World of Faultlines: Sovereignty, Self-Determination, Intervention

Article excerpt

Three riveting and profoundly different situations in the world today testify to the degree of change required in the way we think about world politics in the 1990s. Bosnia, Somalia, and Iraq could hardly be more different on the surface, yet any response to them tends to drive analysis and planning back to a similar theme, the changing character of international relations. The changes are not captured in the phrase "post-cold war," and they were never spelled out in the Gulf War claims about a "new world order." So now it is necessary not only to confront the specific tragedies of Bosnia, Somalia, and Iraq, but to ask what they say collectively about the world which confronts us in the last decade of the twentieth century.

First, the differences: each of the three cases highlights a distinct kind of problem that advocates of international order must address; no single definition is possible for them. Bosnia most clearly reflects the ending of the cold war. For forty years the iron rule of Tito and the implicit consensus of the superpowers prevented the eruption of the national, religious, and ethnic passions that now consume the hauntingly historic city of Sarajevo. The complex legacy of the right of self-determination has stalked the history of Yugoslavia for most of this century; now a new chapter of the story is being written in blood. One need not be nostalgic about the cold war to admit that it suppressed the lethal forces now at work in the Balkans. Bosnia forces the rest of Europe and the world to face the question of what the proper political and moral response is to multiple claims of self-determination in the same territory; more urgently it reminds us that atrocities are not out of fashion even if the cold war is.

But Bosnia is a powderkeg; to anyone contemplating intervention, it presents the sobering prospect of an endless war, with mounting casualties and no diplomatic exit. Somalia is not a powderkeg; it is not politically dangerous, but it is humanly atrocious. Somalia is about starvation not self-determination. True, starvation is entwined with tribal warfare, but the military dimensions of Somalia are not threatening. Somalia testifies less to the complexity of policy choices then to the consequences of neglect when a nation and its people do not count on the scales of high politics and new order designs. Somalia is a costly human reminder about other places in Africa and the world whose names and issues have hardly entered the discussion of post-cold war futures.

In the face of Bosnia and Somalia, Iraq reflects more "normal" issues of foreign policy: a revisionist state with a repressive regime, arguments about balances of power, proliferation, and trade embargoes. It is undoubtedly the case that the Iraqi move against Kuwait also reflected the end of the cold war; prior to 1989 the Soviets would have restrained such a reckless act and the United States could never have shaped an international response under UN auspices if the invasion had occurred. In today's post-cold war and post-Gulf War setting, Iraq's internal policies and external designs pose difficult but familiar choices for policymakers. The response to them, however, has pushed beyond conventional measures which, like the Bosnia and Somalia cases, suggests the need to address basic concepts of international life today.

The first is the likelihood of persistent conflict and frequent collision between claims of self-determination and calls for respecting sovereignty. As Stanley Hoffmann recently observed in the New York Review of Books (April 9, 1992), these are equally foundational principles of international order. In some form or other the international community has been balancing these two principles since the time of the League of Nations, but the discipline of cold-war tension often muted calls for self-determination. The future promises no such constraint. …