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The Diversity Myth

The hortatory version of our history, in which America has long been a land of ethnic tolerance and multicultural harmony, leaves us with nothing useful to say to the failed states and riven polities of the post-Cold War world

by Benjamin Schwarz

SOLIPSISM is a perennial American temptation. In a grotesquely comic muddle of causes and cultures, Lyndon Johnson once sought to buy off the North Vietnamese with promises of a Great Society--style project along the Mekong. Variants of the cry "Why can't they be more like us?" have long served as a staple of American tourists and foreign-policy mandarins alike. We have made ourselves at home in the world, characteristically, by regarding it as America in the making.

Thus imbued with ourselves, we often get the world wrong. Mussolini was not an impetuous New Dealer, nor Ho Chi Minh a Democratic pol. The West Bank is not the American South, nor is the cause of the Palestinian homeland an exotic version of the black struggle for civil rights. Similarly, the ethnic tumult loosed by the end of the Cold War is not to be assessed by pious invocations of our multi-ethnic, multiracial heritage of tolerance and civic comity. The bloodlettings in Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, and Haiti have no parallel in the Parson Weems idea of our past which we trumpet abroad. Not that they are incommensurably worse than anything in the American experience. Rather, the history we hold up as a light to nations is a sanctimonious tissue of myth and self-infatuation. We get the world wrong because we get ourselves wrong. Taken without illusion, our history gives us no right to preach--but it should prepare us to understand the brutal realities of nation-building, at home and abroad.

Over the past few years the American foreign-policy community has discovered that the world is riddled with ethnic, nationalist, and separatist conflicts ("ENS" wars, in Pentagon-speak). Characterizing the post--Cold War world as a simmering cauldron, experts in the State Department and on the National Security Council, in the foundations and the think tanks, point not only to Bosnia and Rwanda but also to the Baltic republics and Macedonia, to Moldova and Georgia, and assert that, as the former CIA director James Woolsey put it, the world is "more dangerous" now than during the Cold War. Sometimes it seems that such a pronouncement is uttered and met with as much relief as concern, for this new phenomenon supposedly means that expert advice, and Cold War bureaucracies, remain indispensable despite the end of the Cold War. Indeed, in proliferating conferences, workshops, and interagency working groups the national-security community is greeting ENS wars with the same entrepreneurial alarm with which it met the specter of Communist insurgency in the 1960s and "low-intensity conflict" in the 1980s. "The main strategic challenge for the United States," according to Leslie Gelb, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is to "develop plans . . . to stem civil wars."

The foreign-policy community's anxiety springs from convictions like those expressed by Warren Zimmermann, the former ambassador to Yugoslavia, when he declared that the war in Bosnia, for instance, has "baleful implications for . . . the United States," because what is at stake there is "the values of the melting pot." America's anxiety over the fragmentation of foreign states and societies arises from our sense that American society is fragmenting, culturally and ethnically. We are desperate to repair what the foreign-policy community terms "failed states" and "divided societies," for such success would prove to us that the liberal notions of pluralism and tolerance upon which we would like to believe that American unity was founded remain vital enough to build communities abroad and, perhaps more important, at home.

The problems with this approach start with a misunderstanding of history. The foreign-policy community usually describes ENS wars as products of the post--Cold War era. They are nothing of the sort. Bosnias have, of course, been occurring with grim regularity for millennia. These wars are also described as throwbacks to more intolerant and violent eras, and the assumption is made that if only the combatants could be placed on the path to modernity, the problem would be solved. It would be comforting to believe that such struggles are merely a relapse, a bloody detour on mankind's progressive road to tolerance and pluralism. But from 1945 to 1975, Harold Isaacs has reckoned in Idols of the Tribe (1975), while the Cold War raged and the world reached unprecedented levels of prosperity, what are now called ENS conflicts killed some 10 million people: two million of them in India, another two million in Biafra's civil war, half a million in Bangladesh, and another half a million in Indonesia, with the remainder being casualties of tribal civil wars in Nigeria, the Congo, Chad, and Sudan, or Nagas killed by Indians, Chinese killed by Malays, Tibetans killed by Chinese, Colombians killed by Colombians, Tutsis and Hutus killed by one another in Burundi, Catholics and Protestants in Ulster, Turks and Greeks in Cyprus, and Papuans and Indonesians in New Guinea. Europe's immunity from this killing spree came at a terrible price: the superpower confrontation that divided the continent, the energies exhausted in the killing of 70 million people from 1914 to 1945, and Moscow's sanguinary efforts to subdue separatist elements in the Soviet republics during the 1920s and 1930s all contributed to Europe's postwar stability.

Even more ahistorical and naive is the paradigm that the U.S. foreign-policy community insists on applying to internal conflicts. Guided by faith in the nostrums of the liberal tradition and by the mechanistic notion, learned in civics class, that a community is built by balancing competing interests, American foreign-policy experts urge societies riven by conflict to avoid "winner takes all" politics and to guarantee that regardless of election results, the weaker groups, too, will have a voice in national political and cultural affairs. To accomplish this, coalition governments, the guaranteed division of key offices, and a system of reciprocal vetoes are recommended. These devices, so the thinking goes, will ameliorate ethnic, nationalist, and religious divisions. And the experts agree that those divisions will be less likely to erupt in violent conflict if divided societies elevate tolerance and unity above ethnic, nationalist, or religious domination as their organizing principles.

All these measures may seem reasonable enough. But they depend upon a host of faulty assumptions, perhaps the most important being that the strongest group in a divided society will be willing to make major concessions--concessions that in fact jeopardize its preponderant position. The "solutions," then, presuppose agreement and stability as much as they secure them, for they can be implemented only when there is already a strong desire for compromise.

But, as the English historian Lewis Namier wrote in his discussion of nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe, "states are not created or destroyed, and frontiers redrawn or obliterated, by argument and majority votes; nations are freed, united, or broken by blood and iron, and not by a generous application of liberty." Despite the historical failure of reason and compromise in such situations, foreign-policy experts and officials continue to place great stock in reasonable solutions. Their ideas about settling internal conflicts are fundamentally distorted by their idealized view of America's own history and development.

Swallowing Up Peoples

WE are all pluralists now; everyone favors "tolerance" and "diversity." We regard these qualities as central to the American creed and central to the "democratic values" the export of which has been the avowed aim of every U.S. President since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Democracy assures a voice to each disparate group and thus, according to prevailing notions, gives rise to the American community, for from these competing voices come compromise and unity. America, therefore, is regarded as a highly successful model of a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multireligious, and polyglot society. Out of many we are one. With this understanding of their country's cultural and political development, U.S. statesmen and foreign-policy observers ingenuously and smugly ask fragmented societies, Can't you all get along, just as we do over here?

For 200 years Americans have been congratulating themselves on their happy ability to live together. They have taken as the model for their self-image J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's 1782 account of the United States, Letters From an American Farmer. Few observations on the American people have been quoted over the years with such self-satisfaction.

Whence came all these peoples? they are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen. . . . What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men. . . .
Upholders of this ideal of American pluralism, however, must quote Crevecoeur, for it is hard to find contemporaries who shared his view. Although non-English people had flocked to America in large numbers, mixed with settlers of English blood, and thereby lost their genetic and cultural distinctiveness, most observers painted a picture of this amalgamation very different from Crevecoeur's; they understood that America was characterized by ethnic dominance, not ethnic pluralism.

In a typical account a Swedish minister visiting what he hoped would be the settlements of his countrymen along the Delaware River in 1745 was sad to report,

I found in this country scarcely one genuine Swede left, the most of them are either in part or in whole on one side or other descended from English or Dutch parents. . . . The English are evidently swallowing up the people and the Swedish language is so corrupted that if I did not know the English, it would be impossible to understand the language of my dear Sweden.
The minister's lament is highly revealing. By crying out that the English are "swallowing up the people" and pointing to language as evidence, he correctly defined amalgamation and pluralism in the American context.

Although in 1790 only about 60 percent of the white U.S. population was of English origin, America was culturally quite homogeneous; most of the non-English people had lost much of their cultural distinctiveness to the unsparing dominance of the English language, customs, and institutions, and had lost much of their original genetic character to English numerical superiority. The American "nationality" was not a blending of all the peoples that populated the United States, or even an amalgam of the white Europeans inhabiting the country. An "American" was a modified Englishman. To become an American was to subject oneself to a hegemony so powerful that many Americans ignored or denied existing diversities. John Jay, for instance, was oblivious of the approximately 40 percent of his fellow white citizens who were of non-English origin when he wrote in the second Federalist paper,

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion . . . similar in their manners and customs. . . .
A hundred and twenty-nine years later, in 1916, after wave upon wave of immigrants had inundated the United States, the liberal critic Randolph Bourne, in calling for a cosmopolitan, heterogeneous American culture, described an America that would have been quite familiar to Jay. Bourne bewailed a "melting pot" under one aegis: "English snobberies, English religion, English literary styles, English literary reverences and canons, English ethics, English superiorities." An elite composed of Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent--which, Bourne acknowledged, included himself--was "guilty of just what every dominant race is guilty of in every European country: the imposition of its own culture upon the minority peoples." A popular guide for immigrant Jews at the time put it another way: to become American, it advised, "forget your past, your customs, and your ideals."

Thus, long before the United States' founding, and until probably the 1960s, the "unity" of the American people derived not from their warm welcoming of and accommodation to nationalist, ethnic, and linguistic differences but from the ability and willingness of an Anglo elite to stamp its image on other peoples coming to this country. That elite's religious and political principles, its customs and social relations, its standards of taste and morality, were for 300 years America's, and in basic ways they still are, despite our celebration of "diversity." Whatever freedom from ethnic and nationalist conflict this country has enjoyed (and it has been considerably less than our national mythology would have us believe) has existed thanks to a cultural and ethnic predominance that would not tolerate conflict or confusion regarding the national identity.

Cleansing Ethnics

THIS cultural predominance, which amounted to the repression, not the celebration, of ethnic diversity, was expressed in the concept of the melting pot that the pluralist Bourne had so criticized. Today, through an Orwellian process, that term has acquired a meaning nearly opposite to its original. Now it is most often used as the former ambassador Warren Zimmermann uses it--to describe the ideal of what might be called the American tapestry. According to this ideal, American society is a colorful blending of different ethnic and national elements, a tapestry that can be woven only in a society tolerant of, and indeed prizing, diversity. But the melting pot, an idea that governed American attitudes toward the various national and ethnic groups coming to the United States from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, was once recognized as a concept in opposition to tolerance and pluralism. Because immigrants created a dependent working class favored by industrialists, there was never a political movement in the United States powerful enough to effect the complete exclusion of foreigners; however, these groups would not be permitted to vitiate Anglo-American domination.

"Americanization" was a process of coercive conformity according to which the United States was a melting pot, not a tapestry. American society wasn't viewed as the product of a little of Russia, a little of Italy, and a little of Poland all mixed together. Instead the various nationalities were made into Americans as ore is refined into gold. Americanization purified them, eliminating the dross. The Americanization movement's "melting pot" pageants, inspired by Israel Zangwill's play, celebrated not tolerance but conformity to a narrow conception of American nationality by depicting strangely attired foreigners stepping into a huge pot and emerging as immaculate, well-dressed, accent-free "American-looking" Americans--that is, Anglo-Americans. Sinclair Lewis recognized the melting pot, in Main Street, as a means by which "the sound American customs absorbed without one trace of pollution another alien invasion." Americanization, then, although it did not cleanse America of its ethnic minorities, cleansed its minorities of their ethnicity.

For better or worse, the current fragmentation and directionlessness of American society is the result, above all, of a disintegrating elite's increasing inability or unwillingness to impose its hegemony on society as a whole. Nevertheless, that a single group whose proportion of the population has declined continuously throughout American history could so dominate American cultural and political life for three centuries--could in fact define what it meant to be an American--is a remarkable achievement.

The hegemony that has unified America has been at bottom not so much cultural and linguistic as physical. America didn't simply evolve; it was made by those who claimed it fiercely and rendered it in their image. Today's foreign-policy experts, among them Zbigniew Brzezinski, who characterize Russia as congenitally expansive, driven by an almost evil "imperial impulse" to dominate or absorb its bordering states, and who assert that as long as Russia does not respect the sovereignty of other states it cannot be a democracy, would arrive at a clearer perspective of such an "impulse" if they reflected on their own country's history and development. At least as much as other countries, the United States was formed by conquest and force, not by conciliation and compromise. For America, no less than for Russia, nation-building has been a ruthless undertaking. America's founders described the United States not as a country but as an empire, and for reasons of national security, economic development, and racial chauvinism (the same motivations impelling Russian "imperialism" today) they embarked on a course of imperial expansion.

This meant, of course, taking land that belonged to others and subjecting foreign peoples to American rule. Even though the North American continent was at the time inhabited by various Native American tribes and divided among Spain, Great Britain, and the United States, John Quincy Adams confidently declared in 1811 that it was "destined . . . to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs." To Adams and his contemporaries there was, of course, no doubt that America should effect this imperial union. A Kentuckian added a more mercenary gloss to Adams's prophecy, boasting that Americans were "as greedy after plunder as ever the old Romans were, Mexico glitters in our Eyes--the word is all we wait for." By 1846 America was ready to pounce. In a war of conquest--a war that Ulysses S. Grant judged "one of the most unjust waged by a stronger against a weaker nation"--a democratic United States swallowed present-day Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Moreover, building America required nearly 300 years of genocidal wars against Native Americans, a fact that impels today's historians to characterize American expansion on the continent as "invasion" rather than "settlement." These wars, one of the longest series of ethnic conflicts in modern history, were resolved not by power sharing but by obliteration. Although this record engenders much handwringing today, it is impossible to imagine the United States existing if a more reasonable course had been pursued. For from the "American" point of view, a reasonable accommodation would have required that, in Theodore Roosevelt's blunt phrase, the vast continent be set aside "as a game preserve." America's great ethnic struggle should have taught Americans that many conflicts are simply irreconcilable. As Representative Richard Wilde, of Georgia, asked with resignation in 1830, describing the United States' destruction of Native Americans as the price of its development, "What is history but the obituary of nations?"

Yankee Leviathan

OF course, just as the United States entered the final stage of its subjugation and liquidation of Native Americans, it nearly destroyed itself in the other central episode of its nation-building--a brutal and irreconcilable nationalist-separatist conflict in which one vision of America crushed another. The Civil War--a conflict that, the historian William Appleman Williams wrote, "undercuts the popular mythology that America is unique," and he added, "Only a nation that avoided such a conflict could make a serious claim to being fundamentally different"--is an apt example of how reasonable solutions to separatist conflicts hardly ever work. When the United States was established, the North and the South accepted each other as effectively two distinct economic and ideological entities based on antagonistic systems of property: the North was industrial, liberal-bourgeois, and capitalist, while the South was agricultural, aristocratic, paternalistic, and anti-capitalist. To dampen sectional conflict, the Constitution, through the three-fifths clause and other devices, guaranteed the South a disproportionate voice in national politics. Yet this guaranteed outcome, so lauded by policy analysts today as a means of forestalling internal conflict, could not work in the long run for the United States. As the North's power and ambitions grew, it was unwilling to abide by arrangements based on a previous and obsolete calculus of relative strength, while the South was not satisfied with merely a diminishing respect for its view. It wanted to determine its own future without being subordinate to or dependent on an opposing, and increasingly threatening, ideology and political economy.

In the end the North's vision--of a powerful centralized state, a "Yankee Leviathan," deemed necessary for capitalist development--emerged as the nation's. This vision, despite a persistent mythology promulgated by the victors, was triumphant not because it was intellectually or morally superior but because the North won a test of physical strength. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a better proof of the idea that might makes right--a doctrine supposedly anathema to liberals--than the outcome of our own Civil War. Eugene Genovese, a clear-eyed historian, has written,

General Sherman, not the indomitable ideology of liberalism, marched through Georgia. The notion that America has always united on liberal principles breaks down here. . . . We should not forget that our liberal, confident, tolerant, and good-natured bourgeoisie, when for once confronted with a determined and powerful internal foe, forgot its commitment to reason together and reached for its revolver.
Our separatist conflict was followed not, as Yankees assert, by national reconciliation but by military occupation to impose a new political and economic order on the defeated land and by a century of regional hostility and estrangement.

White Over Black

AMERICA would have seen more conflicts between white Americans of different ethnic and religious backgrounds (and classes) if these had not been muted by whites' common hatred and fear of black Americans. There is an obvious problem with Crevecoeur's discussion of the new American "race" in the passage quoted earlier. It excludes the very element of American society that has given America some of its most distinctive characteristics: the African. Even for Crevecoeur, supposedly the voice of tolerance, there were severe limits on who could be included in the American mixture. The American was "either an European, or the descendant of an European"; the American could not be a black man or woman.

The struggle to make one nation of America's original two--black and white--is an enterprise that might never succeed, and that America's founders did not believe was possible. After all, Thomas Jefferson's pluralist vision, which established a standard of religious and political tolerance to which Americans still aspire, didn't extend to the black race. Jefferson's apologists are fond of quoting his statement, about black men and women, that "nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free." But they fail to quote his concluding clause: "Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government." Jefferson hated slavery because he knew it to be wrong, but he also hated it because it brought black people to America. Convinced that blacks were alien, inferior, and dangerous, Jefferson had a vision for America that required that they be not only emancipated but also expelled from the country. Advocating a program of ethnic cleansing, he was determined that blacks be removed "beyond the reach of mixture." Thus Jefferson's notions of democracy, upon which our ideals of pluralism are founded, depended not merely on racial supremacy but on racial homogeneity.

Democracy as the Problem

WHEN considering other countries' internal conflicts, Americans should keep in mind what their own Civil War and Indian wars have proved: embattled minorities--nations within nations--don't just want respect; they want not to be treated as appendages of the majority's state. Israel gives its Arab minority within its pre-1967 borders the same voting rights it accords its Jewish citizens. In the interwar period the Sudeten Germans received respect and a disproportionate political voice from a democratic Czechoslovakia. Today the Quebecois are given the same treatment in Canadian national politics. Nevertheless, significant numbers within these minorities were or are unsatisfied with these arrangements, because solutions to civil conflicts which grant special guarantees to minorities almost always ask those minorities to accept less than they want. But another oft-touted solution--transforming nation-states into civil states, in which political power is not determined by membership in the majority's ethnic, nationalist, or religious group--demands that the majority accept far less than it wants and, indeed, less than it already has. To many within the majority, such a solution means sacrificing a living, breathing national character to the abstract and bloodless notion of a political community.

It is, for example, an unspoken rule of Israeli politics, applying as much to Labor as to Likud, that no Arab or Arab-dominated party shall be invited to participate in a political coalition. No matter how much Israel might want to ameliorate internal conflict, it won't jettison its national character and dismantle that which defines its statehood. The promotion of the civil state and the weakening of the nation-state would be unacceptable not only to Israel but also to wholly secular states in the advanced industrialized community as well--to Germany and Japan, for example, which both tend to define citizens as those who belong to the dominant national group.

Divided societies face a conundrum: dissatisfied minorities want, at a minimum, a real voice in determining their future--but a real voice for the minority means real sacrifice for the majority. Canada's proposed 1992 Charlottetown Accord, for instance, was a model of reasonable techniques for forestalling internal conflict:predominantly Francophone Quebec was assured 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons; three judges on the Supreme Court, out of nine, were to be drawn from Quebec; and bills affecting the French language and culture would have required a majority of the Senate as a whole and a majority of Francophone senators, too. These solutions, which might have assuaged the Francophone minority, were roundly rejected by Anglophone Canada, which was unwilling to relinquish the political power and the cultural dominance it maintained by virtue of being the majority. If such compromises are unworkable in a Western democracy, there is little reason to assume that they will work in the emerging and failed states that now concern the American national-security community.

The Clinton Administration, along with many Republican foreign-policy leaders, looks to a global democratic makeover to tame the seemingly intractable ethnic, nationalist, and separatist passions that have destabilized the post--Cold War world. "Democratic enlargement" has, in fact, emerged as the central tenet of the Administration's foreign policy. But for the reasons discussed above, it is, as John Stuart Mill observed, "next to impossible" to build a true democracy--as opposed to a system of majority tyranny--in a multi-ethnic society. Moreover, democracy hardly immunizes a society against internal conflict and separatism, as the 620,000 dead in America's Civil War attest. Democracy, which permits--in fact, encourages--competition for power and benefits among contesting groups, actually exacerbates internal tensions and conflicts.

Many of those policymakers who advocate democratic enlargement argue that before violence erupts in states divided by internal differences, America should urge those states to adopt democratic or, more accurately, power-sharing solutions. But in the past whenever such efforts have not been backed by U.S. force, they have failed, because those groups with power are disinclined to relinquish it voluntarily. Such blandishments amount, whatever the motivation, to crass interference in another state's internal affairs. How would Americans feel if Japan, out of a sincere desire to stabilize a dangerously divided United States, tried to pressure it to adopt the radical power-sharing solutions of Lani Guinier (the law professor whose nomination for a Justice Department post was withdrawn by the Clinton Administration)to effect a political order in which minorities were assured a more powerful voice in the U.S. political process?

Policymakers seek benign, if ineffective, democratic and power-sharing solutions to internal conflicts around the world, because historically workable solutions are unpalatable. In 1914 Prince Bernhard von Bulow, then a former German Chancellor, starkly summarized those solutions when he wrote that "in the struggle between nationalities one nation is the hammer, the other the anvil, one is the victor and one is the vanquished." Stability within divided societies is normally based on some form of domination, and once internal differences become violent, usually only the logic of force can lay them to rest.

Lamentably, the most stable and lasting solution to ethnic and nationalist conflicts has been ethnic cleansing and partition. The Czech Republic and Poland are today far more stable and more likely to remain democratic than they would otherwise be because of their ruthless decisions, following the Second World War, to expel forcibly the German minorities that had caused them so much trouble in the interwar years. Cyprus, too, became considerably more stable after the Turkish army partitioned it, forcing the relocation of 200,000 people, mostly Greek Cypriots, in 1974.

Domestic Insecurities

MORE-REASONABLE power-sharing solutions sometimes do emerge in divided societies, but usually only after the opposing sides have exhausted themselves in a bloody contest. The struggle in the 1940s and 1950s between Colombia's liberals and conservatives, for instance, finally resulted in a textbook resolution of civil differences. Both factions were assured a voice in national politics, and the presidency alternated between the two parties. But the two sides were willing to compromise only after more than a quarter of a million Colombians had been killed in civil war. For both, compromise was the second-best solution, to which they agreed only after they had done their best to eradicate their opponents. Arriving at solutions--"reasonable" or not--can take centuries and will often be bloody. So, although the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Carnegie Endowment have spent enormous energy of late generating ideas and strategies for how America can prevent, tame, or end ENS conflicts, the United States really has only two options in these situations. Adopting a passive role once violence has erupted in a failed state, Washington can await the time when mutual exhaustion or the triumph of one group over another will create an opening for intervention in a purely peacekeeping capacity. Alternatively, the United States can effectively intervene, not by building civil societies or pacifying such conflicts but by helping one side impose its will on the other, as Turkey did in Cyprus. This sort of intervention, of course, can hardly be called "peacekeeping" or "peacemaking"; it is, however, what great-power intervention usually amounts to, as the United States has shown in, among other places, the Philippines (1898--1913), Haiti (1915--1934), Nicaragua (1912-- 1925; 1926--1933), and Vietnam (1961--1973).

Such intervention, which is nothing more than the naked exercise of power, should be an option only when specific, vital U.S. interests are threatened. They are not threatened in any actual or in most potential ethnic and separatist conflicts. Because "humane" solutions are ineffective, and because effective solutions are too inhumane for the United States to consider in any but the most threatening situations, America is largely impotent in the face of ENS wars.

Why, then, has the foreign-policy community made such conflicts the focus of so much of its post--Cold War strategizing? What, for instance, does Leslie Gelb mean when he insists that foreign civil wars are "the new core problem in post--Cold War politics" and that "democracies have a large practical as well as moral stake in finding reasonable responses" to them?

The motivation behind this latest summons to a foreign-policy crusade, as with earlier summonses, lies not in external threats but in our own insecurities. These conflicts scare us because we see in them an image of ourselves. After four centuries we are nagged by the facts that we do not "all get along" and that the apparent success of our own multi-ethnic and multicultural experiment might have been engendered not by tolerance but by hegemony. Without the dominance that once dictated, however ethnocentrically, what it meant to be an American, we are left with only tolerance and pluralism to hold us together. Unfortunately, the evidence from Los Angeles to New York, from Miami to Milwaukee, shows that such principles are not so powerful as we had believed and hoped. Afraid to face our own problems directly, we look elsewhere, and encourage other countries to prove to us that more pluralism and more tolerance are all that are needed to reunite divided societies. Thus for the past three years Los Angeles Times editorials have often shifted focus from racial divisions in the city and the debate over the changing ethnic and linguistic makeup of California to warn of what they define as the broad American interest at stake in the former Yugoslavia. In urging U.S. intervention there the Times argues, for instance, that the United States is a "citizen-based, multiethnic state," and that "it is safe only in a world where, in principle, all states are comparably organized," since "if ethnicity begins to replace citizenship as the basis for statehood, chaos would ensue, a chaos that would not leave America untouched." Or, as Warren Zimmermann solipsistically claims, "What happens in Bosnia matters to Americans." Externalizing our problems, he bizarrely sees a threat to the United States from the Bosnian Serbs because if their ideas prevailed here at home, our tolerant, multi-ethnic society would be jeopardized. Zimmermann uses Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s critique of American "ethnic ideologues"--who, according to Schlesinger, "have set themselves against the old American ideal of assimilation"--to indict the Bosnian Serbs for the same crime. In fact, however, the Bosnian Serbs' ideas are much closer to the "old American ideal of assimilation" than we would like to think.

A crusade in support of multinational, multicultural tolerance abroad really seeks to validate it at home. But attempting to validate a myth is futile. Before we export our myth, we had best recognize that we have not yet found a "reasonable" solution here, and that perhaps such a solution cannot be found.

Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May, 1995; The Diversity Myth; Volume 275, No. 5; pages 57-67.

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