Why is the world so reluctant to accept partition as the answer to ethnic, religious or political conflicts? The Kosovo conflict may finally be moving in that direction, but only after all sides debased themselves by years of murderous conflict. In Iraq, too, the much-needed separation into three autonomous units — Shiite, Sunni and Kurd — is finally being considered, but again only after years of senseless brutality.
Partitioning seems to raise false images of national surrender and dismemberment — a blot on the precious badge of national sovereignty. But national honor need not be sacrificed. Indeed, separating warring factions today could be the key to national revival and integrity tomorrow.
Taiwan is a good example. Separation from mainland China in 1949 gave the embattled anticommunist Chinese minority the chance to regroup, regain confidence and even do much to educate the dominant majority during the latter’s periods of ideological madness. Hong Kong, too, has played a crucial in educating and helping its Chinese parent to revive economically. True, those partitions only came about through historical and geographical accident. And Taiwan’s refusal today to accept some reconciliation with the mainland creates problems. But they are significant all the same, today especially.
U.S. President George W. Bush is now using the “Vietnam” argument over Iraq. He says the Vietnam War shows how premature withdrawal of U.S. forces meant handing over victory to the “enemy” in 1975. But with the U.S. now happily trading and dealing with that former “enemy,” some might ask why the United States was there in the first place, let alone trying to hang on there after 1975. Besides, if defending the anticommunist Vietnamese — the originally proclaimed U.S. goal — was so important, Vietnam then, like Iraq today, proves the benefits of partitioning.
In the early stages of Australia’s Vietnam War some of us in Canberra pushed for what was called the enclave solution. This said that if it was clear the anticommunist Vietnamese could not prevail against their procommunist enemies, the U.S. and its allies would move to create a protected enclave — a little Taiwan — where the anticommunist forces would be able to regroup and recover.
Our idea got to the top levels of the then-opposition Labor Party. But it was ridiculed by both the right and the left, and went no further. Both were certain their side would prevail.
Eventually one side did prevail, but only after 10 more years of napalm, Agent Orange, B-52 bombings and some 2 million deaths. The other side was then left cruelly to fend as best for itself as it could.
In Iraq, fortunately, common sense has arrived a bit earlier, with some in high places already beginning to realize that an Iraq divided into three semi-autonomous units would finally put an end to the internecine killing. It would also allow U.S. politicians and generals to bow out without loss of face — a very important factor in ending mistaken interventions such as Vietnam and Iraq.
True, partitioning has its problems. People have to be uprooted; new political structures have to be created. The India-Pakistan partition in 1947 saw well over 10 million people forced to move from one side to the other in scenes of chaos and atrocity that few would want to see repeated. But much of that was due to the hands-off attitude of the controlling British authorities. With the U.S. military on the ground in Iraq to supervise, that problem can be eased. It would in any case be preferable to the never-ending chaos and atrocity under present U.S. military supervision.
One serious obstacle to partitioning solutions is the idealistic Western belief that peoples warring with each other can somehow be made to live in peace with each other. As former U.S. President Bill Clinton is reported to have said in 1993 when the Vance-Owen proposal for dividing Bosnia into separate autonomies was first proposed: “We are not into maps.”
The concept of partitions on ethnic, religious or political grounds was contrary to the American ethic, we were told. Two years later, with the Dayton Accords, the U.S. finally realized it needed very much to be into maps. The de facto division of Bosnia into Serb, Croat and Muslim areas of control has finally brought some kind of peace to that tortured land.
In Kosovo, too, partition is clearly the only answer. Here both sides are separated not just by decades of hostility, but by language and culture also. True, one can understand the objections of the Serbs. Originally they had been a substantial minority in this territory that they see as the fatherland of their culture. But Nazi and other atrocities had whittled their numbers down to around 10 percent. Today it is even less. If they are to avoid complete extermination at the hands of their ethnic Albanian extremist enemy, their only hope is to create a small protected Serbian enclave for themselves.
Partitioning Serbia is not a new idea. It was first proposed back in 1993 by a committee under the former president of Yugoslavia, Dobrica Cosic. Unfortunately it was rejected by then-president of Serbia Slobodan Milosevic. If that partition had gone through, then not only would the vandalistic NATO bombing of Serbia have been avoided, but Serbia would probably have retained much more of Kosovo — around 20 percent — than it is likely to retain today.
But as the Sibylline Books tell us, it is better to take a reduced amount today than nothing tomorrow. And if satisfying Serbian historic nostalgia is important, then the concept of residual sovereignty can also be used — a concept that the international community has used very successfully to ease tensions over Taiwan.
Partitioning in one form or another would put an end to a host of other global problems — Turkey with its unhappy Kurdish minority, Sri Lanka with its Tamil minority, Russia with its Chechen minority, Spain possibly with its Basque minority. But first the concept of absolute national sovereignty has to be modified by the right to autonomy or separate existence within the national boundaries.
Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat and government official, is now vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net