Monday, Jan. 07, 1991

Best of Times, Worst of Times

To hear George Bush tell it, the post-cold war era was off to a promising start. At a wreath-laying ceremony in Prague's Wenceslas Square on Nov. 17, he hailed the emergence of an international "commonwealth" based on the "renaissance" of freedom. Yet from the same podium on the same day, Vaclav Havel spoke of dreams unfulfilled, a glorious cause in danger of being "spoiled," a "political climate sullied by the poison of demagogy and political, ethnic and racial intolerance." Between them, the two Presidents captured the good news and the bad about 1990: for the world as a whole, there was exhilarating progress toward cooperation and cohesion, but for many nations, things fell apart and the center could not hold.

Havel's concern was focused on his own country, where Slovaks have resumed their ancient feud with Czechs. Throughout Eastern Europe, hating and fearing the Russians is no longer a uniting preoccupation; thus many of the peoples of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are free to lapse into their old habit of hating, fearing and sometimes fighting each other.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Disunion, the growing nationality problem within some individual republics makes it unlikely that they can remain intact if they achieve independence from the Kremlin.

There's a word for the force that inflames Slovaks against Czechs, Serbs against Croats, and Azerbaijanis against Armenians. It's not politics but tribalism, the same phenomenon that led to slaughter between the Tutsi and Hutuin Rwanda during the autumn, and the Zulu and Xhosa in South Africa throughout the past year.

A far milder but still worrisome version of that curse exists even in North America. Separatist passions in Quebec have raised the possibility that Canada will not make it to the 21st century in one piece.

So Havel, in his apprehensive, almost despairing speech in Wenceslas Square, was speaking for more than just his own corner of Central Europe. Yet Bush's upbeat assessment of a tumultuous year was not out of place either. While 1990 witnessed a resurgence of nationalism in its most divisive, destructive forms, it also brought a countervailing trend: an increase in the willingness of many nations to pool energies, resources, political will, even sovereignty, on behalf of shared objectives and mutual interests.

The example that has dominated the headlines, and the one for which Bush personally deserves the most credit, is the multilateral response to the gulf crisis. The end of the cold war has also permitted the United Nations to broker the settlement of one long-simmering conflict in southern east Asia. The idea of numerous states joining in a single market is nowhere as close to becoming reality as in Europe, but other regions will, over time, almost certainly follow suit. Bush has contributed to that prospect with his call on June 27 for a free-trade zone that would embrace the U.S., Canada and all of Latin America.

One powerful argument for supranational structures is that they can help contain the threat of nationalism. Tribal animosities pose a danger not only to the countries where they arise but to neighbors as well. Aside from anxieties about his own quarrelsome countrymen, Havel must be concerned whether the breakup of Yugoslavia would generate waves of refugees and the spread of violence across borders. That nightmare explains in part why he and other East European leaders hope the West Europeans will expand the geographical scope of their experiment in economic and political federation.

The more Croats think of themselves as part of a continental union with headquarters in Brussels, the less they may nurture grievances against Belgrade. By the same token, Quebeckers may be more willing to accept ties to Ottawa if they are part of a close-knit and prosperous hemispheric community.

As for the Soviet Union, the world has never before had to worry about a civil war in a country with almost 30,000 nuclear weapons. It does now. As it dissolves, the U.S.S.R. seems to be returning to an almost medieval association of highly autonomous city-states. Whether that process continues to be relatively peaceful depends on what happens not just inside the boundaries of the late, great U.S.S.R. but outside as well. The industrialized democracies must strengthen and broaden their existing economic, political and security arrangements and develop new, more inclusive ones. NATO which is still an anti-Soviet alliance, must give way to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, with the Soviet Union and its eventual spinoffs as members.

That way, the future leaders in Moscow, Kiev, Vilnius and Vladivostok will feel they are participants in, and beneficiaries of, the renaissance and the commonwealth of which Bush spoke in Wenceslas Square. The more closely integrated the international system, the less the disintegration of the Soviet Union is likely to turn ugly — and the better the chance that Bush's hope will prevail over Havel's pessimism.