Where Do We Draw the Line?

AS the United States begins to develop a new foreign policy adapted to the demands of the post-cold-war era, one of the issues it faces, and will surely continue to face, is, Where do we draw the line? That is, what are the appropriate political entities for the world's peoples?

Americans were generally pleased to see the East bloc crack and the Baltic states reassert their independence. They were relieved to see the Soviet Union, a k a the ``Evil Empire,'' collapse. But at what point does liberation or national self-determination become fragmentation?

For the third time in this century, the United States and other leading nations are having to look at the world map and consider where the lines should be drawn. On the earlier two occasions - at the end of each of the two world wars - victorious Allies were doing the drawing, in the latter case with the advantage of occupying the territory of unconditionally defeated adversaries. Now, at the end of the cold war, the redrawing is being done by the people on the ground.

Americans are torn between their identification with national liberation movements, going back to their own war of independence, and their sense of the importance of stability of nation states, indeed of the sanctity of a political union: This latter set of feelings goes back to the Civil War, fought to preserve the Union.

It can be argued that the American Civil War is a model of only limited value in the cases of Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia: Whereas the Confederacy included states that had been represented among the signers of the Constitution, Yugoslavia was manufactured after World War I. It held together only because of a combination of forces and counterforces balanced against one another. And the Chechens didn't exactly volunteer to join Russia.

But international law supports, alas, Russia in its efforts to put down the rebels. The strongest role the United States and other Western powers can play is to acknowledge Russia's ``right'' to keep the Chechens within its federation, even as they deplore the heavy-handed military tactics it is using to do so, such as bombing nursing homes.

But one of the worst things outside powers could do in Chechnya or a similar situation would be to provide rhetorical support for rebels, and then fail to follow up with military and other resources. The US is surely not going to become militarily involved in Chechnya, but the question will surely come up elsewhere, and so the point is worth making. President Kennedy did this at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, and President Bush gave false hope to Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq when Saddam Hussein was on the ropes at the end of the Gulf war.

Another point is that Americans need to consider just how accepting to be of proposals for new states based on the logic of ``national self-determination.'' It's a great Wilsonian concept, but does anyone remember the flap that former President Jimmy Carter once caused by referring to the ``ethnic purity'' of certain urban neighborhoods in the US? At a certain level, national self-determination is just ``ethnic purity'' writ large.

This is why many are troubled by the idea of a Middle Eastern ``wall,'' to provide Israelis and Palestinians with a degree of separation - or apartheid, as they say in Afrikaans.

Edward Spiezio, professor of political science at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., notes that Americans ``are willing to accept states based on ethnic separation as a short-term solution,'' with the thought that the peoples involved will ultimately learn to live with one another. He sees hopeful signs in American history: ``There's ethnic cleansing in our past, too,'' he says, alluding to US treatment of the Indians, but notes that the country has become a more genuinely multicultural society. ``The American model may be instructive.''

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