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Journal Article

National Self-Determination in Historical Perspective: The Legacy of the French Revolution for Today's Debates

Chimène I. Keitner
International Studies Review
Vol. 2, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 3-26
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The International Studies Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3186303
Page Count: 24
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National Self-Determination in Historical Perspective: The Legacy of the French Revolution for Today's Debates
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Abstract

This essay examines the role of the nation-state principle in international politics-that is, the often tacit assumption that nations and states are or should be congruent-and that a presumptive right to national self-determination exists where this is not the case. The political resonance of the "nation" and sympathy for claims to its ethical primacy come largely from the association between nationhood and self-government, a connection often traced to the French Revolution. On both the historical and the conceptual levels, the experience of the French Revolution offers key insights into the logic of national self-determination and its implications as an international political standard. The nation-state principle rests on the idea of the nation as an automatically cohesive and distinct portion of humanity that, by its very nature, is entitled to self-government and freedom from external intervention. In fact, an analytical framework derived from the revolution shows how the tenacity of the nation-state principle threatens efforts to develop more flexible models of governance. Pinpointing the tensions and clarifying the premises underlying this principle contribute to understanding and resolving conflicts over the legitimacy of political and territorial claims.

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