Doug Muir has a post up at A Fistful of Euros today which discusses Wilsonian ideas of self-determination, in which, I think, he is rightly skeptical of them. I am pre-disposed towards skepticism towards any form of group rights generally, in the sense that it is not obvious to me that groups have any moral standing as such, which of course makes it difficult for them to be the bearers of rights, and the supposed rights of Wilsonian self-determination looks like a paradigm case of the sort of group rights that'd lead you to be skeptical about. It looks rather to me like any moral standing Wilsonian self-determination has in any individual case comes from harms which are conceptually separate from violations of an alleged right to self-determination.
Muir's case of the Kosovars is illustrative here. If the Kosovars ought to be independent of Serbia, that is because the Serbs have systemically and grossly violated a number of basic rights of Kosovars simply because they are Kosovars, and the Kosovars have every reason to suspect that they would be leaving themselves at grave risk of similar treatment were they to remain part of Serbia. That does not obviously have anything to do with the Kosovars being a nation, other than it being the basis on which their oppressors picked them out. Muir's claim, which seems to be something like a collectivity's right to self-determination being activated by the violation of other rights, is I think the best a Wilsonian is going to get out of cases like Kosovo and even decolonisation struggles. Even that though seems to privilege nationality, in some broad sense, as a basis for the formation of polities, and I don't see, non-pragmatically, why that should be the case.
If there are any rights to collective self-determination, it seems obvious to me that they must flow from some individual rights to self-determination. Presumably the argument runs along the lines that in order to achieve and maintain levels of security of environment to enable individuals to be self-determining - to have the freedom to shape their own lives - collective action to provide a series of goods through a number of institutions is necessary. The collectivity has rights in the sense that all its members have a right to assign certain powers to a collectivity in order to secure certain institutional environments which provide them, the members, with the means to certain rights. The Wilsonian position, which emphasises nationality, seems to me to restrict, for no obvious reason, the use of those individual rights. It is not clear that the only collectivity to which I might want to assign those rights is the nation. I might hate my nation, and prefer to live in another nation altogether, or a sub- or supra-national group.
More importantly, a polity shaped around my nation might not necessarily be the best place for me to achieve the ends of individual self-determination that serve to justify its existence, most obviously in the sense that it might not be economically viable. National self-determination in such a case would then at least be ill-advised, in the sense that it would make people worse off than they need be. That's not to say, of course, that it would be impermissible. The problem that the Wilsonian has is that they abitrarily restrict the kind of groups to which the right of individual self-determination can be partially handed to. My position is much broader than that: you can hand your right to create a polity to any group you so desire, including nations.
Obviously, given that the vast majority of people are members of some recognised polity or other, there are restrictions on the exercise of that right because of its effects on the other members of the polity in question. It would be a clearly illegitimate exercise of the right to use it to extract tax concessions, for example, by threatening to leave unless they were granted. Still, my view does imply that if a group in general wants to leave, is prepared to relocate or compensate in some way those who do not, can be trusted to uphold the rights of the members of that group, and will not have a seriously detrimental effect on the remainder of the state, they should be able to, regardless of what kind of group they are. I'm not even sure that they should necessarily be territorially continuous.