How to Research the Establishment and Recognition of a State?

Interview with James Montgomery Baxenfield and Kevin Rändi

The latest issue of the journal Acta Historica Tallinnensia (Vol. 28, Issue 2, 2022), guest-edited by Tallinn University junior research fellows James Montgomery Baxenfield and Kevin Rändi, explores various aspects of the de facto and de jure recognition of the Baltic states during and after World War I.

The topic of this special issue is centred on the diplomatic recognition of the individual Baltic states by the USA. However, other states had recognised these three new states already before the United States. Why did the latter grant this only in 1922? What special characteristics generally stick out in the process of international diplomatic recognition in the case of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania?

JMB: Well, if I were to offer an explanation why the United States only extended recognition in 1922 there would be less of a reason to read the issue. But what I can say is that while other states had already recognised the republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, in 1922 the US recognised the governments rather than the states themselves. In itself this distinction is emblematic of how ambiguous the topics of diplomatic recognition and self-determination are, both in the past and in the present day.

While there are several characteristics that come to mind, without going into too much detail about what the contributors to this special issue explore in their articles, perhaps it is the practicability to other states that stands out the most, at least to me. It can be all too easy to reduce obtaining recognition of independence to a matter of political will, but this is misleading. Particularly in the changing political landscape following World War I, viability is perhaps one of the most obvious and yet underexplored aspects of securing diplomatic recognition. While one of the problems that nations like Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians faced was that they were comparatively unknown internationally, it was not enough to demonstrate that they had histories and languages, etc., but the political leaders needed to demonstrate that they could sustain economies and militaries, at the very least. There were often numerous parties laying claim to particular territories. In some instances, the resolution of such situations came down to a matter of which group most competently managed their affairs. In others, it appears that personal relationships often played a decisive factor. The range of situations and resolutions found within the Baltic states is one of the most striking characteristics. No doubt this is why they are often utilised as examples within studies of self-determination and recognition practices.

Self-proclamation and self-othering are important aspects of (political) self-determination. In the case of a multiethnic state such negotiations can lead either to demise or cooperation. What are the determining factors or relevant instruments applied by a group dominating such a dialogue?

KR: Indeed, as many theorists have repeatedly pointed out, “the self” that “determines” itself is vague, and so it requires the substance of who and the form of determining, which can lead to serious negotiations. However, in a case where we are not able to talk about self-determination as a right that is part of international law, there is another engagement with the concept – when it is not seen as the right of all peoples, but a group has to justify or demonstrate that they too have the right to self-determination. In the context of the Baltic states’ endeavours after World War I, this second engagement played an important role. And, I believe, Eva Piirimäe emphasises this in the afterword of this special issue, when arguing that the idea of self-determination became something more decisive for the Baltic states while the term was also used as an instrument for power politics. It was exactly the persistent justification by the Baltic peoples through forming diplomatic relations, conducting campaigns, and so forth, that they place themselves among those people who have the right of self-determination.

Like James just said, the Baltic states of that time had many different potential claimants and situations. So, it seems there were also many possibilities for both dissolution and cooperation. However, the occasional want to cooperate could have stemmed from the need to be taken as the subject – as the peoples – that have the right to self-determination in the first place. Of course, there were a multitude of selves with different identities, which raises the question of who ultimately proclaims the “the self” that “determines” the form of government. This further raises important questions about justice. Nevertheless, as the Baltic states’ context shows, the question about “the self” was preceded by mutual work that helped some peoples to be seen as viable for the right of self-determination.

Why is the concept of self-determination so challenging to apply in historical research? Do the looming challenges also bear any unexpected opportunities either in the Baltic context or elsewhere?

JMB: I think one of the more challenging aspects is that terms, whatever they may be, are often viewed as having a fixed definition. Quite often that is not the case, and they can change significantly over time. With this special issue that did not cause too much of a problem. All the contributors were dealing with some aspect of recognition in the Baltic states between 1917 and 1922. It is a relatively short period of time, so changes in the meaning of self-determination and related terms are fairly easy to follow. Nevertheless, the meaning of the term does change, even within the five-year period that the special issue focuses on, and it is something to be aware of concerning historiography.

Moreover, people understand terms differently, too. The variables are rarely straightforward, such as a person coming from a specific place, or speaking a particular language. Often it is an assortment of determining factors. General observations can be made in most cases. In some, where there are sufficient sources available, you are able to build up very insightful interpretations. But that only applies to that individual, the next person will have a whole different set of determining factors as to how they view a term or idea.

Another challenge, more specific to this special issue, is that, in retrospect, it is sometimes easy to look at the past and see history as a series of sequential events that swiftly follow from one episode to the next. Sometimes, when you are dealing with a relatively short period of time, it can be more difficult to see contingencies and redundancies.

Perhaps the real challenge of researching self-determination rests somewhere between these two: finding the right subject or level from which to write about it, and to keep in mind that the past was not predetermined. Despite the challenges, the sort of historical thinking it promotes can be applied to most terms, ideas, and phenomena.

Interviewed by Airi Uuna