WASHINGTON — Through the smoke of villages burned by Serbs in Kosovo and cities bombed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization across Yugoslavia, a conflict over the basic norms of world order can be discerned. The U.S. and its allies claim that the right of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to a high degree of self-determination justifies foreign interference in Yugoslavia's domestic affairs. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic insists this is an invasion of a sovereign state. Belgrade is backed by Russia and China, both fearful of a precedent being set for outside intervention in rebellious provinces like Chechnya and Tibet. The fight in the Balkans, then, is more than a war between nations; it is a war between the principles of self-determination and sovereignty.
Self-determination is the principle that each nation has the right to govern itself. In practice, this means people should be governed by those who share their nationality defined by language, religion, descent or some other aspect of identity. For members of one ethnic group to rule another is presumed to be illegitimate by today's notions of political justice.
The principle of sovereignty holds that states should be equal in privileges, even if they are unequal in wealth and power. The modern conception of sovereignty originated in Europe in the 17th century. It was extended to the non-European world after World War II, when the European colonial empires in Africa, the Middle East and Asia were broken up. In earlier eras the concept of sovereignty made little sense, for the usual form of political organization was the hierarchical empire. According to the theory of sovereignty, the first privilege of a state is the integrity of its territory.
Self-determination and sovereignty are not always in tension. In nation-states made up of a single or dominant nationality, sovereignty and national self-determination may complement each other. But the two can collide, as in Kosovo, where the conflict between sovereignty and self-determination is present in its most acute form. If the sovereignty of the existing Yugoslav state is to be respected, then its borders must remain intact, even if the international community establishes a protectorate over part or all of Kosovo. If the international community acknowledges the Kosovars' right to self-determination, the result should be partition of Yugoslavia and the independence of Kosovo. The choice between protectorate and partition as the outcome of the war is thus a choice between sovereignty and self-determination.
The puzzle of what to do in a situation like this first confronted U.S. policymakers after World War I. President Woodrow Wilson and leaders of the victorious Allied powers had to decide what political units would replace the Austrian Hapsburg and Ottoman Turkish empires, which had collapsed. Both had ruled sections of the Balkans; both had been multinational.
While championing national self-determination, Wilson did not originate the idea, which dated back to the late 18th century, and had led to the unifications of Germany and Italy in the 1800s. Nor was Wilson responsible for turning World War I into a crusade to break up the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. In fact, in January 1917, when the U.S. was still neutral, Britain, France and the other Allies demanded "the liberation of the Italians, as also of the Slavs, Romans and Czecho-Slovaks from foreign domination." What is more, Wilson was willing to accept guarantees of autonomy short of sovereignty for ethnic minorities within larger units. In his 14 Points, Wilson declared only that "the peoples of Austria-Hungary should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development." By contrast, Wilson favored "an independent Polish state." Wilson recognized that in the Balkans, the mingling of different ethnic groups made it difficult to draw clean lines for new nation-states.
Despite this, the result of World War I in the Balkans, Central Europe and the Middle East was the partition of empires into successor states, some of which, like Yugoslavia, contained several nationalities. The plight of ethnic Germans outside Germany, and ambitions of groups like the Hungarians and Croats, gave Adolf Hitler an excuse to intervene abroad, increasing not only the influence but the borders of the Third Reich. Following World War II, the minority problem in Central Europe was settled in a most brutal fashion: by the mass transfer of populations.