Freedom Fighters

  • Now something good could still come out of Rambouillet. The 17-day negotiating marathon concluded in an embarrassing mess: U.S. officials pleading in the last seven minutes before the final, final, final deadline for any concession that might keep the peace process alive. Instead of signatures on a blueprint for the future of Kosovo, all they got was a promise in theory from the ethnic Albanians to subscribe to the NATO plan a couple of weeks down the road. What Belgrade got was a delicious reprieve from American dictates and the missiles that NATO had threatened to launch if Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic failed to accept the deal. The whole business will have to be gone over again when the talks resume on March 15.

    But no one should be surprised that Rambouillet came a cropper. NATO's fragile construct was designed to avoid answering the question at the heart of this Balkan war: Should Kosovo be an independent state? "The beauty of the interim accord is that no one has to give up their dreams," explains U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill. "We've created this gray thing that one side will call an elephant and the other will call a mouse." Trouble is, some members of the Albanian delegation saw through that and demanded a written guarantee of eventual independence. No way, said NATO. "Sure, they can ask for it," Hill adds, "but getting it is another matter. Today, the international community does not support the idea of an independent Kosovo. It's not a right they have."

    Well, why not? For that matter, why not independent Kurdistan? Or Chechnya or East Timor or Quebec? Once you start tinkering with global cartography, everyone wants his say. The unintended consequences of malleable borders scare away all but the most arrogant of statesmen. Yet Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sounded ready to try it last week: "Great nations who understand the importance of sovereignty at various times cede various portions of it in order to achieve some better good for their country."

    History is no guide. Nations are not some natural, organic phenomenon but complex accumulations of strength, alliances and enmities. And the passion for nationhood has swung between eras of consolidation and fragmentation: the single-state world of the Roman Empire; the 500-odd nations of the 1500s Renaissance. In the post-cold war age, people impatient with the map they've inherited appear to be caught in between. A globalized economy is melting down the relevance of nationhood at the same time that the dispossessed's unrealized yearnings to be a state are gaining legitimacy.

    It is an axiom of statehood that war is what dictates borders; winners get the right to draw new lines. After World War I, as the Great Powers meted out geographical punishments and rewards, Woodrow Wilson advocated two principles that have governed statemaking ever since: the right to self-determination and the right to inviolable national borders. Unfortunately, they are often in conflict.

    For most of the century, the notion that borders were sacred prevailed. African and Asian decolonization in the 1960s recognized states along borders set by colonial rulers. It wasn't quite as thoughtless as critics of these "arbitrary" lines that split ethnic groups and ancient kingdoms now charge. At least some diplomats believed that multiethnic states--like the U.S.--should be encouraged. Between 1945 and 1990, secession and separatism were not just discouraged but were also forcibly opposed. The sole success: Bangladesh in 1971.

    The end of communism thrust the principle of self-determination back into prominence, and new states proliferated. In the thrill of cold war victory, the West let captive nations in Eastern Europe grab back their independence and happily pushed statehood for the 14 republics inside the Soviet Union that wanted out. In consequence, independence and separatist movements weaving together ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and economic self-interests have blossomed worldwide. As Robert Lansing, Wilson's Secretary of State, warned, self-determination "is bound to be the basis for impossible demands and create trouble in many lands. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered." Where does the noble concept of self-determination stop?

    In expedience. Purists may yearn for a single principle to apply across the board. But, says Brent Scowcroft, George Bush's National Security Adviser, "consistency here doesn't work." Pragmatism is what rules the world of power politics, in which a range of less high-minded considerations determines who wins and who loses in the statehood lottery.

    --LUCK The bad luck of historical accident is what has left most current claimants out in the cold. To change that, you need to be in the right movement at the right time in the right place. The Kurds in northern Iraq were just another bunch of bickering agitators until the U.S. needed them to challenge Saddam Hussein. No one cared a whit for the Kosovars until Slobodan Milosevic ground them into the dirt. (It obviously helps to be the victim of a reviled dictator.) But Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka: Your moment has yet to arrive.

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