The specter of Greece has been a frightening backdrop to the debt ceiling fiasco, with special interest groups and lawmakers alike fretting that the United States was on the verge of the fiscal meltdown and public unrest seen recently in the cradle of democracy.
America has a Balkan problem, to be sure. But it’s not Greece; it’s the former Yugoslavia.
The fall of Yugoslavia should be mourned by all of us—not only because so many people suffered such brutal deaths during the nation’s dissolution, but because Yugoslavia was one of the few places in the world that tried to do what the United States tries to do, even prides itself on doing: have a multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic state. A shallow look at the former Yugoslavia tends to be shallow, cocktail-party analyses. Yugoslavs just couldn't seem to avoid fighting with each other every 50 years, was one theory. Or, they never really were one country, but in fact were artificially held together by the force of a communist regime and the personal charisma of Tito. There is some truth to the latter, although it’s arguable that leaders' characteristics and the structure of any political system are crucial to keeping a country together. But any sense of superiority Americans may feel over the stability of our own system is indefensible in light of the behavior of elected officials and special interest during the debt talks. [Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]
Our situation is not like that in Greece; Greece had other internal problems that brought it to the brink. America’s crisis was entirely self-created, and worse, since it had a far broader impact on international markets and people who have nothing to do with U.S. politics or business. Yugoslavia's downfall was engineered by a group of aggressive, small-minded politicians who knew how to use public fear and distrust of "others" to build political might. For all the characterizations of the former Yugoslavia as a place where no one could get along, life there before the wars of the 1990s was far more integrated than it appeared from the outside. It just took the self-interested and irresponsible behavior of a small group of leaders to bring the Balkans into another devastating conflict—the last one, one that ended up dissolving the nation. [Read about 11 countries with more problems than America.]
While there has been rumbling of a Texan withdrawal from the union, or the creation of another state out of Southern California, it is indeed difficult to imagine that this country would fall apart as Yugoslavia did. But it is not impossible. Already, states are trying to assume individual authority on national policy (such as immigration), and citizens are striking up so-called "militias" to perform the roles of national border guards. The United States is going to have to figure out how to get along as one, big, multicultural nation, or it will fall under the weight of its own diversity. America’s strength is in the richness of its many cultures, religions and ethnicities. Fear-mongering by a relatively few elected officials could cause the nation’s downfall, and it won’t just be about the stock market or the GDP. It will be about our very character as a nation.