Ci/tsdficKSrniirnMr. Wilson’s WarsrnDevolution or Revolution?rnby Scott P. RichertrnNational aspirations must be respected; peoples mayrnnow be dominated and governed only by their ownrnconsent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperahvernprinciple of action, which statesmen vill henceforth ignorernat their peril.”rnWoodrow Wilson’s words, recorded in the New York Timesrnon February 12,1918, defined the 20th centur’ and guaranteedrnthat World War I would not be the “war to end all wars”; theyrnpro ide an important gloss to his Fourteen Points, delivered inrnjoint session of Congress just a month earlier. As WinstonrnChurchill would later write, the idea of national self-determinationrnwas neither original nor new but “will rightiy be foreverrnconnected with the name of President Wilson.”rnThe phrase still resonates today, perhaps not least amongrnthose of us who believe in the organic nation and who desire torngo’ern ourselves. Of course, states are also the product of histon-,rnbut while the construction “nation-state” may roll easily offrnthe tongue, we tend to see a tension between the first elementrnand tlie second. Because of the centralization of power inrnAmerica over the past 140 years, we ma’ find ourselves morernkindh disposed toward the claims of the nation, hoping thatrnthc- will help keep the power of government in check. But byrnadopting the language of national self-determination, the staternhas successfully co-opted national identity for its own centralizingrnpurposes. As Lord Acton wrote in July 1862 (reflecting onrnthe American Civil War), “Wlienever a single definite object isrnmade the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of arnclass, the safet- or the power of the country, or the support ofrnany speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitablyrnabsolute.”rnSince 1789, the twin principles of revolution and nationalrnself-determination have marched forward with an almost demonicrnintensitv’, before which the actions of men and of statesrnhae seenned powerless. A half-centurv before Woodrow Wilsonrnproclaimed national self-determination the highest politicalrngood, Lord Acton predicted the great political dynamic of thern20th centur’:rn[A] nation inspired by the democratic idea cannot withrnconsistency allow a part of itself to belong to a foreignrnState, or the whole to be divided into several nati’ernStates, The theory of nationality therefore proceeds fromrnboth the principles which divide the political world —rnfrom legitimacy, which ignores its claims, and from thernreolution, which assumes them; and for the same reasonrnit is the chief weapon of the last against the first.rnIf national self-determination is the chief weapon of revolutionrnagainst legitimacy, then we can rightiy say that Wilson andrnhis successors have institutionalized revolution. Until we abandonrnthe Wilsonian ideal, we can expect a future of continualrnScott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles.rnwar. Every time nationalrnpopulations spill over thernboundaries between nationstates,rnnational self-determinationrndemands that wernchange tliose boundaries sornthat tlie nation and the staternbecome coextensive oncernagain. We hae seen this dynamicrnbegin to play out inrnKosovo, under the force ofrnAmerican wea])ons; we mayrnsee—sooner ratlier than laterrn—the same liappen in thernAmerican Soutliwest.rnWilson concluded hisrnspeech to Congress by definingrnAmerica’s role as thatrnof the world’s policeman,rnensuring the right of self