In the ferment that ensued from the disruptions of the First World War, a number of ideas were floated as a potential basis for establishing some kind of lasting foundation of peace. One of these ideas was called “self-determination”.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “The idea of a new basis founded on the principle of national sentiment seemed at one time to be taking within a limited field the shape of a practical proposition.” He further notes that at the time it was a conception grounded in the realities of Europe and represented an attempt to reorganize boundaries to recognize natural affinities rather than the artificial constructs which had arisen from centuries of disputes, warfare and imperial actions across the continent. Of course, “realpolitik” got in the way of this ideal and it was only successful to the extent that it coincided with the goals of the imperial powers of the time, and was otherwise disregarded.
The concept however was notable for the development of a psychological unity as the basis of nationhood: “However imperfect the application, this practical enforcement of it, if effected, would have meant the physical birth and infancy of a new ideal and would have held forth to the hopes of mankind the prospect of its eventual application in a larger field until it came to be universalized. Even if the victory of the Allies put an end to these high professions, it is no longer possible to consider this ideal of a rearrangement of the world on the basis of free national groupings as an impossible dream, an altogether chimerical ideal.”
In fact, when we observe the events following the second world war, with the dissolution of the empires of the major European powers, and the development of the United Nations, we see the creation of over a hundred new nations under this principle of self-determination. Thus, what was observed in its infant and imperfect phase in the early years of the 20th century, became an actual and practical reality with real results in the middle years of that century. This does not imply that it has fully succeeded in overcoming the forces of domination and imperial ambitions, but at least the concept of self-determination has now been recognized as an important factor that should not be disregarded in the future.
Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 18, The Ideal Solution — A Free Grouping of Mankind, pg. 165