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Castro & Kosovo: The Week in Symbols

Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Two major stories, two major symbols: Fidel Castro and Kosovo. I think it's obvious how Castro's retirement represents the disappearance of the last vestiges of the 20th century. Sure, there's still N. Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could qualify as well. But the least you can say about the latter two is that, while anchored in the geopolitical realities of the last century, they still managed to evolve in recent years. Kim Jong-Il has a warhead, after all, the Palestinians have an Authority, and an optimist might still hold out hope that there's a way forward on both fronts.

Castro and Cuba, on the other hand, seemed to have remained frozen in time, as did American policy towards both. His retirement might not change anything for the time being, but the writing's on the wall. You can almost sense the presidential candidates rubbing their hands at the thought of the history-making first visit to Havana almost certain to take place in the next term, once Florida's electoral votes have been safely counted.

Kosovo, too, strikes me as a symbol of the 20th century's demise, although of a different order. Or maybe it's more a symbol of the 21st century's arrival. If Operation Desert Storm was the first post-Cold War event, it was to my eyes a misleading one, fueled by a multi-lateral utopianism that obscured the challenges posed by a unipolar world. The disintegration of Yugoslavia served as a necessary corrective, putting those challenges in focus.

To complicate matters even further, the final act of that disintegration now plays out on a geopolitical stage that has become decidedly less unipolar. The questions Kosovo raises are an academic's dream come true and a statesman's worst nightmare: the tension between national sovereignty and ethnic self-determination, between competing multi-lateral institutions, between competing visions of the role of the nation state. There are valid arguments on both sides of the debate, but whereas an academic can analyze and reflect, a statesman must act.

If there's one thing I question about the Kosovo declaration of independence, then, it's the timing. This is a thorny issue that's been dragging on for years. A few more months doesn't seem like it would have mattered much. So I wonder about opening this can of worms while the third and crucial round of Iran sanctions is still being negotiated at the Security Council. Russia's opposition to Kosovo independence is no scoop, nor is China's touchiness about anything that might fuel Taiwan's separatist aspirations. It doesn't seem like a coincidence, then, that Russia chose yesterday to announce a crude oil and gas development deal with Iran.