So where do we go from here?

BOSNIA A three-page special report

THEY ARE weary of Bosnia in the gilded rooms and corridors of power, worn out by its serpentine politics, tired of poring over their disinterred maps of Habsburg and Ottoman Europe, desperate for the war to end. Yet in the self-immolation of the former Yugoslavia, Europe's leaders see not what is in the past but what is to come.

"This is the story of the future," said a European foreign minister at one juncture of the crisis during the past week. "This story in one way or another is going to happen again." He meant the collapse of federations divided by race or creed, the subdivision of nation states drawn by colonial administrators, the fracturing of countries whose identity was never agreed upon by their inhabitants.

In the past week the world has been reminded how difficult it is to unite in aims and purpose even such allies as Britain, France and the United States. Denied an identifiable adversary (Iraq, the Soviet Union) or a simple campaign plan (liberate Kuwait, hold the Rhine), politicians and generals seem to flounder.

It is all very depressing for those who pin their faith for the future in the efficacy of global institutions, the coercive effect of world disapproval, and the readiness of Western electorates to stomach casualties in a cause that can seem mere abstraction.

From Algiers to Tehran and Pyongyang, the example of Yugoslavia is being observed with keen interest by those who see the existing international order as unjust and ripe for challenge.

That is one reason why all the reasons for the United Nations to be credible coalesced with sheer national interest in Britain and France to produce a will to act. London, Paris and Washington can agree on precious little, but on that principle there is now a hesitant unity of purpose.

So what might be the outcome of the new intervention?

The optimistic outline would look roughly as follows. British and French troops reinforce the UN Protection Force without severe casualties. They consolidate its presence in central Bosnia, push out its perimeter around Sarajevo, open roads to the ports on the Adriatic and strengthen the besieged Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia.

Deterred by this show of resolve, the Bosnian Serbs retreat into their strongholds, draw up their defences and round upon their political leader, Radovan Karadzic. In Belgrade, the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, makes one of those pivotal historical decisions like Hitler's pact with Stalin. He recognises the existence of a Bosnian state and thus ends at least one and half centuries of yearning among Serbs for a land uniting all their brethren in one state defined by common ethnic identity.

Undermined from within, pressured from outside, the Bosnian Serbs overthrow their delinquent psychiatrist, and Dr Karadzic is replaced by somebody who can come back to the negotiating table and accept the international plan dividing Bosnia, with 49 per cent for the Serbs and 51 per cent for a Muslim-Croat federation.

Force and diplomacy combine: the fighting dies down, and the foreign troops and aid workers drift away to the next bubbling volcano. The states of former Yugoslavia join Lebanon and Ethiopia in the list of places condemned to rebuild painfully on the ruins of mutually contrived destruction.

Even if it was to come about, this would be a prescription for a war deferred.

First of all, it is unlikely that at the moment of truth the US - still the critical player - will agree with the Europeans on the price worth paying to return the Balkans to stability. The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 offers an example. Almost every European country would have preferred Tito's federation to survive in looser form, and they were not too bothered about the niceties of how its leaders managed it. But James Baker, then the US Secretary of State, told the last prime minister of Yugoslavia: "If you force the United States to choose between unity and democracy we will always choose democracy."

But Balkan democracy was not the New Hampshire primary. Mr Baker's ambassador, Warren Zimmermann, recalled that "aggressive nationalism emanating like noxious fumes from the leaders of Serbia and Croatia and their even more extreme advisers, officials, media manipulators and allies had cast the die for disintegration and violence".

Bosnia, its fabric woven of differing religions and cultures, stood as a reproach to the ethnic chauvinists of Belgrade and Zagreb. But multiculturalism does not offer the clarion call for which young men willingly die, and tolerance is a weaker diet than blood and sacred earth.

The reduction and containment of rampant nationalism would satisfy most of Europe. But the American tradition calls for such viruses to be extirpated - moral replacing ethnic cleansing. Such an exercise was conducted at the end of the Second World War in Germany, but it is not going to happen in the Balkans.

So there is likely to be a fundamental division of purpose in the transatlantic approach to the crisis.

Everyone agrees on the affront to the UN and the "threat to peace and security" identified in the UN Charter as a menace to all. But the reaction in the US Congress to President Bill Clinton's offer to provide troops on a temporary basis points up the schizophrenia in the American outlook - a suspicion of foreign involvement and a simultaneous desire to see right upheld throughout the world. To Americans, Vietnam can be told through two book titles. It ends with Robert McNamara's In Retrospect admitting that the best and the brightest were wrong. But it begins with David Halberstam's early 1960s book The Making of a Quagmire. And the mud is as deep in the Balkans as in the paddy fields.

Add to this American suspicion of European Great Power politics, dating back more than a century. Woodrow Wilson wanted to abolish the old world of secret treaties and pacts among aristocrats that sent peasants to the slaughterhouse. Bill Clinton wants to uphold the principles embedded in the acceptance of Bosnia into the UN. But Wilson's aims were destroyed by isolationists who kept America out of the League of Nations, and Mr Clinton has been handed a broken sword by Congress.

So the old world reasserts itself in cynical comments in the chanceries of Europe and languid observations about the futility of ideals without power. The clash of expectation resounds in the very nature of the plans to end the Bosnian war, with their Solomonic allocation of territory, heralded by righteous declarations of national integrity.

There is an example that commends itself to European pragmatists in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne - to end hostilities between Greece and Turkey. Under its articles, the most painful agreed resettlement in early modern history took place. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were uprooted from the lands of Thrace and Macedon, ruled for generations by Constantinople. In their place streamed Greeks fleeing the victorious armies of Kemal Ataturk, ending a Hellenic presence on the shores of Asia Minor that had endured since classical times. The exchange of populations gave legal sanction to the idea that Greek and Turk could not live together. But Greece and Turkey have not gone to war since, sparing generations after 1923 the fate of their forefathers.

Might that, in the end, be the way that Bosnia creeps into peaceful being? It is a horrible choice. Americans ask: why not the cantons of Switzerland? Europeans remember the burning quays at Greek Smyrna. Irrational, ancient, grown in bloodsoaked soil, the vendettas of Europe defy the remedies of science and progress. Perhaps that, too, is the story of the future.

Alan Watkins, page 25

Leading article, page 26

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