Parallels with the League of Nations begin to look ominously apt. When that organisation was set up after the First World War it, too, faced a world of falling empires, ethnic disputes and Balkan conflicts. It, too, lost American support - and collapsed for that reason, opening the door to the Second World War. Without minimising Europe's failures today, UN peace- keeping is also doomed without the full engagement of the United States.
The fundamental dilemma of the United Nations is how to introduce some concept of international order into a global system based on sovereign states when it is itself run by sovereign states. The task is like trying to build a society on the basis of individual rights alone, without any countervailing central authority. States will pool their security in pacts and alliances, or rely on the protection of powerful allies, but they will not surrender their security to an international policeman who is controlled either by the majority votes of other sovereign states or the pressures of great powers - and still less to one who is not so controlled.
In today's world, however, national sovereignty seems less and less relevant to the huge sweep of interacting global problems and transcontinental weaponry that confront the human race. Voluntary codes of conduct will impose some restraints, as they do in war, but they are not sufficient to replace the unjust order of empires.
For a period after the end of the Cold War it seemed that the US and Russia together could mould the UN into a more effective and reasonably democratic instrument of international security. That period appears now to be ending, and one of the results is Bosnia. It must, however, be too early to write off the UN as a whole. Imperfect though it is, there is no alternative in sight except even greater anarchy.
The key to its future remains largely in the hands of the United States. President Clinton came into office with good intentions and new ideas, but failed to win over Congress. Too many members still hanker for isolation and make a false distinction between domestic and foreign affairs, refusing to see that the prosperity and security of the United States depend on how much of the rest of globe is friendly, democratic, and prosperous. As a result, they shrink from the inevitable costs and risks of peace-keeping and contribute to the confusion in the executive branch.
If the Bosnian debacle merely adds to that confusion the outlook is grim. What is needed is a concerted effort by all the principal members of the UN to study the lessons of Bosnia and rethink the concepts and operational procedures of peace-keeping. Another major failure could be fatal.