V. 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.--President Wilson January 8, 1918 Fourteen Points.
Much of President Wilson's Fourteen Points reads as if it is inspired by Kant's Perpetual Peace. (Some other time I'll say more about this and their shared program of peace based on international law, confederation, and commercial flourishing.) For the present purposes it is important to note it shares with Kant's blue-print a preference for self-determination, and a marked distaste for colonialism and imperialism. (That Kant was not always so Enlightened is by now a familiar fact.) For, regardless of Wilson's (well known) racism and hostility toward African American emancipation, Wilson's international program is explicitly aimed at "all the peoples of the world" and it embraces a program of "equality among the peoples of the world." (The latter quote is in the context of reassuring Germany that after its defeat it will not be subordinated.)
Wilson's fourteen points were received as an anti-colonial manifesto by many colonized peoples. But Wilson's formulation introduces considerable ambiguity. Here I want to focus on two elements: first, how does one decide the "interests of the populations?" In particular, does one believe that the formerly colonized can articulate and decide their own interests. For example, John Stuart Mill infamously thought (recall) paternalistically that many nations were not ready for self-government. Mill's argument was not fundamentally racial, but rather based on cultural and economic factors in line with his broader theory of civilizational development.*
Wilson's fourteen points offers no hint of such a theory of cultural/economic development as a pre-condition to self-determination. All he seems to require is that (i) "every nation" can participate on a basis of equality," as long as their "purposes are consistent with justice and the peace of the world." By 'justice,' I think he means, justice in its dealings with other peoples, that is, accepting international treaty obligations and natural right. This is clearer, perhaps in (ii) his claim that world "be made safe for every peace-loving nation which, like our own, wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world as against force and selfish aggression." This (ii) is very important because unlike, say, Kant, Wilson does not require that the participating states are republics (in Kant's sense, that is, what we would call 'liberal' or 'representative' democracies with division of powers). Wilson is clearly allowing countries to opt for non-republican institutions. (I take it this is a nice gesture toward then revolutionary Soviets, and various monarchic countries.)** It is notable that the quotes from Wilson talk of 'peoples' and 'nations' (not states); this is a clear rupture with the Westphalian (1648) framework.
Second, and more problematic, what might he mean with the "equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined." There are, in turn, two issues here. (A) Some diplomats at the time believed that this was a general limitation on Wilson's claim such that only the colonies of the defeated powers (Germany, Ottoman empire, etc.) would be involved. And these would then be subject of mandates/trusteeships. This is not entirely implausible given the later developments at Versailles and the League of Nations. But this does no justice to Wilson's wording. So, I think an alternative is more likely.
Rather than seeing this as a limitation such that only the colonies of defeated powers are involved, it is more likely that (B) Wilson is thinking that the former colonial governments should be compensated for their would be loss. After all, it was quite common then to think that reasonable expectations were the bedrock of justice, and that colonial masters had developed reasonable expectations about the returns on their property rights and substantial investment in colonized places. These expectations would now be violated and so deserved equitable compensation.
The idea in the previous paragraph were familiar to Wilson's audience. For such compensation had been used to end slavery in the British West Indies in 1833. To simplify "The British government paid out £20m to compensate some 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of their "property" when slave-ownership was abolished in Britain's colonies in 1833." Mill mentions it (without condemnation) in his Principles.**
Given Wilson's exact wording one may, in fact, see him as constraining the extent of such compensation. For, such compensation would have to be paid either by the newly liberated countries (a manifest injustice) or by the former colonial motherlands (as Britain did). But if the latter this entailed a massive transfer of income within the (formerly) colonial nations (often from the working poor toward the colonial rich)--as it did in Britain.
One may well object, and fairly object, that one shouldn't profit twice over from a manifest injustice. But the thought is an uncomfortable one politically because, as any American President surely realizes, the origin of property rights is (recall Spooner) rarely without blemish.
*That is not racial is most evident in his Principles of Political Economy, where (in the 1848 edition) he praises emancipation of Negro slaves, but seems understanding of continued slavery in Slavonic states (on civilizational and economic grounds).
**I thank David Levy who alerted me to the issue and the relevance of Mill.