President Clinton's recent reiteration of US unwillingness to support independence for Taiwan could be applied to several international hot spots. In at least seven other cases, fears of stimulating wider conflict discourage external support for independence movements.
In Tibet, as in Taiwan, US support for an independent nation would create an immediate, serious confrontation with China. Although some may believe that Beijing, facing a strong threat of force, might back down, few nations, including the US, are prepared to take that risk.
In Kosovo, ethnic Albanians are seeking freedom from the Serbs. NATO, pressed to intervene, insists Albanians renounce demands for total independence from Yugoslavia.
In East Timor, Indonesia fiercely opposes independence for the former Portuguese colony. Although Timorese leaders have created considerable international sympathy for their cause, other nations, including the US, are reluctant to press the issue and further destabilize the world's fourth most populous nation.
In the eastern Mediterranean, Palestinian desires for independence in Gaza and the West Bank are thwarted by a stalled peace process. Outside governments appear to have neither the will nor the capability to overcome this obstacle.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is seeking international recognition, but it is recognized only by Turkey. Any broader support for this enclave would be opposed by Greece and would threaten an Aegean war. Given the unstable conditions in the Balkans, no responsible nation wishes to take this risk.
Independence for Kashmir is one possible solution to the Indo-Pakistan problem, but one strongly opposed by India. The new nuclear standoff adds a further danger to this issue.
In Eastern Europe, the Russian crackdown on Chechnya demonstrated the limits of independence movements in the former Soviet territories.
In each case, supporters of independence have sought global attention, either through effective lobbying in world capitals or through armed struggle or threats of war. They have done so because the normal machinery for resolving international disputes does not have an answer to conditions that are considered by most of the world community to be internal matters. And the few possible approaches have obstacles and limitations.
As the Palestinians have demonstrated, the UN General Assembly provides a stage on which to push for independence, but realization of the goal is prevented by Security Council vetoes.
Direct negotiation, leading at least to autonomy for the dissatisfied enclave from the dominant power, is the most common proposed approach. Such negotiations have proved difficult, blocked by internal dissensions within independence movements and by the difficulty in reaching even preliminary agreement on what is to be negotiated - autonomy or independence.
On the basis that public support for independence may in some cases be doubtful, referendums have been proposed to test the will of the peoples concerned. These proposals, too, have faltered. In the case of Kashmir, for example, India has opposed any vote that might even suggest the possibility of independence.
Outside military intervention has been proposed, for example, in Kosovo as a means of halting the fighting and creating conditions for negotiation. But because Kosovo is a province of Yugoslavia, major nations are reluctant to intervene against the wishes of Belgrade. This was not the case with the use of force in Bosnia-Herzegovina which is recognized as a sovereign state.
When Woodrow Wilson, in his Fourteen Points, launched the concept of self-determination in 1918, it was with colonial territories in mind. Such territories were seen as well-defined enclaves that could ultimately be recognized as sovereign states. He presumably did not have in mind the issue of those groups within such states that desire to rule themselves.
Nevertheless, the concept President Wilson promoted continues to provide a rallying cry as ethnic minorities within sovereign states seek greater liberties and stronger identities. And the global community has yet to find a satisfactory way to reconcile their demands with respect for national sovereignty.
* David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for the Near East, is now living in Charlottesville, Va.