THE Bosnian imbroglio is threatening to seriously weaken security arrangements that have served as the cornerstone of European stability for the past 50 years.
Relations among the major powers that make up the so-called contact group - the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany - currently appear more strained than at any time since the common search for a Bosnian peace settlement began. Given that all but Russia are NATO members, contact-group disputes could have broader implications for European security.
Russia and France, in particular, remain perturbed by the US announcement last week that it would stop enforcing an arms embargo against the warring factions in Bosnia. The US move, they say, endangers months of painstaking diplomatic maneuvering aimed at getting Bosnian Serb forces to agree to a cease-fire plan.
``What are we trying to achieve? War or peace?'' French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a television interview. ``If we make it appear we prefer war, all that [contact group peace effort] will be ruined.''
And in an era that requires multilateral moves to defuse just about any international crisis, the tension generated by Washington's unilateral action could have consequences that extend far beyond the peace effort in Bosnia. Russia, although it has threatened to unilaterally lift sanctions on Serbia, characterizes the US move as an attempt to dictate global security policy.
``For some reasons, including domestic ones, the United States has been insistently trying to put into practice unilateral decisions, thus going beyond the framework of coordinated collective actions,'' a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
Dissatisfaction with US methods could weaken the cohesion of NATO, Europe's principal security instrument, as it tries not only to enforce peace in the Balkans, but also to help stabilize formerly communist Central Europe.
The US decision is ``divisive in NATO and in transatlantic relations in general,'' said Wim van Eekelen, the head of the Western European Union (WEU), the fledgling defense organization of the European Union.
Major power haggling also could complicate multilateral cooperation in other trouble spots, especially Iraq. The US move in Bosnia could make it more difficult for Moscow and Washington to forge consensus on continued United Nations' trade sanctions against Iraq. Russia is pushing for the lifting of the Iraq embargo, while the US is anxious to maintain it.
In many ways, major power differences over Bosnia have just as much to do with perception as with fact. Many European leaders fear the US decision to stop arms embargo enforcement automatically means the opening of the arms-flow floodgates into Bosnia, leading ultimately to an escalation in the fighting.
US officials have tried to dispel European misperceptions, stressing that last week's announcement does not mean Washington is prepared to actively ship arms to Bosnia's Muslim-led government.
``I wouldn't say that it will have no effect, but I would not say it will have a significant effect, because the arms embargo will be enforced by others,'' said US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, referring to the impact of the US arms embargo move.
THE arms embargo was imposed on all nations in the former Yugoslavia in 1991 in an attempt to prevent the conflict from spreading to other Balkan nations. Since then, a joint NATO-WEU flotilla, comprising 19 ships from 11 nations, including three American vessels, has maintained a blockade in the Adriatic Sea.
Since the beginning of the war, the Bosnian government has been out-gunned by Bosnian Serb forces, which have received heavy weapons from neighboring Serbia. Last summer, the US Congress acted to rectify this perceived injustice, approving a resolution to end US involvement in the arms embargo by Nov. 15 if Bosnian Serbs refused to accept an international peace plan. With last week's announcement, the Clinton administration was acting to comply with the congressional resolution.
NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes repeated over the weekend that the alliance would continue its blockade, adding that the US initiative shows the need for more flexibility within NATO, enabling a number of member states, not just the US, to exert leadership. ``We can't wait for the United States to take the lead every time there is a crisis,'' he said.
But Mr. Claes's call for greater European leadership within NATO is coming at a time when many European nations are distracted by domestic problems. Germany remains consumed with reunification issues. In Britain and Spain, corruption scandals have weakened governments, while France is increasingly preoccupied with its 1995 presidential election.