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National Self-Determination in Historical Perspective 1789/1989: Insights from the French Revolution for Today's Debates

International Studies Review, Vol. 2, p. 3, 2000

24 Pages Posted: 3 Oct 2006 Last revised: 13 Nov 2012

Chimène I. Keitner

University of California Hastings College of the Law

Date Written: March 27, 2010

Abstract

This article explores the role of the nation-state principle in international politics: that is, the often tacit assumption that nations and states are or should be congruent, and that a presumptive right to national self-determination exists where this is not the case. The political resonance of the nation and sympathy for claims to its ethical primacy come largely from the association between nationhood and self-government, a connection often traced to the French Revolution. The article identifies four "paradoxes" involved in claims to national self-determination, derived from a close reading of political debates at the time of the French Revolution: conception, constitution, composition, and confrontation. Conception refers to the puzzle of how one can imagine a voluntarist nation separate from political institutions. Constitution involves the problem of identifying authoritative spokespeople who can make political and territorial claims on behalf of the nation. Composition refers to the challenge of defining membership criteria that are maximally inclusive, while fostering sufficient cohesion, commitment, and compliance to support shared social, legal, and political institutions. Confrontation involves the tensions between universalism and particularism in international relations, particularly for nation-states that seek to export their domestic political models. This historically grounded analysis suggests how the tenacity of the nation-state principle complicates efforts to imagine, and to implement, more flexible models of governance.

Keywords: nationalism, nation-state, national self-determination, international relations, French Revolution

Suggested Citation

Keitner, Chimène I., National Self-Determination in Historical Perspective 1789/1989: Insights from the French Revolution for Today's Debates (March 27, 2010). International Studies Review, Vol. 2, p. 3, 2000. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=933730

Chimène I. Keitner (Contact Author)

University of California Hastings College of the Law ( email )

200 McAllister Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
United States

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