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Old ideas, new consequences

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In China and Kosovo, two of this century's durable arguments are resonating loudly. As a result, two thinkers not often thought of nowadays - Hannah Arendt and Robert Lansing - are again pertinent to U.S. foreign policy.

President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin delicately exchanged theories about the prerequisites of a nation's progress. China's president said the suppression was necessary for "stability," which sustained China's progress. Clinton suggested that freedom is a necessary condition for stability, because tyranny is self-destabilizing.Clinton is right. As was Hannah Arendt, when she changed her mind.

In 1951 Arendt, who had come here from Hitler's Germany, published "The Origins of Totalitarianism," the bleak thesis of which was that a modern state, imposing an ideology by means of such modern instruments of social control as bureaucracy and mass communication, could achieve a goal that had eluded all other regimes in history - permanence. Under a sufficiently ruthless state, the citizenry's consciousness would be conscripted, and all dynamics of change from within would be neutralized. As George Orwell said, imagine a boot in your face - forever.

In 1956 Arendt rejoiced that her theory was slain by a fact - the Hungarian Revolution, when the streets of Budapest were full of defiant people, their unconscripted consciousnesses shaking the regime. Arendt saw in this a spontaneity that was "an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable," that no state succeeds in "interrupting all channels of communication" and that "the ability of people to distinguish between truth and lies on the elementary factual level remains unimpaired; oppression, therefore, is felt for what it is and freedom is demanded."

In the 42 years since then, the proliferation of information technologies has made the tyrant's task hopeless - the task of monopolizing information in order to hermetically seal a captive population against outside influences.

When Clinton returns from immense China, which is bursting out from under its government, he will confront the resonance of his secretary of state's words about little Kosovo. And Woodrow Wilson's words.

Madeleine Albright has said, "We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia." However, Robert Lansing, Wilson's secretary of state, said in 1918 that "certain phrases" of Wilson's "have not been thought out."

Such as "self-determination," the subject of six of his famous 14 points. When Wilson used the phrase, Lansing wondered "what unit has he in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area or a community?"

The "undigested" phrase "self-determination," said Lansing, "is simply loaded with dynamite" and "will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. . . . What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered!"

Toward China, U.S. policy attempts to promote the long-term stability of a free society by judiciously enmeshing China in the world in ways that weaken the government's ability to impose the brittle stability of tyranny. Toward Kosovo, U.S. policy attempts to dampen the force of the detonation of American-made political dynamite. In both places, old American ideas and arguments are having new consequences.

Washington Post Writers Group