The Costs of Vagueness

OF ALL THE NEW problems posed by the collapse of the Soviet empire none is more urgent than the need for Washington to devise what would be called, if Leninist jargon were still in fashion, a nationalities policy. As long as Moscow managed to smother ethnic conflicts within its dominions, the lack of such a policy hardly mattered. The United States could and did get by with indiscriminate support of virtually all grievances against Soviet rule, as long as they were couched in the rhetoric of human rights. Many of these were cases of individual rights—the right of Andrei Sakharov, for instance, to espouse views at variance with official ideology. But others were claims to collective rights, like that of Balts, Georgians and Armenians to secede from the Soviet Union and form independent countries. Now that the artificial order of Soviet power has vanished, the unbridled assertion of collective rights, most often expressed as an aspiration to national self-determination, has become a major threat to global stability. The United States can no longer afford to be vague in its thinking about individual and nationality rights.

The Bush administration, unfortunately, failed to realize the necessity for a new and precise policy. It relegated the new questions of nationalities to the area of human rights policy. And once the Cold War was over, human rights issues largely slipped off the administration’s agenda. This was a critical mistake. Not only did it contribute to the waffling evident in Washington’s approach to the Yugoslav conflict, but it also ignored the fact, proven in the Cold War, that the steadfast advocacy of a clearly defined set of human rights can be a powerful foreign policy tool—one that buttresses American leadership and undermines American adversaries. It also ignored the fact that whatever the practitioners of realpolitik might wish, a strong and bright moral component is essential to American foreign policy; without it, public support for foreign engagement tends rapidly to erode.

The challenge for the Clinton administration is to reformulate American human rights policy in the postcommunist era by defining the individual and collective rights the United States will support. Only then will American foreign policy have the requisite consistency of purpose to deal with the conflicting claims of emerging nationalities.

Dealing with Conflicting Claims

AROUND THE GLOBE the assertion of collective rights by one or another national group roils the status quo. Francophone residents of Quebec agitate for distinct status within, or perhaps secession from, Canada. In Asia Tibetans seek independence from China, and Tamils want to partition Sri Lanka. In Africa a civil war tears apart Ethiopia. In the Middle East Kurds wish to carve their own country out of Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and Palestinians demand the right to create a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories occupied by Israel—itself the product of one of this century’s more successful campaigns for the collective right of self-determination.

In the former communist countries the conflicting assertions of collective rights seem all the sharper for having been suppressed for generations. Even before the failed 1991 coup civil war had broken out within the Soviet Union, pitting Armenians against Azerbaijanis for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory populated principally by Armenians but lying within Azerbaijan and claimed by both groups as part of their patrimony. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, rather than resolving various claims to collective rights, only multiplied them.

National groups that prior to August 1991 had been cast in the role of oppressed minorities adjusted all too rapidly to the status of oppressive majority. Once the erstwhile Soviet republic of Georgia obtained its independence the Ossetian minority within Georgia sought its own independence. Georgian nationalists suddenly converted to the doctrine of the sanctity of existing borders. Latvians, denied their democratic rights for more than fifty years, passed a citizenship law in 1992 that denied the right to vote to all the country’s Russians, save those who had lived in Latvia prior to 1940 and their descendants. The law extended citizenship to people of Latvian blood regardless of where they were born or how recently they had taken up residence in Latvia. It denied citizenship to many Russians who were born in Latvia and had lived there all their lives.

Yugoslavia most dramatically demonstrates the disastrous potential of the assertion of collective rights in the postcommunist era. The Yugoslavs, as constituted from 1918 to 1991, were divided by nationality, religion and history. Repression by the communist government and the personal authority of Josip Broz Tito held this unlikely amalgam together for 35 years after World War II. But Tito’s death in 1980 inaugurated a process of disintegration. Debt problems and economic stagnation accelerated that trend. The loss of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power in the post?glasnost era brought the centrifugal energy to a critical level.

Yugoslavia’s war, as well as others in the former Soviet republics, demonstrates several sobering realities. The first is that transitions to democracy, rather than ameliorating conflicting claims to collective rights, can exacerbate them. For the leaders and would-be leaders of new republics and provinces the temptation to declare or strive for independence is strong. An independence movement diverts popular attention from intractable economic problems. If the movement succeeds, independence immediately elevates the national leader’s status from that of backwater politician to head of state. Thus as long as former Soviet republics and satellites remain democratic, autonomy and independence movements will proliferate.

Second, conflicting assertions of collective rights cannot be resolved by simply endorsing the right to political self-determination via referendum in a given geographic area. Populations are not cleanly divided. There are too many areas with two, three or four claimants. For the Trans-Caucasus area of the former Soviet Union, one historian, an Armenian American, devised 11 different shadings for a map illustrating the claimants and combinations of claimants to a territory the size of North Dakota. Finally, in the absence of countervailing factors there is more than enough suffering and injustice in the history of virtually any national group to prompt it toward vindictiveness and vengeance against its neighbors.

It is worth noting, however, that the presence of a democratic political system with one or more national minorities does not inevitably lead to strife. Italian-speakers in Switzerland, for instance, are not demanding unification with Italy. Nor are ethnic Swedes on Finland’s Aland Islands demanding unification with Sweden. Although there is no simple formula for harmony in a multiethnic state, several factors appear to be important. National minorities will be less restive if they have given informed consent to their status; they need some degree of political autonomy. On the Aland Islands, for instance, the Swedish population has some control over the right to take up residence and vote. Language rights may also help satisfy a minority, though they need not be unlimited. In Switzerland’s French cantons, for instance, the language of instruction in public schools is French. But if a French-speaking Swiss moves to a German-speaking canton, he cannot demand a French-speaking public school for his children. Much depends on an atmosphere of mutual respect and accommodation. Switzerland’s linguistic groups coexist, in part, because they have traditionally been willing to learn one another’s languages.

Apart from government policies safeguarding the autonomy of minorities, the state of a nation’s economy has a major impact on nationalist sentiment. People busy making a livelihood and improving their living standard tend not to listen to extreme nationalists. People with declining standards of living tend to be receptive to politicians who argue that the fault lies with another nationality that is gouging them.

The challenge, of course, is to devise a policy that will help shepherd the troubled regions of the world from Yugoslavian conditions to Swiss conditions. It is a task that will require the work of not just one administration, but of generations. To begin the United States must first determine its policy toward collective and individual human rights.

Collective Rights and Violence

MOST AMERICANS are instinctively comfortable with a foreign policy that supports individual rights. Such rights are the pillars of American democracy: freedom of religion and its corollary, the separation of church and state; freedom of speech and press; freedom to travel and settle wherever one’s means will allow; freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, creed or sex. The world’s concept of individual human rights owes much to the American Bill of Rights, which in turn was derived from a rich variety of sources, stretching backwards in time from Runnymede to Athens.

Collective rights, by contrast, span a spectrum from simple freedom of association to a variety of special remedies and protections. The ultimate collective right, of course, is the right to create an independent state. Short of that, groups may assert the right to their own schools and to make their language the official language in a given area. They may seek to block the entrance of other nationalities into their homeland. They may seek special political rights. Crimean Tatars, for instance, now comprise less than ten percent of the population of Crimea. They consider themselves, however, the indigenous people of the peninsula, deprived of their rightful place by Russian conquest in the eighteenth century and Stalin’s deportations during World War II. Their present demands include, in addition to schools, special rights to resettle in Crimea and veto power over legislation in the Crimean legislature, which has a Russian majority.

U.S. policy rarely made a distinction between the two categories of human rights, because history rarely presented it with clear cases that required it to do so. In the imperial era governments that repressed minority nationalities tended also to repress individual rights, and repressed minorities tended to engage American sympathies for that reason. Moreover Americans were rightly conscious of the fact that the founders of this country broke away from an empire in an act of self-determination. The first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, declared that "it accords with our principles to acknowledge any government to be rightful which is formed by the will of the people, substantially declared." Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt made self-determination for oppressed nations part of America’s war goals in 1917 and 1941. After the Second World War sympathy for the victims of Hitler and Stalin impelled the United States to embrace the causes of Zionism and the captive nations of the Soviet Union.

In the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 the United States endorsed the consensus that "participating states will respect the equal rights of peoples and their right to self-determination." Helsinki left deliberately vague what the right to self-determination meant. But since 1975 the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe has begun gradually to define it. Follow?up meetings have declared that national minorities have the right to read and disseminate information in their mother tongues. A 1990 CSCE meeting in Copenhagen declared that it is up to individuals, not governments, to decide whether they are members of a minority. The process has stopped well short of declaring that any minority has the right to political autonomy or statehood, and as long as the CSCE operates by consensus, it never will. But there does seem to be a tendency for each follow?up meeting in the Helsinki process to seek a consensus that expands the area of collective rights. The United States has, without much debate, gone along with this trend.

For both philosophical and pragmatic reasons, though, Americans have good reason to be troubled by the assertion of collective rights. The United States was founded on the idea that citizenship and political rights cannot be based on ethnic or religious identity. The idea that within a given European, Asian or African country groups of people cannot coexist because of their religious or ethnic differences is fundamentally alien to American values. The CSCE’s expanding definition of the cultural and linguistic rights of minorities has already reached the point where it begins to challenge the American ideal engraved on U.S. coins, e pluribus unum. And from a practical standpoint the tendency for the assertion of collective rights to be accompanied by violent conflict has been adequately demonstrated.

Yet, as Yugoslavia showed, an American policy that opposes national independence movements whose time has come runs the risk of being overwhelmed by tides of nationalist passion.

Focus on Individual Rights

THE CORNERSTONE of the solution to this dilemma is a human rights policy focused firmly on individual, rather than collective, rights. The demise of communism has not ended assaults on individual rights. In some areas of the world communism’s disappearance has only increased the number of actors, governmental and nongovernmental, bent on depriving individuals of their rights to free speech, to security from torture, to travel and to all the rights enumerated in the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. U.S. support for those rights is the reason that, in benighted countries around the world, pictures of American presidents still hang on the walls of impoverished homes. It is the reason that the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square fashioned a Goddess of Liberty like the one in New York’s harbor. Clear and consistent support for those rights can provide the foundation of America’s role in the postcommunist world.

At the same time the United States should resist the trend toward expanding collective rights. A policy based on American support for collective rights, including political self-determination, will inevitably fail. First, it would tend to put the United States increasingly in the position of arbiter among conflicting claims to a particular homeland. These claims are generally rooted in assertions about ancient history that are difficult to prove one way or another. No one is likely ever to know with certainty, for instance, whether Romanians or Hungarians were the original inhabitants of Transylvania. Second, it would inevitably be applied selectively. The United States could conceivably support the right of Iraq’s Kurds to self-determination, but it is never going to support the right of Scots, for instance, to secede from an unwilling Great Britain. A human rights policy applied selectively deservedly loses much of its moral authority. Third, the expansion of internationally recognized collective rights could lead to conflict with American domestic policies. The United States cannot, without a fatal measure of hypocrisy, demand that foreign governments grant minority languages equal status and simultaneously insist on the dominant role of English within its own borders.

The appropriate American attitude toward collective rights is a skeptical neutrality. The United States should not be in favor of expanding the list of internationally recognized collective rights. Nor should it be against the decision of individual countries to grant their minorities more rights, including the right to secede and create new independent states. If American policy concerns itself with whether governments afford their people, as individuals, the full spectrum of political rights—the right to speak out and publish, the right to form associations, the right to worship, the right to call for change without fear of repression—then the issue of collective rights will in many cases take care of itself.

Minorities that are treated properly by their governments, as individuals, will probably be less likely to join separatist movements. If they do, the burden will be on governments to respond to their grievances without recourse to violence or repression. In extreme cases governments might decide that they cannot both respect human rights and prevent the secession of an unhappy minority. In those cases an American emphasis on respect for individual rights will marginally improve the chances for a peaceful transition to a new, mutually acceptable political arrangement, such as the transition made in the Soviet Union in late 1991.

In practice this policy would yield some immediate practical benefits. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, for instance, it would shift the focus of American efforts away from persuading Israel that the Palestinians have a collective right to establish a homeland in the West Bank. As long as a significant number of Israelis believe that God gave the West Bank to them, they are unlikely to accept this argument. Instead the United States should insist that Israel, if it wishes to retain the West Bank and Gaza, extend to Palestinians under its control the full panoply of human and political rights, including the right to form parties and to vote. Eventually the Israelis might find it in their own best interest to seek a division of territories and let the Palestinians go their separate way.

In many conflict areas this policy would initially disappoint minority groups that would like to secede; they are likely to accuse the United States of betraying them. Others would point out, accurately, that such a policy would in effect discriminate in favor of Ukrainians, Latvians and other groups whose independence movements crested during the Cold War, and against groups like Ossetians and Tatars whose movements arose later. But it is a policy that would endeavor to protect afflicted minorities while buying time to let national passions cool and to develop the economies and civic traditions that characterize countries where different ethnic groups manage to coexist. It is obviously utopian, now, to prescribe a Swiss-style settlement for a region like Nagorno-Karabakh. But all the successful multi?ethnic models that exist start with strict respect for individual human rights.

No policy will be sufficient to settle conflicts that have already reached the stage of warfare, such as in Yugoslavia. In such instances the United States will have to choose between two options: letting the conflict burn itself out or intervening. The Yugoslav experience suggests that if intervention is the choice, it would be foolish to rely on the nascent CSCE or European Community mechanisms to achieve or enforce a ceasefire. The U.N. Security Council, flawed though it is, remains the best international mechanism for halting bloodshed.

Don’t Wait for Trouble

PREVENTIVE ATTENTION to areas of potential danger is much cheaper and more effective than waiting for warfare to begin. The United States, in concert with its allies, needs to add a new dimension to its diplomacy—to develop the skills and machinery to intervene early and quietly in countries that are at risk for outbreaks of ethnic conflict, as well as in countries where conflict has already broken out.

Ethnic conflicts frequently go beyond politics and are rooted in deep-seated animosities and prejudices of warring populations. It is not hard for an observer who visits the scene of an ethnic conflict, like the one between Armenia and Azerbaijan, to discern pathologies in the attitudes of both sides. Combatants in ethnic conflicts are caught in a syndrome that demands that they see their opponents as subhuman, the objects of their own projected fears and self-loathing.

Describing the problem, however, is not the same as correcting it. Every conflict is different, and there is no one policy suitable to every situation. But bringing together representatives of opposing groups in an unofficial private setting, preferably in a neutral country, has proven useful and constructive. Ethnic representatives do not have to be government officials directly responsible for policy. Rather dialogue among community elites—lawyers, academics, journalists and perhaps certain legislators—can often facilitate positive exchange.

The mediators in these conferences try to force the members of each group to see the humanity of the other side. They try to nudge each group away from delivering its political manifestos and demands and toward expressing the practical needs of its members. The idea is to talk less of ultimate political solutions, and more of what everyday life might be like in a tolerable and tolerant society.

Members of the Hungarian minority in Romania, for instance, might be encouraged to talk not of separating Transylvania from Romania and joining it to Hungary, but of the contacts and communication they need with fellow Hungarians across the border. The goal is not to hammer out proposals for political settlements but rather to inject new ideas and attitudes into old thinking on each side, which might, in turn, make it possible for political leaders to take the risks necessary to make peace.

The success of such an approach is by no means certain. But it does hold the promise of being more effective than traditional government-to-government diplomacy in preventing the escalation of ethnic hostility. There are at least a dozen simmering conflicts in the former Soviet empire alone where it would be worthwhile to try this kind of "therapeutic" method. The appropriate place for the Clinton administration to locate such an effort is in the State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. It might also become a useful tool for the CSCE.

No combination of American human rights policy and practice, no matter how intelligent and innovative, will by itself resolve the long-suppressed conflicts that plague the world in the aftermath of communism. But a policy that emphasizes the protection of individual rights, discourages the expansion of collective rights and promotes early, therapeutic intervention could minimize the possible eruption of such conflicts. More important, it will provide a true moral compass for American policy in the postcommunist world.

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  • Robert Cullen reports from eastern Europe for The New Yorker and other magazines. His most recent book is Twilight of Empire: Inside the Crumbling Soviet Bloc.
  • More By Robert Cullen