Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?

WARPATHS: The Politics of Partition by Robert Schaeffer. Hill and Wang, $22.95.
MOST OF US THOUGHT that the Cold War would end sooner or later, but I don’t know of anyone who expected that it would do so on a precise date, thereby affording future generations an occasion for anniversary celebrations. And yet November 9, 1989, is likely to be so remembered, for it was on that day that we turned on the evening news to marvel at the sight of ecstatic Germans dancing atop the Berlin Wall, chipping away at it with hammers and chisels, and greeting each other joyfully through the ragged holes and cracks they had opened up. The most visible symbol of the Cold War had suddenly become a relic: an atrocity had been transformed into an artifact overnight. In an oddly appropriate reflection of this “victory” of capitalism over communism, entrepreneurs took only a few days to begin hawking chunks of the wall—by now an artifact in a commercial as well as a political sense—on the streets of New York.
Appearing at a moment when partitions are crumbling both literally and figuratively, Robert Schaeffer’s Warpaths: The Politics of Partition could hardly be more timely. A Washingtonbased journalist now working for Greenpeace, Schaeffer wrote this book to document his conviction that partitions like the Berlin Wall are a major cause of war—and of crises that might lead to war—in the world today. But Schaeffer undercuts his own argument by acknowledging that the Russians and the Americans did well to divide Germany and Korea after the Second World War: that kind of partition provided a way for the superpowers “to contain their disagreements and avoid a third world war.” Nor is he clear on the relationship between partition and self-determination: he criticizes partition because it violates that principle, but he also thinks self-determination is dangerous because it leads to the proliferation of quarreling microstates. As a consequence, his book is something of a muddle, and hence a less than satisfactory guide to the history that has so abruptly transformed at least some long-standing partitions (there is a lively trade as well these days in Hungarian barbed wire) into coffee-table conversation pieces.
We welcomed the collapse of the Berlin Wall because, as Americans, we are supposed to support self-determination. But Schaeffer’s account of how that commitment came about bogs down in a tortured effort to give both Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Ilich Lenin credit for it: the idea originated, he tells us, in their common antipathy for European colonialism. That interpretation leaves out a lot, including the First World War. One would hardly realize from Schaeffer’s book that Wilson endorsed self-determination in his January, 1918, Fourteen Points speech largely to counter—not reinforce—the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution. Nor does Schaeffer make it clear that Wilson applied that idea most vigorously not against colonialism (Britain and France were, after all, on our side in that war) but against Imperial Germany’s principal ally, the tottering, polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire, which simply came apart as each of its subject nationalities found in the President’s rhetoric justification for secession and subsequent independence.
Schaeffer is no more convincing when he tells us solemnly, a few pages later, that the United Nations Charter “represents the full expression of Wilson and Lenin’s call for common security, creation of independent nationstates, break-up of colonial empires, and secession based on self-determination.” This overlooks the inconvenient fact that Lenin created the Soviet Union, itself a polyglot empire (and now a tottering one as well) that has not in the past responded charitably to secessionist movements seeking national independence.
Schaeffer’s real interest, it turns out, is the British Empire, and how successive British governments went about disengaging from it. Here his history is less shaky and his insights are more perceptive. The British style of imperial devolution, he argues, was one of cut and run: confronted with the complexities of transferring power in places like Ireland, India, and Palestine (which Britain held as a League of Nations mandate), the British simply announced their intention to withdraw, dividing up their colonial possessions among the ethnic, religious, and national groups that inhabited them. The results, Schaeffer asserts, have produced some of the most intractable conflicts of our time: chronic CatholicProtestant rivalries in Northern Ireland, the long-standing antagonism between predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan, and the equally persistent hostility between Israelis and Arabs where Palestine used to be.
But one wonders what the alternatives were, and how we can know that they would have been any less oppressive or dangerous than the measures actually taken. Diplomacy had already been tried in each of these situations and had failed. Coercion could have forced quarreling groups to accommodate each other, but it would have required a continuing British intervention on a tremendous scale, with minimal prospects of success. Anarchy was always a way out, but one that provided little assurance of either order or justice. Schaeffer is surely right when he quotes Conor Cruise O’Brien’s aphorism “Partition is the expedient of tired statesmen.”All these were exhausting conflicts, and the temptation to split the difference—to follow King Solomon’s example—must have been overwhelming. But the conflicts were there before Solomonic solutions were attempted; indeed, that is why they were thought necessary in the first place.
MEANWHILE, AS Schaeffer points out, the Cold War itself was producing other partitions. Unable to agree on what form postwar Germany was to take, the victors simply divided that state, and its national capital as well. Korea, for similar reasons, was also divided, as was Vietnam after the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954; these partitions paved the way for two bloody and protracted “limited” wars. Nor were they the only Cold War partitions: Austria, too, was divided for the first ten years of the postwar era; and even today two Chinese regimes compete for legitimacy, however asymmetrically, from their respective positions on either side of the Taiwan Strait.
But Schaeffer is strangely ambivalent about these partitions. He concedes that explicit political divisions— even if artificial—have been useful in demarcating superpower spheres of influence. With Germany divided, Europe has enjoyed its longest period of political stability and economic prosperity in modern history. The very nervousness that talk of reunification is now setting off, even among some Germans, suggests that geopolitical stability and national unity—for that nation at least—may not be the same thing. And although Cold War partitions in Korea and Vietnam did lead to “limited" wars. Schaeffer acknowledges that the post-1945 great powers, for whatever reason, have had a much better record of not going to war against one another than had their counterparts of the pre-1939 and pre-1914 eras.
Schaeffer worries, however, that although this system may have kept the peace so far, it is an exceedingly dangerous way of going about that task, given the existence of nuclear weapons. The United States in particular, he insists, has had a record of brandishing nuclear weapons in connection with conflicts over divided states. Here Schaeffer’s failure to do careful research leads him seriously astray. Relying on an inadequately documented Brookings Institution study dating from 1981, he tells us that the United States has threatened the use of nuclear weapons on some twenty occasions since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the Brookings study confuses goodwill visits by nuclear-capable bombers and naval vessels with the issuing of nuclear threats: as a result Schaeffer has the United States threatening Uruguay (sic!) with atomic annihilation in 1947, among other horrors. Surely a matter as important as this requires a more sophisticated method of historical analysis.
And Schaeffer fails to note that during the late 1950s and early 1960s Nikita Khrushchev rattled nuclear sabers far more frequently and more colorfully than the Americans ever did: it was the Soviet leader, after all, who chose the occasion of an address before the United Nations General Assembly to claim that his country was turning out ICBMs “like sausages.” Schaeffer’s account entirely misses the fact, also, that nuclear threats on both sides have become increasingly rare since the Cuban missile crisis, and that, as McGeorge Bundy has pointed out in his masterly history of the nuclear age, Danger and Survival, the great powers have never come close to actually using a nuclear weapon in anger at any point since 1945. The argument that great-power partitions necessarily increase the danger of nuclear war must be regarded, then, as “not proven.” And there is one striking case in which the erection of a highly conspicuous Cold War partition—the Berlin Wall in 1961—defused what many experts now regard as having been the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age.
More-recent partitions have arisen, Schaeffer notes, from civil wars with which neither colonial powers nor Cold War superpowers have had much to do. Pakistan, a product of India’s partition in 1947, was itself partitioned in 1971 with the secession of Bangladesh. Cyprus became a divided state after the Turks invaded to protect the Turkish minority there in 1974. Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Lebanon, and even Israel within its post-1967 boundaries are all states in which violent civil strife could cause partitioning in the future. The potential exists as well—although the prospects for success are more remote—for secessionist movements in Morocco, Spain, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, and even Canada (remember Quebec). And Schaeffer could have pointed out—although, curiously, he pays little attention to this—that the Soviet Union itself is likely to have to accept partition in some form if the national rivalries that decades of authoritarian rule have only imperfectly suppressed are not now to become unmanageable. The Soviets even have minorities within minorities, such as the unhappy Abkhazians and South Ossetians, who are already demanding their right to separate from an equally discontented and secession-minded Soviet Georgia.
IT IS HERE, IF anywhere, that the real danger of partition today appears to lie. “If a minority . . . will secede rather than acquiesce,” Schaeffer quotes Abraham Lincoln as warning in 1861, “they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority.” One doesn’t have to look far into the future to see where this could lead: we could have states the size of shopping malls, and a United Nations with as many members as Democratic National Conventions have delegates.
And if nuclear technology—or even sophisticated conventional-weapons technology—should continue to spread to smaller and smaller states, and to smaller and smaller factions within states, then many of the dangers that Schaeffer sees in other forms of partition could very well come to pass.
Schaeffer’s solution, though, is less than satisfying. The trend toward partition could be reversed, he claims, if someone (it is not clear who) could provide (it is not clear how) the kind of constitutional guarantees for minorities promised at the end of the American Civil War and secured a century later during the civil-rights revolution. But it took the presumably enlightened Americans one of the bloodiest civil wars of all time and a subsequent century of aborted reform efforts to achieve even minimal minority safeguards; the process is by no means complete even today. It may sound good for Schaeffer to recommend that the Druze militia, the Tamil Tigers, and the Polisario guerrillas all take up the study of Abraham Lincoln and of Martin Luther King, Jr., but recipients of this advice might be pardoned for pointing out that however worthy of emulation those two historical figures may be, a long and painful history— one definitely nor worthy of emulation— lay between them.
Schaeffer does have a point, though, when he suggests that we should take a good tough look at our own rhetorical commitment to self-determination. For it is clear that this principle literally applied would mean an intensification of nationalism in an age in which transnational phenomena are supposed to be making the nation-state obsolete. Surely a system that has political trends running in opposite directions from their economic and cultural counterparts cannot be a healthy one. It is also the case that empires, despite their violations of self-determination, have at times “managed” political stability more efficiently than their individual successor states have been able to do. It could even be argued that joint Soviet-American “management" is what has kept the Cold War from growing hot for almost half a century.
Certainly we should be asking to what extent our support for self-determination should cause us to want to see the Soviet Union break up like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and what assurance we might have that whatever replaced it would serve our interests any better. It should not escape our attention, in this connection, that many Hungarians have seen fit to celebrate their newly won post—Cold War liberties by boosting the political prospects of none other than Otto von Hapsburg.
No one would claim that the partitions Schaeffer criticizes can last forever: few things in politics do. But the fact that they have not so far led to great-power war, and the fact that some of them—like the Berlin Wall — have provided a way of managing great-power peace, should warn us against oversimplifications like Schaeffer’s title, which appears to condemn all partitions under all circumstances as paths to war. We should, at a minimum, consider what the future alternatives to this last resort of exhausted statesmanship might be. □