Monday, February 18, 2008
The images now coming out of Pristina make for heady news. It is not every day that one witnesses the "birth" of a new nation, though the end of the Cold War set off a cascade of such events that does not seem to have run its course just yet. It was perhaps predictable that both the EU and the United States would recognize the emergent state, but neither that nor the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the event can dispel the real causes for worry that this issue presages.
In a historical sense, Kosovo's declaration of independence continues a debate about self-determination and sovereignty first raised and briefly pursued robustly in the immediate aftermath of World War I. That discourse collapsed under a panoply of political pressures, however, and since then it has never been taken up on the international level in a systematic way. With the Cold War's end some scholars and pundits predicted a global transition to a "postnational age." That prediction is far from bearing fruit, however. The world is more balkanized today than it was ten years ago, and all indications are that the trend will continue apace.
None of this is to suggest that the Kosovars were wrong to declare independence or that those elements of the international community that have welcomed them acted ill. However, critics of the event like Vladimir Putin of Russia, whatever else anyone may think of them, raise distressing concerns that can not be shrugged off or wished away. If one examines all of the factors contributing to the nascent sovereignty of Kosovo, one recognizes that some or all of them are replicated in myriad situations throughout the world. This places the international community in a very difficult position. If Kosovo is treated as a systemic precedent, this will open a Pandora's box brimming with "suspended conflicts (to borrow Putin's phrase)" that could create havoc of various kinds worldwide. If Kosovo is treated as an idiosyncrasy (i.e. a "fluke"), this will debase principles of human rights and self-determination that have been central to the hopes of a more humane world order for the past century or more.
Consider some of the particulars of Kosovo's history in comparison to other parts of the world. Kosovo's populace is mainly ethnic Albanian, their only claim to a nationhood separate from that of Albania itself is the unique historical experience of living under Serbian rule. A similar argument, however, could be made for the nationhood of Taiwan. The claims of Serbia to sovereignty over Kosovo are generally held to have been abnegated by the cruelly abusive nature of Serbian rule. A similar argument could be made in favor of Chechyan (to name only one people) independence. The US is disposed to recognize Kosovo (in part) because to do otherwise would be to countenance the continued subjection of a Muslim population to a Christian nation, and that perception would materially damage US strategic efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Kurds, however, could reasonably complain that in this regard the Kosovars have benefited from the arbitrary vagaries of identity politics, and that any objective scrutiny of the principles on which the US has recognized Kosovo should compel the embrace of a sovereign Kurdistan.
All of these caveats may seem like the mark of exaggerated pessimism, but they point to a larger problem that will not go away and that the international community ignores at its peril. Multilateral negotiations must take place to work out an international framework whereby the community of nations agrees to address and adjudicate questions of disputed sovereignty. Such an imperative is especially urgent, in that these disputes are the chief impetus to the use of "terror," thus the political dimension of any "war on terror" hinges upon the successful resolution of this problem. The questions are obviously too complex to be resolved in a single meeting or in any compressed time frame. A series of summits over the course of a decade or more would be warranted. Even before a comprehensive resolution was reached, however, such a process might help cool the superheated political climate that pushes ongoing sovereignty disputes further and further into the terrain of violence. Here is a case, moreover, where the US might exert international leadership and contribute to the stability and security of the world at large. If the President of the United States called for such summits to be convened, the international response would most likely be very positive, even from "volatile" quarters such as Russia and China. A presidential campaign might be the perfect venue in which to float such an idea....