Self-Determination as Imperial Policy

I am much concerned these days with self-determination as a bad thing in American foreign policy. By self-determination I mean the notion that we should support whatever groups wish to be free. The Kurds in Turkey. The Tibetans in China, and so on.

By a very fortunate coincidence, the more we promote freedom of this kind the weaker our enemies become; at an extreme the world entire consists of us plus an infinity of finely divided completely free groups. It is a commonplace that the larger the number of independent decisionmakers the harder it is for them to do anything together as a group. The collective action problem. It is for this reason that we don’t rely on victims to organize to solve environmental problems (we have the EPA instead) and for which we chose to form the United States and then killed hundreds of thousands of people in order to preserve them.

We tend to treat the promotion of self-determination as a selfless act of foreign policy, but it is not. Another name for it is the sowing of division, a very old tool of empire. A really selfless bit of policy would be for us not only not to encourage self-determination but instead affirmatively to promote the empires of others.  But that would be folly, for we would simply be creating the wolves that one day would turn upon us!

But wait, the definition of a selfless act is one that is against interest. If we don’t feel threatened by the promotion of self-determination abroad, that means it cannot be self-less. In our bones we know the promotion of self-determination to be a power play, a mode of domination all the sweeter in that it allows us both to dominate and to carry the mantle of selflessness.