02/25/2014 05:42 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

When Nations Divorce

From the firebombs in Kiev to the religious killing in Syria to the ethnic battles in Sudan to the Scottish drive for separation from Britain we are witnessing a return to the tribal legacy of mankind.

These struggles based on ethnicity, religion, language and tribe have driven away all the fine talk of a New World Order based on peace and tolerance after the fall of socialism around 1990.
Instead of a peaceful post-communist world in which we all were supposed to get along, the petty dictators of a hundred national groups have emerged as the arbiters of war and peace for the rest of us.

It's Russians against Ukrainians in Kiev; Pakistan against India in Kashmir; Tamils against the Singhalese in Sri Lanka; Nuers fight Dinkas in South Sudan; and Shiites fight Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

This malevolent proliferation of separatist violence has spawned dozens of civil wars, insurgencies, terrorism and genocide in the past 25 years. And it means the world community of nations, and in particular the United States, must figure out how to respond to each ethnic group's ambitions for power and a piece of our crowded planet's food, land and power.

After the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev allowed communism to collapse in 1991, some predicted an end to warfare, the triumph of capitalism, and the end of history. But it just didn't happen that way at all.

In fact, since the end of the Cold War, we have seen the rising Clash of Civilizations predicted by Harvard professor Sam Huntington.

He was ridiculed by some as a racist, implying that world history would be hijacked by ethnic, religious, linguistic and racial fanatics. He implied that many cultures were not ready for democracy and that nationalism was what drove their inner hearts.

Regrettably, so far he has proved accurate in his prediction. And the worst is yet to come as giant, ancient rivals China and Japan stare steely-eyed over disputed islets in the Sea of Japan.

Divorce is the hallmark of the new world disorder. And it's not just the Balkans or some poorly governed African satrapies at risk. More than a dozen countries from Canada to Britain to Spain face separatist groups who want to go it alone.

--Ukraine may soon split into the largely Russian-speaking, Orthodox Christian East bordering Russia versus the largely Catholic, Ukrainian-speaking West.

-- French-speaking Quebecois still harbor hopes of separating from Canada.

--The mainly Hindu Tamils of Sri Lanka lost a two-decade battle for independence from largely Buddhist Sri Lanka.

-- Scotland is to vote later this year on independence from Britain.

-- Flemish-speaking Belgians may split from the French-Speaking majority.

--Spain fought for years and crushed a Basque separatist uprising, but now the Catalans around Barcelona speak of independence.

-- Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been bogged down for 12 years in America's longest war, may divide into Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek statelets if the mainly Pashtu Taliban seize power in Kabul after the Americans leave at year's end.

-- Tuareg nomads in the Sahara want to separate from Mali.

--The Polisario rebel movement wants to drive Morocco out of the former Spanish Sahara.

-- China is battling Uighur separatists in its West while Tibetans seek autonomy with more than 100 self-immolations in the past year.

-- Kurds seek to create their own country out of portions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

-- Burmese minorities such as the Kachin and Karen still fight for autonomy or independence from the mainly ethnic Burman government and army.

Russia faced down Chechen rebels but still faces terrorism from the Caucus region. It also retains two regions claimed by Georgia, Abkhazia and North Ossetia. Russia also sits on the Karelia region which it seized in World War II from Finland whose hockey victory of Moscow was doubly sweet revenge for that occupation.

So it's easy to see how these ethnic, religious and language divisions are set to trigger conflict over hot-button issues like migration, water, energy, tariffs, military exercises, toxic spills, crime, treatment of religious shrines, etc.

Remember that Hitler launched the world's biggest, bloodiest war over claims to protect its ethnic German cousins in Czechoslovakia.

So it's smart today to re-read Huntington and to review some of the recent divorces to find how we can manage them and prevent a century of religious and ethnic wars from afflicting millions of people.

The Czechs and Slovaks were perhaps the first to defy the post-World War II taboo against changing borders. The Slovaks I met in Bratislava told me they always felt they were treated as second-class citizens by the Czechs. So the two sides agreed to split in 1992 in the Velvet Divorce. Since both new countries joined the EU, travel and commerce have been unimpeded. I was able to drive from Bratislava in Slovakia to Prague across unmarked borders, and euros were accepted in both countries.

Then Yugoslavia split in the bloodiest post communist divorce, into Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia. Perhaps 200,000 died in that conflict, including mass slaughter of 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica.

In Africa, Hutu supremacists slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis in 1994 in Rwanda.

In Indian-occupied Kashmir, Muslim separatists fueled by Pakistan want to separate from India and more than 60,000 have died.

Pakistan's Baluchis seek independence.

India crushed the Sikh independence movement in the 1980s but it remains an unrequited dream for some.

In Syria, Sunni Muslims backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fighting the Shiite-linked regime of Bashar Al Assad, which is backed by Shiite fighters and weapons from Lebanon's Hizbollah, Iraq and Iran.

Can we do anything to avert religious, ethnic wars? These bloody conflicts have spread like weeds in the shadow of the Himalayas in Nepal, the silence of the Sahara and the beautiful villages of Kashmir.

Tolerance, education and investment in ways to share resources, land and political power are all vital. Governments must ensure equal treatment under the law to all castes, races and ethnic groups.

U.S. democracy assistance projects have made a big impact in many countries - so big that Russian President Vladimir Putin expelled them from Russia as they threatened his authoritarian control.

Prior to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, USAID hade funded groups that trained legislators, lawyers, journalists, and political pollsters. Then when the government tried to steal the election, journalists broadcast widely-respected polls that indicated the government had lost.

This support for democracy, alas, cannot work without a commitment in the country to reject corruption and authoritarianism. Sometimes ethnic and religious uprisings are a legitimate response to abusive rulers. But sometimes they indicate only a desire by tinhorn despots for absolute power in a small pond far from the control by a rival religion or ethnic group.

When one looks over the history of mankind, going back to the Old Testament and beyond, we see human beings dealing - for better and for worse -- with the eternal failings of humankind: lust, greed, fear, anger and hatred of those who have a different belief.

In a crowded Delhi market years ago I found myself facing a cow whose horns reached across the path. Then a Muslim man behind it whacked the cow - sacred to Hindus -- so it charged into us. No one was hurt but it indicated the way hatred and disrespect become ways to assert one's differences from the others.

It seems that the more the world superficially begins to swallow up our differences - we all use cell phones, wear jeans and eat fast food - the more people crave a tribe to belong to.
In America, where the rule of law protects us, we forget how people use hatred to incite their tribe against the other. International aid workers always try to set up projects that benefit many different groups so as to avoid jealousy. Teaching and promoting tolerance is another key tool to prevent violent splintering along ethnic, religious and language lines.

We may never be able to change what is a deep part of human culture. But we should never stop trying. All our efforts may only keep things from getting worse.