PARIS — WITH the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expected to decide this week whether to carry out bombing raids against Bosnian Serb positions around Sarajevo, the coming days could be a watershed for the post-cold-war order.
After 16 months of a fratricidal war that has left up to 200,000 people dead or missing in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the United States and its allies appeared poised over the weekend to carry out bombing missions in an effort to save Sarajevo and force a final settlement at the stalled peace talks in Geneva.
NATO ambassadors were prepared to meet in Brussels today, but some diplomats said it was unlikely the gathering would produce a final decision on the timing and scope of the airstrikes.
Whether the Serbs' apparent moves to withdraw from key mountains surrounding Sarajevo will be enough to forestall the raids remains to be seen. Analysts here and in Washington say the Clinton administration, which pushed the reluctant European allies hard last week to accept the plan, cannot politically afford to pull back from military action.
Canada and several European countries agreed reluctantly last week to the US bombing plan. France, Spain, and Britain have until now opposed any bombing, saying such a move would endanger their peacekeeping forces.
"The Europeans are not happy about it at all," remarked Jonathan Eyal, the director of studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
A French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman yesterday insisted in a telephone interview that any military activity would have to be approved by the United Nations Security Council, but she indicated Paris would support bombing missions if they were requested by UN field commanders.
If the bombing raids are ordered, it will mark the first time that NATO has carried out a military operation in its 44-year history, and could set a precedent for future actions outside Western Europe.
More significantly, however, is the long-term effect that the bombings would have on the European Community. The crisis in the former Yugoslavia broke wide open at about the same time that the EC was finishing work on the Maastricht Treaty on European unity, which calls for establishing a single currency and common foreign and defense policies among its 12 member states.
As such, Yugoslavia appeared the perfect opportunity to prove that the EC could act decisively in a major crisis - and without help from Washington. But from one failed cease-fire to another, Europe has stood by as the fighting intensified. The Europeans, under UN auspices, have mounted a major humanitarian aid campaign, but in the end it too became an excuse to avoid putting military pressure on the Serbs on the grounds that such action would threaten the security of their peacekeeping forces.
"For the 12 not to be able to agree on a common policy toward Nicaragua is not too important, but not being able to devise a common approach toward the war in the former Yugoslavia is a catastrophe," an aide to French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur admitted last week.
THE failure to develop a coherent policy has left in shambles the effort to create a united EC. The French, for instance, are bitter at Germany's insistence last year that the EC grant quick diplomatic recognition to Slovenia and Croatia. The French say this move led to an extension of the war and left the EC without other cards to play against the invading Serbs.
With the Serbs now controlling more than 70 percent of Bosnia's territory, whatever limited military action is taken will have to come at the instigation of the US and despite European opposition.
History conspired to divide the EC's two leading members in the Yugoslav crisis. For reasons dating back to World War II, the Germans at first supported the Croats and Slovenes, with the French strongly backing the Serbs. Both have since recognized their mistakes, but in the meantime the differences kept the Community from taking action at a time when it most needed to prove that it had found a common, independent voice.