Can we afford to turn our backs on Bosnia?

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The Independent Online
OF ALL the arguments against intervention in Bosnia, none is more pernicious than the classic formula, heard again in the Commons yesterday, that 'British interests are not involved'. A feeling that this is a far-off war we can safely ignore remains the biggest single obstacle to intervention, the great historical blunder. There are faint, late signs that the Government is having second thoughts. But however harrowing the pictures, the West will not stall Serbian aggression until its people understand that their prosperity and security are involved, too.

For they are. The link between the victims of Bosnia and ourselves is that easy-to-mock abstraction, the international order. In the years ahead, no small European tribe - whether landlocked in the Balkans, or surrounded by salt water off the mouth of the Rhine - will thrive inside a disordered, insecure continent.

On Saturday evening, at a British-Irish conference at Oxford, Douglas Hurd discussed this link more explicitly than he has in the Commons. The most thoughtful member of the Cabinet, he sounded depressed, even penitential, about the failure of international law and diplomacy. Srebrenica had vividly reminded him 'of the limitations of international order . . . We are only at the beginning of a search which began in 1945, even in 1919, but which was interrupted (by the Cold War). We are now back, not far from the beginning.'

Not far from 1919. Indeed; not far from the League of Nations, either. Not far from Abyssinia. Not far from futile blockades, breached arms embargos and the fig leaf of international sanctions. Not far from the illusion that security can be built on good intentions. Not far from the old world disorder we have spent so much of this century trying to escape.

As in the inter-war period, the democracies have little will to fight, ever. If we do, it must be against a weak enemy, on an easy battlefield, and with such a huge disproportion of armaments that few Westerners can be killed. That has become a fundamental, a fact of the world stage. This time, the reason is not the exhaustion of world war so much as the aftermath of the Cold War.

We are accustomed to seeing that stand-off between ourselves and the Soviet Union as a hard and brutal struggle. At times, beyond the confines of the West, it was. But for most Westerners, it was the un-war, an abstract conflict based on hidden and unused weapons that were designed, built, aimed and scrapped before they could be fired. It was won not by fighting but by the economic collapse of one side. It was the Cold War - but the Soft War, too.

It has certainly left the victorious side with precious little enthusiasm for any other kind of war. Our international institutions are consensual and complicated. Our nuclear armaments seem to divorce the need for fighting from our own security. Our television has made us squeamish. Nations that feel sick at the sight of blood are unlikely to fight, unless at the last minute, for survival.

In some ways, this may be a great advance: the world is full of peoples who will be relieved by the thought that the Europeans won't be back. But if taken too far, it also means we have that ultimate absurdity, international law with no force to back it up.

For Europeans, it carries special risks. If we will not contemplate military action, we will not be able to influence, either alone or as part of the UN, the unstable swirl of nationalities just beyond our borders. Today's anti-interventionists assume that the Bosnian conflict is a small, self-contained civil war that will burn itself out. What if they are wrong? After all, the Balkans are not the only part of Eurasia where Slavs and Muslims face one another.

It is entirely possible that this conflict is the prelude to a wider struggle embracing much of the former Soviet Union - that Sarajevo may spark a second conflagration. We don't know, but we would be insane to rule it out. There are plenty of Russians trapped in Muslim-majority states. There are countless disputed borders, militant minorities, heavily armed potential aggressors. Some conflicts may may remain low-level and local. Equally, they may widen and fester through a part of the world that includes nuclear- and chemically armed countries.

Based on the experience of Bosnia, the international bodies Britain supports would be impotent. Assuming some Russian involvement in such conflicts, the UN itself would be paralysed. For millions of people, the message will be: save yourselves, for nobody else will. The West complains that Ukraine has so far failed to surrender the Russian-controlled nuclear weapons still on its soil. But while Bosnia burns, wouldn't you keep every bargaining chip you had?

Here is the British national interest. Great conflicts not directly involving Western Europe may yet force up our military budgets, disrupt our trade, pollute our air, threaten us with terrorism, and face us with fleeing masses. We are a small trading nation in a corner of a continent: in 30 years' time, on current trends, Europe will account for only about 7 per cent of the world's population. Our security interest in the rule of international law and in the power of international institutions could not be clearer. And it is that 'order' which is being mocked and subverted in Bosnia.

There is, in short, no comfortable-if-guilty isolationism on offer. If we simply turn away from Bosnia and shrug, then we are doing terrible damage to the international order on which, ultimately, we also depend for our security. No man is an island. And in the modern world, no island is, either.