THE world is facing an identity crisis. In nations on every continent, including the United States, people who feel their heritage is threatened by the domination of others are seeking recognition. The traditional cohesion of the nation-state is being challenged. The newest manifestation came in the separatist vote last week in Slovenia, a constituent republic of Yugoslavia. But the same espousing of ethnic nationalism is seen dramatically throughout the world.
Ironically, this global pressure for recognition of ethnic identity in modern nations comes at a time when the once warring nations of Western Europe are moving toward a European identity. A United States of Europe is still far off. But this trend toward unity in Western Europe runs counter to the separatism evident in other regions.
Humankind's search for individual recognition and dignity has always been part of the global scene. In the empires of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the Ottoman, separate identities were recognized as long as the suzerainty of a distant imperial capital was acknowledged. With centralization of power increasing in the 19th century, less room existed for individual ethnic expressions.
Then colonialism, with its doctrines of racial superiority, came to an end, and the peoples of Asia and Africa could, after two centuries, assert their individualism.
The same tensions that are threatening the integrity of Yugoslavia appear also in the Soviet Union, where republics from the Baltics to Georgia seek independence. Even in Eastern Europe, enjoying the fruits of new freedom, Slovaks stress their separateness from Czechs.
Africa, after independence, sought to create new identities within the borders bequeathed by the colonial empires. In many places, this task of creation was successful.
But the strains of economic problems and oppressive regimes have created new identity struggles. Civil wars in Somalia and Liberia arise, in part at least, out of the feelings of tribal groups that they have been ignored or disadvantaged by the ruling practices of another.
Identity is also a significant factor in the problems of the Middle East. Despite deep political differences, Arabs consider themselves Arabs, whether they live in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, or Morocco; as the present conflict over Kuwait has demonstrated, the perception of a humiliating past under Western domination haunts the politics of the region.
In this region, also, adherence to a religious faith, whether Islam, Judaism, or Christianity, has been the basis for strong identification with a community and its heritage. Efforts to bring peace to Lebanon, for example, continue to be complicated by fears of Christians that their identity will be lost in a Muslim-dominated country.
In the United States it took a civil war to firmly establish a national identity. Since that time, the US has been a successful community because successive waves of immigrants have accepted that identity. Homelands were not forgotten, but pride grew out of being Americans. But today in the US, some disadvantaged groups put the strongest emphasis on their national origins. And, in Canada, the people of Quebec seem nearer to the establishment of a nation that will symbolize their Francophone identity.
The rise of this demand for identity is understandable. Those deprived of the privileges of power and prestige have little trust in those who once dominated them. In the minds of their more assertive leaders, their only recourse is either to seize power or to become independent.
The result is a many-sided conflict - bitter and violent in places - between those who stress their new freedom to claim a historic identity and those who seek to create or preserve a larger identity in multi-ethnic nation states. The conflict embraces religion, language, territorial rights, and race. Where no middle way seems possible, extremists who tolerate no identity other than their own take the lead.
Most of the wars today are civil wars. Conflict in the decades ahead is likely to center, not so much on disputes among states, as on efforts within states to find a balance between national cohesion and an honorable recognition of the separate characteristics of groups within the society.
The outcomes of these internal struggles will weigh as heavily on world peace as potential rivalries between great powers.