Opponents of any kind of American military intervention in the affairs of other countries will frequently cite the concept of national self-determination as a justification for their position. In their view, it is the right of “the people” of a particular country to “choose” what political arrangements will exist in that country. But this, by itself, is a muddled claim. When encountered by it, the best approach is to ask, “What is meant by ‘the people’?” and “Who is doing the choosing?”
There are two fundamental and mutually incompatible ways of interpreting the term “the people.” Either, “the people” could mean “each and every individual, in his own capacity as a decision-maker” or it could mean “the government, using as the justification for its actions some kind of mandate from the people -- be it the decision of a majority or some other claim to legitimacy.” A somewhat different, but related, formulation of the second case might be “the majority of the population of the country, insofar as it tolerates the existing government by not rebelling against it or by not having already overthrown it.”
If we take “the people” to mean each and every individual, then the right to choose means the right to take whatever actions a given individual sees fit to further his life, liberty, and property -- without infringing on the identical rights of all other individuals. If this premise is granted, it follows that there are certain courses of action that the government cannot take -- such as killing or expropriating an individual who has not taken anyone else’s life or property -- no matter how many people or how many officials want this action to occur. The right of an individual to life implies a prohibition on killing that individual for everyone else -- governments and majorities included. This is the basic formulation of the concept of individual self-determination.
On the other hand, if governments have the right to do whatever course of action is sanctioned by majority rule, claims to divine right, “reasons of state,” “the common good,” “the greatest good for the greatest number,” or political expediency -- then it follows that there exist cases in which individual rights can be infringed by governments in order to obtain these allegedly “higher” ends. The government can justify killing an innocent man because the majority of his hateful neighbors wanted this to happen -- or it can justify killing him because the dictator wanted to take his property without his further resistance. Once “the people” is equated with “the government,” it becomes all too easy for the men in power to follow the example of Louis XIV and proclaim, “L’état, c’est moi!” (I am the state.) This, in essence, is the explicit formulation and implication of the idea of national self-determination -- although its proponents would certainly never put the matter so bluntly.
Indeed, advocates of national self-determination have recently been heard to claim that “the Iraqi people” “chose” to live under the murderous, sadistic regime of Saddam Hussein. How did “they” “choose” this? Did “they” love Saddam Hussein? Probably not, considering how many of “them” he killed. Did “they” at least not attempt to rebel against him? In fact, thousands of them did -- on multiple occasions. He just happened to have more resources at his disposal than they did -- so he crushed the uprisings and killed them. What national self-determination has come to mean is -- in essence -- that the lack of a successful internal rebellion against any form of government necessarily legitimates that government. Indeed, by accepting the premise that the government can have legitimacy apart from protecting the inalienable rights of every individual under its jurisdiction, the proponent of national self-determination will often be led to argue the old Leibnizian optimist position that “What is, is right.” They may not want to advocate this position, but national self-determination taken to its logical conclusion necessitates that they do so -- and many fall into this trap.
While national self-determination can provide a justification for any government on the basis of its mere existence, individual self-determination imposes more rigorous criteria; it requires that the government in question actually be just by protecting every one of its constituents without itself infringing their rights. If any government violates this purpose, then -- in the words of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson -- “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.” What, then, is meant by “the people” in this formulation? To remain consistently within the framework of individual self-determination, “the people” means “each and every individual, in his own capacity as a decision-maker.”
Consider this: if you individually had the abilities of Superman and the resources of Bill Gates, by the theory of individual self-determination, you individually would have had the right to go into Iraq, overthrow Saddam Hussein, and remove any other unambiguous violations of individual rights that you observed. You would, of course, not have any moral or legal obligation to do so -- because to impose such an obligation on you would be to violate your own right to liberty. Besides, you could not possibly fulfill such an obligation consistently -- as there are also major individual rights violations in Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and tens of other countries and minor individual rights violations virtually everywhere in the world. How would you know which would be the best way to prioritize among these competing deeds of benevolence? Which people would you need to save first? While this question cannot be answered in an abstract, morally unambiguous way, it is clear that if you chose to save any person from political oppression, you would be doing a good, generous, benevolent deed for that person. More basically, it is clear that you have the right to do this -- just as courageous individuals in the antebellum North had the right to shelter escaped slaves and conscientious citizens in Nazi Germany had the right to protect Jews from deportation.
Indeed, while virtually no one among us has the ability to individually liberate an entire country, we know numerous instances of courageous private persons who have saved tens or even hundreds of people from misery, oppression, and death at the hands of unjust governments. These people are typically praised as heroes, not condemned as violating any kind of alleged self-determination.
Where does the recognition of the right of individual self-determination put American military intervention? All that can be said is that it is the right, but not the obligation, of the American military to remove oppressions of individual rights wherever they can be found. For instance, opponents of the Iraq occupation may cite other prudential reasons for opposing the occupation, but they cannot say that the U. S. military had no right to occupy Iraq in the first place. Serious objections can be made to the planning of the occupation, its duration, its management, and its continuation – but recognizing individual self-determination implies conceding that the occupation was at least legitimate from a theoretical natural rights perspective. It is still possible to oppose any particular proposed military intervention -- in Iran, North Korea, or elsewhere -- as unwise, counterproductive, or an undue expenditure of resources. But it is not possible to say that there exists no right for anybody -- America’s military personnel included -- to remove or correct oppressive governments wherever they may be found.