It is a sign of impatience masquerading as historical realism that some people are again turning to partition -- the homogenization and separation of ethnic groups -- as a remedy for what ails the Balkans and various other multi-ethnic places. Support for the establishment of a unitary state, as called for by the four-year-old Dayton agreement on Bosnia and by the mandate of peacekeepers newly in Kosovo, is visibly flagging. On bad days, as we catch flashes of the ethnic rigidities of Bosnia and of the ominous strains between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, a unitary state can seem a long road to nowhere.

The trouble is that the alternative model of the old Yugoslavia's future, the ethnic partition model, offers a short road to nowhere. The particular problem is how you get from A, the tense and unhappy situation of the moment, to B, the ostensibly redeeming or at least damage-limiting goal of separation. Somebody already occupies that house that you would take over in B. How do you get the occupant and his family and their tractor and goat to leave their home, which is real and tangible, for someone else's home, which is also occupied and which is no less real and tangible to its occupants.

In practice the change of domestic scene is as likely as not to provoke violence: violence to get you out of the home you now occupy (let us leave aside for the moment the immense number of homeless refugees and internally displaced people) and violence to get the other family out of the home you now claim as your due. To live in the home and community and valley and country of your choice: This is what people fight for, this is what is in many times and places considered a legitimate range of things to fight for.

Not that even the most pragmatic among us do not have our moments of fantasy and wishful thinking when we imagine a swift, efficient and painless transfer of populations, a magical redealing of cards that leaves in its wake neat stacks of partitioned ethnics. Few among us can easily embrace the rude truth that the actual result would amount to replacing one "ethnic cleansing" with another. What its sponsors and perpetrators might present as a mission of community deliverance would in fact involve another dose of community upheaval. At a stroke it would erase the moral difference claimed by those who witnessed and in their fashion opposed the first ethnic cleansing. We would be at a place where what some regarded as humanitarian rescue would be considered by others as a war crime.

My mind flicks to the tremendous toll -- perhaps a million killed, upwards of 10 million uprooted -- that resulted from the sorting out of Hindus and Muslims when the British empire yielded in South Asia to the independent states of India and Pakistan. And this was a negotiated separation, though hardly a well conducted one. The raw emotions that were uncovered and energized by the process of being uprooted produced a separation not merely from the old home and community but from the customary restraints and humane values that hold people together in settled circumstances. Once the clay of custom is broken, however -- as we could see in many Yugoslav places -- the aggression of neighbor against neighbor becomes common, shaming civilized people.

It is sometimes said that a respect for diversity and a taste for communal heterogeneity are unnatural and artificial, at the least shallowly rooted, and that the natural and desirable state of affairs is to organize society on supposedly deeper lines of blood, kin and ethnicity. Yet any one of us, flipping the memory cards, can come up with examples of multi-ethnic historical longevity and of extensive intermarriage across national and social lines.

There is no doubt an element of sentimentalism, hopefulness and, for some, religiosity in the reaching out for different sorts of diversity. But how better do we measure these things than by the rich lode of faces we see coming down streets around the world, their diversity a proof of centuries of a multi-ethnic past.

From all of this I take that the restoration of inter-ethnic consensus in battered situations is a difficult but manageable basis of public policy. Especially is this so in circumstances where an outside force can serve as a guarantor of a certain minimal civility on all sides. Such a presence encourages people of fiber to become more conscious of the perils of careless power-seeking and more aware, too, of the possibilities and rewards of living with other people.