Aspirations for Self-Determination Motivate Mideast and Balkan Struggles

By Voulangas, Nicholas | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1991 | Go to article overview

Aspirations for Self-Determination Motivate Mideast and Balkan Struggles


Voulangas, Nicholas, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The issue in the succession of tragedies in the Middle East is not terrorism or aggression. It is not appeasement or legitimacy. Nor is it jobs or oil. The issue is self-determination. Selectively smothered in its cradle for three-quarters of this century, it has never ceased its struggle to breathe the freedom promised in Versailles in 1919.

It is the same issue that convulsed Europe for a full century of conflicts, and which was recognized by Woodrow Wilson, America's president during World War I. He introduced a new concept into the lexicon of diplomacy: "Self-determination is not a mere phrase," he explained. "It is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril."

The intractable problems we face in the Near East today are not of recent origin. They are not just the lingering debris of the Cold War. Nor are they the echoes of Munich or Hitlerism. They are, instead, from the continuum of history, reaching back to the events that ignited the spirit of nationalism -- the French revolution and the Napoleonic Era.

Fertile Soil

The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1791), those universal ideals expressed by the French Revolution, found fertile soil in the mountains and valleys of the Balkan Peninsula. Those proud and ancient peoples -- Greeks, Serbians, Montenegrins, Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians -- long submerged under Ottoman rule, soon awakened to their origins and rose in a long struggle for independence which took them to the eve of the first World War.

President Woodrow Wilson came to the Conference of Versailles with a clear vision for permanent peace. His 14 Points were founded on a world of cooperation through law, universal justice and self-determination for all peoples. The Treaty of Versailles incorporated these principles.

The American public, however, couldn't grasp its broader implications. The Senate rejected the treaty and the 14 points for lack of the vision the 20th century demanded. The US abdication of its role in 1919 as a new world power set the stage for subsequent failures during the 20 short years between the two world wars.

Today we are confronted with the ominous consequences of having failed to understand the history of the Near East. The central dynamism in this region is an unrelenting struggle for self-determination.

The United States has yet to recognize, however, that it can neither create nor impose security and stability in this region with a policy based solely on a balance of power. Permanent security and stability can be achieved only in a climate of general tranquility within a community of nations commonly enjoying equality, participation and justice.

The Implications of Nationalism

President Wilson understood fully the implications of requited nationalistic aspirations. Point 12 of his 14 Points spoke for all the submerged peoples of the Near East:

"The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development..." (Address to Congress, Jan. 8, 1918, one year before the first session of the Versailles conference). …

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