A NEW Russian military doctrine partly endorsed by Boris Yeltsin seeks to use force to protect ethnic Russians in the other republics of the former Soviet Union. The leader of Hungary says he is the president of all Hungarians, including those in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia. The fastest growing political party in India argues that India is a Hindu state, ignoring some 110 million Muslims living there.
The story is being repeated throughout the world. Ethnic stirring and strife is becoming the story of the 1990s. And it may be the story of the indefinite future if the Western democracies don't begin to find ways of addressing it. As the world casts off the disciplines and priorities of the cold war, the threat to democratic progress and security is no longer the ideology of Marx, but the devouring "natural order" described by Darwin. In this reductionist world, race and language alone determine identit y and politics are conducted accordingly. Blood, it is argued, runs thicker than any impulse for laws and rights. The result may be, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has titled his new book, "Pandaemonium." The cries coming from Bosnia are just the beginning of the reckoning.
The problem can be stated simply: How are minority groups to live in safety at a time when nationalism is on the rise?
Finding an answer is less simple. Cases are historically and politically worlds apart. Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, Armenians in Azerbaijan, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and Russians in Latvia - all have different problems and claims.
Yet certain universal principles must apply and be invoked by world leaders. Recognizing, protecting, and eventually guaranteeing the rights of minorities must become a central rallying principle of the post-cold-war world. So far, for all the noise made about the stakes involved, there has been little systematic thinking or discussion about how to begin achieving this. Political leaders tend to think short term. But ethnic woes in the former Soviet Union, where nuclear proliferation is still a real thre at, ought to give President Clinton pause (see today's paper, page 19).
There are plenty of international and European mechanisms to appeal to. From the United Nations Declaration to the recent Treaty of Maastricht, minority rights are stated. Yet there must be political will and a wake-up call in the West. A new Declaration of Minority Rights ought to be made by Western leaders and incentives given for compliance (including trade and access).
The rights to practice religion, think and speak freely, and live safely, must define a new world order. Last year a black man in Los Angeles framed the issue well, "Can't we all get along?"