Such idealism delighted Washington's foreign policy establishment. It seemed the natural extension of anti-Communism and, indeed, of American involvement in the Second World War. In its most extreme phase it could summarised as Amnesty International-plus-Tomahawks. Mr Clinton took it seriously.
Military impotence in Bosnia, then the attack on Baghdad, have hammered it. Patrick Cormack, the owlishly-innocent Tory MP, told Douglas Hurd in the Commons yesterday: 'If we are to have an internationally respected world order, we have got to be even-handed . . . those who orchestrate, plan and perpetrate genocide should be treated at least as harshly as those who plan the killing of presidents.' Mr Hurd brushed him aside: we have no such world order.
He was right. We have the old order, which rests on national interests vigorously asserted. Saddam Hussein could have been brought down at the culmination of the Gulf war, when rebellions broke out across Iraq. But the allied army stopped, and the rebels never got the aid they needed. That he is still there, oppressing Kurds, slaughtering and torturing dissidents, sends a perverse message - that the Baghdad regime remains, in some sense, useful to Washington.
Nor is it an obscure sense: the breakup of Iraq would almost certainly prompt a successful attempt to expand Iranian power and breathe life back into the Islamic revolution. In the long term, this social and religious movement is a more potent threat to the conservative, pro-western Gulf states than Iraq is. To the north, the break-up of Iraq would also cause huge problems for Turkey, a Nato member, as the Kurds asserted their autonomy. The human rights agenda conflicts with what the western allies perceive as their national interests. And it comes second.
The breakup of Yugoslavia has, anyway, reminded western politicians that self-determination for persecuted minorities is not a cost-free way of easing their consciences. The recognition of Bosnia would have been a fine thing - if the West had then been prepared to defend the new nation, or even to let it defend itself. As it is, Bosnia has become a monument to the dangers of international idealism without the leadership and force to back it up.
At least we understand the rules of the old world order, where military power is used primarily to defend the interests of those who possess it - and to protect the political position of their leaders. The Baghdad attack was intended to warn terrorists to leave the United States alone. In the US, political comment immediately focused on how it would improve President Clinton's domestic position.
All of which provokes a brutal 'I told you so' guffaw from old-style nationalists in London, Paris and Washington. National interests rule, always have, always will.
But the news, in the longer term, may be worse. Democracy, free speech and international law itself all depend on secure nation-states. They may fuse or break up, or be run by despots, but they provide at least the first vestiges of order. They are the building-blocks. And we forget at our peril that across most of the world nation-states still seem relatively new and foreign things. From Africa to the Balkans, linguistic, racial and religious allegiances undermine them: such movements would be far harder for the Security Council to grapple with than rogue varieties of nationalism.
Iraq, like most of the Arab world, depends upon lines drawn in the sand by imperial powers after the First World War. It only became an independent member of the League of Nations in 1932, after Mosul, Baghdad and Basra had been united. But calling something a nation doesn't make it one. By 1933, Iraq suffered the first uprising, by Christian Assyrians. Tribal or religious revolts against Baghdad have been frequent since.
The similarities with Balkan politics are obvious. It would have suited the West better had Yugoslavia, like Iraq, stayed one. Nationalism came late there too, as the Ottoman and Habsburg empires receded. There too, religious and ethnic divisions undermine western concepts of nationhood and come soaked in blood.
These are warning signals. A secure world system cannot be created by Tomahawks alone. The US and its allies can, for a limited time and in the right conditions, muster overwhelming military strength. But true security can only come from a world in which most people support the prevailing political structures - where they don't turn to fundamentalist religions or ethnic revolts which lie beyond the reach of the United Nations, or, indeed, any outside agency.
That takes us back, unavoidably, to the very agenda that has been so damaged and derided over the past two years. If we want anyone, Slav or Arab, to give their allegiance to nation-states, we had better help make those nations tolerable to live in. It takes us back to the export of democracy, defended by force where necessary. People suffering under intolerable regimes must believe that the democracies behave differently and that, sooner or later, the despots will fall and the ethnic cleansers will be punished. Without western values there is, ultimately, no secure future for western interests either.Reuse content