Washington.--The Bush administration's response to the predictable, irreversible and not deplorable disintegration of Yugoslavia underscores three problems with its notion of a New World Order:
It involves a misplaced faith in newness. There is an indiscriminateness in its focus on the whole wide world. And it stresses order at the expense of better values.
Ronald Reagan adored one of the most unconservative and incorrect thoughts ever to issue from a pen, in this case Thomas Paine's: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Wrong.
Paine, brimming with Enlightenment rationalism, and most Americans, settled along the edge of a continent they considered a blank slate on which to write, thought they had escaped the curse of history's inertia. Today, the ancient peoples overthrowing the legal fiction "Yugoslavia" are caught in an especially concentrated form of that inertia.
Although Yugoslavia is older than most states (most are less than 40 years old), it is dying young at age 73. Cobbled together by strangers as the First World War ended, it forced intimacy upon peoples who were worse than strangers; they were ancient rivals.
To expect Yugoslavia to continue to exist but in a radically loosened confederation is to expect it to accomplish, with none of America's advantages, a more delicate and dangerous task than America undertook between 1776 and 1865. Americans, with a shared social culture and political vocabulary, moved from the Declaration of Independence, through the Articles of Confederation and Constitutional Convention, through Alexander Hamilton's nationalizing policies and John Marshall's nationalization of the law, to the climacteric of the Civil War. This was a storm-tossed voyage from a loose association of states to a unitary nation under a strong central government.
Those were 89 vexing and finally bloody years. But that political journey was facilitated by a common American consciousness formed in the crucible of revolutionary struggle. America's transformation was immeasurably easier than the one in the opposite direction that strangers are urging, from a safe distance, on Yugoslavs. The U.S. government urges for them a modulated movement from close to attenuated association. But
developments there are driven by hatreds intensified by being long-suppressed by a central government that is a source of unity only as a object of nearly universal disdain.
Any real nation is an ethical association, organized around shared sentiments about important values. Yugoslavia, a manufactured rather than organic entity, is a "prison of nations" (Lenin's description of the Czar's empire). A nation has been called a daily plebiscite, renewing itself from the everyday acts and sentiments of its people. For seven decades Yugoslavia has been powerless to suppress or win those daily plebiscites.
Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger says "what we want is a new confederation." Has anyone notified history of the Bush administration's disapproval of the centrifugal tendencies of the late 20th century?
While in Belgrade last month, Secretary Baker said, rather grandly, "We will not reward unilateral actions." The ghost of Lord North nodded approvingly. But who assigned the United States the office of Great Rewarder? When did the United States, which resulted from a famous unilateral action 215 July Fourths ago, adopt this sniffy disapproval of unilateral actions?
Order is only generally, not invariably, desirable. (Remember the disorderly farmers who by the rude bridge that arched the flood fired the shot heard 'round the world.) Anyway, in the post-Cold War world, the insistence that Yugoslavia's unity is an important U.S. interest reveals an inability to draw important distinctions.
Wisdom is knowing what you do not know; political wisdom is less a matter of knowing what to do than of knowing what cannot be done. The Bush Administration, which may not know sufficient American, let alone Balkan, history, is investing U.S. prestige in a cause that is and deserves to be doomed -- an attempt to preserve the chimera of Yugoslav nationhood.
The administration's post-Desert Storm hubris regarding the external world, and its congenital lack of imagination regarding problems at home, are now reinforcing each other. The administration has a swollen sense of its potency on the world stage and an inability to imagine things to do domestically. The result is gratuitous -- and bad -- advice for turbulent peoples who are completely uninterested in our distant interest in them.
George Will is a syndicated columnist. Ernest B. Furgurson, whose column usually appears here, is on vacation.