Originally published in the editorial pages of Haaretz, February 29, 2008
It is not a good omen when a national flag is dominated by the actual outline of the geographic territory the state covers. It's probably a sign that there has been so much disagreement over the very decision to create the state, that drawing the shape of the country on the flag is meant to remind us all of its existence, manifesting the reality of being. Of course, it could always be that some foreign mediator, exhausted by the bickering of the natives, gave up trying to find shared national symbols and decided to state the most obvious common denominator. Thankfully, there have been only two such cases since 1945: Cyprus in 1960, and now Kosovo.
Of course, there are fundamental differences between them. Cyprus was recognized as an independent, sovereign state by the United Nations following the signing of detailed accords to govern the relationship between the Greek and Turkish communities on the island and the roles of external "guarantors," all meant to ensure that the fledgling republic would work. Kosovo has so far been recognized by fewer than two dozen of the UN's 192 members; it was created not by accord but by force; and while there is a great deal of enthusiasm among its majority ethnic-Albanian population, it is more the presence of an army of European Union and UN officials, as well as lots of NATO troops, that has gotten it this far. Another major difference is that while Kosovo is a breakaway state from within the recognized territory of another, Cyprus has its own breakaway state in the north, which was created - not unlike Kosovo - by outside intervention.
But the differences are not what is important to understand about Kosovo and Cyprus. What's important are the fundamentals, which are the reason that so many states expressed either direct opposition or skepticism about Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence earlier this month. The fundamentals are simple because they are the building blocks of the international system by which the world has been organized and coordinated since the introduction of the UN and its charter in 1945. These are based on the concepts of statehood, inviolable sovereign borders, consensus and international agreements. Most important, it is a system that stipulates that UN member states decide who the new members in this club will be; on the basis of their decision, Israel was given the legal right to exist, as was Cyprus. Not so Kosovo.
On the other hand, if there is something to be learned from history, it is that conditions are in constant flux. As such, Kosovo may be a watershed, ushering in a new era of international arrangements. Nonetheless, whether we decide to chuck out everything else that preceded it, in one juvenile swoop, or not, is up to us. Indeed, the most worrisome thing is that Kosovo may turn into an international precedent - something that clearly also worries its most fervent supporters, who emphasize at every turn that this is not the case. These assertions do not seem to assuage most UN members. Officials from Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Manila to Mexico City, are shaking their heads in disbelief. "Is it possible," they wonder, "that we might find ourselves in Serbia's shoes in a few years?" Perhaps.
If indeed the international system, as we have known it since 1945, is undergoing a devolution, with the UN becoming increasingly emasculated and its rule book sidelined, it is important to begin working on a new system. Certainly, international order has been undergoing radical changes since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the start of accelerated globalization and the emergence of nearly unfettered access to information. It is only natural that national minorities, disgruntled groups and oppressed communities will become more vocal and go as far as actively pursuing separatist policies. This is a trend that will likely intensify and is guaranteed to lead to bloodshed. Will it also lead to major international conflict between states?
With the advent of the era of nationalism, more than two centuries ago, the world has had to rebuild the system governing relations between states three times, starting with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. All three times, the rebuilding followed catastrophic fighting on a global scale. Neither war nor peace are inevitable, nor are they acts of nature. Mankind has sought to regulate both, through law, shared rules and consensus. Kosovo suggests that it is time for major readjustments, of the kind that are likely to challenge the sanctity we have so far attributed to the main building blocks of international systems: states and their sovereign rights. If Albanians in Kosovo deserve an independent state, then maybe so do Kurds, Turkish Cypriots, Druze, Romany, Basques - the list can be endless. The European Union may offer an interim model for a way forward - and indeed it is the promise of EU membership that is meant to sweeten the pill for the Serbs and curb Albanian enthusiasm. But first, maybe a decision needs to be made that fighting and dying for a piece of cloth with a colorful design, or just a plain old outline of a territory, is simply not worth it.
February 28, 2008
"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."
"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis