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Is Hawaii a Colony that Needs to Be Freed?

The Nation just published Hawaii Needs You: An open letter to the US left from the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. It's accompanied by a report on the sovereignty movement by Elinor Langer that largely echoes earlier commentary here at HNN, but is notable for its failure to put the movement in anything resembling the proper context. On Wednesday, April 30, a group calling itself the"Hawaiian Kingdom Government" briefly seized control of the former royal residence in Honolulu, 'Iolani Palace and are threatening to return and establish a working government. Though the movement to remove US jurisdiction from the Hawaiian Islands seems unlikely to succeed (even the moderate Akaka Bill is not going anywhere), there's a good reason why they think bringing it up now makes sense.

Kingdom of Hawaii Election - Sign Closeup

Over the course of the twentieth century there were three great waves of decolonization, when empires collapsed and new states were born. The third wave came at the end of the century, and may not yet be complete. As these global restructurings occur, there are always some questions about the limits of reform and change, some cases that tested those limits. What we're seeing now, fifteen years past the crest of the post-Cold War boom, is a series of movements which are typical of the tail-end of a decolonization wave: marginal, long-shots, deferred issues and festering problems. It is what binds together the questions of Tibet, Chechnya, the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, Kosovo independence and the Iraq war.

The first wave of decolonization came from the losses of World War One, with the partition of Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian territories. There was also Irish independence, one of the few cases of a winning nation decolonizing territory. Most of these new states were also nations -- people more or less unified by territory, language, religion, history -- which had at least some historical memory of independence, though rarely for long and rarely recently. There were a few notable exceptions, like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Iraq: territories which encompassed several peoples, usually in places that hadn't been free of some kind of imperial control for centuries. These exceptions were often held together by authoritarian central governments which suppressed internal dissent and regional identities and often didn't survive the passing of these authorities. There was also a massive set of deferred questions in the form of League of Nation Mandate territories, which were supposed to get self-determination when"ready" but remained under victor control until the second wave.

The second wave came, unsurprisingly, after World War Two, though this time both winners and losers surrendered territory: Japanese, French, British and German controlled areas -- some Mandate territories, some much older possessions -- became independent. Again, some of these new states encompassed reasonably well-defined nations, some of which had long-standing sovereignty movements: Korea, Poland, the Philippines, India and Pakistan. Some, though, most notoriously in Africa, were multi-ethnic states in which minorities held power over majorities, leading to decades of internal strife up to and including genocidal civil wars.

The third wave arrived at the close of the Cold War, with the collapse of Soviet Russian power. The relaxation of Communist control led to the separation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the abandonment of the Brezhnev doctrine led to the partition of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Some, like Czechoslovakia, parted peacefully, but Yugoslavia tore itself apart and Chechnya rebelled violently (and unsuccessfully) against the new Russian Federation.

In Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points speech of 1918, he called for"A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined." This formula left open the possibility that legitimate governments could maintain sovereignty over territories and peoples that wished to be independent, and that has, for the most part, meant that the desire for sovereignty wasn't enough against a stable government which preferred to maintain control. As a result, there have always been some potential new states which didn't meet whatever test was being applied at the time. The unsuccessful Korean attempt to regain sovereignty from Japan at the post-WWI Versailles conference is one of the more blatant cases of self-serving"victor's justice"; there have been many others.

Decolonization does not have to be a sign of Imperial weakness. The US and UK both handed over former colonial possessions at the end of their lease agreements: the Panama Canal Zone and Hong Kong. There's also the current process in Great Britain which is devolving considerably more power to Scotland and Wales as independent entities. The release of the Philippines in 1946 from its early 20c status as a possession certainly didn't arise from, nor produce, a sense of American decline. That said, strong states rarely surrender territory without extremely good reason, and even more rarely without bitter struggle: Algeria and Vietnam are perhaps the best known anti-colonial insurgencies of the 20c.

Systems theory pioneer Jay W. Forrester wrote that"Many of the problems the world faces today are the eventual result of short-term measures taken last century." That's certainly true of the current crop of anti-colonial movements testing the limits of our commitment to national self-determination. Others have noted the connections between our present problems with state-building in Iraq and the history of Ottoman collapse, Mandate and post-colonial state-building: the Kurds, in particular, are hoping that the destabilization of the post-WWI settlement can work to their advantage. The recent move by Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia and the failed Chechen uprising are clearly the tail end of the post-communist reorganization of Soviet satellite states; the failure of the latter and the success of the former are the result of the difference between the"equitable claims" of a long-standing power (Russia) and those of a relatively new, small state born in ethnic struggle.

The Tibetan sovereignty movement is in the spotlight at the moment, thanks to the recent unrest in Lhasa and the subsequent protests of the Olympic torch on its way to the Beijing Summer games. It's not a new phenomenon, having been continuously advocated by the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1951, but the collapse of the Soviet Union created a surge of hope, one sustained by a steady stream of rhetoric from the West regarding the likely democratizing effects of prosperity and vocal support from pro-Tibetan activists. The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Dalai Lama was perfectly timed to bring the issue to the fore at a time when the decolonization wave was beginning. The Chinese government, however, has maintained strong political control during economic liberalization and, taking note of the Soviet failures, apparently has no intention of carrying out political liberalization, much less minority liberation. If the Tibetans are going to gain autonomy or sovereignty, it isn't going to happen this time around. The cost of maintaining control in Tibet is relatively low; Chinese popular support for maintaining control is strong, as witnessed by counter-protests and boycotts in response to Olympic torch disruptions; the Chinese state is showing no signs of disarray or weakness.

Inverted Hawaiian Flag

But the Hawaiian sovereignty activists (and The Nation) can certainly be excused for thinking that their moment might have come. We're coming off of a twenty-year wave of decolonization, including the shockingly successful Kosovo split, recognized by many Western governments in a matter of days. Commentators -- liberal and conservative -- have been attacking Chinese law-and-order tactics, talking about Olympic boycotts over Tibetan issues, invoking the memory of the 1936"Nazi" Berlin Olympics and the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott, etc., all because a half-century-old colonial situation got ugly while the world was paying attention. The Hawaiian arguments in favor of independence aren't that different from the Tibetan ones which lots of folks seem to be in favor of, these days. Both are relatively recent take-overs of territories with strong traditions, both have a shaky legitimacy under the canons of international law, both have produced dramatic demographic shifts, including large numbers of military being moved into the subject territories. Both are subject to the control of imperial powers facing the limits of their power and internationally isolated on other issues. It's true that the official response to the movements is very different -- decades of often violent supression vs. benign neglect -- highlighting fundamental differences between the US and China in other areas, but the case the separtists are making is strikingly equivalent. And both are highly unlikely to produce any real change in the foreseeable future.