The Right to Self-Determination and America’s Selective Morality

Theo Wayt, Contributing Writer

The most-often invoked portions of the Declaration of Independence speak not in terms of Americans or Brits, but in terms of all men, and American politicians have long considered the Declaration’s assertion that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed” to be a self-evident truth. The Declaration has become more than a series of separatist grievances circa 1776 — it has become a Liberal Democratic Manifesto.

And in matters of foreign policy, America has often called upon rhetoric from this manifesto. The United States, we tell the world, is acting on behalf of the repressed people, the people governed without consent who seek democratic self-determination. We often miscalculate the values of the people we liberate, yes — despite former Vice President and Halliburton stockholder Dick Cheney’s reassurances, we were not in fact greeted as liberators during the 2003 Iraq Invasion — but, as America’s favorite documentarian Ken Burns said of our calamitous war in Vietnam that killed roughly 30 times as many Vietnamese civilians as American troops, “It was begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings.”

Or perhaps not. For the U.S., the right to self-determination is more of a slogan than a guiding principle: democratic rhetoric is only brought up if the interests of the oppressed people more or less align with our own. Did Islamic fundamentalist fighters who opposed the Soviets in Afghanistan — including the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden himself — really receive billions of dollars in weapons from former President Ronald Reagan because they wanted an egalitarian democracy? After all, one of our current closest military allies and biggest oil suppliers, Saudi Arabia, frequently arrests journalists and activists who express views that do not align with the government’s and is considering death penalty for anyone “using social media to solicit homosexual acts.” These human rights abuses are certainly violations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but ignoring them is currently in the best diplomatic interest of the U.S.

In the past month, two acts of passionate, egalitarian democracy have made second or third-page headlines worldwide but largely failed to garner international attention. Two regions — Catalonia, a region of Spain including Barcelona, and Kurdistan, a province in Iraq along the border with Turkey — have sought independence through peaceful, democratic voting.


In Spain, Spanish security forces — not Catalan police, who largely refused to resort to violence — attacked polling stations and injured around 900 voters. The central government declared the vote unconstitutional, and Spain’s main police union described the protests as “more like Nazi Germany than what you see in any other country where democracy reigns and rights are guaranteed” — even though Catalans were among the most persecuted under fascist Francisco Franco’s Nazi-backed regime.

Further east, the Kurds have been the victims of genocide perpetrated by both the Iraqis and the Turkish. In an act similar to state-sanctioned Holocaust denial, the Turkish continue to deny the genocide’s existence, spending millions on propaganda to discredit historians. Iraqi Kurds, who were brutally poison-gassed by the Iraqi government less than 30 years ago, are currently seeking independence. Their referendum, held in spite of condemnation from both the U.S. and its regional archrival Iran, was met with economic sanctions and military threats from Turkey and the central Iraqi government.

For both of these independence groups, the lack of Western support — particularly from the U.S., a geopolitical taskmaster — will surely cause them to fail. For Spain and Iraq, listening to separatists does not make political sense; both nations benefit economically from the subservience of these regions. The independence referendums, stripped of political weight, have become largely symbolic — but their pleas for self-determination seem to be falling on deaf ears.

Both the Kurds, against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and the Catalans, against Franco, have struggled heroically against fascism, only to be oppressed by new governments. Even though their referendums may not be geopolitically expedient — “utterly befuddling from an international relations perspective” in the words of one analyst — the people’s grievances must at least be heard. The American policy of apathy-or-worse will only benefit those already in power.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. Email Theo Wayt at [email protected]A version of this appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 10 print edition.



  1. Although I generally agree with the hypocrisy embedded at the core of American foreign policy, the real question comes to determining what exactly people like you and me want as action. Do you suggest the United States declare their support for Kurdish and Catalan independence merely in a rhetorical fashion or with concrete actions? What exactly are these actions?

    One could say that although actions in Iraq were motivated by geopolitical and economic incentives, efforts at the backend of the Bush years and throughout the Obama administration were seeking to help build an independent Iraqi government, it just so happened that the chosen leader, PM Nouri al-Maliki, held a strong animosity for sunnis and Kurds, leading to a military full of corrupt yes men.

    Catalonia’s calls for independence are even more interesting and nuanced. Is it really in Catalonia’s interest to secede? Yes, Catalonia by far is stands at the vanguard of economic production in Spain of all the other autonomous communities, but could secession lead to economic isolation on the international stage? It seems so as friction between an independent Catalonia and the EU would lead to a strenuous process for Catalan admission into the customs union.

    Calls for the support of democracy are vital especially when the powerful look away. Nevertheless, it is important to be measured and nuanced in drafting the proper response or deciding if a response is even the right way to go.

  2. Regarding the validity of the Vietnam War: Many Vietnamese were killed on both sides, and much of the countryside was laid waste, but it took a communist victory to cause millions of people to take to the sea in rickety boats to avoid the catastrophe that they saw coming for them. That fact by itself says something significant about the rightness of the American cause in that war.


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