THE tragedy of Somalia presents the incoming United States administration and the world today with a new kind of dilemma: what to do about a nation-state that has totally disintegrated.
The world has seen famine, the breaking up of a nation, and civil war before, in neighboring Ethiopia. Liberia, another African nation, is ravaged by a civil war along tribal lines, not unlike Somalia. Lebanon is divided into bitterly contesting religious factions. In Bosnia, following the breakup of Yugoslavia, a presumptive new nation is being carved up by two outside predators, Serbia and Croatia.
In each of these situations, however, some semblance of authority exists with whom outsiders can seek to negotiate a political settlement. That does not appear to be the case in Somalia.
In that unfortunate country, all semblance of national authority has disappeared, and the region is divided into at least four domains of callous, tribally based war lords - not unlike the China of another era. No other contemporary situation is quite comparable. Despite illogical colonial boundaries, divided tribes, and fragile political systems, the disintegration that besets Somalia has not spread to other African countries.
In another era the problems of a Somalia would be the concern of a colonial power - or ignored. But today the dramatic, rapidly transmitted images of the dead and dying stir the global conscience. The victims of Somalia's disintegration cannot be left to starve, and the United Nations, with the support of major countries, seeks to provide relief.
The provision of such relief proves extremely difficult when warlords seize supplies to feed armed marauders, unmoved by the disaster befalling their fellow Somalis. What can the world do?
In Ethiopia, following the collapse of the Mengistu regime, sufficient authority remained in Addis Ababa to work out a political settlement. The situation there is far from settled, but shows signs of improvement. In Lebanon, neighboring Syria has imposed a fragile stability. In Liberia, a West African peacekeeping force seeks to restore a semblance of order. In the former Yugoslavia, political leadership exists that is capable - if it so wishes - of moving to greater stability.
In Somalia, however, the UN and others who would help the people are reduced to bargaining with at least four different warlords - not over a longer- range prospect for the country, but over the immediate conditions for providing food and medicine. UN action, beyond shipments of supplies, has been limited to providing 500 Pakistani troops. Their mission appears to be confined to reopening the port of Mogadishu, and even that is difficult.
To the outsider, it seems doubtful that major improvement in the Somali situation will be possible until some form of new political authority can be established. But how can that be accomplished?
Can the community of nations impose order? In Liberia, the West African peacekeeping force, led by Nigeria, sought at first to negotiate with claimants to power, but now finds itself in actual combat with the forces of one of the pretenders, Charles Taylor. It seems highly doubtful that any group of nations would be prepared to pay the costs and take the risks of a military solution in Somalia. And what would follow such action, where no claimant to power in that tribally based society has national suppo rt - a UN trusteeship? To much of the world, particularly among the newer nations, that solution would awaken visions of a new colonialism.
No other nation in the region has ambitions to govern Somalia - as Syria does in Lebanon. And few in the world community are totally happy with the "Syrian solution" in that country.
Ironically, Somalia was ethnically and linguistically one of the most homogeneous countries in Africa. Hope for ultimate stability may yet lie in the basic homogeneity among the proud Somalis.
Until that prospect is realized, however, the global community has no magic formula to heal a mortally wounded nation-state.
The only alternative appears to be to continue to improve the conditions for humanitarian relief against heavy odds until some now-unforeseen opportunity arises to bring Somalis together to negotiate a more permanent political settlement.