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The Rights of `Nations'

KURDS, Tibetans, Estonians, Sioux - do they have a ``right to national self-determination''? If so, what are the implications for the United States? To answer these questions requires that we deal with related complexities: Is there such a thing as ``natural law''? If so, does it - should it - shape foreign policy?

How do we balance the demands of morality, of law, and of practical power politics? Here is one set of answers:

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* Laws of nature exist, but humans may need millenia to become aware of them. Most societies now accept that women have essentially the same - or more - rights than men. This now nearly ``self-evident truth'' was denied until recently. Slavery has become illicit in most of the world, but only in the last century or two.

* Groups and individuals have rights. Without family and associations, individuals can't develop. But groups are no stronger than the individuals in them.

* In principle, ``nations'' have a need and a right to shape their own destinies. But what is a nation? Usually a nation is characterized by economic and other forms of interdependence. Usually the people have the same language and culture; usually they have an attachment to a specific territory.

But there are exceptions - Jews before Israel; Palestinians since Israel; Switzerland, with four recognized languages. In the final analysis, any group that considers itself a nation is a nation.

* The right to national self-determination can't always be exercised, owing to practical problems. One nation's right may not overrule another's - for example, when they share the same territory. Genocide, repression, or expulsion may not be used to get rid of competing nations.

A nation may be too small or too limited by its resource base to exist as a separate state. In such cases, competing rights must be accommodated by compromise solutions.

Do moral considerations like these have a place in foreign policy? Realpolitik replies: ``No. Morality exists only within the national community - not abroad. In world politics might makes right.''

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For my part, I believe that national power should be used to promote the moral consensus of mankind. Americans must be careful not to foist off on others their own standards of behavior. But if we have the power, we owe it to ourselves - and others - to promote human rights as they are understood by most humans.

Mindful of July 4, 1776, we should not reject others' claims to shape their fate. Balts and Georgians have asserted their independence. It is not for us to say that the stability of Kremlin power takes precedence over others' claims to national self-determination.

Support for other nations' rights does not imply military intervention. The choice is not ``Armageddon or nothing.'' The US has options ranging from moral and diplomatic pressures to economic sanctions.

Supporting national self-determination has consequences. Indonesians today still remember that the US withheld arms from the Netherlands to resubjugate the Dutch East Indies after World War II; Vietnamese and Algerians, on the other hand, recall that the US gave or sold weapons to France which it used in a vain effort to restore its empire.

When the White House opened its doors to the Dalai Lama, Beijing was angry. If we recognize Georgia, Moscow will be displeased.

But our own honor also has value - for ourselves and for others. What if the US lived up to all its ideas and supported similar ideals in the rest of the world? We would anger some partners; lose some trade deals; infuriate a few dictators and imperialists.

Still, gains might outweigh losses. Backing Vietnamese independence after World War II would have saved decades of war. Pressuring England to give Northern Ireland a better deal would hardly have severed US-English ties and might even have been a favor to London. More US support for Palestinians might help Israel. Pressure for majority rule in Zimbabwe and South Africa has saved white and black lives.

Do we know better than Slovenes and Croats what forms of organizations are best for them? What is so sacred about ``Yugoslavia'' - bracketed together only since World War I? What is holy and immutable about the Soviet ``Union''? About Iraq? Are Slovenes, Latvians, or Kurds less able to make their ways in the world than St. Christopher-Nevis or dozens of other ministates in the United Nations?

What causes internation conflict is not smallness or economic backwardness, but perceptions of injustice and repression of individual and group rights.

While the case for supporting national self-determination may be debated, there can be no moral argument in favor of encouraging a nation's rebellion and then denying any responsibility for it. Washington encouraged Hungarians in 1956 and Kurds in 1991. Honesty requires admitting the motes in our own eyes. The American melting pot works wonderfully for many, but not all its citizens.

The US contains ``nations'' that are dying. Public health statistics for Native Americans are the worst in the country. Black infant mortality is twice that of whites. Few Indians and blacks want to secede, but they need help to make their own lives and cultures vibrant.

Humanity cannot come together unless its components have breathing space and the opportunity to shape their destinies. Nationalism and internationalism can go hand in hand.

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