Bring on the fire engines not the pantomime horses

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THE RUSSIAN soldier, his tommy- gun in one hand, demanded angrily to know why the watch wouldn't go. It was Budapest, 1945, just after the 'Liberation'. He had taken the watch, a huge old turnip affair, from some looted flat. Now he was standing over a Hungarian watchmaker in his tiny cellar workshop.

The watchmaker, trying not to show how frightened he was, prised off the back of the watch. The inside was perfectly empty. The works had vanished, and there was nothing in the hollow space but the mummified corpse of a spider. The soldier leaned across, and a grin of comprehension spread across his face. 'Aha]' he exclaimed, 'kaput mashinist - the engineer is dead]'

We think ourselves so much cleverer than a Russian soldier because we have come to believe that our artefacts (watches, governments or international organisations) are self-propelled. They require servicing or fuelling, but for most of the time they are run by their engines. Russians have reason to be more pessimistic about human inventions. The first time I went to the GUM department store in Moscow, I met a huge steel soft-drinks machine with a slot marked 'Three Kopeks'. I put the coin in. There was a clattering, whirring sound. Then from behind the dispenser appeared a little old woman holding a glass of soda-water, which she silently handed to me.

Behind every device that matters, there is a mashinist. This is the true explanation for the abject failure of 'the West' to stop the conflict in ex- Yugoslavia. We thought - we had come to believe - that our international bodies had a life of their own. 'Go fetch it]' we shouted to the Conference on European Security and Cooperation (CSCE), to the European Community, to Nato, to the Security Council, as the Danube and the Sava and the Drina and the Neretva began to fill with blood and with floating corpses. But nothing happened.

The elaborate mechanisms set up by the CSCE for the peaceful regulation of disputes were useless. The Community's hard-won new procedures for common foreign policy produced almost no policy at all. Nato stayed in its bunk with its polished boots on. The United Nations put a peace-keeping force into Croatia and Bosnia, which has probably achieved much more in the way of saving lives than the public are told, but it has not been able to stop the war or diminish its atrocities. The Yugoslav crisis has badly damaged the credibility and confidence of all these bodies, just when the world needs them more urgently than ever before. So we blame them. What is wrong with them?

The answer is simple. Nothing is inherently wrong with any of them. But the mashinist is kaput. None of these vehicles - the CSCE, the Community, Nato, the Security Council - have motors of their own. They can only be moved by the muscles and will of those who built them and own them, and in the Yugoslav case, the will of national governments was not there. For the first year of the conflict, the rulers of Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Russia, and the United States were unwilling to get involved, and were able with growing difficulty to keep their public opinions in line. So now, as public protest threatens to erupt out of control, governments and their toady-journalists blame the 'great moral failure' on the institutions.

The CSCE, they confide, has proved itself no more than a bombastic talking shop. A European foreign policy, and political union itself, are shown to be absurdities. The UN is, behind its sublime pretensions, impotent and bureaucratic and impractical.

This is great hypocrisy. One day, perhaps, there will be international bodies which are self-propelled, but not yet. The UN, admittedly, is more than a glove-puppet which requires a hand: even if the permanent members of the Security Council hold its collar and America holds its cheque-book, the UN has some energy and identity of its own - especially in its agencies. But the Yugoslav crisis has shown how quickly that energy runs out when the permanent members deny it fuel.

The Cold War formed our contemporary view of the world in so many ways which we have not yet thrown off. During that half-century, international bodies towered over us, lifelike and sometimes terrifying. National governments agreed about what those organisations should be doing and gave them the means to do it. Now we can see how deceptive that was. The extreme example is the Warsaw Pact. The mashinists walked out, and the big watch stopped with its hands at exactly 23h59 on 1 July 1991.

For a year, the mashinists inside the structures which add up to 'Europe' made no move on Croatia and Bosnia- Herzegovina. As the German journalist Gunther Gillesen put it last week: 'The British worried about Ulster, the Second World War and the Germans; the French worried about their bonds with Serbia . . . and about imagined German schemes to make the Balkans into their zone of influence; the Germans worried about Hitler and the Wehrmacht in the belief that they should be more frightened of themselves than of anyone else'. Meanwhile, 'as the misery of war in Vukovar and Osijek and Sisak became visible, the feelings of ordinary people demanded a common effort to suppress this war in the middle of Europe'.

Now things are beginning to move. Again, this is not because sage diplomats and ripe, experienced statesmen have weighed pros against cons and arrived at the best possible solution. It is because public opinion has mutinied and is kicking politicians in the backside. Some sort of action, supported by armed force, will now be taken in Bosnia. And - just watch] - we will soon see a rehabilitation of joint Community foreign policy, of Nato, of the UN and even of CSCE. The actors will go back inside their pantomime horses and make them trot.

This is a lousy way of deciding to intervene in a war. All the dangers are real: the terrain, the vagueness of objectives, the difficulty of discovering which side is where and who, if anyone, gives orders. Almost all the told-you-so reproaches are fair: firm intervention right at the start, as armed conflict burst out in the Croatian borderlands with Serbia, would have been more effective and less dangerous. This will be a mess, and probably a bloody one, but the West can no longer avoid it.

Europe is full of explosive, some burning already. Collective security is still, unhappily, a way to describe what nation-states agree to do. Only governments, kicked into co-operation by their citizens, can make Europe's institutions act.

Apart from Bosnia, the fringes are already blazing in Moldova, Ossetia, Nagorny-Karabakh. Old fires in Ulster, the Basque lands and Corsica are contained but still burning. The fuel is piled high in Polish Lithuania, on the Slovak-Hungarian border, in western Ukraine and parts of Belarus, in Transylvania, in Cyprus and the eastern Aegean, in Macedonia, in Kosovo.

The Cold War is over, and a hot, dry wind blows instead. A fire engine was never needed so badly. But if it is to move, everyone - governments and peoples together - must recognise that they will have to push it.