Without a sudden outbreak of Western leadership, Nato will find that the so-far vaguely defined post-Cold War world will be definitively known as the time it took for the Western alliance to join the Warsaw Pact in the dustbin of history.
The Canadian Defence Minister, Art Eggleton, now admits that the original plan of forcing Milosevic to the negotiating table and sending troops in only after a peace plan was agreed has now been overtaken by events. Nato officials have not quite yet admitted that air power alone will not be able to force a Serb withdrawal from Kosovo, but the deliberations in Nato headquarters about some form of an opposed deployment of ground forces, suggests a lack of faith in bombers and missiles. For all the green shoots of honesty, however, Nato is still too far from admitting the need for a large deployment of ground forces to roll back the Serbs.
And the time for strategic honesty is running out fast. If we just have more of what we had in the past two weeks, Kosovo will have been effectively cleared of its Albanian population. Milosevic can assume that once the flow of refugees ceases, Western media attention will flag as will the desire to deploy ground forces. Nato's urge to wage war from the air will deflate in due course.
The pledges by Western leaders to get the refugees back home no matter how long it takes are merely the latest in a series of broken promises. The European leaders have vacillated on the refugee crisis, at once saying that it would be playing into Milosevic's hands to airlift refugees from Macedonia and then responding to humanitarian calls to do just that. Milosevic's ability to control events has been made possible by the near absence of leadership in Nato. President Clinton, as the leader of the country that accounts for 33 per cent of global defence spending, might have been expected to be the natural leader but he has failed. Clinton is by-and- large despised by the American top brass for his evasion of the draft, and, presumably, the Monica Lewinsky affair has made it harder for the President to make a moral appeal to his people. The Serbs also know that Nato has some deep fissures, with Italy and Greece leading the chorus against the deployment of ground forces.
But all may not be truly lost, for leaders are sometimes made by their times. A real leader of Nato would have to begin by honestly admitting that the one-hand-tied-behind-your-back strategy is a failure. This real leader would have to add quickly that nevertheless, the cause remains just - an alliance of democracies cannot allow unspeakable horrors to take place in its backyard. As our leader would point out, fighting the good fight will be bloody, but we have professional armed forces with the latest kit precisely so they can be as efficient as possible in waging war. Our leader will admit that a major ground operation will take time to organise, just as it did in the Gulf in 1990-91, but the aggressor can be rolled back. This honest leader will admit that in any such operation there is risk in the fact that some of our allies, such as the KLA, are an unsavoury lot.
Where will we find such a Western leader? There seems to be only one candidate, Tony Blair, but he is a long shot. Here is a politician who has not shirked tough political battles and who proclaims a New Labour commitment to hard-headed defence policy. His 1998 Defence Review promised us an active use of UK forces beyond Europe. At St Malo last year, he swore a new determination to work with France to create a serious European fighting force. Blair claims a unique relationship with the new German Chancellor, and with a determination to rope Germany into building a credible European defence capability, the Kosovo crisis gives him a golden opportunity to show Euro-leadership. Prime Minister Blair would also need to demonstrate the virtues of his special personal ties to President Clinton, because any large Nato ground force would require substantial US forces. In fact, Blair is so clearly the leader, that a failure to rise to the occasion would leave Britain especially shamed by a failure to defeat the Serbs.
This scenario is not merely another example of the British delusion about their capacity to "box above their weight" in international affairs. Britain is second in Nato in its capacity to deploy forces abroad and it remains remarkably un-squeamish about sustaining casualties. Prime Minister Blair, who quietly welcomes the comparison of his leadership skills to that of Mrs Thatcher, will know that it was the Iron Lady who famously told George Bush not "to go wobbly" during Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.
So far no Western leader has publicly articulated the need to find a more forceful military option in Kosovo. A bolder Blair will now call for serious consideration of a range of military strategies that will take the initiative from President Milosevic. A relatively easy option is to sink the Serb navy, if only to enhance the chances of rivalries among the Serbian military.
The main boldness will have to come in the form of deploying ground troops. When Nato last looked seriously at the issue, they concluded they needed 200,000 troops to invade all of Yugoslavia and occupy Belgrade. But if we did not occupy Baghdad in the Gulf war, the talk of 200,000 troops seems designed to scare the faint-hearted. Nato's planning exercise suggested some 75,000 would be enough to take Kosovo and even less would be needed if we began with seizing part of the territory as a base for refugees. If air power is half as useful as its supporters claim, then the Serbs should be an easier target.
No one doubts that such forces are available in Nato: it is a question of political will, not capability, although the logistics of a ground operation are formidable and will require time and some willingness to take risks. A real Nato leader would take the risk, but the time for leadership is rapidly ebbing. In the less than three weeks to go before Nato's 50th anniversary summit in Washington (on 24 April), President Milosevic should have enough time to complete his military operation.
The writer is Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies