National self-determination was one of the most important and controversial concepts in twentieth century international relations and law. The principle has had a remarkable history, from Woodrow Wilson's assertion that the peoples of Eastern Europe ought to form their own national states in place of ruined multiethnic and multilinguistic empires after the First World War; to decolonization after the Second World War, when populations worldwide invoked a right to throw off the yoke of imperialism; to the breakup of and war in the former Yugoslavia at century's end in precisely the same area in which a nation's self-determination was first intended to be a panacea for the region's diverse peoples. And yet, national self-determination, if not always called that, has a much longer lineage. Some note its earliest appearance in 1581, when the Dutch claimed independence from Hapsburg Spain. However, it was not until the French Revolution when, as Alfred Cobban remarks, “the nation state ceased to be a simple historical fact and became the subject of a theory,” that a people's right to determine its destiny in international as in domestic affairs was first articulated and applied. The clearest instance of this articulation and application during the Revolution was the union of Avignon and France.
Edward Kolla is assistant professor, history, at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar (SFS-Q) <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
He thanks the participants of the 2010–11 International Affairs workshop at SFS-Q, the anonymous readers and editors of Law and History Review, and, especially, Brendan Hill and Karine Walther for comments on drafts of this article. David Bell, chief among many others, offered much help with the chapter on which this article is based; that chapter will appear in a forthcoming monograph on the impact and effect of the French Revolution on international law, specifically tracing the emergence of popular sovereignty as a justification for claims to territory from 1789 to 1799.