THE prime ministers of Estonia and Latvia visited Washington recently and received reaffirmation of United States support for their countries' right to self-determination. The case for their independence, and for the secession of the other Baltic state of Lithuania, is an easy one to make. The forcible absorption of these countries into the USSR by Stalin during World War II has never been recognized by the US or other Western powers.
The principle of self-determination, first enunciated by Woodrow Wilson as one of the Fourteen Points at the World War I peace conference, rapidly became a popular one. In this era, self-determination has become a universal goal for the many oppressed peoples of the Soviet Union, Eastern and Central Europe, and elsewhere.
It seems natural and desirable that all peoples should be able to determine their national affiliations and independent political structures. The problem comes in implementation. Typically, the political vehicle to self-determination has been a referendum to ``determine the will of the people.'' Yet such referendums are notoriously difficult to interpret. As evidenced by the March referendums in the Soviet Union, the specific wording often leads to different results.
A vote for self-determination may also be a vote for or against a particular political leader or regime. The outcome is also distorted by which specific groups can and do participate in the voting. There are always minorities within the boundaries of the new states produced by self-determination who find themselves oppressed and who want to define their national identity in some different way than the majority. These problems lead most historians of earlier nationalist eras to decry the ``Balkanization' ' effects of self-determination.
Above all, self-determination is a concept that, once invoked in one setting, rapidly spreads to other peoples and regions. We have witnessed such international contagion in the past two years as the Soviet empire has collapsed. Within the Soviet Union, the weakening of the Communist Party's hold on the ``czar's prison of nations'' has brought nationalist fervor not only to the Baltic peoples but also to Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Moldavians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians. Virtually eve ry former communist state in Europe has multiple nationalities within its borders, and each of these nationalities has a claim to self-rule and independence and a legacy of grievances against each other.
In the past few months, we have seen these new and dangerous nationalisms grow increasingly out of control. Across the Soviet Union, nationalist groups are destroying the union and contributing to a breakdown of public order that may provoke a reaction by the military. The new and still fragile democratic government of Czechoslovakia is endangered by nationalist Slovaks who shouted down Vaclav Havel, the democratically elected president. Hungarians in Romania have taken advantage of the political uncert ainty in their country to press for self-rule or secession. Nationalist disorders have spread beyond the former Soviet bloc to threaten Yugoslavia with fragmentation or civil war. And if the Estonians can be independent, why not the Scots in Britain, the Bretons and Corsicans in France, the Tyroleans in Italy, the Lapps in Norway, and the French Canadians?
During the cold war, Western observers applauded even modest signs of ethnic nationalism in the East as potential sources of weakening the Soviet juggernaut. But it is no longer in our national interest to champion the principle of self-determination in these troubled regions. The US will not be served by the creation of dozens of ministates in Eastern and Central Europe. Their economic viability will be doubtful. The prospects for democracy will be overwhelmed by the tasks the new states will face in r eining in even their own nationalist movements. Even within their narrow borders, these ministates will inherit sizable minorities who do not want the new nationality and who will feel, and may in fact be, oppressed. Their international alignments will be complicated by their animosities toward their former oppressors and their neighbors.
As the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and other states struggle to maintain territorial integrity and unity, Americans must remember that we fought a long civil war for those same goals. We need to be understanding of similar desires by Soviet, Czechoslovak, and Yugoslav leaders to preserve their unions.
Thirty years ago, African leaders faced the same problem of containing the nationalism set afire by the drive for independence. They inherited a set of boundaries that had been imposed by colonial masters interested only in settling their own conflicts over who could claim what part of Africa. These boundaries showed no regard for the human or historical geography of that continent.
As independence was achieved in Africa, there were many voices calling for a redrawing of the boundaries to unify peoples living in two or more countries or to respect historical nations. African leaders wisely rejected those calls and agreed to accept the frontiers as they were without changes. The oft-divided Organization of African States has made this one of its central purposes and thus has helped minimize internal turmoil and war in Africa.
It is time now for leaders to do the same in Eastern and Central Europe. The African example might well prevent the dangers and instability of Balkanization.