Professor Edward Kolla of Georgetown University Qatar delves into the history of the idea of popular sovereignty, its roots in the French Revolution, and its relevance to territorial claims in more modern times. Professor Kolla is the author of Sovereignty, International Law, and the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2017). A lightly edited transcript of the video follows.
The central idea of my book, as the title probably indicates, is the impact and effect of the French Revolution for the history of international law. More specifically, I was looking at how the idea of popular sovereignty began to have an effect in international law, which was something that French revolutionaries hadn’t originally envisaged. Popular sovereignty is probably the central idea of the Revolution, both domestically, but also for international law. It’s the idea that the people have control of the government. And, like I said, initially French revolutionaries didn’t envisage this idea applying to all peoples. But, soon, through a series of diplomatic incidents, people–first on the margins of France–started to take up this idea of popular sovereignty and claim a role for themselves in making territorial claims in international law.
The book charts how these ideas spread, first from the margins of France, but then how the revolutionaries themselves started taking up the ideas and using them later, once revolutionary wars break out, to start making territorial claims of their own. This is something that goes against the historiography of the Revolution in a couple of ways. First of all, the Revolution isn’t really examined much in the history of international law. But, with respect to the Revolution itself, people tend to think about revolutionaries making these claims to try and change the international system—to try and change the world. Whereas, initially, this impact of popular sovereignty outside of France’s borders was something that revolutionaries were actually quite timid about applying. So it is actually a story of revolutionaries kind of being caught between a rock and a hard place; they wanted to stay true to these ideas of popular sovereignty when peoples outside of France were starting to take them up (in places like Corsica and in places like Avignon, which had been controlled by the Pope). But, over time, the revolutionaries saw that these ideas were fundamental principles that they held dear, but also could be quite useful—like I said, in that later period of revolution, when they started using them to make territorial claims.
Overall, the book is kind of an origin story of a principle that by the twentieth century comes to be called national self-determination; again, the idea that peoples themselves get to choose the status of their territory. We see that idea in the news all over the world today. Just last year, there were plebiscites in Catalonia for independence from Spain and in Iraqi Kurdistan for independence from that country. So, you see this principle of peoples making claims that their status—the status of their territory—could change in international law based solely on the people’s choice. This is a very important principle in the world today, and it dates back to the time of the French Revolution.