WASHINGTON — NATIONALISM may well be the geopolitical trend of the decade. From Slovakia to Slovenia and Croatia to Kazakhstan, so many new countries have risen from the ruins of multiethnic empires that mapmakers are panting to keep up.
Experts worry that the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia won't be the last big, fractious states to shatter on the anvil of history. India and Pakistan could be riven by ethnic and religious conflict; Iraq might split into a Kurdish north, a Shiite south, and a Baghdad-dominated center. Racial reconciliation might yet tragically fail in South Africa, and Russia itself is bedeviled by pesky separatists such as the Abkhazians.
How is the international community to keep this fragmentation from degenerating into frightful war, as has happened in the Balkans? Should the United States always back self-determination as a basic human right? How can diplomats help groups such as the Kurds, whose members spill over the borders of a number of different nations?
When it comes to the historic nation-state system ``there is a need for fresh thinking of a kind not seen since the peace settlements of the 1920s,'' claims University of Chicago Prof. Gidon Gottlieb, writing in the latest issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
The abstract argument that all cultural-linguistic groups that want their own nation should have one is difficult to oppose, Dr. Gottlieb says.
The problem is that the movement of borders, which the creation of new nations entails, often leads to fighting. The edges of the old Soviet empire, as well as the former Yugoslavia, are rife with conflicts caused by efforts to shift borders.
The historic lands of ethnic groups often overlap, instead of abut. Thus, self-determination is a more complicated endeavor than simply snipping the stitches of a patchwork quilt. To help avoid the mass movement of peoples that now characterizes Bosnia, Gottlieb proposes ``soft'' approaches to national communities. These would be something less than independent states but could still provide some autonomy and a sense of belonging.
``The idea is that essentially you leave territorial borders unchanged,'' Gottlieb said in an interview.
Among the ``soft'' nations-without-states Gottlieb suggests:
* Functional spaces. These are zones that would be analogous to free-trade zones or port authorities. Within them people would have certain freedoms, but the overall sovereignty of existing states would not be challenged. Per agreement, passports are no longer necessary to move about in much of the European Union, points out Gottlieb - yet France, Belgium, and other nations have yet to crumble.
* Historic homelands. A people with an emotional attachment to a particular area might be allowed basic rights of safety and cultural expression within that space. If carefully done, several groups might be allowed such rights within the same area - helping to ease competing, traditional claims on land such as now bedevil Bosnia.
* Special status. A people without a country might receive some recognition from the international community. The Palestine Liberation Organization has long had full diplomatic relations with many nations, yet until recently it has had no spot of ground to call its own.
* National identity. Enclaves of people separated from their historic homelands might be granted an identity short of citizenship to call their own. Thus, the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians now living in new countries on Russia's perimeter might receive a grant of Russian nationality ``designed to extend diplomatic protection and confer privileges inside Russia itself,'' according to Gottlieb.
Yet, whatever halfway houses can be erected to contain homogenous ethnolinguistic groups, agitation for separate states is likely to continue. The idea that every nation should have its own state, and that distinct groups should not be oppressed by others, ``has been the most powerful political force of the past 200 years,'' writes Michael Lind, executive editor of The National Interest, in a companion piece on nationalism in Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Lind argues that cohesive nationalism is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for creating a democracy. When states contain linguistic or cultural fault lines, democracy almost never works, according to Lind.
Among the multinational states that have disintegrated are Cyprus, Lebanon, Sudan, and Czechoslovakia, as well as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada still qualify as multinational states, but the first has a high degree of canton autonomy and the latter two are now experiencing severe national upheaval.
US diplomats might well learn a few rules of thumb from nationalism's success, Lind says.
``To begin with, the United States should refrain from making gratuitous statements in favor of state unity,'' he writes. ``In civil wars where ethnic or cultural differences are at issue, partition should no longer be considered the last resort.''