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Nation fiction

A plan to let Kosovo be only semifree is the latest example of intrusions on sovereignty and nationhood.

Is the concept of nation slipping? One might think so with a UN blueprint for the future status of Kosovo. The Balkan enclave has been UN-run since 1999 when NATO freed its mainly Albanian population from Serb rule. Not granting it freedom would fit a global trend.

Last week, the UN envoy for resolving Kosovo's legal limbo, Martti Ahtisaari, recommended to the Security Council something far short of independence for the Connecticut-size territory of 2 million people.

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In doing so, the respected Finnish diplomat may be trying to prevent another war in the former Yugoslavia. A potential conflict would be driven by an ardent Serb nationalism that claims Kosovo (or parts of it) as sacred to Serbia's identity.

Under Mr. Ahtisaari's plan, the UN would retain key, long-term powers in Kosovo while giving most sovereignty to the Albanian majority. Neither side would win their national aspirations in a cumbersome compromise that may be hard to manage.

Sound familiar? Awkward agreements that intrude on the sovereignty of a nation or ethnic group seem to be a popular choice as the world grows smaller, as new weapons make warmaking more deadly, and as many borders drawn during colonial days are challenged.

Some decades-old deals, such as the US-run enclave of Guantánamo Bay on Cuba, often flare up in disputes. The UN's 1953 approval for US troops in South Korea, for instance, is at the heart of the current showdown with North Korea over its nuclear weapons.

China's push for military superiority over the US in Asia is mainly driven by a shaky international consensus over the "independent" status of Taiwan. In 1997, China did accept a special status for Hong Kong in taking back the territory from Britain. That "one country, two systems" formula, however, is being sabotaged by Beijing, partly out of reaction to foreign demands that it free Tibet.

In the Middle East, sovereignty remains mushy in key spots. Lebanon's government is undercut by a Syria that supports assassins and an Iran that supports Shiite terrorists. Palestinians live in half-state status under an Israeli thumb. And for Iraq, which relies on US and British troops to hold it together, one US presidential aspirant, Sen. Joe Biden, offers a plan to partition the country.

Many war-torn African nations still have a strong UN role in their security. And in Somalia, the world approved as Ethiopian troops drove out Islamists and as African Union troops in Sudan try to protect Darfur.

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The US has given up some sovereignty to rulings by the World Trade Organization. And it has all but given up authority over millions of illegal immigrants who live in largely unassimilated enclaves speaking a tongue most Americans don't understand and who don't share US civic values.

Recently, the UN endorsed the idea of intervening in sovereign states that have humanitarian crises or suffer gross human rights violations. Many governments have had to grant some autonomous powers within their nations: Canada to Quebec; England to Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland; Pakistan to border tribal areas.

The Kosovo plan is the newest challenge to old notions of nationhood, or rather the long human desire for an identity that brings both safety and freedom to individuals.


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