matters worse. It already has.

At the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, U.S. President Obama did not explicitly mentioned "self-determination," but came close by stressing, "The Ukrainian people deserve" that "universal right to determine their own future." This was too close for leading law experts and pundits, who reproached Obama for "using the wrong words... The problem is that acknowledging self-determination... is a two-edged sword." Subsequently, Obama, and most Western leaders, chose to eschew the Crimea plebiscite outright, rather than to support it following a moratorium and under international supervision. Hillary Clinton turned to the Nazi analogy: "Now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the 1930s... All the Germans that were... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they are not being treated right."

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-2005-0177, Anschluss sudetendeutscher Gebiete

Occupation of the Sudetenland, with German and Czech border guards standing on the bridge which forms the new border. A sign above says (in German) "We thank our Fuehrer" (Adolf Hitler).

The prevalent Western view of Putin as cynically seeking to expand Russian territory and influence is probably accurate. Putin himself have disclosed that much in his speech: "Crimea is our common legacy, and a major factor of stability in the region, and a strategic territory, and should of course belong to a country that is stable, and that can only be Russia today." Of course. But then again, Putin sensed all too well the need to clothe his expansionism in the language of international legitimation: "For some reason, things that Kosovo Albanians were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are not allowed. Again, one wonders why." Putin made a special appeal to the people most familiar with national self-determination: "And I hope the Germans will support Russia's hopes to restore unity."

Material imbalance aside, this moral mismatch unearths a global crisis of legitimacy. At its heart lies the lingering tension between peoples and states, actors and super-structures, and self-determination embodies that crisis, and tension. From its inception, self-determination has been a perilous principle, explosive in the wrong hands--and mouths. Widely recognized states did not need self-determination to justify their existence, but state leaders could use it to legitimate themselves and their policies, not least for expanding influence and territory. However, self-determination could just as easily backfire: delegitimizing multinational states, unpopular regimes and imperialist policies. Indeed, even Hitler shied away from claiming areas where plebiscites drew borders (e.g. the 1919 Schleswig Plebiscites).

For states, this potent duality rendered self-determination a "wild-card" that must be tamed. Neither Putin nor Obama are exception to this rule; the difference lies in how they seek to tame self-determination. For Obama, like Woodrow Wilson a century ago, self-determination must be liberal, concerning individual liberties and civic collectivity. For Putin, self-determination should be national, applicable to peoples, not individuals, but to some, not to others, and possibly through force. Both seek their interpretation of self-determination to serve their ideals and "national interests."

In the best of worlds, self-determination should be both dual and mutual. It is dual when self-determination belongs to both the individual and the collective, inviting them to freely choose their identity and polity, respectively. Individuals should have the right to together constitute ethnic, not only civic, people, and, as such, to determine their own polity, changing, if need be, state borders, even establishing new states. But self-determination should also be mutual, belonging to the Self only to the extent that it extends to the Other. In principle, the peoples in Ukraine and Russia, as elsewhere, should be free to determine to what collectivity, if any, they seek to belong, and then to determine their polity. That the Crimean plebiscite was hardly free goes without saying. That other referendums are not expected any time soon among Tatars, Bashkirs and Chechens, is equally true.

The Crimean crisis demonstrates how states seek mastery over peoples. But that practice is increasingly unsustainable. Self-determination provides the prime justification for the very existence of modern sovereign states--unlike the principle of territorial integrity, which only serves to legitimate their survival. To the extent that the international (read interstate) society is constituted by shared norms, if key actors cannot agree on that prime principle, crises from within and without are bound to make "the end of history" a very exciting time.