Horrors we can do nothing about

June 16, 1998|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- Our hearts may be in the right place, but there is nothing much we can do about the place called Kosovo -- or the next dozen Kosovos.

This is another of the civil wars or border wars that keep peacemakers and arms-makers busy between world wars. It is possible that we may never see another world war, thanks to the terrible deterrence of nuclear weapons, but that just means there will be more and more small and vicious wars of the kind plaguing the Balkans and Africa and the Middle East and, soon, South and Southeast Asia.

The only way to stop or, rather, interrupt these horrors is to occupy these places for a couple of hundred years. Then, on the day we leave, they will be at each other's throats again. Who are "we"? We are the Sole Superpower, or we are NATO or Europe or the West. And we are at least as helpless as we are well-intentioned.

The word "border" is the key to this dilemma in Kosovo and those to come. Much of the world lives within boundaries created in this century by conquering and colonizing Western powers. It was, for instance, the young Winston Churchill who drew borders on a map early in this century to create what we now call Jordan, Israel and Syria. Western and white foreigners created Rwanda and Burundi. Yugoslavia, the country of Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians and Albanians, was put together by the victors of World War II.

The lines look good on globes and maps. But real life at the end of the 20th century is quite different from those imposed boundaries. The reality was described best by Brian Urquhart, BTC the former undersecretary-general of the United Nations, who said the world now has 300 countries but 3,000 nations, among them Christian Serbs, Kurds, Palestinians, Bosnian Muslims, Basques, Eritreans, Tutsis and Hutus.

"Separatist movements" is modern jargon for a level of modern chaos that includes ethnic, linguistic, religious and tribal differences. One of the bloodiest of separatist struggles was the war between Northerners and Southerners (without significant ethnic differences) in the United States between 1860 and 1865. Does anyone think that foreigners, including the superpowers of England and France, could have prevented that conflict?

At best, foreigners can postpone such wars or the resolution of civil or border disputes. That happened in Vietnam, it is happening in Korea, and it will happen in Indonesia and in Kashmir. The propagators of faith in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other proponents of superpower peacemaking delude themselves and their citizens.

A superpower's delusions

Sometimes the great powers can make things better for a time; sometimes they make things worse. The delusions of the only superpower of the day, the United States, include exaggerations of the efficacy of air power and the idea of nonproliferation. We learned in Vietnam and Iraq that the devastation and destruction of bombs and missiles from on high are spectacular, but they do not fundamentally change conditions on the ground. You cannot defeat people willing to die for their land if you are not willing to do the same.

As for nonproliferation, a month ago the government of the United States believed that Indians and Pakistanis would subscribe to the fundamentally nutty idea that only the Americans and other "advanced" countries could have nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Last week, the United States condemned Serbia for littering its border regions with land mines, but in fact the United States is one of the few countries that has refused to ban the use of land mines. Our argument is that crude land mines should be banned, but not the "smart" mines that we make and use.

Nonproliferation is, and always has been, an international joke. An old one. Karl Marx was wrong about many things, but he was right when he said that if you wanted to hang the capitalists, they would sell you the rope. Weapons are always there, C.O.D..

Fine words from afar do not have the range to end these wars over boundaries. In fact, even international law, if there truly is such a thing, applies only to countries, not to wars within country borders old and new.

Only the people buying weapons and using those weapons on land they claim have the power to stop killing each other in Kosovo.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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