February 16, 2018

Self-determination, Wilson and Estonia

President Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson

How and why did the principle of self-determination gain Woodrow Wilson’s support?

The US administration had to work hard to justify getting involved in World War I to the American people. For that purpose, the Committee on Public Information was created, led by George Creel. This committee prepared and distributed millions of leaflets and handed out posters. Creel formed teams of public speakers—so-called “Four Minute Men”—for domestic political propaganda. Journalism and posters supported fundraising, donations and state loans, and promoted mobilisation. Even President Woodrow Wilson’s slogan “Make the World Safe for Democracy” was developed by Creel’s group. President Wilson needed grand slogans to justify backing down from his previous promises. It became his major assertion that the US would intervene in the “war to end all wars”. A number of principles were highlighted in the hope that Americans would be willing to make sacrifices for them. In addition to prohibiting secret pacts, eliminating trade barriers, opening up the seas to traffic and other similar demands, Wilson’s name is also associated with declaring the principle of self-determination as a means of relieving tensions in international relations. However, this was not an invention of the Wilson Cabinet.1
The roots of self-determination have been sought in connection with the French Revolution and the independence of countries on the American continent. The rights of nations, and minorities in particular, were widely discussed in Russia and Austria-Hungary, and especially in the programmes of left-wing political parties developing in Germany. Before World War I, self-determination was far from becoming part of international law. It was talked about more in the sense of a principle, an idea, a programme, goal, demand or slogan. In Eastern Europe and other areas, it was difficult to distinguish clearly between linguistic-ethnic self-determination,Its social democratic derivative, in particular the radical (Leninist) idea of self-determination tied to the goals of the class struggle, and the territorial and partly historical-cultural identity-based self-determination later attributed to Wilson. Wilson was primarily influenced by the idea of self-determination prevalent during the French Revolution and before American independence, where the main topic was the relationship between an individual and the state. Wilson concerned himself with the opportunity of the people—but also the people as a group of citizens—to choose their own form of government. He remained true to that idea of self-determination until the end of his term of office. Wilson never used the term “national self-determination” in his speeches or writing. He spoke about the right of the people to choose through democratic means a form of government suitable for them.
The British Foreign Office used a similar concept of self-determination in January 1916 as a sort of “package” for promoting a democratic form of government. This was motivated particularly strongly by the Irish Question. Wilson agreed with this kind of approach.2 The self-determination slogan seemed to go together with democracy as the idea that saves the world. For him, self-determination did not have a separate meaning—it was merely a measure for spreading and strengthening democracy. Due to the formation of the Russian Provisional Government, the US had an especially strong propagandist argument for joining the war in the spring of 1917. Wilson and the US were ready to back down from other principles, even the idea of self-determination, to support a democratic Russia. Today, it is similarly said that in Spain, Catalonia’s right to self-determination should not be allowed to overshadow the fact that Spain itself is a democracy.

Insoluble Conflict

The issue stretches back at least a hundred years. Alongside the plans for ending World War I, one challenge in international relations that has not so far been solved became critical. It constitutes a dilemma, or rather a paradox: Which is more important for establishing and maintaining peace—emphasising particular values, such as national (ethnic) interests, needs and requirements, or securing democracy, order and stability? This issue is particularly acute in a situation where these two factors are mutually exclusive or at least seriously limit each other, such as in solving conflicts between self-determination, sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is not clear whether self-determination is a single and final act, such as establishing an independent state, or a lasting, repeated and continuous process—such as creating and strengthening autonomy.3 Another issue is the minimal effort for realising self-determination—is a public statement, manifesto or a law enough; should elections, voting or a referendum take place; or should an institution/representative body be formed etc.? Neither is it clear who has the right to self-determination. Is it an individual, a social, religious or other kind of group, an ethnic nation, or the population of a particular area, such as a state—its people?

Turmoil in Russia

Throughout 1917, different interest groups in Russia discussed solutions to the question of nationality. They often used the concept of self-determination. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies turned to the Entente (the principal Allied powers in World War I) with the explanation that, during the upcoming peace conference, they would, in the name of Russia, give the full right to self-determination to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia—i.e. the areas under German occupation at that time. On 12 October, the Estonian Provincial Assembly (Eestimaa Maanõukogu) demanded, in turn, the same right for Estonia. On 15 November, on the initiative of the well-known legal expert Ants Piip, the Maanõukogu resolved questions related to convening the Estonian Constituent Assembly (Eesti Asutav kogu) and authority “based on the principle of the self-determination of the people”. It was decided to convene the Asutav kogu to create a final legislative and executive authority. Before this, the Maanõukogu had been the highest power. Hence, the principle of self-determination was used to define the form of government for the short term. This meant that, for the Maanõukogu, self-determination was a process, not a single and final decision.
Conflicts between different views became more acute when the Bolsheviks, who had seized power, used the concept of self-determination in late 1917 in the Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia and later in the Constitution of the Soviet Russia. By that time, the Bolsheviks understood self-determination as a tool in the class struggle. The right to self-determination did not so much belong to the nation as an ethnic-cultural unit but to a part of it—the working people, and in particular the proletariat and, further, to their party. The rapid de jure recognition of Finland by the Soviets in December 1917 was no exception. Civil war was expected to break out in Finland imminently, and Petrograd hoped the Red side would win. In Finland, the question of what form self-determination should take had already become a topic that split society. Finnish independence was supported by both the so-called bourgeois parties (the Whites) and the social democrats (Reds). Opinion differed over whether the decision to establish independence should be coordinated with the Bolsheviks, who had carried out a coup in Petrograd. On 6 December 1917, Finland chose the principle of unconditional self-determination.
The Estonian Provincial Assembly did not see its decision of 15 November enter into force—the approaching German army made it impossible for the Constituent Assembly to convene. This is why it was announced in the “Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia” on 23/24 February 1918 that, on the basis of the right to self-determination of peoples, Estonia was declared an independent democratic republic within its historical and ethnographic borders.
But what kind of principle of self-determination did this mean, and was it a firm and final decision? It could not have relied on Wilson and the US. On 8 January 1918, the US president had addressed Congress about his plans for ending the war and presented his “Fourteen Points”, which later proved decisive. The speech itself was prompted by events taking place in Russia. Before presenting his programme for peace, Wilson spoke at length about the Russians and their sister nations as a coherent whole. The reason behind this was the peace talks in Brest-Litovsk between the Bolsheviks and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), in which the issue of handing over some areas of Russian to Germany emerged. Wilson said that he did not approve of bringing the Russian provinces under the rule of the Central Powers, and supported the full sovereignty of Russia. Russia and its nations had to decide their fate together. In such a situation, it was unthinkable for Wilson to recognise the separation of Estonia or other provinces from Russia.
Bolshevik actions forced the US and other Western countries to specify the essence of self-determination, but Wilson thought it had to be realised on the state level first and did not constitute an automatic and irrefutable right to statehood and full independence based on language, religion, etc. Wilson did not unequivocally identify self-determination with the right to establish a nation-state. The other Entente countries did not rush to contradict him, as they accepted this solution and it would be unreasonable to create additional disputes with the US.
Other leading members of the US delegation preparing for the Paris Peace Conference with the president were even more conservative when it came to the issue of self-determination. Nevertheless, the views of the delegation, the State Department and representatives of other institutions were far from uniform. Wilson knew how to choose good specialists and advisers. “The Inquiry”, a study group of historians, geographers and social scientists brought together to prepare materials for the peace negotiations, warrants separate mention. In June 1918, the head of this group, Sidney Edward Mezes, was convinced that the separation of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Bessarabia had to be considered, since those nations were not part of the peoples of Russia and could thus not be forced to be subjects of Bolshevik power. However, even they were convinced that, if a democratic Russia could be recovered, Estonia and Latvia would probably become federal or autonomous parts of it. Should the Bolsheviks stay in power, the alternatives would be independence or a Baltic Federation. In the eyes of the Inquiry members Lithuania had to become independent, no matter what. Wilson still stood by his position—it was one thing if Russia decided to grant its minorities independence and another to demand this from outside.4

Contacts Between Estonians and Americans

A peculiar misconception has spread about the first meeting between the future diplomats of Estonia and US representatives. Lauri Mälksoo argues that, according to Ants Piip’s memoirs, Piip met the US ambassador to Russia, David Francis, in Petrograd, and that the ambassador listened to the Estonians but responded only with courtesies.5 There are several errors in this account. First, Piip was not in Petrograd at that time; second, the Estonian representatives did not meet the ambassador, who sent his concellor; and third, the response they got was quite comprehensive and significant.
The issue of the future of the Baltic provinces was discussed among the Entente on 23 January 1918 in Petrograd, when the Estonian representatives who had just been elected to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly (Jaan Poska, Julius Seljamaa and Jüri Vilms) asked the British Chargé d’Affaires for his advice in relation to the German army’s invasion that was threatening Estonia. The German side had promised to recognise Estonia’s independence if Estonia in turn submitted to the German protectorate. This option was even more feasible for Lithuanian politicians. The Council of Lithuania (Taryba) and groups of Lithuanians living in the US turned to president Wilson through the US Embassy in Switzerland and directly in Washington with the request to recognise the Lithuania’s independence, which was about to be announced, before Germany did. They stressed that Lithuania had no other alternatives and the act would constitute the restoration of a historical right, i.e. the restoration of a state that had been lost 120 years before. This was the main reason Lithuania initially ruled out being connected with Estonia and Latvia, since stressing historical rights and justice seemed to carry more potential than using the slogan of self-determination.
Unfortunately, Mälksoo’s research overlooks that, even though Ants Piip described the actions of the first diplomats in Petrograd in January 1918 at length, he is citing the recollections of Julius Seljamaa, not his own. Poska and Seljamaa visited the US Embassy on 25 January 1918, and the latter did point out that they were indeed greeted by an adviser. Two days earlier the Estonians had visited the British Embassy, and the British had had enough time to warn the Americans and ask for advice on what to say to them.
Even though the Estonian representatives alluded to self-determination in these meetings, they did not bring up the question of independence. They posed a dilemma for the Entente, presenting the issue of recognition more as a temporary solution until the convening of the All-Russia Constituent Assembly or the upcoming peace conference. In this way, the Entente was made indirectly responsible for the choice either to recognise Estonia straightaway or to at least promise to take part in the peace conference. It was confirmed to both the British and the Americans that, even though Estonia would have liked to be part of the Republic of Russia as an autonomous area, this possibility was no longer considered realistic in early 1918. The British were told that the homogeneous population of Estonia was against both the restoration of a tsarist Russia and becoming a German protectorate.
Hence, a request was made to recognise the independence of Estonia conditionally and temporarily at first, and reunification with a restored democratic Russia was not ruled out. For that reason, the British turned to the US Embassy and asked its ally’s position on the matter. They themselves preferred that the Baltic provinces remain part of Russia, but they were also willing to support their independence, if the opportunity existed, in particular if they formed a bloc together with Scandinavia, Finland and perhaps Poland.
US Embassy counsellor Joshua Butler Wright was taken by surprise by the revolution in Russia in March 1917; nor was he really informed about the ethnic problems there. However, the US was the first country to recognise the Russian Provisional Government officially in 1917. On 8 February Ambassador Francis sent a report to Washington about the talks between the councillor and the Estonians, and this reached the State Department one month later. According to the report, Poska and Seljamaa had asked only for conditional support—would the US also recognise Estonian independence if Russia did so? The American response was remarkable. He stated that the Estonians were given detailed information about US policy, taking account of both the general instructions that reached the embassy and the public statements by the president. (It is not completely certain whether the Estonians received such a full reply or whether the ambassador later embellished things a bit.) In any case, the Estonians heard that the US would sit on the fence, relying on the principles of democracy in the hope that the majority of the people of Russia would soon express their wishes.6 Thus, the US refused to extend the principle of self-determination to Estonia. It can be concluded from the same document that Poska and Seljamaa did not make any real demands, but rather just gave information to the US officials. At the time, they did not ask the Americans to recognise the Estonian Provincial Assembly or even the Constituent Assembly about to be elected, let alone the Republic of Estonia. (It would have been too early for the latter since the independence manifesto had not yet been issued.)
The next meeting with US representatives took place in Copenhagen on 5 April, in the form of talks with the Naval Attaché, Lt Cdr John Gade, and the Embassy’s Second Secretary, Lithgow Osborne. Following this meeting, the US Chargé d’Affaires in Copenhagen compiled a longer report for the Secretary of State, in which he recorded that the Estonians expected the US to recognise their self-determination, as it had the revolutionary decrees of the Bolsheviks. Since Washington avoided making a decision and giving a clear answer, Ants Piip turned to the US Embassy in London on 9 May 1918 with a document that went far beyond his previous declarations. He asked the US to recognise the democratic Republic of Estonia, not the Eestimaa Maanõukogu or the Eesti Asutav kogu. The State Department did not rush to give an answer this time either, but the de facto recognition by the UK and France, for example, was already known to Estonia, and the US Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, recognised Finland’s de jure independence on 19 May.
The pro-independence arguments of Estonia’s first representatives did not convince the US diplomats. The Wilsonian concept of self-determination guiding the Americans was not the only reason for this. The views of the Estonian delegation members themselves changed during 1918, particularly regarding a possible alliance with the Republic of Russia, a federation or some other democratic state-like construct that might have formed in Russia after the fall of the Bolsheviks. It was only in August 1918 that members of the delegation reached agreement and set full and final de jure recognition as their goal.
The previous lack of clarity was evident in the documents that reached Washington. Hence, on 27 November 1918, Lt Cdr Gade sent Washington a report about the Baltic provinces prepared by the Vice-Consul, John Lehrs, who knew the situation in Russia very well. The report described the formation of governments in Estonia and Latvia after the World War and the German occupation. It confirmed that the local elections (Maanõukogu) that had taken place in the summer of 1917 and the Asutav kogu elections in November 1917 had been won by parties that wished to maintain a connection with Russia. But it also stated that the attitude towards Soviet Russia was negative in both Estonia and Latvia. Secretary of State Lansing stated on the same day that, even though he understood the difficult situation Estonia was in, any premature steps must be avoided since the US had repeatedly, openly and officially declared its friendship with and loyalty to the Russian state and people.
Ambiguous signals from the Estonians continued to reach the State Department. The American Estonian League, formed in the summer of 1918 and led by Ivan Narodny (Jaan Sibbul), still tried to follow Wilson’s concept of self-determination. In a letter to the Secretary of State of 28 November 1918, the League stressed that institutions exercising the power of the people had been formed in Estonia on the basis of the principle of national self-determination approved by Wilson and the Allies, and that Estonia had been declared independent until the republican regime in Russia stabilised and the All-Russian Congress of Soviets decided the future of a federative Russia. Until that time, Estonia would be a prime example for Russia of a republic created by the people, for the people. Narodny also stated, in a letter to Piip in London, that he was working to achieve a “United States of Russia” and hoped that Estonia would become part of it. He also declared that he would never work for an independent and separate Estonia, which he considered to be impossible and absurd, both economically and politically. Narodny was willing to work for an independent Estonia that was to be part of Russia (a State in the United States of Russia), since he thought that public opinion in the US supported such a development.7
Wilson and his close colleagues never stated during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that the right of self-determination could extend to the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania did not gain independence thanks to Wilsonian national self-determination, as is sometimes stated in textbooks. An empirical historian would find a number of arguments to support the statement that the so-called Versailles system was created in breach of the principle of national self-determination. In the end, this concept did not even make it to the statute of Wilson’s main baby, the League of Nations. Neither was it used in peace treaties with Germany, Austria or Hungary, although many new European countries were created through those agreements.8 Even though the Republic of Estonia used the slogan of self-determination in justifying its independence, neither Wilson’s nor later US administrations ever recognised it unconditionally. De jure recognition was given to the Baltic states only in the summer of 1922, also conditionally. In the corresponding note it was confirmed that recognising Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania did not in any way mean that the US would back down from its stance regarding the territorial integrity of Russia.

The Dilemma for Estonia

For this reason we must ask: on what did Estonia rely when establishing independence? The answer can be found in the Treaty of Tartu:
In consequence of the right of all peoples to self-determination, to the point of seceding completely from the State of which they form part, a right proclaimed by the Socialist and Federal Russian Republic of the Soviets, Russia unreservedly recognises the independence and sovereignty of the State of Estonia, and renounces voluntarily and for ever all sovereign rights possessed by Russia over the Estonian people and territory whether these rights be based on the juridical position that formerly existed in public law, or in the international treaties which, in the sense here indicated, lose their validity in future.9
Linguistically this sentence seems quite awkward in Estonian, but one fact remains totally clear—the parties relied on the right declared by the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. For most members of the Estonian peace delegation, there was nothing special about this wording. They had had similar thoughts when preparing the Estonian Provincial Assembly’s decision on 25 November 1917, and it was repeated in the independence manifesto. Unfortunately, there was a problem with this wording that made the main author of the peace treaty on the Estonian side—Ants Piip—uneasy for years to come. Even 15 years later, Piip thought it was left undecided during the peace conference whether Russia disintegrated into equal parts or whether Soviet Russia was the successor of the former Russian Empire, from which individual countries separated based on the Bolshevik Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia, issued in 1917.10 Estonia’s greatest expert on international law was worried about this kind of wording and Piip regretted not having been able to add a corresponding clause in the peace treaty or change the wording of Article 2. He analysed this problem more thoroughly in a textbook on international law published in 1936. The Soviet side got what it wanted in the Treaty of Tartu and the Soviet Russia was recognised as the successor of the former Russia also by other great powers. That meant that Estonia and Soviet Russia were not equal sons of the “dead father” (Russia) in signing the treaty. Russia had, rather, remained the “father”, who allowed his “daughter” (Estonia) to leave home.11 Piip’s concern turned out to be well-founded, since Soviet diplomacy started using a similar allegory in 1939–40 stressing the Soviet right to take back areas separated in a moment of weakness.


Estonia’s “birth certificate”—the Treaty of Tartu—was written on the basis of a law issued by Soviet powers, and Estonia agreed to it. Ants Piip could thus foresee a development in which such an interpretation could create at least an indirect argument for attacking Estonia’s rights. On the other hand, such a concept of self-determination was expressly used in an international contract for the first time in the peace treaty between Estonia and Soviet Russia. This agreement and other peace treaties signed by Russia’s western neighbours did not yet fully become part of international law, but they were the first step towards it. Much has been written on many levels about the concept of self-determination itself, its ambiguity and development in time and space, since self-determination is a factor that has influenced the history of the whole world. The problems in the Middle East and Central Asia today are to a great extent tied to the fact that the so-called “mandate” areas handed over to the UK and France after World War I failed to develop a democratic state and a more stable identity based on this. Religious forms of cohesion continued to dominate, linguistic and cultural forms to a lesser extent. Statehood was connected more with belonging to tribes or other communities and less with the Western rule of law, and, unfortunately, also the Wilsonian principle of self-determination. The US even remained a bystander in dealing with such problems for a while. The subject of self-determination regained currency in 1941 (Atlantic Charter) on the initiative of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but that was of no great help to Estonia at the time.
1 Carole Fink, “The Great Powers and the New International System: 1919–1923”, in Twentieth Century International Relations, Volume I: The International System, 1815–1945 (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2007), pp. 254–7.
2 Dov Ronen, The Challenge of Ethnic Conflict, Democracy and Self-Determination in Central Europe (Routledge, 2013), pp. 49–50.
3 Brad Simpson, “The Many Meanings of National Self-Determination”, Current History 113(766) (November 2014), pp. 312–7.
4 Linda Killen, “Self-Determination vs. Territorial Integrity: Conflict within the American Delegation at Paris over Wilsonian Policy toward the Russian Borderlands”, Nationalities Papers 10(1) (1982), pp. 65–78.
5 Lauri Mälksoo, Rahvusvaheline õigus Eestis: ajalugu ja poliitika (Tallinn: Kirjastus Juura, 2008), p. 89. Sama inglise keeles – mul pole käepärast
6 “The Ambassador in Russia (Francis) to the Secretary of State, Petrograd, 8 February 1918”, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918. Russia. Volume 2 (FRUS) (US Government Printing Office, 1918), pp. 816–7.
7 Narodny to Piip, 21 August 1918, Riigiarhiiv, 1583 (1), p. 386, l. 33.
8 Trygve Throntveit, “The Fable of the Fourteen Points: Woodrow Wilson and National Self-Determination”, Diplomatic History 35(3) (2011), pp. 445–81.
9 Edgar Mattisen, Tartu rahu (Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1989), Annex 2.
10 Ants Piip, Rahvusvaheline õigus. Konspekt prof. A. Piip loenditest Kõrgemas Sõjakoolis 1934/1935 (Kaitseväe Ühendatud Õppeasutuste väljaanne 1935), p. 26.
11 Ants Piip, Rahvusvaheline õigus (Akadeemilise Kooperatiivi Kirjastus, E.K.Ü. “Postimehe” trükk, Tartu, 1936), pp. 91–2.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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