The Breakfast Table

Nostalgia for Microfilm


I’m not a historian, but based on my time in government, I think you can rest assured that tomorrow’s Ph.D.’s are likely to face the problem of too much electronic information, not too little. Places like the National Security Council and the State Department keep electronic copies of all e-mails, no matter how trivial (the better to comply with the blizzard of congressional subpoenas). In fact, by capturing unguarded exchanges that would have once taken place on the telephone, or in hallways and offices, e-mail, I think, provides a minor bonanza for budding historians. One of my personal favorites: a fawning NSC staffer’s e-mail to National Security Advisor Tony Lake that said, roughly, “Your meeting with pundits ended at 11:00 this morning. Frank Sesno was on CNN at 12:00 running through our rationale verbatim. Nice work.” Ouch. Messages like that may not exactly be Kissingerian big-think, but they do provide some telling insight into peoples’ attitudes and motivations. The trick is how to get them, given the strictures of classification. (When I left the NSC, I briefly thought of bringing home some of my papers à la Fawn Hall, but boxer shorts don’t hold documents as well as panties do.) Moreover, sorting through the hundreds of thousands of exchanges that take place every day to find what you’re looking for is likely to make any researcher yearn for yellowed bits of paper and faded microfilm.

You ask how the war in Kosovo will be remembered. As the conflict grinds on, one of the most striking things about it to me is that for all the talk about Balkan tinderboxes, the war is strangely insulated from events elsewhere in the world. At its core, the conflict involves a minuscule portion of the world’s population, its trade, or its economic output. The Dow has managed to sail mostly upward through four weeks of bombing that has sucked in roughly 800 U.S. warplanes. (Kosovo fever, however, has infected the business section of the New York Times, which featured a headline today that said “Traders Flee Technology Area as Stock Market Takes a Hit.”) Barring a highly unlikely wider war, what ultimately happens in Kosovo will have little or no effect on China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, Japan’s continuing economic doldrums, or Latin America’s shaky finances.

Yet the war does have an enormous symbolic impact. I’m not talking just about the turd that Milosevic has dropped in the punchbowl at NATO’s 50th-anniversary party, or the large questions that Kosovo raises about Europe’s ability to take care of its problems. More broadly, you can connect the dots between what’s happening in Kosovo and a score of other festering internal conflicts captured in today’s news, whether it’s Turkey’s elections (how about those Kurds?), a bomb exploding in a mosque in Indonesia, the stagnant peace process in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, a new ceasefire in the Congo. President Clinton routinely likes to talk about the struggle between “the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration.” I wish that the logic behind such rhetoric was clearer. And I don’t think that the United States has either the obligation or capability to police the world. But I do think that the way Kosovo ends will have enormous resonance for these other conflicts. Let’s hope it does so with something besides a bang or a whimper.