The Straits Times

AUG 17 1999

Forgo blood politics or get left behind

By GERALD SEGAL

LONDON -- You see it in Kosovo and you see it in Taiwan. Indeed it is everywhere. International disputes are shaped by disputes about blood.

Sometimes, as in Kosovo, the argument is that Serbs and Albanians cannot live together because they are divided deeply by blood and resulting ethnicity. Sometimes, as in the China-Taiwan dispute, the appeal from one side is that unity is imperative because of blood ties.

But no matter the form, this is a dangerous and increasingly antiquated way to settle disputes. People who put blood first stand much less chances of prospering and living at peace with others in the modern world.

Sadly, the language of blood has come back into vogue. Most often, we hear about the virtues of partition based on supposedly natural divisions of people. Although Western powers and indeed the international community formally support a multi-ethnic Kosovo or Bosnia, the reality is an increasing tolerance of division.

Kosovo is headed in that direction and Bosnia is already well on its way, supported even with US military aid to non-Serb factions. This is the logic of now independent Slovenia and Croatia.

It is also the logic of Russia's fringes; first the break-up of the Soviet Union and now further splintering in Chechnya and Dagestan.

There has already been a split between Czechs and Slovaks, Greeks and Turks still struggle in Cyprus and even the Northern Ireland peace process looks fragile.

In Asia, East Timor is slipping towards independence and other parts of Indonesia, such as Aceh, may follow.

Kashmir is vivid proof of the intense blood politics.

Of course, not all these disputes are about blood, although primeval arguments about blood are often at the root of ethnic and religious divides. The point is that division seems to be increasingly accepted as the norm.

In its most benign form, it can be a matter of peaceful, democratic self-determination (Scotland, Quebec?), but far more often it is part of a bloody dispute. Hence the apparent oddity of the cases of China-Taiwan and the Koreas where blood lines are supposed to be reasons for unity and end up being part of the reasons why solutions are hard to find.

The problem for these countries is that as they become more developed (Taiwan and South Korea in particular), their sophisticated middle-class society sees less appeal in blood ties.

Taiwanese can feel part of a wider Chinese cultural zone, but they find it increasingly hard to see why they should any different from Singapore, an ethnic Chinese state that has independence and a far more complex identity than one based merely on blood ties to mainland China.

Similarly, South Koreans appreciate their close blood ties to the North, but they find it harder to see why they should take risks with their own fragile prosperity for the sake of Korean unity.

The pattern is the same: as the middle-class society develops a more complex identity, the people do not see blood ties as the defining feature of their life.

These sentiments also lie at the heart of why Europeans are so ambiguous and confused about how they handle the Balkans. This is a region still mired in blood politics but on the fringes of a very modern Europe that has long since sought to put its blood politics behind it.

Changes in immigration laws in Europe, most notably in Germany, are indicators of how Europeans are struggling to get beyond their blood-based instincts of identity, and by and large they are succeeding.

There is no better evidence of the success of these efforts than the creation of a more federal Europe. The core notion of the European project is not only that ties of blood get subsumed in a wider identity, but also that even national governments with already complex identities take on an added layer of identity at the European level. The deep intention is not just to prevent wars among once bloody European combatants, but also to find a better way to organise society in the information and innovation age.

But as impressive as the European project may be in escaping the history of blood, it is not as impressive as those societies already based on multiple identities. One thinks primarily of a United States built on pride in a hyphenated identity that is further enhanced as subsequent generations of migrants inter-marry. Canada, Australia and New Zealand also fall into this category of countries uniquely placed to minimise blood politics and be well-placed for the new, more complex world.

The challenge of the modern post-industrial age is to build an innovative society that needs to be far more flexible than in the past.

In the industrial age, one could build unity on narrow and simplistic ethnic grounds and even now there clearly are some virtues in there being a basis for unity that is well-grounded.

But societies that stick closely to blood and ethnicity will now lose out in the globalised competition for ideas and talent. A country with a tight immigration policy will not be able to hire the best and the brightest. A society that believes that old cultural roots are essential protection against fast change will find they are poorly placed to assimilate the new multiculturalism that seems so pervasive in the information age.

It is not hard to see why a Silicon Valley is so hard to develop in a more closed Japan. Nor is it hard to see why countries obsessed with narrow definitions of identity (blood and genes often go together in people's minds) will find it harder to absorb the methods of a cutting-edge biotechnology industry.

Thus when you look at disputes in Kosovo or Taiwan, it will be important to understand that the tragedies are not just about the risk of war. In the longer term, the mindset of blood politics makes people less well-placed to be prosperous as well as peaceful.

While it is clearly a difficult matter of changing generations of mindset, the challenge of the new age of innovation will leave among the losers those who cannot transcend their past.

The writer is the director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He contributed this commentary to The Straits Times.


ANTIQUATED WAY TO SETTLE DISPUTES

INTERNATIONAL disputes are shaped by disputes about blood...No matter the form, this is a dangerous and increasingly antiquated way to settle disputes...

Hence the apparent oddity of the cases of China-Taiwan and the two Koreas, where blood lines are supposed to be reasons for unity and end up being part of the reasons why solutions are hard to find.

The problem for these countries is that as they become more developed (Taiwan and South Korea in particular), their sophisticated middle-class society sees less appeal in blood ties.

Taiwanese can feel part of a wider Chinese cultural zone, but they find it increasingly hard to see why they should any different from Singapore, an ethnic Chinese state that has independence and a far more complex identity than one based merely on blood ties to mainland China.

 


Copyright 1999 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.