Woodrow Wilson, thou art mighty yet.
One hundred years ago, President Wilson took the United States into World War I to "make the world safe for democracy," and to uphold the principle of national self-determination. In the wake of the war, new states were carved out of the Russian, Ottoman, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires, their borders determined by some combination of Great Power jostling, popular referenda, and inter-communal violence. The Wilsonian vision was that a world of nation states would be more peaceful, after a transitional period, and that the governments therein would be more representative of and responsive to their respective peoples.
The luster of that vision has dimmed quite a bit over the century since, in large part because the process never seems to end. The "war to end all wars" did no such thing, and the subsequent, more terrible and more global world war was launched not only to create new world-girdling empires, but also to exploit dissatisfactions on the part of multiple states and stateless groups with the details of the post-World War I Wilsonian settlement. In the wake of World War II, the victorious allied powers institutionalized internationalism through supra-national organizations — NATO, the United Nations, and the organization that would become the EU — while at the same time decolonization birthed a vast new array of states. And after the end of the Cold War, the era of globalization dawned even as yet more states, from Croatia to East Timor, were carved out.
The latest petitioner for self-determination is Kurdistan, a bit of unfinished business from the carve up of the Ottoman Empire. The principled arguments for a Kurdish state are by now well-known. The Kurds are the largest distinct ethnic group in the Middle East, and arguably the largest in the world, to lack a state of their own. They have maintained their distinct identity in the face of both brutal violence and systematic state suppression, and their territory has natural contiguity. In Iraq, they already have autonomy, an effective fighting force, and control of oil resources that, if well-managed, could finance broader economic development of the country.
Finally, the Kurds were not only promised a state by President Wilson as part of the post-World War I settlement — a promise that the mandatory British rulers of what would become Iraq refused to honor for mercenary reasons — but, since then, they have answered America's calls repeatedly. They rose against Saddam Hussein in 1991, only to be cut down when the Iraqi dictator managed to retain power. And they have been America's ablest and most consistent regional allies in the fight against ISIS. Will we repay that loyalty with another betrayal?
The arguments against are also well-known. An independent Kurdistan carved out of Iraq would inevitably seek union with the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, and Iran, destabilizing the politics of those countries even further. Widespread violence would be the likely result — and for that very reason there is a real risk that those neighbors would invade the new state as soon as it is born. In principle, independence should not be a unilateral matter, but something negotiated between the restive region and the central government, and those negotiations will likely be derailed by a referendum that Baghdad rejected in advance.
Moreover, notwithstanding Kurdistan's human and natural resources, the track record of new states created in recent years, from Eritrea to Kosovo to South Sudan, raises legitimate fears that after independence Kurdistan would quickly devolve into another corrupt klepto-state. Indeed, some argue it already has. And if America pledged its support to the creation of a Kurdish nation, it would inevitably become responsible for that state's failures — and vulnerable to manipulation on its behalf in conflicts with its neighbors.
It is easy to describe the above as a conflict between principle and pragmatism — the Kurds deserve a state, yes, but on the other hand perhaps giving them what they deserve is too dangerous at present. But there is a much deeper conflict of principles at play here, one that more fully explains why there seems to be no end to the making of states in our time.
The very idea of a prescriptive principle of national self-determination presumes some kind of neutral arbiter not only capable of assessing whether a people is truly deserving of self-determination, but also in a position to enforce that judgment, as the allied powers in World War I were briefly able to do. But any entity with that kind of power, whether formally vested or merely wielded effectively, itself profoundly compromises the very notion of national self-determination.
If all states are subject to that kind of supra-national or quasi-imperial authority, and cannot cross it for fear of punishment, then in what sense are they truly sovereign? And how can a state be truly dedicated to the liberal international order, whether as a member of that community or as the kind of single arbiter that the United States has at times declared itself to be, without ceasing to think of itself first and foremost as a distinct nation state?
And yet, we have no other principle to turn to when forced to confront the question, as the Kurds have done, which is why claims of national liberation still have power even as the leaders of the liberal order increasingly consider nationalism itself to be anathema. If being a distinct people suffering from historic persecution and collectively demanding independence is not enough, then what would be enough? If there is no way to legitimate such claims, then what is left but the rule of force?
Well, would it be so terrible if we admitted that while might may not make right, it's hard to make right without it — and that might from the outside is no substitute?
The Kurds are where they are precisely because they have fought to be there. Whether they use that power for positive or negative ends is something we may be able to influence — but the existence of that power is the real reason why the Kurdish question is a live one.
We talk about nationalism as if it comes in good and bad varieties — good if it is liberating, bad if it is aggressive or oppressive. But fundamentally, nationalism is not a principle to be embraced if good or rejected if bad. It is a natural force in human affairs, and like any natural force it can have good or bad effects — or both simultaneously.
If we stopped treating national self-determination as a prescriptive question, and started treating it merely descriptively, as something we observe in operation rather than something we must judge, we could still respond to human catastrophes as human catastrophes. We could work to defuse conflicts and salve wounds without taking a principled stand on any kind of right to national self-determination. And we could still make prudential judgments on whether recognizing a nascent state is the most sensible course, whether because it is the most feasible way to end abuse or because it is the only resolution those seeking independence are likely to accept. But we would no longer be deluded by the vision of a world of states finally settled, peace achieved on the basis of impartial justice.
The pragmatic case for recognizing Kurdistan, if it comes to that, is more than anything that the Kurds are not giving up, and we might as well recognize that fact. And we will best know whether that fact is a fact if the Kurds themselves believe that they have earned their independence by their own fierce but prudent determination, then by successfully soliciting our sponsorship on the basis of undead Wilsonian principle.