THE Balkans have been synonymous with fervent, fragmenting nationalism at least since the assassination of an Austrian archduke by a Serbian fanatic in 1914 touched off World War I. Since the '20s, nationalist passions in the region have found more or less peaceful outlets within Yugoslavia's quiltwork federation. But the ancient loyalties and resentments continue to smolder, sometimes erupting in violence, as in last month's riots in Kosovo Province. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, an autonomous province within Serbia, protested what they saw as encroachments by the Serbian parliament.
The strife - as well as the ongoing unrest within the Soviet Union, most recently in the republic of Georgia - reminds us that nationalism is the force that won't go away. Self-evident? Not to everyone. A recurring dream of 20th-century visionaries (some more benign than others) has been of a peaceful order in which nationalist aspirations are subordinated to the greater weal.
It's little wonder that nationalism is regarded as one of the great enemies of peace; the last two centuries are soaked with blood spilled in its name. Yet nationalism has often been viewed positively, too, as people have struggled to free themselves from imperial and colonial rule. The United Nations tries to split the difference, standing for both the integrity of borders and national self-determination. The inherent tension between these principles is often overlooked.
Modern history teaches that - despite some of the hopes underpinning the UN and its predecessor, the League of Nations - the elimination of nationalism in world politics isn't on the horizon. Our times have seen some very determined efforts to dilute nationalism, by means peaceful - the European Community - and violent - repression and even genocide. But nationalism is today as strong as ever. Tiny Estonia, through the spirit it represents, shakes even mighty Russia.
As solutions to the world's divisions, One Worldism, a world parliament, and other such over-arching ideas - at least in their more extreme forms - are non-starters. For implicit in such proposals is the granting of coercive power sufficient to overcome unruly independence. That's unacceptable to most governments.
The great goal is for mankind to devise workable structures for peaceful cooperation among peoples of vastly different cultural hues and traditions. The objective must be to draw the poison from nationalism while leaving intact humanity's glorious diversity.