This is happening not because of any American lust for power - rather the contrary - but because nobody else can do the job. The European Community's empty pretensions to a defence identity have been exposed by its failure in the former Yugoslavia. There is still a black hole where Germany's engagement ought to be. Japan is a valuable financier but nothing more. The successor states of the former Soviet Union are wholly out of the game for the time being.
The result is a series of ad hoc responses to international crises in which the criteria for intervention are invented as we go along. A direct threat to Western interests, as in the oil-producing regions, wins high ranking. Feasibility is important, which is why there has been so much agonising over Bosnia. Humanitarian considerations carry weight when combined with feasibility and at least some element of geostrategic interest, as in Somalia. Internal violations of human rights present a new grey area in which the criteria for intervention are being slowly shaped by case law, moral values mingling awkwardly with considerations of expediency and regional security.
There is good news and bad news in this situation. The good news is that the world is no longer frozen into the nuclear confrontation of the Cold War, which dragged smaller nations into the conflicts of the superpowers, often under very nasty client governments. At the same time the selective use of force by the United States has been made easier by modern weaponry and safer because there is less danger of provoking a nuclear conflict.
Unfortunately, as President Vaclav Havel said of Czechoslovakia, freedom has unleashed an explosion of every imaginable human evil. Self-determination has become anarchic and the balance of power unstable. The solid ice of the Cold War has melted into dangerously drifting ice floes. International institutions evolved over the past 40 years have proved incapable of containing them.
This is, however, a necessarily confused period of adjustment to enormous historical changes. At some point Russia and other successor states of the Soviet Union will re-enter the world stage, for better or for worse. Already Russia hovers near the brink of withdrawing its passive co-operation. Germany is struggling to shed its post-war inhibitions about using force, and will meanwhile become the dominant economic power in Central Europe. Japan's future remains uncertain, but looming over it in the further distance lies a very powerful China.
The Western powers may have, therefore, a relatively brief window of opportunity in which to shape a future to their liking. The main lesson of the past few years is the need to avoid the break-up of the democratic world into blocks, whether in regard to trade or security. For Europe, this means opening itself more generously to the East while also binding itself firmly to the United States, both for its own sake and in order to retain American involvement in global security. President-elect Bill Clinton will be dealing less with isolationism than with a crisis of belief in the underlying competitiveness of the American economy. Only if he can overcome that in a supportive international environment will he be able to meet his global responsibilities.
This will require more than brief military interventions in trouble spots, necessary though these will be. Interventions that do not bring about lasting changes in local power structures have short-term results, as the Gulf war has shown. This points to the need for deeper and longer involvement, with all the risks that that entails. The Americans will not undertake such commitments on their own. They will need support within a new institutional framework. Finding one to replace the quasi-imperial structures of the Cold War, which imposed order at the expense of justice, will prove more difficult than administering the nuclear stand-off.Reuse content