THE Iraq-Kuwait confrontation has been described as the first major post-cold war crisis. President George Bush and others have suggested that the success of US and UN efforts will point the way to approaches in other cases in which the norms of international comity have been violated. The renewed vitality of the United Nations has been cited as a sign that the world community will find ways to meet future threats to peace. Whatever the outcome of the present situation, however, events thus far have demonstrated how few measures are realistically available to maintain world order. The weakness of diplomatic attempts unsupported by the threat of force was demonstrated in the futile round of meetings among Arab leaders before the Iraqi invasion. After the take-over of Kuwait, diplomatic efforts by outside powers with influence in Iraq, such as the Soviet Union and France, were no more successful.
Economic sanctions, authorized by the UN Security Council under pressure from the US emerged as the favored alternative, both in the Security Council and in the US Congress. But, as the debate in Washington has shown, the application of sanctions is difficult for a country as impatient as the US.
Sanctions have worked to resolve international issues. A study ``Economic Sanctions Reconsidered'' to be published this week by the Institute for International Economics concludes that, in 115 cases in which sanctions were threatened or imposed since 1914, success was achieved 40 times. And seldom have sanctions been supported as strongly or been as complete as those applied today against Iraq.
But sanctions take time and are vulnerable to a negative image and to pressures for erosion. Although many support embargoes as an alternative to war, exciting views of sanctions that capture the public's imagination are hard to find. The diligent work of customs agents and diplomats seeking to maintain an embargo does not lend itself to TV coverage. Negative images of people starving or out of work because of international pressures are dramatic. They further provide opportunities for those out of sympathy with the policy to suggest to the target country that ultimately sanctions will fail. Beyond that, the temptation of profits to be made from evading sanctions are a constant threat to their success.
The threat the use of military force is a third option; it is also a necessary adjunct to effective sanctions. But, as the present crisis has demonstrated, that threat can be effective only if the nations providing the support are convinced that the objectives, in the end, justify the sacrifices of war.
Two other aspects of the Gulf conflict raise doubts about the universal applicability of the lessons of this crisis: the global interest in the Gulf and the uncertainty in the US regarding its future world role.
It has been possible to create a major coalition arrayed against Iraq, in part because so many nations recognize the importance of the resources of the region to the global economy. Those resources have, in turn, enabled the nations in the Gulf to provide essential financial subsidies to those who would support them. It is doubtful that these circumstances would be duplicated in any other part of the world.
The invasion of Kuwait has also required Americans to face the question of the future role of the US in maintaining global order. And, so far, the responses are mixed. The Bush administration has mobilized an international military force and gained the support of the UN Security Council for US actions and objectives. These accomplishments, however, are clouded by uncertainties at home over how much responsibility, in the event of war, the US would relinquish to an international command, over what is seen as a disproportionately American fighting force. In the event of a peaceful outcome, the debate will continue over whether it was the credible threat of force or the demonstration of American restraint that resolved the issue.
The combination of sanctions and the threat of force may resolve the present confrontation. If so, the world community will be encouraged to stand together in other violations of frontiers and sovereignty. But the demonstrated limitations of the measures being applied, the peculiar circumstances of the Gulf region, and the agonizing over measures in the US suggest that the approaches to this crisis may not be as universally applicable as some would suggest.