All this talk of self determination has got me thinking – is it an idea we talk about, or a reality? Can self determination really exist in a world where foreign influence in any state is a given? And if this is the case, what is the best case scenario for a population seeking to be truly self determined?
To begin, try to think of a country that's completely independent and receives no interference from abroad. Got one? Didn't think so. Nations have neighbours, with vested interests in the political affairs of next door. There are also a number of states (we need mention no names here) who feel their influence should extend beyond their backyard, and these often want a say in policy decisions. Financial institutions, aid agencies, NGOs – to varying degrees, all have an agenda for the countries in which they operate. Furthermore, nations have resources, a double edged sword which much of the world will attest is somewhat heavier for the majority on the cursed side. So if there is so much interference happening, how did we ever come to believe in self-determination in the first place?
I would have liked to distinguish between relatively benign interference and actual intervention here, but in reality the lines between the two become blurred. Economic coercion from an organisation like the IMF (the dreaded structural adjustment policies, for example) can have just as dramatic an effect on policy as military forces entering a country and forcing a regime change, so the internal / external distinction seems somewhat mute here. For the sake of argument, however, let's say there are two types of foreign obstacles to self-determination:
Relatively non-invasive attempts that leave a government with the ability to decide their own course of action independent of external actors;
Invasive coercion that leaves a government with (in practice) one course of action, namely to comply or face a heavy penalty
The grey areas are already massive, but it will help us in the discussion.
Now let's introduce Dictator Bob. He's the leader of an oil-rich state and has been steadily repressing the population of Country X with torture and brutality for some time now. His people, inspired by the revolutionary fervour of the 'Arab Spring', have decided that enough is enough – they want change, possibly democracy and certainly to stop being beaten with sticks. Bob has decided he quite likes being in power, and sends the army in to crush all protest, to which the international media responds with characteristically selective disgust (Dictator Bill in the country next door has been doing the same for years but keeps a stable flow of oil to the west and is mostly ignored).
Let us pause here for a moment to appreciate the myriad of ways in which this situation could pan out. Bob could use absolute repression and strong-arm his way into continued power. The rebels could prove to be well armed and well informed and take the centres of power, deposing Bob. The West could send in the cavalry and create some sizeable craters in Bob's security forces, along with some “collateral damage” villages for good measure. There could be a stalemate between the two sides to such an extent that the country is mired in civil war for years to come. All of these outcomes, and more, are possible. The point, however, is that whatever the result, there will be external actors at work to undermine genuine self-determination before, after and during the dust settling.
In the event of a truly invasive foreign presence, boots on the ground or otherwise, the chances of a healthy democracy (or other representative form of government) emerging on the other side become slim. Even with a non-invasive presence, a combination of market forces and back-room diplomacy can stifle the best laid plans.
So what are we left with? What is this thing we strive for? I think self-determination is many things. It is when the fervour doesn't die but evolves, into something more commonplace but just as powerful; it is when the CIA fails; it's a population that is willing to sit in meetings as well as march the streets for their country; it's a press that is able to report the failings of a new administration as well as the old. On a broader scale, it's an international community that is willing to raise diplomatic hell when borders are breached, literally or in metaphor.
Dictator Bobs are everywhere, and his people are legion; but there's a strength in that, no? In a very real way, we – in a West free from revolution – are engaged in exactly the same struggle as those in the Arab world and beyond, namely to take back the rights that are being eroded from us year by year. If we can agree on something, it's that the cry of 'ya basta' should be supported wherever it is heard.