The Age of Enlightenment was supposed to help Europe rise above its religious and ethnic conflict and unite people on the primacy of rational thought. Today that outlook prevails. However, in two places on the continent's geographical edges, the seeds for nurturing an ideal society are barely clinging to the rocky soil of ancient antagonisms.
In the southeast nation of Macedonia and in the province of Northern Ireland, diplomacy to end conflict has reached a critical point of success or failure in recent days.
The focus in both places is mainly on how to get the weapons out of the hands of militants. But real hope lies in creating governments that treat all people equally and end deep distrust.
Yesterday, agreements were signed that set Macedonia's majority Slavs and minority Albanians on a path to:
1. Rewriting the Constitution to give more power and rights to Albanians.
2. Maintaining a ceasefire in the five-month-old civil war.
3. Allowing 3,000 NATO troops into the country after July 15 to disarm the Albanian rebels.
Just how much power Slav leaders are willing to give Albanians - such as veto power over new laws - will influence how quickly the conflict ends.
Unlike their counterparts in Bosnia and Kosovo, Macedonians have little inclination for war - they've seen the results next door. But they are faced with a drive by many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to carve out a "Greater Albania" that would include chunks of Macedonia.
That kind of ethnic state is just what the West wants to avoid, in both Kosovo and Macedonia. Thus, after learning from past mistakes in the Balkans, Western leaders appear on the verge of forcing a settlement and NATO deployment. A French constitutional scholar is helping both sides recraft the Constitution. He has the West's long experience with democracy to help him.
Persuading the rebels that their future lies in a fair and open democracy with minority rights guaranteed will require tough bargaining.
Equally tough will be NATO's willingness to risk the lives of soldiers in forcing any unwilling Albanian rebels to disarm.
President Bush and other NATO leaders must stick to their enlightened ways to get the job done.
A collapsing peace in N. Ireland?
The members of the Irish Republican Army and its allies in Sinn Fein should be learning that power comes from political engagement, not from a gun. Sinn Fein did well in recent elections, doubling its number of seats in the British Parliament and outpolling other Catholic parties in the region.
It has also been a major player in the Northern Ireland Assembly, set up by the 1998 peace agreement. It holds two cabinet posts in that body.
But the IRA, and by implication Sinn Fein, its political arm, still refuses to let go of its guns. Disarmament was a central point in the peace agreement, and it's been the primary issue threatening to shatter the accord.
With moderate Protestant leader David Trimble resigning from his post as chief minister of the new provincial government to protest lack of progress on disarmament, the danger of collapse has rarely been greater. Adding to the tension, the volatile Protestant Orange Order marching season begins in earnest this month.
Sinn Fein's leaders argue that the IRA hasn't used its weapons and explosives since 1996, honoring a cease-fire. They suggest disarmament might be more likely if the British would withdraw their troops from Northern Ireland. To unilaterally disarm, they say, would be to admit defeat.
This is oddly circular reasoning that ensures that no one will hand over guns. The disarmament commission established by the peace agreement stands ready to start a process that would collect arms from both sides, Catholic and Protestant.
And the British government? Some in the IRA might want to cling to the perception of London as their mortal enemy. But, in fact, both the British and Irish governments have been tireless campaigners for peace. They will resume that role with redoubled effort next week, hoping to resolve the arms issue in the six weeks before London has to decide whether to call an election in Northern Ireland, or simply resume control of government there.
By beginning an actual turnover of arms - not just spoken assurances - the IRA can radically change the political climate in Northern Ireland. Far from defeat, that would be an act of victory over a dark, repressive past.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor