Beyond Kosovo and South Ossetia, why do we encourage the independence of the southern Sudanese but condemn the uprisings of the Kurds in eastern Turkey? Why do we speak up for the Tibetans in China but tune out the Basques in Spain?To this, let me add a resounding....maybe. In general, I think Meaney and Mylonas's Russian doll analogy is exactly right. All map boundaries are, to some extent, arbitrary, and all countries, no matter how delicately carved up, are going to contain ethnic minorities. The United States should be on the side not of endless carveups — which are, in essence, an admission that people of different ethnicities shouldn't really be expected to live together — but on the side of insisting that national governments can and should treat ethnic minorities with respect and fair-mindedness.
Like every great power, the U.S. favors self-determination movements that destabilize its competitors — Russia, China, Iran — and opposes (or ignores) ones that might upset our allies. That's the code of realism in foreign policy. But it's also a Pandora's box. If America opts not to respect the principle of national sovereignty, it discourages other world powers from doing so and undermines state sovereignty the world over.
In order to prolong its global influence and enhance the legitimacy of international institutions, the United States should send a clear message that partition is rarely an answer. We must encourage world leaders to make their ethnic minorities equal partners in government, rather than backing rebels who would carve out states within states like a succession of Russian dolls.
Unfortunately, this makes for a better inscription on a heroic statue than it does a workable foreign policy. The question, as always, is: what are the exceptions? And that's harder. I supported the independence of Kosovo, for example, and I'd argue that circumstances there fully justified it. No liberation movement is ever pristine, the KLA among them, but Milosevic's treatment of Kosovo's Albanian population was simply bloodcurdling. There's just no comparison with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which may have chafed under Georgian rule but suffered nothing in the way of Kosovoan levels of violence and ethnic cleansing. Russia's persistent provocations in the Caucasus may have been partly inspired by anger at Western support for Kosovo's independence, but it's implausible to argue that the cases are really parallel.
None of which is to say that Mikheil Saakashvili was smart to let the Russians to goad him into giving them an excuse to invade. He wasn't. But that still doesn't mean that we have to blindly follow identical policies in every region. Maybe independence for Kosovo could have been handled more smoothly, but it was nonetheless pretty strongly justified by events on the ground. Russia's tit-for-tat demands for South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence aren't.