AT THE best of times, the chanceries of the world are stalked by the ghosts of past conflicts. Vietnam, Munich, Suez and Cuba serve as a historical shorthand, Delphic precepts for engagement.
In Kosovo, these are not the best of times. For America and Europe, the spectre of Bosnia is hanging heavily over the decisions that must be made in the coming weeks, but the lessons of Kosovo are far from clear. They could lead to a diplomatic solution that ends the fighting, or they could accelerate into a war that rips the Balkans apart at its most delicate seam.
Kosovo is different from Bosnia, both more complex and more threatening. It is an internal conflict in Serbia, a state whose central government explicitly rejects the idea of foreign intervention. From 1992 Bosnia was an independent state, internationally recognised. Aggression came from outside its borders, and the government pleaded with the West for action. On the other hand, the stakes in Kosovo are potentially much higher. Since the beginning of the Balkan conflicts, it has been identified as the fuse that could blow in Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria.
The West, fearing the onset of ethnic conflagration in Kosovo between the Albanian majority population and Serbian forces, has begun to rattle its sabres. The demands on Serbia are that it should stop the fighting, withdraw the army and special police units, and resume negotiations on autonomy for the province. It threatens that the air exercises which Nato carried out in the Balkans will return in earnest if there is no progress.
SLOBODAN Milosevic, in a summit meeting with Boris Yeltsin in Moscow last week, promised to meet some of the West's demands, but not all. This week the key players will decide how to proceed to the next step. Officials from the Contact Group will meet in Bonn on Wednesday, while Nato ambassadors take a look at the detailed options drawn up by the alliance's military committee.
Last week an important new character bounded on to the stage. Enter Richard Holbrooke, who was appointed as the US's new ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday. Holbrooke cut his teeth as a young diplomat in Vietnam, but he is very aware of the Bosnian parallels. He masterminded the American strategy to end the war in Bosnia, and he will apply the lessons of that experience to Kosovo. He broke the deadlock in the peace talks through a devastating combination of hard talking, iron self-belief and the United States Air Force.
Holbrooke concludes his book on Bosnia, modestly entitled To End a War, with a call to arms. "There will be other Bosnias in our lives - areas where early outside involvement can be decisive, and American leadership will be required," he writes. "The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace." Holbrooke's historical reference is America's signal failure to get involved in Bosnia at the outset of that bloody conflict.
Brent Scowcroft, who was George Bush's national security adviser, has explained how neither the President nor Secretary of State, James Baker, were concerned about Bosnia. "We don't have a dog in this fight," said Baker dismissively. "Tell me again what this is all about," Bush would ask once a week.
President Bill Clinton was no more in touch with the realities of the conflict for most of the time, according to Holbrooke. One of the key triggers for military action and accelerated diplomatic pressure was the realisation in Washington in 1995 that US troops were already committed to involvement in Bosnia in the event that the UN evacuated its forces.
Holbrooke's enemies regard him as rude, unwilling to consult, and arrogant. His defenders point out that he was able to bring the fighting in Bosnia to an end when everyone else had failed, and that when you deal with Slobodan Milosevic, politesse is irrelevant. Unusually, Britain's UN envoy, Sir John Weston, spoke on the record about Holbrooke last week to Reuters. Saying he had known Holbrooke for 20 years, Weston offered some advice: "Like all of us when we come here he will want to gauge the habits of this house. It is important to listen to what others have to say and to be seen to do so." Sir John is retiring shortly; perhaps that is why he feels able to say what others think.
Unlike most of the pragmatic professional diplomats who have guided the State Department through the post-Cold War years, Holbrooke believes in right and wrong, good and evil. He said last week of the bombing in Bosnia, "When you confront absolute evil - and the Bosnian Serbs were absolutely evil, in my view - you have to deal with it with more than words".
He believes passionately in America's role in the world. Bosnia was "from the beginning an issue that should have been dealt with by the Europeans and the United States, acting together under the institution which had been created in the Cold War for different purposes, Nato, but which, it turned out, could have an effect in Bosnia." To Holbrooke, that means nothing less than American leadership.
One of the key mistakes of Bosnia was that America remained outside the action while Europe tried to take charge, creating deep fissures between the two. This has been avoided. When Britain moved rapidly to assert its own - and by extension, Europe's - role in the Kosovo crisis, it did so in parallel with America. The main focus of British diplomatic activity has been at the UN, where Britain sought a UN resolution that would authorise all necessary means to end the fighting. But it has also worked closely with the United States, bringing in Nato at an early stage, and its EU allies. America, France, Britain and Germany repeatedly differed over Bosnia. So far they have remained in line over Kosovo.
BUT THE next step is more difficult. Slobodan Milosevic has undertaken to carry out certain steps demanded by the West, but he hasn't promised enough. The principal demand is an end to the fighting, and that is still some way off. One lesson learned in Bosnia was that Milosevic likes to play his Western opponents like an old violin, making promises to stave off imminent action, then backing away when the threat recedes. Everyone involved is concerned that this should not happen again. The diplomatic process cannot be indefinitely postponed.
Yet a delicate balancing act is required. A Russian official visits Belgrade today to see how far Serbia is willing to compromise. Whatever the reservations of Europe or America about Milosevic, he made his promises to Russia, and it is vital to the West that Russia stays on board. "Yeltsin's signature may be more important than Milosevic's," says one official. Despite rumblings from Russian generals over the air exercises and the threat of a new Cold War, meetings in Brussels have shown a healthy relationship between the West and Russia over Kosovo so far. Everyone wants to keep it that way: "That is the key: keeping the Russia- Nato axis in place," says the official.
Nato countries will want to make it quite clear that their objectives do not extend to breaking up Serbia. They do not want to encourage the Kosovo Liberation Army's separatists to think that they can use the threat of Nato airstrikes to their own advantage, beyond ending the fighting. "We support enhanced autonomy, but people are deluding themselves if they think that they are going to achieve independence," said a State Department spokesman this week.
The United States is the key player in talks about military action in the Balkans. So far the US has been cautious about the use of force against Serbia, preferring to stress the diplomatic alternatives. This is partly because it is keen to keep Russia onside for as long as possible.
The military will want to define the mission with a clear set of objectives and a well-established exit strategy. One sticking point is likely to be the UN. America believes the entanglement of the UN was a disaster in the early stages of the Bosnian conflict, one that it intends to avoid this time. The US has backed Britain in New York, but has grave reservations about allowing the Security Council and Russia to have an effective veto over any alliance actions.
Now the architect of American power in the Balkans has joined the UN - but as an ally or as a foe? Optimists will see in Holbrooke's return a sign that America will once again take the lead, and demonstrate its willingness to confront might with might. Pessimists will protest that the Dayton accords work only shakily, that Holbrooke has already sparked a row over sanctions against Belgrade, and the US's bull has been let loose at a delicate moment.
Holbrooke is, by common consent, a dambuster, not a builder of coalitions. As the New York Times put it, he is living proof that you do not have to make friends to influence people. While America and Europe play a delicate balancing act in the coming weeks, Holbrooke's presence will always worry those who see him as a loose cannon and a self-promoter.
But Holbrooke is the man who confronted Slobodan Milosevic before. He would do so again. Sir John Weston may end up a disappointed man.