Special Report: The Worldwide Consequences of American Indecision in Bosnia

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Special Report: The Worldwide Consequences of American Indecision in Bosnia

The genocidal horrors of Serbian nationalism in Bosnia-Hercegovina have begun to stimulate the public conscience in the United States. But the Bosnian disaster has provoked little genuine soul-searching in the world's last superpower. Our anguish over humanitarian issues, while morally laudable, diverts us from attending to the deeper question of what sorts of social structures we will promote, tolerate or legitimize in the 21st century, and for whom. The United States and its Western European allies shrug helplessly in the face of a conflict represented as an ethnic one that can be solved only by containment or by acquiescence to Serbian-created facts.

The American decision on what to do about Bosnia and Hercegovina, however, is really a decision about the sort of world we wish to live in. It is a decision that requires us to examine our commitment to what we call our democratic ideals.

Are these ideals parochial ones, just for us, or are we prepared to commit ourselves to effect the universality we, and others, impute to them? Bosnians--Slavic Muslims, Catholic Croatians, and Christian Orthodox Serbs--have rejected the ethnic nationalism of Serbian extremists who insist that Serbs cannot live in a state that is not ethnically homogeneous. Americans, by and large, have rejected the same notion. It is the Bosnian vision of a democratic society in which citizenship, not religion or ethnicity, is the guarantor of social and political rights that is the modern one.

The Soviet collapse revealed to Americans a new world of ethnic and national rivalries, daily described as venerable, immemorial, and insoluble. They are far from being so. What we see in the former Soviet Union, and in Eastern Europe, is the horrifying product of a recent invention, the nationalism of the 19th and early 20th century that tied newly constructed ethnicities to territories and made the monopolization of land and coercion the first goal of the nation state. This formulation of the nation, exemplified by current Serbian demands and excesses, is at once historically shallow and antiquated.

The Serbian desire to divide Bosnia into ethnic enclaves is the same logic that dictates segregation and apartheid. The version of democracy the U.S. seems prepared to tolerate in Bosnia, if applied to Los Angeles, would say that there will always be tension between African, Asian, Hispanic and Caucasian Americans and that the only response to rioting is to let them fight it out-until the television images cross the line from expected and acceptable levels of violence to unacceptable savagery. At that point, the population of the metropolis would be shifted and resettled into ethnically homogeneous enclaves with configurations determined by which ethnicity had the most firepower and most intimidating tactics.

For Us, But Not Others?

This is not the democracy we accept for our own society. …