Easy to wish, harder to do: The West has no vision with which to guide the new world order, says Vernon Bogdanor

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'DO YOU know where Azerbaijan is?' Woodrow Wilson asked Americans in 1919. 'Well, one day,' he continued, speaking of the Paris peace conference, 'there came in a very dignified and interesting group of gentlemen from Azerbaijan - I was talking to men who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideals, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice.'

Wilson sought to convince Americans that what happened in Azerbaijan mattered to them, that the way in which a government treated its own people would be a good indication of the way in which it would act in the international arena. The American public did not believe him. It was because Wilson could not persuade his countrymen that any international order worth the name had to be based upon interdependence that Americans found themselves, a little more than two decades after the United States refused to join the League of Nations, once more shedding their blood on the battlefields of Europe.

Today, after the rejection by Bosnian Serbs of the Athens peace agreement, the West is edging slowly but surely towards intervention in Bosnia. If the West acts, however, it will do so not primarily on grounds of self-interest nor 'because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing', but to deter aggression and to defend human rights.

Is this the first symptom of an unfolding liberal order in Europe, an order based upon the perception that a legitimate and stable international community can be constructed only on the basis of certain ideals which men and women hold in common and which help to define their common humanity? Such an order would owe more to Gladstone and Woodrow Wilson than to Bismarck; it would apply the lesson of those dignified gentlemen from Azerbaijan.

If we are now moving towards realisation of the liberal dream, the Western democracies must begin to answer some difficult questions. For morality cannot be selective. Why should the West intervene in Bosnia but ignore equally serious violations of human rights in Azerbaijan or Sudan? And, even more important, who is to decide the circumstances under which intervention is justified?

Every previous upheaval in international politics over the past 200 years, from the end of the Napoleonic wars to the collapse of Nazi Germany, has been marked by a sustained attempt on the part of the statesmen of the victorious powers to reconstruct the architecture of Europe through new institutions - whether the Holy Alliance, the League of Nations or Nato. So also today, the world's democracies need to create institutions which can determine when aggression or flagrant violations of human rights have occurred.

In theory, of course, the United Nations would appear to be just such an institution, but too many of the member states of the UN are themselves undemocratic and responsible for flagrant human rights abuses. It is hardly a forum within which the conscience of mankind can find effective expression.

What is needed is a concert of liberal powers, led perhaps by the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, as John Ikenberry of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has proposed. For the G7 nations - Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Canada, Italy and Japan - are the world's largest industrial democracies, which account for 64 per cent of the world's GNP. They could provide the leadership necessary to sustain a new democratic order, in what is otherwise likely to prove a chaotic world of tribal conflict and ethnic terrorism.

Of course, the obstacles seem almost insuperable. In the absence of an external threat, the great democracies seem quite unwilling to organise their relationships on a coherent international basis. Moreover, even if an organisation of the liberal democracies could be established, how could it act to sustain human rights, when it lacked forces of its own? In the absence of an international police force, the organisation would be dependent upon national defence forces. This would have serious implications for the defence budgets of the democracies, and particularly for Britain which hoped to benefit from a 'peace dividend' following the dissolution of the Soviet military threat. For collective security requires larger military forces than a foreign policy based purely upon national self-interest would dictate. Yet the military implications of a foreign policy based on collective security seem hardly to have been contemplated by any of the Western democracies, and certainly not by Britain.

The difficulties, then, are formidable. Yet the post-Communist world will not be able to defend liberal values unless the democracies can provide a form of collective leadership that is at present sadly lacking. The collapse of Communism in Europe offers the Western democracies their third opportunity this century to construct a new world order. The first attempt, in 1919, collapsed in ruins; the second, in the late 1940s, an essentially defensive philosophy of containment and deterrence, succeeded. Both were based on clearly thought-out strategies. Today, however, the West has no strategy, no vision by which it might guide the new world order. If it had, it would not have dithered for so long over what has happened in Bosnia. How are the values of freedom from aggression and human rights to be defended and enforced in the post-Cold War era? That is the deeper question which arises from the Bosnian crisis; and not until it is definitively answered will we be justified in claiming that the world has been made safe for democracy.

Vernon Bogdanor is Reader in Government at Oxford University and a Fellow of Brasenose College.