Taming self-determination: The trials of a political speech-act

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The right of peoples to self-determination lies at the heart of the modern quest for statehood. This century-old principle warrants a world of true nation-states, where national boundaries make state borders, not the other way around. I argue, however, that the concept of ‘self-determination’ has been effectively (ab)used to foil, rather than foster, its original goal, and explain why and how this paradox transpired. In theory, self-determination is a potent ‘speech-act’: by uttering, en masse, their demand for self-determination, people(s) can change their politics, even create new states. In practice, however, powerful actors have tried to tame self-determination – by appropriating this right from the peoples, and delimiting its applicability to oppressed, non-ethnic communities and to substate solutions. In the tradition of conceptual history, this paper traces the dialectal process through which ‘self-determination’ evolved, from its Enlightenment inception, through its communist politicization, to its liberal universalization and its current predicament.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)622-637
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Political Science Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2020


  • Self-determination
  • cold war
  • communism
  • concept analysis
  • decolonization
  • discourse analysis
  • ethnonationalism
  • liberalism
  • speech act
  • state formation


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