Tinderbox of the 21st century

October 16, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- The Balkans. For the better part of a century that phrase has been a synonym for endless varieties of chaos.

It evokes irreconcilable differences over religion, simmering ethnic antipathies and a volatile environment in which people live as implacable enemies of one another for generation after generation. To an outsider, most of these people seem very similar, but their lives are in turmoil because they have come to perceive their differences as so vast.

The conflicts which raged through the Balkan Peninsula in 1912 and 1913 touched off World War I, and as the wreckage of what was once Yugoslavia attests, sentiments haven't cooled much since then.

Today, "Balkanization" tends to mean a dangerous fragmentation of any society. The term is often applied to politics in the United States, but while there are in fact some similarities, this is rhetorical overkill.

What made the actual Balkan nations such a powder keg were conditions such as these: regional instability, ongoing border squabbles, and intra-national frictions between ethnic and religious groups. At the close of the 20th century, these conditions, though at the moment abated, still prevail in the Balkan Peninsula. But they form an even more dangerous concoction further to the east and south.

In an insightful book to be published later this month, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, writes about what he calls "the Eurasian Balkans" -- the bubbling ethnic caldron that stretches from Turkey east to Kazakstan, from Kazakstan down to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and finally to the nations of the Persian Gulf.

This region is almost certainly the tinderbox of the century to come. It is a place where reputations and lives will be lost as faraway powers jockey for advantage. Sparks are struck almost daily here; sooner or later, one will land on something combustible.

Expedient creations

The Eurasian Balkans are as filled with states which, like the former Yugoslavia, aren't nations in the sense that, say, France and Japan are. They were the expedient creations of politicians and cartographers in distant capitals, primarily Moscow. Some were republics of the former Soviet Union; these include Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, all now independent nations.

The boundaries of these states were imposed, not negotiated, and they threw together people who, to put it mildly, were neither happy with their neighbors nor serene followers of the Golden Rule.

Other states in the region include those with a longer history and more homogeneous populations, such as Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but these places are as explosive as the others, for the hostilities their residents don't direct at one another they reserve for those on their borders.

War in this prickly region during the century to come seems not just likely, but inevitable. War is a constant threat there, whether it is between Iran and Iraq, between Iraq and Kurdish nationalists, or between ethnic Russians and other residents of former Soviet states. The challenge for the rest of the world, and for American policy-makers, will be to keep these conflicts contained.

The views presented by Mr. Brzezinski on this strategic and diplomatic challenge in his new book, "The Grand Chessboard," are generally lucid and sensible. Probably they'll be well-received and even influential. This is interesting and perhaps even ironic, in that the period in which Mr. Brzezinski had a hand in the making of foreign policy will surely go down in history as one of monumental American failure and devastating futility.

And while it may not have been his fault when those helicopters burned in the Iranian desert in 1980, the culmination of a policy of extraordinary ineptitude, he was certainly on the bridge at the time.

(In a way, failure while in the arena of public life may be good preparation for a later career as an observer. Richard Nixon, who wrote some of his sharpest analyses of the great foreign-policy issues facing the United States long after he had resigned office in disgrace, immediately comes to mind.)

Looking ahead

Now, however, 17 years after the Iranian debacle, Mr. Brzezinski is writing from a more detached and scholarly perspective, and looking ahead rather than back. He makes some useful points, which boil down to these:

One, the United States is too far away to dominate events in this area, but has to be engaged there. Two, Russia can't control most of the region as it once did, but it's too big and too close to be shut out. And three, it should be an object of U.S. policy to make sure that no single power controls this part of Eurasia, and that it remains open to the world economically.

These seem reasonable enough goals. But as the bloody history of the original Balkans suggests, those who set out to tidy up the globe's messy places are often unpleasantly surprised. Only one law applies there, and it's Murphy's.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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