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
Date Written: March 27, 2010
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: Suggested Citation