Citizens and `Right-Size' Nations

A NEW Year that has begun with both the breakup of Czechoslovakia into two separate republics on the one hand and the deepening integration of the European Community on the other provokes a certain amount of thought about what we might call the "right-sizing" of political units.

What is the most effective size for a political entity, not only in terms of economic and military survivability but in terms of the kind of community citizens relate to?

However far the Europeans have strayed from the original vision of the Maastricht Treaty, with a common currency and other provisions proving harder to implement than expected, the broadest trend does seem to be closer integration growing out of a recognition that Europeans must unify to counterbalance Japan and a North America united into its own "common market."

And yet there has been a similar sort of inevitability in the other direction as the Czechs and Slovaks have gone ahead with their split, inevitably compared to a divorce, which gives the world two even smaller units where one already smallish one was before. Any number of cities, in the United States or elsewhere, would have a larger gross domestic product, surely, than either of these two new mini-states.

And then there is that messy part of the world most neatly referred to as "the former Yugoslavia." We have grown used to thinking of the different republics as independent entities. But the map of the proposal for a cantonized Bosnia, as presented at the Geneva peace conference, seems to reduce that republic to units the size of electoral precincts. Talk about atomization.

And speaking of "formers," it's not over yet in the former Soviet Union either. Its leaders may find that the nuclear questions resolved by the signing of the new START II treaty were the easy problems compared with the building of structures needed for effective governance.

If there is a general principle here, it may be that less successful entities seem to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, whereas the more successful seem to bond with other players to make bigger blocs.

In his book, "Citizenship in the Western Tradition: Plato to Rousseau," published this past fall, Peter Riesenberg reminds us that during the golden age of Greek democracy, the "polis," the city-state, typically had a population of only up to about 20,000 - about the size of the kind of white-steeple New England town still governed by the traditional town meeting.

Moreover, the Greeks didn't really get beyond the single unit. After the Peloponnesian War, Riesenberg explains, some city-states formed themselves into a sort of federation to protect themselves against monarchical domination, but they "never created any institution whereby individual citizens might have a voice in the making of league policies, nor did they ever develop a theory of federalism."

It was the Romans who developed the concept of a more universal citizenship that helped hold a vast empire together.

What about the binding together of the vast United States? A huge new "freshman class" has just been sworn in as members of the 103rd Congress. The student reference may sound like a putdown of the accomplished men and women taking office in Washington; do other countries speak of their newly elected representatives in such terms? The scale is so vast in Washington; it is full of any number of lobbies that would serve as public squares in any other place, of corridors that would be boulevards elsewhere. For the new legislators the metaphor of a bright young high school star who gets lost (however briefly) on the university campus is all but inevitable.

But the newcomers have come prepared by their years of service in smaller jurisdictions - on city councils, county boards. Their successes there have propelled them onto a larger stage.

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