September 23, 1999


The UN intervention in East Timor – taken in a larger context than simply the insertion of troops – raises some interesting questions to which I don't claim to have the answers. Are we seeing signs of decentralization or devolution of power here or a centralizing move? Can East Timor be viewed as part of a move by localities to tear themselves away from large-scale, often essentially artificial nation-states, or is it being used by the ultimate centralizers as a pretext for grabbing power from nation-states in the name of a central and even more distant supra-state authority?

All through what we might call the Wilsonian era – most of the century – two essentially conflicting ideals have driven international bureaucrats: self-determination and stability.


Self-determination suggests (the term is seldom closely defined and even less often consistently applied) that a geographical or ethnic entity has something like a right to self-rule rather than being ruled by some distant authority, whether on the other side of the hill or the other side of the ocean. Self-determination has usually been part of the language of Wilsonian "idealists'' who imagined that their goal was to "make the world safe for Democracy'' (almost always with a capital "D''). It had a good deal of cachet during the times the old European overseas empires were breaking apart and when anti-communists were talking about Captive Nations.

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). His exclusive column now appears every Thursday on

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"Realists'' of the Morgenthau-Kissinger-Scowcroft stripe have more often been interested in stability and something approaching sanctity of existing borders. Factors like respect for human rights, democracy, freedom and self-determination might be worthy enough, this school would suggest, but international relations is a world of power relationships. If you can promote democratic ideals while enhancing your power and protecting your core national interests, fine and dandy, but foreign policy shouldn't be driven by ideals. Stability, some would argue, is a better bet for promoting such ideals anyway.

The neo-realists of the Bush administration were not only not really prepared, they were at least somewhat appalled when communism (and all their assumptions about international relations) crumbled in 1989. They stuck with Gorbachev as their preferred Russian leader far longer than was warranted by his international stature or his influence and popularity within the then-Soviet Union. They paid lip service to outrage over captive nations but – especially after Hungary in 1956 – did little or nothing to liberate them.


In practice, most international diplomats are a confused (and often not very self-conscious) blend of idealist and realist, often using idealistic rhetoric to justify their thoroughly realist agenda. What the two schools have in common, of course, is a thoroughgoing conviction that superior, educated and cosmopolitan folk like themselves should be running the world. You can't trust mere elected officials to have a broader view, and you certainly can't place any confidence in the Great Unwashed common people to have any insight worth listening to on foreign policy.

Foreign policy is viewed as the realm of an enlightened elite. Members of this elite might disagree among themselves, often quite vigorously, on general philosophy or particular policies in particular contexts. But the notion that they should be subject to the people – assuming the role of servants – is hardly worth refuting, it's seen as so absurd.


During the 20th century centralism and decentralism have been in tension. Numerous empires and conquerors – European colonial, Communist, Nazi – have centralized power, bringing outlying countries under subjugation. At the same time, and especially since World War II and the breakup of older European overseas empires, we have seen a proliferation of smaller states. There were 51 original members of the United Nations in 1945; now there are 185. Many of these are former colonies of the European empires – some rather absurd in their make-up because they adopted colonial boundaries rather than boundaries based on language, ethnicity or similarity of interests, and therefore perpetually unstable.

At the same time – in addition to the United Nations, originally envisioned by many and still envisioned by some as the foundation of a world government – international organizations of all kinds, based on security interests, economic interests or geographical proximity, have proliferated. These organizations almost always have a centralizing impact, at least insofar as they concentrate power in the hands of a floating pool of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, Geneva, New York, or elsewhere. The move to adopt a single currency and to "harmonize'' laws in Europe may or may not lead to a single mega-state on the continent, but it has already centralized power and made it much less accountable to mere citizens.


In East Timor this tension can be seen, almost as in a test case. Indonesia was ruled by the Dutch, East Timor by the Portuguese. The Dutch relinquished their empire before the Portuguese did, but you could make a case – as Indonesia's rulers convinced themselves in 1975 – that if Indonesia already ruled most of the islands near Timor it was only sensible to swallow East Timor too. Since then an independence movement has gone through several intensities of activism and the central government has suppressed it with varying degrees of brutality.

East Timorese independence activists soon understood that the "international community'' contained elements that could be useful to it in its essentially decentralizing struggle. After gaining support from mostly non-governmental human rights groups they began to get support from governments, if only in the form of non-recognition of Indonesia's conquest. The independent impulse was resisted for so long by the centralists in Djakarta in part because they recognized that other parts of the vast Indonesian archipelago might seek independence if East Timor set a precedent.

When the Indonesian government finally decided to honor the East Timorese decentralist impulse (not necessarily for idealistic reasons and only to the extent of authorizing a referendum), it called on the United Nations – perhaps the ultimate expression of the centralist impulse in the world – to supervise the process. So you had a decentralist movement facilitated by an essentially centralist institution – in part because supervising the referendum lent a degree of legitimacy to the United Nations.

Much blood will be shed before an outcome is known, and that outcome may be only temporary. But it will be interesting to view the East Timor struggle – and analogous struggles around the world – through a centralist-decentralist lens. If East Timor does achieve independence eventually, will it be a genuine move toward decentralism and devolution of power? Or will it be so beholden to the United Nations and other international government institutions that its success will feed the centralist impulse?


You see a similar tension in Kosovo, for example, where independence from Yugoslavia might be achieved only through the intervention of an essentially centralist "international community." Among the recent episodes the transformation of the Kosovo Liberation Army into a police force is the latest tension-laden absurdity.

If the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla army formed to fight against Yugoslavia for outright independence for Kosovo, could be converted into a civilian police force with a simple change of uniform, change of name and change in weapons policy, it might be a desirable turn of events. Unfortunately, in the real world such a conversion is most unlikely. A fantasy.

According to promises made when NATO ended its bombing campaign against Kosovo and Serbia in June, the KLA was supposed to be demilitarized, disarmed, and demobilized within three months, by September 19. While the KLA did turn over some weapons to the NATO occupation forces, it has showed every sign of staying together as a fighting force. Some attacks against ethnic Serbs were undertaken by people in KLA uniforms. And Chris Bird of the British newspaper The Guardian, reported that the KLA has hidden many modern weapons and "the weapons handed in are often ancient hunting rifles and rusty shotguns.''

NATO has not wanted to get into an outright battle with the KLA, which was a de facto ally during the bombing campaign indeed, the bombing often amounted to air support for planned KLA ground operations – but it knows the KLA makes ethnic Serbs, Gypsies and others nervous. So it came up with a plan to convert the guerrilla army into a civilian police force, though such a notion was not part of the UN Security Council resolution that established the NATO "peacekeeping'' force.


The new organization will be called the Kosovo Protection Corps and its 5,000 members are supposed to have only 200 weapons available for guard duty (though most will keep sidearms). But almost all its members will be former KLA members.

This is an utterly unworkable notion for many of the same reasons the idea of US military Delta Force personnel being at the federal siege at Waco is so upsetting to those who cherish traditional American liberties. The military and the police are different kinds of organizations with different missions. To imagine that somebody trained for one kind of mission can simply undertake another kind with little or no transition is unrealistic. To imagine that an organization created for military missions can become a civilian police force in a twinkling is fantasy.


A military force is designed and trained to seek and destroy an identified enemy and kill as many of them as possible. A police force is designed and trained to keep the peace and capture criminals in an essentially peaceful society, protecting the general public while respecting the rights of those accused of crime. Both missions are difficult and specialized. Though an argument might be made the police work requires more judgment and subtlety, some would say military work is more difficult. The key factor is that they are very different kinds of work.

The American founders and early lawmakers recognized this and established civilian control over the military. Later, in 1876, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits U.S. military forces from engaging in civilian law enforcement activities except with a special waiver from the president. An exception has been made in recent years for Drug War activities, but it has led to abuses and is still controversial.

To imagine that the KLA – trained not simply for military activity but for "irregular'' military activity, which in practice means don't worry much about how you kill the enemy so long as you get it done – will in a day or two become a police force able to enforce laws uniformly and dedicated to obeying laws itself is beyond unrealistic. Its creation is simply another acknowledgment of NATO's failure to rebuild a civil society in Kosovo after doing so much to destroy it earlier this year.

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