WHEN United States President Woodrow Wilson urged the noble concept of "self-determination" on European leaders gathered at the Versailles peace conference after World War I, not everybody was impressed.
"What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered," his own secretary of state, Robert Lansing, wrote later. "What misery it will cause."
As Wilson's frustrated heirs struggle to fashion a policy to deal with the violent struggles for self-determination in the former Yugoslavia, they must be tempted to agree. But like it or not, the simple principle championed by Wilson has burst forth as the dominant political motif of the post-cold-war era.
According to a recent study, minority populations in a third of the world's nations are now making strident demands for political rights within existing states or fighting for outright independence. The turmoil that has resulted in places like Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union poses a major new threat to international stability and acute dilemmas for American and European policymakers. "Dealing with national movements of self-determination is perhaps the most critical issue facing the US as it come s to grips with the new world order," says Morton Halperin, a former Defense Department official and co-author of the study, "Self-Determination in the New World Order."
"In a sense, self-determination has taken on a level of importance comparable to individual human rights in the 1960s," says co-author David Scheffer, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which published the report. "It is now the linchpin of US foreign policy."
Self-determination movements have been nourished by evolving interpretations of international law that accent democracy and minority rights, the report notes.
Through most of the 20th century, self-determination went hand in hand with anti-colonialism. The unraveling of colonial empires in Africa and Asia has tripled the number of nations on the map since 1945.
The collapse of communism has produced a different strain of self-determination, galvanizing ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities repressed during the cold war. Some are contained within existing states, some dispersed across national frontiers. The demands of some, like Tatars in Russia, have so far been accommodated. The demands of others, like Slovenes and Croats in Yugoslavia, led to independence.
During the cold war the US resisted noncolonial self-determination claims partly to avoid exacerbating superpower tensions or to preserve states, like Yugoslavia, that were counterweights to the Soviet Union. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US has been largely reactive, which is one reason for its initial reluctance to recognize the breakaway Yugoslav republics.
The Carnegie report argues that if the US is to avoid constant crises that create demands for US intervention, its policy toward self-determination movements must now be pro-active. The core of such a policy should be to encourage central governments to institute reforms that will allow minorities democratic rights and forms of cultural expression.
"The goal of that involvement must initially be to press a government to see that its self-interest lies in accommodating the interests of a minority group, rather than in triggering more extreme self-determination claims - even secessionist demands - by alienating it," the report says.
The US should also help mediate disputes, invoking sanctions ranging from revoking recognition, to economic penalties, to military intervention to prod reluctant states, the report says. Where independence for a minority group is the only alternative, the report says, the US should insist on preconditions to international recognition, including constitutional government, respect for international obligations, and a commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes.
"It's a matter of supporting a process, not choosing sides," says Mr. Scheffer of the Carnegie recommendations. The proliferation of self-determination movements imposes new demands on US foreign-policy makers, who for 40 years have been guided by the simple imperative of containing communism. Policy in the post-cold-war era will require more flexibility, the book says. And it will need to be based less on a narrow definition of US national interest and more on humanitarian considerations.
A senior US official says the Bush administration has sought to deal with issues of self-determination on the basis of its commitment to the principles of democracy and minority rights. But as recent experience suggests, other factors inevitably shape the US response to individual situations.
For example, the US wholly embraced the principle of self-determination in the Baltic republics as a way of combating Soviet expansionism. But it has opposed Palestinian claims to national rights, partly out of deference to Israel. In Iraq it has protected Kurdish and Shiite minorities but refused to champion independence, fearing the instability that could result from the fragmentation of a major Arab state.
In Yugoslavia the US has backed Bosnian independence, but stopped short of protecting it against Serb assaults to avoid getting involved in an unwinnable military conflict.
"There's going to be principle and pragmatism combined rather than saying there's one formula involved," the senior official says. "Each situation is different."