As Pres. Clinton explored American options in the ethnic war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was clear that policymakers in the U.S. and Europe were well aware of the fact that a precedent could be set that would restructure the relationship between governments and nations. Virtually any action in Bosnia would challenge the concept of the modern nation-state and could result in efforts to reorganize the state or its relationship with territory worldwide. This threat to the global state system is of considerably more importance than the possibility that Bosnia could turn into another Vietnam. Depending on the outcome of this triangular conflict among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, numerous other ethnic conflicts easily could evolve into equivalent quagmires.
Some years ago, Time magazine did an informal study of war frequency and found that, at any given time, there were approximately 20 conflicts under way. In a Feb. 7, 1993, New York Times' analysis by David Binder and Barbara Crossette, 48 current instances of what may be called "war" (two organized sides conflicting with casualties resulting) were cited. Many have been a consequence of the demise of communist ideology and associated state structures. Some were suppressed in the context of the Cold War, where international side-taking took precedence over more proximate rivalries. Others have been smoldering or even actively burning for years, decades, or centuries without recognition from the Western state-oriented media. Nevertheless, within political states, these are nations in conflict. Here are some examples from the Binder-Crossette file that could become future Bosnias:
Sri Lanka lost a president in early May in what was thought to be an ethnically related assassination by suicide bomber. Both Tamil separatists and Sinhalese nationalist militants have been fighting against government forces. More than 75,000 have died in the two conflicts. No end is in sight on either count. Reports of atrocities have been widespread for years. India already has intervened in Sri Lanka to attempt a solution in the long-standing separatist conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese. It failed. Reestablishment of political, as distinct from national, sovereignty is unlikely without "ethnic cleansing."
In Peru, a Maoist guerrilla group has been waging a war against the government since 1980. The Shining Path guerrillas draw their support primarily from Indian and mixed-race groups in opposition to a largely Hispanic elite. More than 25,000 have died and 500,000 have become refugees, a scale reminiscent of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite the ideological overtones, the conflict is essentially racial.
The Liberian civil war is really an ethnic one. Pres. Samuel K. Doe, the political leader of the Krahn ethnic group, was killed in 1990. …