The breakup of an empire often produces results that cannot be easily foreseen. It is certainly hard to be nostalgic about the Soviet empire, and it is natural to sympathize with the desire of the Lithuanians and other Baltic people for independent states of their own. These countries have a clearly defined historical, cultural and ethnic identity and were forced against their will into the Soviet Union.

But it might be necessary to draw the line somewhere. Would Europe be more tranquil, more just or more happy if scores of contentious nation-states struggled for influence and power within what we today call the Soviet Union?After all, one can imagine without much difficulty an independent Armenia and an independent Azerbaijan engaged in a war of total extermination over territorial enclaves.

We pay lip service to the notion of self-determination without having a clear idea of what it entails. Its central premise, however, is that people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds cannot live together in peace.

The principle has been evoked to secure the destruction of existing states, as by Hitler in his claims against the German lands in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Russia. As Walter Lippmann wrote during World War II, "self-determination is a license to intervention and aggression" that invites majorities to be intransigent and leads to the atomization of societies. And, of course, it is a contradiction of the principles on which the United States and other federalist democracies are founded.

However, we are quite inconsistent about this doctrine, espousing it sometimes as a sacred principle; at other times, as in the case of Quebec, Biafra or the Basque lands, as a heresy, and occasionally as an embarrassment, as in the matter of Tibet.

We view this issue with a good deal of sentimentality and intellectual sloppiness. We see in the aspirations of various foreign ethnic groups a reflection of our own war for independence, forgetting that ours was an anti-colonial struggle, not an ethnic one.

Being a multi-ethnic society, we instinctively assume that ethnicity is good. As a result, we forget that the basis of our republic is that people of different religions, races and national origins can live together harmoniously and share common loyalties. Have we forgotten that we fought a Civil War of terrible ferocity to establish the principle that no group, however heartfelt its wishes, had the right to secede from the union?

Nonetheless, to many in America and Europe, the Soviet empire seems to be fair game for dismemberment. It has fallen on hard times and has lost the Cold War.

In fact, punishing the loser by dismembering it is an old tradition. It was employed most recently in Central Europe after World War I. The British and French, intent on punishing the Germans and setting up client states in Eastern Europe, joined with the United States in stripping imperial Germany not only of its overseas colonies, but even of lands that had long been predominantly German. The principle of self-determination was cited to justify this multiple amputation, but its major cause was retribution.

Unfortunately, the Allies' vindictive treatment of the loser was quite self-defeating. Punitive reparations contributed to the economic ruin of Germany, and to bringing the entire industrialized world to the verge of economic collapse. The widespread inflation, unemployment and impoverishment of the 1920s sank the democratic Weimar Republic and paved the way for the rise of Hitler.

The democracies also paid heavily for invoking the principle of self-determination. Lands that had long been populated by Germans became part of the newly restored nation of Poland, thereby causing insecurity in Warsaw and resentment in Berlin. Germany's wartime ally, Austria-Hungary, suffered far worse: It simply ceased to exist.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, held loosely together from Vienna and Budapest, was composed of many ethnic and nationality groups, most of them seething with suspicion, if not hatred, of their neighbors. But the empire was nothing if not cosmopolitan. It provided careers, especially in the army, open to all ethnic groups. Vienna dominated, but the empire itself was multicultural and multilingual. In this respect, it bears some resemblance to the Soviet empire, and the Russian one before it, in which orders came from the Kremlin, but positions of power were open to young people from every part of the empire.

From the ruins of that empire, the current states of Eastern Europe emerged. All of them have borders that are, to some degree, artificial. Some, like Yugoslavia, are well advanced on the road to disintegration and civil war.

Now that the Soviets have left and the East European states have regained their national identities, many in the dominant majority are suppressing foreign ethnic groups within their midst. The future of Eastern Europe is beginning to look suspiciously like its violent and intolerant past.

Insofar as the Soviet Union is concerned, we have to ask ourselves how far we want the process of dismemberment to go. Will the world be a better place if the USSR is split into one or two dozen independent states? Will the people in those lands be more secure or more prosperous? Will Europe be more stable?

The dismemberment of a great nation, even a great empire, should not be embarked upon lightly. While the Soviet Union has caused a good deal of trouble in the world, once split into a host of squabbling states, it could draw neighboring countries into its quarrels.

1991, New Perspectives Quarterly

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