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THE NEW TRIBALISM: Defending Human Rights in an Age of Ethnic Conflict : A Final Reflection

June 08, 1993|Robin Wright

Behind many of the world's ethnic conflicts is the determination of individual minorities to win for themselves their own nation. Many have succeeded--most recently, the Eritreans who declared their independence from Ethiopia and became the newest member of the United Nations late last month.

But the road to statehood can be long, as is the list of those world leaders who have, throughout history, warned that it is also perilous.

Consider, for example, Robert Lansing, secretary of state to America's 28th President, Woodrow Wilson.

Although the idea of self-determination has its roots in the Enlightenment and the French and American revolutions of the 18th Century, Wilson was probably its most famous early 20th-Century proponent. He was the key figure at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where debate raged over the idea of self-determination and the implication that every ethnic group deserved a nation.

But Lansing had his doubts, as reflected in his notes of the meeting:

"The more I think about the President's declaration as to the right of 'self-determination,' the more convinced I am of the danger of putting such ideas into the minds of certain races. It is bound to be the basis of impossible demands on the Peace Congress and create trouble in many lands. . . . Will it not breed discontent, disorder and rebellion? . . .

"The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle in force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!"

In fact, however, the concept played an extraordinary role in multiplying the number of countries on the globe as empires collapsed and former colonies became independent in the years after each of the two world wars.

At the end of the 20th Century, the limits of self-determination--and the ability of the world's peoples to coexist and cooperate--are being probed once more.

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