Self-determination, in theory and practice

October 17, 1999|By Trudy Rubin

AS THE 20th century ends, world leaders still differ on who has the right to proclaim statehood.

The notion of a right to "self-determination" is attributed to President Woodrow Wilson, who declared at the end of World War I that statesmen would "henceforth ignore (this principle) at their peril."

But Wilson's top aides later claimed he came to rue this concept, which led to a welter of unstable new nations. The legendary pundit Walter Lippmann, who helped Wilson write the Fourteen Points -- his proposals for a just and lasting peace -- said that the president never believed in self-determination in the first place.

Now President Clinton, whom many have labeled a Wilsonian, seems seized with the same doubts. Mr. Clinton stunned our northern neighbors this month by passionately pleading for Quebec to stay inside Canada.

He never cited the secessionist-minded French Canadian province by name. But he decried the notion that ethnic, tribal or religious groups can only have "a meaningful communal existence if they are an independent nation."

Instead, Mr. Clinton promoted the concept of "federalism" -- the formula embraced by the United States and the current Canadian government -- whereby regional states or provinces agree to subordinate some of their powers to a central authority.

"I personally think you will see more federalism rather than less in the years ahead," the president asserted.

Mr. Clinton's emphasis on federalism is intriguing at a time when the future of Kosovo remains unresolved and ethnic separatists threaten the peace in many regions.

Many observers fear that Kosovar independence would incite dangerous ethnic splits in neighboring Balkan states and lead to instability throughout southeastern Europe.

In Ottawa, Mr. Clinton dumped on self-determination: "We have spent much of the 20th century trying to reconcile President Woodrow Wilson's belief that the different nations had the right to be free . . . with the practical knowledge that . . . if every racial and ethnic and religious group . . . became a separate nation . . . we might have 800 countries."

But can federalism satisfy the aspirations of those who want to join the 188 members of the United Nations? And does it have any relevance to resolving the problems of the Balkans?

Mr. Clinton's Exhibit A for federalism -- the European Union -- doesn't really provide many answers. The wealthy western European states chose to give up certain economic powers to central pan-European institutions.

For poor ethnic groups like the Albanian Kosovars, who are trying to take power away from bigger states, the success of federal solutions (or solutions involving autonomy) depends on a combination of carrots and sticks.

Federal Yugoslavia failed because it had relied mainly on coercion from the top. After Tito died, no successor was willing to make fair, new economic arrangements that possibly might have kept Croatia and Slovenia inside a restructured federal state.

Leaders in multiethnic states must offer incentives to entice dissenting groups to stay: a fairer share of national resources, of taxes and devolution of many governing powers.

Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic chose instead to repress Kosovar Albanians, revoking their autonomy.

For the future, the best hope to retain Kosovo within rump Yugoslavia is for a democratic leadership to take power in Belgrade. Should that happen soon, a new arrangement could be negotiated between Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, possibly linking the three in a confederation.

But here's where the stick comes in. For such a scenario to have any chance, there must be no doubt that the Western allies oppose Kosovar self-determination. If that was the president's subtext in Ottawa, it should be spelled out more clearly to all concerned.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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