“National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. ‘Self-determination’ is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.”

Woodrow Wilson’s words, recorded in the New York Times on February 12,1918, defined the 20th century and guaranteed that World War I would not be the “war to end all wars”; they provide an important gloss to his Fourteen Points, delivered in joint session of Congress just a month earlier. As Winston Churchill would later write, the idea of national self-determination was neither original nor new but “will rightly be forever connected with the name of President Wilson.”

The phrase still resonates today, perhaps not least among those of us who believe in the organic nation and who desire to govern ourselves. Of course, states are also the product of history, but while the construction “nation-state” may roll easily off the tongue, we tend to see a tension between the first element and the second. Because of the centralization of power in America over the past 140 years, we may find ourselves more kindly disposed toward the claims of the nation, hoping that they will help keep the power of government in check. But by adopting the language of national self-determination, the state has successfully co-opted national identity for its own centralizing purposes. As Lord Acton wrote in July 1862 (reflecting on the American Civil War), “Whenever a single definite object is made the supreme end of the State, be it the advantage of a class, the safety or the power of the country, or the support of any speculative idea, the State becomes for the time inevitably absolute.”

Since 1789, the twin principles of revolution and national self-determination have marched forward with an almost demonic intensity, before which the actions of men and of states have seemed powerless. A half-century before Woodrow Wilson proclaimed national self-determination the highest political good, Lord Acton predicted the great political dynamic of the 20th century:

[A] nation inspired by the democratic idea cannot with consistency allow a part of itself to belong to a foreign State, or the whole to be divided into several native States, The theory of nationality therefore proceeds from both the principles which divide the political world—from legitimacy, which ignores its claims, and from the revolution, which assumes them; and for the same reason it is the chief weapon of the last against the first.

If national self-determination is the chief weapon of revolution against legitimacy, then we can rightly say that Wilson and his successors have institutionalized revolution. Until we abandon the Wilsonian ideal, we can expect a future of continual war. Every time national populations spill over the boundaries between nation-states, national self-determination demands that we change those boundaries so that the nation and the state become coextensive once again. We have seen this dynamic begin to play out in Kosovo, under the force of American weapons; we may see—sooner rather than later—the same happen in the American Southwest.

Wilson concluded his speech to Congress by defining America’s role as that of the world’s policeman, ensuring the right of self-determination to all nations:

Unless this principle be made its foundation no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle; and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything they possess. The moral climax of this the culminating and final war for human liberty has come, and they are ready to put their own strength, their own highest purpose, their own integrity and devotion to the test.

But the doctrine of national self-determination is dangerous not only because it binds us to endless foreign interventionism, but because it strengthens the central state here at home, while frustrating the patriotic—rather than national—aspirations of regions and states for self-government. After decades of unfettered immigration throughout the West, various nationalisms—particularly Mexican nationalism in the American Southwest—are competing for power within the boundaries of historic nation-states. By denying, on the basis of a Jacobin idea of national unity, the legitimate patriotic aspirations of regions and states to govern themselves, the partisans of national self-determination legitimize the very principle under which the invaders hope to annex parts of our country to a foreign nation-state.

The ordered liberty of historic states is under constant attack. Globalism and the New World Order represent just one pincer of that assault; the other pincer—the institutionalization of the revolutionary principle of national self-determination—may represent a greater threat; because it strikes where we least expect it—from within.