AT the end of World War II, the victorious Western powers set out to prevent nationalism and totalitarianism from ever again precipitating a global conflict.
They were probably more successful than anyone could have imagined in 1945, although the cold war saw its fair share of fighting between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, along with proxies on both sides.
Past success, however, doesn't necessarily translate into future peace, and nationalism can be seen at work in post-cold-war Europe again. At the same time, the multilateral security organizations that kept the lid on conflict for the last five decades no longer seem as cohesive and invincible.
As the 50th anniversary of World War II's end approaches, some political scientists suggest the possibility of a major conflict, especially in Europe, could be greater now than at any point since the capitulations of Nazi Germany and militarist Japan.
``What we see in Europe is that the structures are insufficient for the times. European powers are just muddling through,'' says Tassos Kokkinides, a political scientist at the British-American Security Information Council. ``They haven't learned their [World War II] lessons very well.''
Numerous events are scheduled this year to mark the final stages of the world war in Europe.
They include the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp Jan. 26 to 27; the Feb. 13 firebombing of Dresden; and Germany's May 8 surrender. But rather than underscoring the success of five decades of relative stability, the commemorations may do more to highlight the precariousness of current geopolitics.
That Western Europe recovered so quickly from World War II's destruction is a tribute to the Allied governments of the United States, Britain, and France.
In stark contrast, today's Western leaders seem visionless, unable to formulate a security blueprint after the fall of the Soviet empire. Russia, meanwhile, more and more appears to be in a state of ongoing turmoil, similiar to that in Ottoman Turkey at the beginning of this century.
``We must establish a framework [in the post-cold-war era] to eliminate local wars and total, global wars. On both counts the Western powers have failed,'' Mr. Kokkinides says. ``States don't have the political will to implement principles.''
Troublesome demise of MAD
The two key concepts that assured postwar peace were multilateralism and mutually assured destruction, or MAD. The latter kept the East-bloc Communists in check by threatening the massive use of nuclear weapons, while the former led to the creation of the United Nations and contained traditional rivalries among Western powers.
But the threat of MAD has been undermined, at least temporarily, by the Soviet Union's collapse, followed by Russia's internal turmoil. In turn, the West has experienced an erosion of the spirit of multilateralism.
Lacking the binding influence of the Soviet threat, Western powers have shown more willingness to reassert their national interests over those of multilateral security organizations, including the UN and NATO.
``We're going back to a world where bilateral relations mean more than multilateral relations,'' says Paul Goble, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The former Yugoslavia is the best example of resurgent bilateralism and the failure of multilateralism to keep the peace. The UN and NATO have often seemed powerless to stop the fighting, while major powers maneuver in ways that are reminiscent of the Great Power games in the Balkans at the beginning of the century.
As for the European Union, the 15-member group has achieved economic and political cooperation inconceivable at the start of this century. Because of this, the EU has played a significant role in keeping post-World War II Europe calm.
Nevertheless, the push for further integration appears to be losing momentum. Some European powers, particularly Britain, never wholly bought into the idea of a federal Europe, while the attraction for others, such as France, seems to be fading. Germany, which in 1945 was left devastated and divided, may best remember the conflict's lessons, and so remains the major power most committed to a federation of European states.
Meanwhile, Russia's botched blitz on the separatist region of Chechnya has further confirmed the toothlessness of the 53-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was established to mediate precisely such a conflict.
As during the cold war, Russia continues to constitute the most dangerous threat to European security, in the eyes of many Western analysts. Only now, many Europeans are concerned about Russia's weakness rather than its military might.
If the Russian Federation were to break up, or if central authority were to break down, the consequences for the rest of Europe could be serious. Besides the purely military threat, crucial oil and natural gas supplies could be cut off, and a new East-West migration wave could begin.
Faced with such dangers to stability, the Western powers have been slow to react, some analysts say. The lack of a well-thought-out security blueprint could prompt ill-conceived action on the part of either the West or Russia, giving way to renewed confrontation.
The question of Central Europe's security vacuum has already prompted Russian President Boris Yeltsin to warn of a ``cold peace.'' The West appears increasingly willing to admit Central European states into NATO, which Russia staunchly opposes.
Kokkinides says eastward expansion of NATO could do more to unsettle the security climate than to settle it, saying it ``may create anxiety in Moscow.''
``We could go back to a new cold war with unforeseen consequences,'' he adds. ``And Russia would be far more dangerous. The less confident a state is about itself, the more dangerous it is.''
The World War II anniversary events in Russia are likely to be bittersweet, perhaps serving to increase the insecurity that many Russians now feel. Especially for war veterans, victory remains one of the few achievements that they can still be proud of, given the collapse of the Communist experiment. Even so, 50 years later, the victory appears hollow. Russia now endures economic misery while the Axis powers, Germany and Japan, now are economic powerhouses, enjoying living standards unattainable for most Russians.
``It was supposed to be much celebrated by those who have survived as the greatest day in the nation's history,'' says Eduard Ivanian of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow. ``But the present socioeconomic situation spoils its importance.''
In general, World War II anniversary events were intended not only to recall the sacrifices made by millions during the war, but also to reinforce goodwill among former enemies. But some commemoration efforts have generated controversy, even rekindling smoldering animosities, rather than forging closer ties.
For example, the recent wrangle over whether to issue the Atomic Bomb stamp in the US brought tension between old enemies to the surface once again. Japanese officials, as well as the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, expressed outrage over what they saw as a glorification of the bomb's effects, pressuring the US government to head off a diplomatic row by scrapping the stamp.
There are few indications that debate surrounding the anniversary will recede. Jewish group leaders have criticized Poland's preparation to mark the liberation of the Auschwitz as disorganized and insensitive to Jewish suffering.
The bickering shows how differently nations view the war. And the inability to reach a consensus on the past indicates efforts in the future to reach agreement on common security needs may be tricky.
Booming Asia brings stability
In comparison with Europe, the near- and mid-term prospects for continued stability seem much brighter in Asia, the other main theater of World War II. Helping to promote regional stability is the fact that Asian economic growth is much more evenly spread than in Europe, where clear divisions remain between the relatively prosperous West and the democratizing East. Economic disparity throughout history has been one of the principal pretexts for starting wars.
``One hopeful thing about Asia today is every country is gaining economically,'' says Akira Iriye, a Harvard University Asian specialist. ``There's a concept that there's room for everybody.''
Japan's difficulty in coming to grips with its wartime actions remain a source of friction, especially with South Korea and China. Japan admitted for the first time in 1993 that the government had played an official role in forcing the mainly Korean ``comfort women'' to work in front-line brothels. Last year the government announced it would set up a private fund of contributions for some of them, although it would only shoulder the preparatory costs of the program.
Regional economic ties are strengthening, despite lingering differences over wartime action. To promote full reconciliation in the region, Japan must do more than make expressions of regret, Mr. Iriye says.
``It's much more important for people to understand facts that aren't sufficiently understood,'' he says. ``Expressions of remorse don't define how Japan will act in Asia in the next 50 years.''
Even if it wanted to, however, Japan won't be able to dominate Asia economically as it has for much of the past century, Iriye says. It is only a matter of time before China emerges as the regional economic power, and that shift should provide a boost to regional economic cooperation efforts.
Although conditions conducive to conflict are reappearing in some parts of the world, several factors would seem to make waging total war in the late 20th century untenable.
The first is nuclear weapons, which virtually ensure that any war between major powers would bring mutual annihilation. Another powerful weapon is the television camera, which can instantly relay images of violence back home, making it difficult for governments to wage sustained warfare in the face of popular opposition.
But both the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya show that reason does not always prevail on the battlefield. And Mr. Ivanian, the Russian political scientist, predicts the highly emotional matter of religion would most likely be the pretext of other global conflicts.
``I don't think World War II ended all [major] wars,'' Ivanian says. ``That is just wishful thinking.
``These days not much depends on major powers. There are new actors on the world arena that have nothing to do with the bipolar or multipolar world,'' he continues, referring to the rise of Islamic extremism in the Arab world. ``I see a possible future conflict along the lines ... of Islam versus Christianity.''