ARE men and women divided forever into little categories called ``nationalities'' or ``religions''? This question is crucial at a time when the aftershocks of Soviet collapse are felt throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and when pent-up historical forces are emerging everywhere on our planet.
Are Hutus destined to fight Tutsis forever, with no emergence of a common interest as Rwandans? Are Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims doomed to continue fighting for centuries to come? Are Tadjiks, Uzbeks, and Russians - or Azeris and Armenians - similarly doomed to eternal hostility?
We must hope that all these answers are no, and that there are things the wielders of power in today's world can do to help de-escalate these sharp and damaging hatreds.
A first step is to recognize that the national, cultural, or religious identities to which people cling, in all sincerity, are themselves always constructed. People are not born with an unalterable label attached: Serb, Hutu, Tadjik. Such identities are fluid. They have been constructed, for various reasons, in the past. And they will be subject to further change in the future.
Read the words of two women who have felt victimized by this process. Jean Makdisi, a Lebanese-Palestinian writer and professor, has lived in Beirut through two decades of internal wars. ``I have felt repeatedly that religion has worked like the stamp with which cattle are branded,'' Ms. Makdisi (who grew up Christian) writes in a 1991 collection of essays.
Slavenka Drakulic is a Croat journalist, formerly married to a Serb. In 1992 she wrote, ``Along with millions of other Croats, I was pinned to the wall of nationhood - not only by outside pressure from Serbia and the federal [Yugoslav] army, but by national homogenization within Croatia itself.''
Group identities can also be reconstructed in more inclusive and less-polarizing ways. I write this from Southern France. During the turmoil that followed Europe's Reformation, Protestants and Catholics fought without mercy in this idyllic region. In some areas, three-quarters of the population was killed.
A unifying, secular French identity later helped to lessen older hatreds. But ``French-ness'' suppressed the Provencal culture and was expressed in hostility to Germans or other neighbors. Now a larger sense of ``European-ness'' is taking hold. Germans, Italians, and French vie for beach space along the coast. The Provencal language has seen a small comeback. Sectarian killings within French Christendom are unimaginable. As Provencals and their neighbors started to see themselves as part of a larger group, the smaller identities, while important, became less confrontational.
Americans have an identity that is one of the most transparently constructed in history. We are still trying to redefine ``American-ness'' in ways broader than the old WASP paradigm. With these experiences, and with the global power we wield, we can help parties to today's worst disputes think about identity in ways that involve reaching out to, rather than beating up on, other people.
Ideas alone are not enough. The idea of an inclusive Yugoslavia may have been a good one. But as implemented over the years, it involved too much domination by one group, the Serbs. So we also need to keep our active concern with justice.
But let's not forget the power of ideas! And let's look for American policies that help people to think beyond the confines of narrow, polarizing identities. A policy that urges Rwanda's new Tutsi leaders to reach out to their Hutu compatriots, despite past horrors, looks like one that can save lives over the decades ahead.
People, being what we are, probably won't develop a strong sense of universal identity anytime soon. But as Americans, we can at least try to push things in the right direction.