Kosovo Crisis: Alliance leaves UN on sideline

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THE ANNOUNCEMENT last night by Javier Solana, Nato's Secretary- General, authorising military strikes against Yugoslavia not only takes the Atlantic alliance into uncharted territory, it is a decision which could herald a reshaping of the world order.

Nato accomplished its most important feat, and the one for which it was explicitly set up in 1949 - of protecting a fledgling democratic Western Europe against the Soviet Union - without firing a shot in anger. Not without reason, it called itself the most successful military alliance in history. But since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union it has been an alliance without a mission. All that could now be changing.

Kosovo will not be the first time Nato has resorted to force in Europe. It did so in Bosnia in 1995, then as now against Serbs, albeit Bosnian Serbs. But that was in defence of the sovereignty of the internationally recognised state of Bosnia, with the explicit backing of the United Nations.

This time the circumstances are very different. The enemy is the same; the only difference is that the Serbs this time have their capital in Belgrade, and not in Pale, a few miles east of Sarajevo. But in 1999, Nato is acting without the blessing of the United Nations. Whatever gloss is put upon it moreover, it is also aggressor against the internationally recognised state of Yugoslavia - one of whose constituent republics, Serbia, is the ruling power in its province of Kosovo.

For the first time in its history, the post-war alliance of the great Western powers is launching an attack against a sovereign state which has not triggered the 1949 treaty by menacing one of the 16 - 19, after this month's admission of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary - Nato member countries.

For the first time too, Nato is acting without the blessing of the UN. Indeed America and Britain - respectively the driving power of the alliance, and that power's most loyal ally - have done everything they could to avoid bringing the matter of military strikes against Yugoslavia before the Security Council.

They know full well that any such resolution would have been vetoed by both China and Russia, who have Kosovos of their own within their huge and multi- ethnic states.

But the precedent is ominous. In less than a month, Nato assembles for a summit in Washington, that will both celebrate the alliance's first 50 years, and set out a new strategy for the next 50. The talk is of expanding the alliance's mandate to "out-of-area" operations, in Middle East, the Gulf, Transcaucasia and perhaps beyond. Nato would also become a global tool for combating international terrorism, drugs trafficking, and nuclear and biological weapons proliferation.

Failure in Kosovo would be a devastating set-back for its credibility. But by the same token, success would set a massive historic precedent.

The UN would have been sidelined, in Europe at least. The association of nations which really matters would not be the one in New York, grouping every country on earth, but a coterie of rich, mostly European powers. They may think they have right on their side. But for Russia, China, and not just a few others, it will be simply a case of might is right.