WASHINGTON — ONE thing the tragedy of Yugoslavia has made clear is that nobody is the world's policeman.
For all the post-Gulf-war talk of new worlds and collective security, the West's reaction to the agony of ex-Yugoslav republics has been stiff notes and diplomatic snubs - but no real muscle to stop the fighting.
This is so despite the fact that one of the few Balkan leaders with credibility in the outside world, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, has asked for foreign troops to help remove the Serbian boot from the neck of his new country.
European Commission nations can't agree on the use of force; in their absence, the US is not about to send in the Marines.
"That is not an option. That is not something that the United States is considering doing," said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler on Tuesday.
This global hesitance gives the lie to the whole "world policeman" analogy, a shorthand often thrown about by geopolitical analysts. The fact is, no nation seems willing to shoulder the responsibility of a policeman and keep order for its own sake.
The example of Kuwait appears to show differently, but in Iraq's invasion of Kuwait one powerful nation, the US, saw a direct threat to its own security. In short, Kuwait had oil.
US officials say that in the fighting over the breakup of the old Yugoslav republic they can detect no threat to the US, per se.
In Bosnia, Croatia, or any other part of the Balkans, said Tutwiler, "I am not aware of a national security interest literally ... that I have heard expressed by our government."
This attitude of realpolitik may well be the defining force in relationships between states. It is surely an approach that would be recognizable to statesmen hundreds of years past.
Be that as it may, there are critics who disagree about the US stake in the Yugoslav affair.
"It's incredible to me that the US is failing to recognize that the entire principal on which the post-cold-war security system is based is being tested," says Daniel Nelson, a Georgetown University professor and former key adviser to House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri.
In other words, if we don't react strongly here, then we won't have credibility when it comes to threatening collective action farther down the road in conflicts which may have a more direct bearing on US economic and security interests, says Dr. Nelson.
Thus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, conflicting forces in Tadjikistan, even Ukraine and Russia, might continue to escalate their conflicts into open fighting without being deterred by the threat of international interference.
Nelson argues that both Serb and Croatian leaders have to be shown that "the world community will not tolerate continued violence. What that means is a forceful insertion of a peacemaking force."
This force would have to be made up of NATO units under some sort of international imprimatur, probably that of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Lightly armed, blue-hat peacekeeping troops wouldn't be enough. Indeed, the last European Community peace monitors withdrew from Bosnia on Tuesday, citing fears for their safety.
Sending real troops has been discussed informally in the corridors at NATO and CSCE meetings. To this point the sheer military difficulties of such a step seem daunting.
There are some examples of heavily armed peacekeeping troops keeping watch in highly dangerous situations, such as the West African multinational force now trying to restore order in Liberia.
But they are exceptions. In the history of UN-backed blue hat forces, at least, "if peacekeepers are there and they have to fight it doesn't work," says Page Fortna, a Henry Stimson Center researcher who helped write a recent study of UN peacekeeping efforts.
The founders of the United Nations thought their organization would develop an international quasi-army that would deter aggressors by its very presence. Things didn't work out that way, but the post-cold-war era might be an opportunity to give the organization some teeth. If it can't agree on the use force in pressing situations "the era of UN peace-building may turn out to be rather short," concludes the Stimson Center study.