The UN-led international order is primarily dedicated to protecting the “sanctity” of borders against foreign invasion, or, to a lesser extent, interference.
The universal hegemony of the Western nation-state model is a major historic victory for the statesmen, especially Anglo-American statesmen, who built first the League of Nations and then the United Nations, and who successfully established a post-WWII world order largely conforming to their ideological vision of how mankind should be politically organized. Though Woodrow Wilson’s career ended in humiliating failure when the US Congress failed to ratify the Versailles Treaty, leaving the US outside the League of Nations, Woodrow Wilson is probably the single most important intellectual influence on the modern geopolitical order, which attempts to embody the principle of national self-determination that he propounded.
The world was definitely not organized on the basis of national self-determination in 1914. For one thing, there was great freedom of migration. Though some border controls existed, e.g., at Ellis Island, where a small proportion of would-be immigrants were sent back for medical reasons, it was possible for most people to go migrate into and out of the leading nations of the world without passports or visas. If it is part of national sovereignty to control citizenship and residency in a nation’s territorial boundaries, as is often alleged, the nations of the world in 1914 did not enjoy, or at any rate did not exercise, effective national sovereignty. Furthermore, most of the surface of the globe at that time was governed not by nation-states, but by large transnational empires. Among these, there was a distinction between dynastic empires ruling over large landed territories containing ethnically varied peoples all subject to the same monarch, and colonial empires in which a “mother country” with an independent national life ruled over overseas territories inhabited by peoples who were definitely considered to be at a lower civilizational level, and with whom the mother country’s historic contacts, usually commercial in nature, had begun much more recently, during the European Age of Exploration. Of the dynastic empires, the leading examples were the Austrian Habsburg empire and the tsarist Russian Empire under the Romanov dynasty; China and the Ottoman Empire were other examples. Of the colonial empires, the leading examples were the British, French, and Dutch empires, though the Portuguese and Spanish empires, dissolved well before 1914, had helped to establish the pattern for this kind of colonialism. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination, though initially directed mainly against the dynastic empires, was also inimical to the colonial empires, and the dissolution of most of the dynastic empires in the immediate aftermath of World War I and of the colonial empires after World War II both represent victories for Woodrow Wilson’s idea.
Many reasons can be suggested for the long-run success of Woodrow Wilson’s geopolitical reorganization of the world. Obviously, US military power is one major factor. The US remained potentially the largest military power in the interwar years, and became the world’s largest actual military power during and after World War II, as it remains to this day. Indeed, the military preponderance of the US only increased after the fall of the Soviet Union and may have been at a historic peak at the time of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But the US did not exactly march out and impose its geopolitical vision on the world. It didn’t join the League of Nations and turned isolationist during the interwar years, except for a few interventions in the Western hemisphere. It joined World War II in self-defense after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war. That said, the US needn’t have prioritized the European theater, and the energetic war it waged in western Europe probably reflected sympathy for its democratic allies in Europe and pursuit of its principles of justice and right, more than national self-interest. Moreover, the US aided Britain and blockaded Japan before it was officially at war. From WWII on, US military power was deployed worldwide, but often in ways not particularly consistent with Wilsonian principles. Thus, in WWII, the US was the ally of two empires, and after the war, the US connived at the Soviet conquest of eastern Europe. In the Cold War, the US often made “realist” (i.e., cynical) alliances with authoritarian regimes, violating Wilson’s slogan of “making the world safe for democracy.” Wilsonian principles remained the goal, however. The US preferred to ally itself with democratic nation-states when it could, and US backing made it possible for some of these, especially in Europe and East Asia, to flourish in a security which they lacked the military strength to obtain for themselves.
While the military power of the US, and its persistent bias in favor of democratic nation-states, was an important factor in the triumph of Wilsonian ideals, it would have had little impact had these ideals not enjoyed widespread appeal. Why did national self-determination (first) and national sovereignty (later) enjoy significant global support? For that matter, why did Americans pretty consistently want to reorganize the world this way? For Americans, national sovereignty was partly a projection of their own political model worldwide. Americans believed in democracy; democracy is “rule of the people;” so there must be a “people” to do the ruling, and if universal democracy is to be established, the world must first be organized into peoples. It didn’t seem possible to democratize a polity like the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Habsburgs, the only basis for the unity of which was the historic rights of a certain dynasty. The irony was that America itself had never been a nation in the same sense as were the “nations” which it now sought to invest with rights of self-determination. It was a polity first, then a nation. North America was the ancestral homeland of almost none of its people, certainly not of the people who had founded the polity and given it its distinctive character, and since its founding the United States had attracted large populations of immigrants from all over Europe, with their own languages which they largely forgot in favor of English, with their own religions and holidays and cuisines which they often kept. America interpreted itself as a democratic nation-state, and the democratic nation-state model as the peculiar American best practice which it should now export to a benighted world. But this was only one among many ways that Americans could have learned from their own history. They might have sought to export the ideas of natural rights and freedom of religion and conscience instead. But freedom was not fashionable at the time. Jonah Goldberg has plausibly argued that Woodrow Wilson’s regime in the United States was literally a fascist dictatorship. Both racist/nationalist and socialist ideas were in their heyday, and probably conditioned Americans’ reading of their own history. That may be why Wilson’s slogan was “make the world safe for democracy,” and not, alas, “make the world safe for freedom.” At any rate, the rest of the world seems to have bought into Wilson’s ideas partly for the same reason Americans themselves did: because they saw the success of the United States, and thought it was worth emulating, and interpreted it as an illustration of the virtue of democracy, and by extension of the nation-state with a well-defined people who could rule themselves democratically.
Wilson’s ideas spread quickly. Lenin and the Bolsheviks declared their support for national self-determination early, and Wilson’s Fourteen Points were arguably even written as a response to Lenin, who had committed the Bolsheviks to national self-determination. This may seem like the purest hypocrisy, given that the Bolsheviks ruthlessly restored Russian domination over various subject peoples, and the Soviet Union later conquered eastern Europe and imposed satellite regimes there, so that the collapse of Soviet power in 1989-91 was a victory for national self-determination against Soviet imperialism. But there was nonetheless some truth to the Bolshevik claim to favor national self-determination. The Soviet Union was organized internally on a national basis, with the various “republics,” such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and so forth, being given roughly national borders, retaining and consolidating historic languages, and allowing them a limited national life. Later, eastern Europe was not simply annexed. Rather, satellite states were imposed. Henry Kissinger, in his book Diplomacy, argues that the English were genuinely converted to Wilson’s ideas about “collective security”– his preferred mechanism for preventing international aggression, to replace the pre-WWI “balance of power”– in the 1920s. Wilson’s ideas encouraged nationalism irredentism in various places, starting with Italy, and later, importantly, in Germany. Hitler’s early successes, including the annexation of the Rhineland and the annexations of the Sudetenland and Austria, were justifiable, and were justified, in terms of national self-determination, and were tolerated and even abetted by the British and French “appeasers” partly for that reason. The Nazi slogan Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer– “one people, one state, one homeland”– was a spin on the idea of national self-determination. The apartheid regime in South Africa made creative use of the idea of national self-determination by declaring certain regions within South Africa “homelands” of native peoples, recognizing their “sovereignty,” and then denying them full rights in the newly defined republic of South Africa itself. Historian Paul Johnson has noted that South Africa under apartheid was a sort of microcosm of the world, and whatever he meant by it, he was right in that the world order today, like South Africa under apartheid, uses sovereignty as a pretext for segregating a privileged, mainly white, elite, from the impoverished and oppressed masses. National self-determination was inherently connected to racism, since “race” and “nation” are historically almost synonyms, between which the United States has managed to drive a wedge with the help of its own peculiar history, though even in the United States, that unique post-national nation, the recognition of equal citizenship for nonwhite peoples is a recent development.
But the most important motive of all for the establishment of the new geopolitical order was peace, or more precisely, solving the problem of international war. World War I had delegitimized war. It was too horrific a sacrifice, and too obviously useless. It was no longer respectable to regard major wars between major powers in a romantic light, and desire them in a spirit of adventure, as had been common before World War I. World War I also largely delegitimized the entire pre-war political order, leaving a legitimacy vacuum, into which the United States breathed new ideas. Wilson’s vision for world peace failed catastrophically on the first attempt. The League of Nations provided a pretext for naivete on the part of the great powers, then failed to stop any of the new aggressions of the 1930s. But the second iteration of the Wilsonian vision, the United Nations-led world order that was formed after WWII, was far more successful. The post-WWII decades, in spite of the long tension of the Cold War, has been unprecedentedly peaceful. There were no head-to-head conflicts between major powers, and while there were some proxy wars, the worst of these were one or two orders of magnitude less bloody than WWII. Conscription was eventually abolished, and dying in war became a negligible risk for those born to rich countries. War became a phenomenon largely restricted to poorer and more backward parts of the world, and even there it rarely took the form of a contest for territory between hostile states. The 1991 Gulf War, in which an enormous US-led coalition under the auspices of the UN forced Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, confirmed the emergence of a new world order in which the “sanctity” of “sovereign” borders was safeguarded by a credible threat of collective action. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 violated this principle, but overall, the Wilsonian world order has for the last few decades been stunningly successful in mitigating the historic scourge of international war.
A few contradictions within the Wilsonian vision are worth mentioning. First, there is a conflict between national self-determination and national sovereignty. National sovereignty cannot really be established until national self-determination has atrophied, just as monarchy cannot really be established until the opportunities to make oneself a monarch have been closed off. A sovereign nation enjoys secure dominance within a given territory. Its dominance cannot be secure if sections of that territory enjoy a right to secede. This leads to hypocrisy, in that nations continually evoke national self-determination in their own bids for independence and then repress movements favoring secession from themselves. Of course, in a mythical world where nationality was an essential, necessary, and unambiguous part of each human being’s identity, and people of the same nationality naturally lived in contiguous territories and in harmony with each other, then this problem would not arise. Nationalism was a potent ideology in the late 19th century and may have induced some people to imagine that the world really was like that, while today some such myth seems to propagate itself through a lazy-minded reading of maps and simplistic analogies that assume a Zambian’s Zambianness and a German’s Germanness and an American’s Americanness must fill the same niche in people’s identities. But in the real world, nationality is a far more protean, fissiparous, varied, and even inessential and superfluous phenomenon, so nationality can’t really provide a rational basis for the definition of borders partitioning the entire landed surface of the globe. Many of the world’s borders are quite arbitrary, and alien to the consciousness of the peoples on whom the Wilsonian geopolitical order has imposed them.
While the Wilsonian order has seen a welcome decline in international war, it has also seen an explosion of global economic inequality, as some countries have remained at subsistence level and may have even seen their living standards fall, while others, home to a small minority of the world’s population, have seen continual economic growth leading to unprecedented affluence. The Wilsonian order has not mitigated, and may even have exacerbated, the problem of civil war. Indeed, one of the special scourges of the 20th century– ethnic cleansing and genocide– seems to have taken its cue directly from the new ascendancy of the nation-state as a political ideal, which makes national minorities an intolerable anomaly, to which their expulsion or extermination is the only solution, though they may have coexisted peacefully with the majority nationality for centuries when nationality had not been rendered politically important by prevailing ideas of governmental legitimacy. Thus the Turks massacred the Armenians and the Greeks and Turks expelled each other, the Germans killed the Jews and then the Czechs and Poles expelled the Germans, a million died in the Partition of the British Raj, on religio-national lines, into India and Pakistan, Indians were expelled from Uganda in Africa, the Hutus murdered the Tutsis, Yugoslavia fragmented in bloody disarray along religio-national lines, and so on. Wilson’s dream of making the world safe for democracy had an ironic triumph in the fact that almost all the world’s countries now call themselves democracies, and hold elections, but without freedom, which Wilson neglected, this kind of “democracy” is fictitious, with rigged elections, suppression of opposition parties, a subservient state-run press, and so forth. And of course, “national sovereignty” protects dictators from the intervention of foreigners who, whatever their faults, are often more liberal-minded. Germany and Japan had the good fortune to be reconstructed by America, since they forfeited their national sovereignty temporarily by launching an aggressive war, so they are prosperous democracies, but elsewhere the conduct of powerful Western states is conditioned by the peculiarly modern idea that it is somehow right for them to tolerate the misrule of regimes deplored alike by the West and by their own subjects, and which the West could easily overthrow.
What relation there is, if any, between the “sanctity” of borders with respect to international war and foreign interference, and the closure of borders with respect to international migration, is not clear. Chronologically, the sanctity of borders in both these senses dates to about the same time. Universal passport regimes were established in World War I, and stayed in place thereafter, at about the same time that Wilsonian norms were being embraced as the new desideratum of international relations. The freedom of states from foreign interference and their right to regulate international migration, though logically separable, seem conceptually related.