Democracy also means the right of the people to self-determination, says Europe’s only absolute monarch HSH Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein. That right has been far less empowering than it should have been. But a new interpretation of self-determination could herald a new era for democracy

When looking at the future of democracy, one has to take into account human history. Over the thousands of years of recorded history, we see that states or empires are born, they grow and they disappear. Either they collapse or they are taken over by more powerful states and empires.

There have been periods of time when smaller states or decentralized empires prevailed, and others when larger and more centralized states or empires dominated. If one can find out what elements influence human history over longer periods of time, one will be in a better position to understand human history and to make better forecasts about the future of democracy.

Throughout human history, war has been the most important element that influenced the birth, size and death of states. It is interesting to note that when technology favours the aggressor, larger and rather centralized states or empires dominate. When technology favours the defender, small or decentralized empires prevail.

Another important factor is free trade. Small states are much more dependent on export than large ones because they cannot produce everything inside their territory.

With the end of the cold war, and with the United States as the only military superpower left for the foreseeable future, wars of aggression between states have become much less likely than in the past.

The United Nations and international law protect the independence and sovereignty of small states as long as they stay within certain limits concerning a peaceful coexistence with their neighbours and the respect of basic human rights within their territory.

Over the past few decades the restrictions on the trade of goods and services have been removed to a large degree. Advances in technology, regarding transportation and communication in particular, have created a global economy.

Small states that integrated into the world economy turned out to be much better off than large states that tried to produce everything within their borders.

If the assumption is basically correct that in the past changes in the economy and military technology influenced the size and structure of states – and that now the advantages of large centralized states in this area have mostly disappeared – what developments can we expect for the future?

In recent decades we have already seen a mounting pressure inside centralized states to decentralize, so that local people can better influence their own future through more democracy.

Where decentralization was not possible or did not meet the expectations, states broke apart – some of them peacefully, some of them in civil wars.

Unfortunately, modern technology gives us far more dangerous weapons than in the past. Atomic, biological and chemical weapons have the potential to inflict tremendous destruction on the human environment for generations.

Small groups that have the technical background are already now able to produce biological and chemical weapons. Scientific knowledge, especially in biotechnology, is accumulating and spreading very rapidly over our planet.

It is becoming more and more difficult to make forecasts of what kind of weapons can be developed over the next decades with this knowledge. Therefore, we should think now about how to eliminate one of the major causes of civil war and terrorism in human history. Let us accept the fact that states have lifecycles similar to those of human beings who created them.

The lifecycle of a state might last for many generations, but hardly any member state of the United Nations has existed within its present borders for longer than five generations.

The attempt to freeze human evolution has in the past been a futile undertaking. It has probably brought about more violence than if such a process had been controlled peacefully.

Our task is to make sure that all those inevitable changes are not solved on the battlefield with weapon in hand but at the ballot box with ballot-paper in hand. This can only be achieved if the states of this world are based on democracy. The vast majority of the member states of the United Nations see democracy today as their guiding principle.

Unfortunately, in many states only lip service is paid to this principle, and even in countries with a long democratic tradition the democratic principle is applied in a rather restrictive way.

Democracy also means the right to self-determination. The right of the people to self-determination stands prominently in the UN Charter as well as in other international documents. But reality looks somewhat different.

In the UN Charter the right of self-determination is limited by the respect for the integrity and sovereignty of existing states. Many states interpret this to mean that only during the decolonization process does the right of self-determination enjoy precedence over the sanctity of borders.

Even states with a long democratic tradition have difficulties in accepting the idea that their population has the right to question the existing borders. One of the arguments is that earlier generations have already made the choice to belong to this state or this nation and that succeeding generations are therefore bound by this decision.

To put such restrictions on democracy is problematic for several reasons:
»With few exceptions, present borders have not been established in a democratic process.
»Every democracy accepts the idea that its constitution and laws can be changed in a democratic process.
»In a democracy the majority decides. History shows that, even in well-established democracies, the majority can suppress a minority. If there is not a clearly defined right of self-determination for a minority, the rule of law and democracy can be the first victims. This can easily lead to a collapse of the state either through civil war or some other mechanism.

Restrictions on self-determination threaten not only democracy itself, but also the state that seeks its legitimacy in democracy. Restrictions on self-determination cannot be the answer, but rather the extension of democracy and self-determination down to the smallest community.

It is not enough to build democracy from the top down. We also have to build democracy from the bottom up. Some people believe that such an extension of democracy and self-determination will threaten the political stability of the modern state. I think the opposite will happen.

A restrictive interpretation of the right of self determination has in the past led to violence, civil wars, ethnic cleansing and the break up of states. The international community is usually only willing – if at all – to apply the right of self-determination to minorities of a certain size, who are different from their neighbours in race, religion, language and culture.

One of the main problems is that there are not many areas on this planet of a certain size that are ethnically clean. Where minorities live within a state, there are parts where the minority is the majority in an ethnically mixed background and other parts where they are again a minority.

To split the state according to this interpretation of self determination creates only new minorities and new problems. Very often we see that minorities are politically split. Some would prefer to remain in the original state as long as they have some autonomy. Others prefer independence.

A better solution would be a new interpretation of the right of self determination in the following manner: the right of self-determination should be given to communities such as cities or villages, and independence could only come at the end of a longer process of different levels of autonomy.

The communities would have to prove to their population over a number of years that they are able to handle the problems of self-government and self-administration. The advantage would be that such an approach would lead in most cases to the decentralization of states, not to their collapse.

If the international community accepts the concept of democratic legitimacy, including the right of self-determination at the community level, it would break the monopoly of the state on its territory and its people.

The state would have to compete peacefully against other states in offering the best service at the best price to its customers. Those customers would be the communities within its borders and its population.

If a state is not competitive enough it will lose customers to other states. This would then not be decided by wars as in the past, or by emigration as is the case today, but by a democratic vote inside the community.

John F Kennedy once famously said: “Don’t ask what your country what can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. But this is only one side of the coin.

The state and its representatives, either politicians or civil servants, should look at the other side of the coin as well. They should say: “Don’t ask what the citizen can do for the state, but rather what can the state do for the citizen in a better or more efficient way than any other organization.”

This other organization can be a private enterprise, a local authority or an international organization like the European Union or the United Nations.

When I first discussed these ideas with politicians in Liechtenstein and abroad, they argued that the people would never accept such a concept, which could destroy the integrity of their state. At least in Liechtenstein this is not the case. Nearly 65% of the Liechtenstein people voted in favour of a constitutional reform that includes the right of the community to abandon the Principality of Liechtenstein if the majority of the people in a community decide to do so.

Of course the 11 communities of Liechtenstein already enjoy a high degree of autonomy, so full independence would probably bring no advantages.

I am convinced that if the international community accepts the principle of democracy and the right of self-determination, we will be able largely to eliminate wars and the oppression of minorities. We may not be able to create paradise here on earth. But at least we can improve the political and economic situation of the majority of its inhabitants.

HSH Hans-Adam II
Hans-Adam II is the reigning prince of the Principality of Liechtenstein.