In a world bound ever tighter by the wires of the Internet and the ties of global capitalism, differences between people, however small, can still be a matter of life and death.
That is one of the tragic lessons of the Kosovo crisis. The post-cold-war period may be one of flowering geopolitical integration - witness European monetary union. But the end of the long ideological freeze between the West and the Soviet empire has also allowed increased national fragmentation, with states fracturing along ethnic, religious, and cultural lines.
The desire for self-determination does not have to end in hatred, burned villages, and refugees with thousand-yard stares. The Czech Republic and Slovakia split up with minimal rancor in 1993.
Often, though, today's wars are between cultures or ethnicities instead of countries. From Rwanda's terrible civil war to Bosnian violence, and now the explosion of Kosovo, the aggressors' enemy has been an alien "other." Allowing such fighting to run unchecked risks plunging the world into chaos akin to the darkest visions of science fiction, claims President Clinton.
"It is a sad commentary, indeed, that on the edge of a new millennium there are still people who feel they must define their own self-worth and merit in terms of who they are not," he said last week in a speech outlining his reasons for Kosovo intervention.
A quick glance around the globe shows that the late 1980s and 1990s have been marked by too many such bitter conflicts between peoples.
Consider Sudan. Unstable since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been mired in a horrific civil war for the past 15 years. The predominantly Arab-Muslim north, which controls the Khartoum government, has been trying to impose Islamic rule on the largely Christian and animist south of the country. Deaths are estimated at more than 1.5 million overall.
Rwanda's conflict has been of similar scale. There, the fight is between two tribes, Tutsis and Hutus. An extremist Hutu government launched a genocide that killed more than 750,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, before it was ousted by an advancing Tutsi rebel army.
In Asia, India's Hindu-dominated government is battling with separatists from the majority-Muslim province of Kashmir. In Europe's Caucasus region, Russia faces unrest from both the Chechen people and the multiethnic Republic of Dagestan, where fundamentalist Islamists have pushed civil unrest to the brink of war.
The most well-known clash between peoples in the world, though, is probably the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The Middle East peace process launched in Oslo, Norway, in 1993 now faces an uncertain future. If Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat unilaterally declares a Palestinian state on May 4, as he has threatened to do, the process could end altogether.
Not all separatist movements explode into war, of course. The Quebecois independence movement has succeeded in exasperating much of English-speaking Canada, but it is peaceful by world standards - and has yet to win a referendum in its own province.
But when clashes involve ethnicity or religion, and turn violent, an expert of some sort is likely to appear on all-news TV and ascribe the fighting to "ancient hatreds."
Thus, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has written that the struggle in Kosovo is "the product of a conflict going back centuries." The region lies on one of the world's great cultural fault lines, he points out. Kosovo was the edge between the Islamic Ottoman and the Christian Austro-Hungarian empires. Peace in the Balkans, says Dr. Kissinger, has existed only when a superior force - Constantinople, Vienna, or Moscow - imposed it from above.
Undeniably, the people of the region have long memories. Serbs often cite the battle of Kosovo Polje, where in 1389 they were defeated by the Turks and forced into centuries of resistance to Ottoman rule, as a reason they consider the province a shrine to their ethnicity. Albanians say that their Illyrian ancestors were in the area centuries before Serbs arrived.
But to some experts, the "ancient hatreds" explanation has more than a tinge of historical determinism. "It's completely ridiculous to say that this is all the cause of ancient blood feuds," says Radha Kumar, an ethnic-conflict expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
When the Austro-Hungarian empire fell apart after World War I, there were massive displacements of Balkan populations. "But within 15 or 20 years, they were re-creating multiethnic communities," says Ms. Kumar.
What may happen in the modern world is that opportunistic, nationalist leaders take the raw clay of old differences and manipulate it for their own ends. Thus Slobodan Milosevic rose to prominence in Serbia by becoming the first post-Communist politician to articulate the fears of Kosovo Serbs that they were being displaced by the province's fast-growing Albanian majority.
President Milosevic "succeeded because he understood the power of fear and knew how to use it for his own purposes," wrote Harvard fellow Aleksa Djilas in a prescient 1993 profile of the Serb leader.
Similarly, the Hutu explosion against Tutsis in Rwanda can be attributed at least partly to fear about growing Tutsi power.
Returning to the historical norm
During the cold war, many groups of people who considered themselves a distinct nation had to put their aspirations on hold. In some regions, such as Eastern Europe, that was because an occupying empire imposed an uneasy peace. In others, such as Africa, it was because the United States and the Soviet Union believed that the stakes of conflict were too high and did their best to discourage fighting that might bring them into an inadvertent superpower conflict.
The end of the ideological standoff might thus be seen as something of a resumption of history - or at least of more traditional historical forces.
And today there are two principal geopolitical forces at work in the world, say a number of foreign-policy experts. The first is integration. The signs of this are obvious: The establishment of the euro currency in Europe to better compete with the global strength of the US dollar; the expansion of NATO to include former members of the Warsaw Pact; the use of the Internet to further erode boundaries between people of like interests in different parts of the world.
Yet side by side with integration exists the spread of political fragmentation, the second major force. From Slovakia to Slovenia and from Croatia to Kazakstan, so many new countries have risen from the ruins of multiethnic empires that mapmakers are hard-pressed to keep up.
"Both of these major trends are going on at the same time," says John Lewis Gaddis, a political scientist at Yale University. "I see no evidence that increasing economic integration has in any way decreased pressure for political fragmentation."
In fact, in one sense, integration might be fueling fragmentation, says Mr. Gaddis. The reach of modern communications means that groups of people can now measure their aspirations against the success of others.
What will Taiwanese leaders in favor of independence make of the fact that US air power is, in effect, now battling on the side of Kosovar Albanian separatists? "The fact that we've committed military force in this situation could encourage others in areas we consider more vital," says Gaddis.
A number of other regions face resolute self-determination movements. One is the Kurdish national movement, which spans parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.
No support for the little guy
In general, big powers through history have looked askance at the desires of smaller groups, such as the Kurds, to have their own nations. The United States is not an exception in this regard, despite the fact that it was President Wilson, in the wake of World War I, who articulated the right of "self-determination" for all those groups who believed themselves a nation.
The reason: stability. Big powers don't like surprises, and border status-quo represents a predictable situation.
"When Woodrow Wilson first uttered the words 'self-determination,' his aides, including the secretary of State, cringed in horror," says Michael Roskin, a political scientist and Balkans expert at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa.
Others argue that the stability argument is overblown, and that the breakup of some borders does not lead, domino-like, to regional instability. The US, of all nations, should support the freedom of groups that consider themselves a nation, goes this view.
The problem is that the world is not a patchwork quilt, with clear lines drawn around each ethno-religious group. It is more like an overlay, with different groups claiming the same area. Kosovo, home to Christian Serbs and a majority Albanian population that is largely Muslim, is an example of the explosiveness of such a mix.
To help avoid the forced migration of peoples that has characterized the Balkans since Yugoslavia began breaking up, University of Chicago Prof. Gidon Gottlieb proposes "soft" approaches.
Among his ideas: "functional spaces" analogous to free-trade zones, within which the inhabitants would have certain freedoms, but the overall sovereignty of existing states would not be challenged. Also, "special status," or the granting of recognition to people without a country by the international community. As an illustration of the latter idea, the Palestine Liberation Organization long had full diplomatic relations with many nations, yet until the relatively recent creation of the Palestinian Authority, it had no spot of ground to call its own.
"We have such a poverty of statecraft models," says Professor Gottlieb. "We really should be able to encourage the Turks to find creative solutions to the Kurdish problem without damaging Turkish integrity."