Declarations of Wilson still ring today in Kosovo, China

July 02, 1998|By George F. Will NTC

WASHINGTON -- In China and Kosovo, two of this century's durable arguments are resonating loudly. As a result, two thinkers not often thought of nowadays -- Hannah Arendt and Robert Lansing -- are again pertinent to U.S. foreign policy.

Wages of tyranny

President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin delicately exchanged theories about the prerequisites of a nation's progress. Obliquely referring to the suppression ("resolute measures") of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration for democracy, China's president said the suppression was necessary for "stability," which sustained China's progress. Mr. Clinton suggested that freedom is a necessary condition for stability because tyranny is self-destabilizing.

Mr. Clinton is right. As was Hannah Arendt, when she changed her mind.

In 1951 Arendt, who had come here from Hitler's Germany, published "The Origins of Totalitarianism," the bleak thesis of which was that a modern state, imposing an ideology by means of such modern instruments of social control as bureaucracy and mass communication, could achieve a goal that had eluded all other regimes in history -- permanence. Under a sufficiently ruthless state, the citizenry's consciousness would be conscripted, and all dynamics of change from within would be neutralized. As George Orwell said, imagine a boot in your face -- forever.

In 1956 Arendt rejoiced that her theory was slain by a fact -- the Hungarian Revolution, when the streets of Budapest were full of defiant people, shaking the regime. Arendt saw in this a spontaneity that was "an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable," that no state succeeds in "interrupting all channels of communication" and that "the ability of people to distinguish between truth and lies on the elementary factual level remains unimpaired; oppression, therefore, is felt for what it is and freedom is demanded."

In the 42 years since then, the proliferation of information technologies has made the tyrant's task hopeless -- the task of monopolizing information in order to hermetically seal a captive population against outside influences. Change is the only modern constant, and even despotic states exert decreasing control over it.

When Mr. Clinton returns from immense China, which is bursting out from under its government, he will confront the resonance of his secretary of state's words about little Kosovo. And Woodrow Wilson's words.

Albright's stance

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said, "We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia." However, Robert Lansing, Wilson's secretary of state, said in 1918 that "certain phrases" of Wilson's "have not been thought out."

Such as "self-determination," the subject of six of his famous 14 points. When Wilson used the phrase, Lansing wondered "what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area or a community?"

Wilson spoke of self-determination with reference to "limited self-government for the peoples of Austria-Hungary" and "for other nationalities under Turkish rule." Thus "peoples" were casually equated with "nationalities," and self-determination for each was declared by Wilson to be a universal right, "an imperative principle of action." So saying, he sowed dragon's teeth.

When Wilson spoke, a German corporal recovering from a gas attack was planning a political career, and in 1938, as he prepared to dismember Czechoslovakia in the name of the self-determination of the ethnic Germans of the Sudetenland, Hitler said: "At last, nearly 20 years after the declarations of President Wilson, the right of self-determination for these 3.5 million must be enforced."

Kosovo is a province of Serbia. Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2.2 million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians. They are a "people" increasingly reluctant to live within a nation that oppresses them. U.S. policy has two prongs. It advocates greater autonomy for the province, but not independence -- not full self-determination. And it says that oppression within Serbia is not just Serbia's business.

A powerful phrase

The "undigested" phrase "self-determination," said Lansing, "is simply loaded with dynamite" and "will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. . . . What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered!" People have gone right on uttering it. FDR and Churchill in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 affirmed the rights of "peoples" and the U.N. charter endorses the self-determination of "peoples."

Toward China, U.S. policy attempts to promote the long-term stability of a free society by judiciously enmeshing China in the world in ways that weaken the government's ability to impose the brittle stability of tyranny. Toward Kosovo, U.S. policy attempts to dampen the force of the detonation of American-made political dynamite. In both places, old American ideas and arguments are having new consequences.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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