Stephen J. Del Rosso: Playing with Dynamite

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As the world awaits Crimea’s post-referendum fate and the international response, echoes of an earlier era continue to reverberate:  “The President’s  declaration as to the right of ‘self-determination’…is bound to be the basis of impossible demands…and create trouble in many lands…The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives…”

So said Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s prescient Secretary of State in 1918. Wilson never actually invoked the term but his Fourteen Points statement of American war aims that year spoke of the “readjustment of borders along clearly recognizable lines of nationality.” Four years earlier, in a rare moment of historical symmetry from two seemingly polar opposites, Vladimir Lenin had promoted the “self-determination of nations” as an essential step in moving closer to the victory of capitalism over feudalism and the presumptive triumph of socialism.

Lenin’s notion of “nationalist in form, socialist in content” led to the institutionalization of Soviet republics with titular leadership by one dominant ethnic group. While this formula channeled national sentiments into “safe” forms of cultural and limited political autonomy under strict centralized authority from Moscow, it also sowed the seeds of multiple post-Soviet conflicts that remain unresolved today. However ideologically divergent, the pronouncements of both Wilson—who as a Virginian, some say had secession in his bones—and Lenin were, in their own ways, similarly incendiary.

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