chapter  4
6 Pages

Self-Determination Reconsidered (Confluence, Vol v, 1956)

Criticism of President Wilson and the other peacemakers of 1919 has ranged across a wide field: they have been accused alternatively of having adopted principles incapable of translation into practice, and of having betrayed those principles for the sake of national aggrandizement or sheer vindictiveness. Sometimes the roles of the individuals are separated, and Wilson, the transatlantic innocent, is spoken of as though he had been fooled by wilier Europeans; as though he had indeed been a ‘blind and deaf Don Quixote’, in the foolish and damaging phrase of Maynard Keynes, a man whose literary skill so concealed the poverty of his political thinking that he was able to fasten his opinion of the Peace Conference on a whole English-speaking generation. In fact, neither of the charges is true. The peacemakers-all the major ones-were men of principle; all of them, as the recently published notes of their private meetings show, sought conscientiously to mould stubborn reality a little closer to their own ideals. Wilson was not the dupe of his colleagues, nor indeed, except in some relatively detailed aspects of the problem, was he very far removed from them. His importance was that he gave voice more clearly than anyone else to the principles that all men of goodwill believed to be essential to an enduring peace. And who are we, living in the unease of a temporary settlement based upon the confrontation of sheer opportunism with a dogmatism harsher and narrower than Wilson’s, to reject these principles? What do we offer instead? Would it not be fairer to look again at the most celebrated of them, the principle of self-determination, and see what it still has to offer, or what modifications it needs after almost forty years?