From deadlock to decisive crisis, in one week the war in Bosnia has changed more than at almost any time during the last three years. It has reached one of the periodic turning points when the "international community" can intervene to make a difference. But whether that difference spells salvation or disaster changes with each destabilising turn of events. Yesterday, even as rumours trickled through of a possible hostage release, a US fighter was shot down. So far, the American reaction has been very cautious.
"Of course," says Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, "there is no such thing as 'the international community'. That is part of the problem."
As if to underline Mr Hurd's world-weary point, this morning in Paris ministers from 14 countries will meet to try to agree on what their soldiers and airmen should do next. The very fact of such a cumbersome procedure reminds us all too clearly that this is not the Gulf War, when a skilfully engineered coalition confronted a single unambiguous foe.
Divisions and diverging ambitions abroad have long been exploited by all warring sides in the Balkans. The Bosnian Muslims won the media war in the United States and cultivated a powerful lobby on their behalf in Washington. The government of Serbia never ceased to remind its friends in Russia of the ties in blood and orthodox religion that bind Belgrade to Moscow. President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia cleverly played on long- stifled German aspirations in south-eastern Europe.
Only the Bosnian Serbs, with their talent for inept brutality, managed to estrange all, bar a few fanatical sympathisers in Greece and among the Zhirinovsky right in Russia.
But there has been one critical shift in the last seven days since Nato aircraft swooped on a Bosnian Serb ammunition dump and its angry proprietors seized hundreds of United Nations peace-keepers as hostages. Even if every last man walks free, the big powers have been frightened into action. They have peered into the abyss of a wider Balkan war, and they want to step back.
That is the reason behind John Major's gamble this week in taking the lead with the dispatch of British reinforcements to the Balkan theatre. Mr Hurd observed that "because of our decision in Downing Street last Sunday, the role of Britain in all this had been enhanced".
Another way of looking at it, of course, is that Britain's risk has been multiplied. But that is a calculation made by Mr Major and Mr Hurd in discreet cahoots with the French.
Both Britain and France will soon be in a position where their leaders feel they can call the shots in the next round of decisions over Bosnia. President Clinton joined the party rather late and hesitantly during the week: the US administration undoubtedly still wants to dominate Western responses to the crisis. But there is a clear feeling in London and Paris that "the views of the troop-contributing nations will be given more weight." Translation: Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher et al will henceforth be informed that crusades on behalf of the Bosnian government are off the agenda.
As for Lord Owen's "laptop bombardiers" in the press, they were still calling for a military campaign against Serbia as he declaimed his warning to an attentive House of Lords against the perils of a Balkan quagmire.
Lord Owen's resignation may satisfy the United States. But it coincided with a conclusion in many quarters that his assessment of the amoral realities of the war was the right one.
Two or three years ago a brisk military intervention to alter the balance on one or other battlefield could have made sense. Almost nobody in government believes that any more. The reinforcements are going in to bolster a political initiative, not to conquer territory.
"We can't go to war with the Serbs using these troops," said a senior official in the Ministry of Defence this week. But the British and French will be in a position to regroup and, if necessary, to withdraw. That is their ultimate sanction.
Mr Hurd refuses to rule out withdrawal and the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, yesterday repeated that it was an option. Mr Hurd believes there must be "linkage" between the strengthening of the UN Protection Force and the continuing negotiations with Serbia to fashion an overall settlement. He cannot say as much in public, but the advice from successive British envoys in Belgrade is that without a strong Serbia there will be no stability in the Balkans. In Foreign Office eyes, that remains as true today as in 1913 and 1939. Unpopular, unpalatable, but undeniable.
So the key remains the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, with whom the United States is belatedly doing business. The crisis of the last week altered the terms on which the shrewd, brutal politician in Belgrade will be invited back to the civilised world. The units of exchange in this deal are UN sanctions and the Bosnian Serbs. If Radovan Karadzic were magically to be deposed, some speculate that his deputy, Nikola Koljevic, a professor of English literature, might prove an acceptable substitute.
There are, however, no saints available for the "international community" to adopt.
Bitter choices, big decisions, debateable consequences. Will "the international community" be able to face them? Don't bet on it.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies