THE nation-state is alive and formidably well in this post-cold-war world. The rantings of a Zhirinovsky remind us that nations, like individuals, can be swayed to the point of irrationality by hunger, disappointment, and wounded pride.
Nevertheless, Christmas, with its message of hope for the brotherhood of man, is a good time to reflect on the progress that nation-states are making toward submerging individual differences and egos for the common good.
The Japanese public was recently treated to two opposing views on this subject - Margaret Thatcher's pessimism and UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's optimism. It may be unfair to call the Iron Lady a pessimist. She is a forthright upholder of the primacy of the nation-state and highly skeptical of what an unwieldy assemblage of disparate states like the United Nations can achieve beyond passing worthy resolutions.
In Japan, where she visited early this month, Mrs. Thatcher advised a television interviewer that Japan was much better off being a member of the Group of Seven (the world's seven richest democracies including the United States, Germany, and Japan) than trying to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as many Japanese want to.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali, who arrived in Tokyo last weekend on his way to the two Koreas, politely disagreed. He admitted that in the UN, as elsewhere, the nation-state remains the primary unit of decisionmaking. But he points out that on issue after issue, from the environment to development, and above all, peace, nations can be effective only when they band together in a concerted international effort. Boutros-Ghali is playing a key role in one such joint effort right now: persuading North Korea to forswear nuclear weapons and to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which it is a signatory. He arrives in Pyongyang today for a two-day visit during which he will try to get the North Koreans to accept UN inspection of suspected nuclear development sites.
Washington, which has been talking to the North Koreans for months on the matter, is impatient and wants the UN to impose economic sanctions if Pyongyang keeps stalling. But the Japanese, the Chinese, and even the South Koreans counsel patience. It seems a classic example of the difficulty of getting a 180-state organization like the UN to practice the multilateralism that Boutros-Ghali preaches. But the secretary-general says he is an optimist.
In its first major post-cold-war test, the Gulf war, the UN acted as one under the strong leadership of the US, with the help of Britain and France and with Moscow and Beijing, the other two permanent members of the Security Council, playing cooperative rather than obstructing roles. Since then things haven't gone so well. If peacekeeping in Cambodia was successful, Somalia and Bosnia remain agonizingly unfinished stories, with more than enough blame to apportion all around.
One is tempted to think back to the days of Utopian hope immediately after World War II, when organizations like United World Federalists were saying that, for war to cease, the nation-state must give way to world government. One of the first steps was supposed to be a United States of Europe.
But the European Union is only a halfway house, and it is not clear how much further the European idea will proceed. To critics like Thatcher, the EU is already too much of a faceless bureaucracy.
In Asia, so much larger and more disparate than Europe, there are groupings of nations, but nothing to compare with the EU or the Western alliance.
And then there is the UN: unwieldy, cumbersome, slow to reach decisions, and even slower to implement them but, as Boutros-Ghali says, the only organization that includes almost all the world's nation-states and that therefore should be capable of acting on their behalf.
Certainly it needs reform. Certainly countries like Japan must be energized not merely to contribute money but to present initiatives, to form coalitions, and to forge consensus.
But what is the alternative? The clashing egos of nation-states, possibly of civilizations? Mankind does not need what Albert Wohlstetter used to call a ``delicate balance of terror'' in order to keep the post-cold-war peace. In Boutros-Ghali's words, ``We have the means to rebuild our world. Do we have the will?''
Perhaps it takes the innocence of a babe in the manger to steel that will.