WHAT'S at stake in Bosnia could be larger than the future of that tortured land - or even than questions about America's superpower credibility.
The drawn-out tragedy in former Yugoslavia provides a significant measure of Europe's ability to erect some form of collective security. While Europeans were engaged in efforts to mediate the conflict from its outset - sometimes in tandem with American statesmen like Cyrus Vance - those efforts ultimately failed. European military power was applied too, with British, French, and other contingents prominent in the United Nations operation in Bosnia and Croatia.
Significant US involvement has come late, but indispensably. A peace agreement is in hand, and Europe is about to see the third injection in this century of American force to halt a conflict within its boundaries.
Can Europe, in the age of economic integration, put its warring past far enough behind to rivet together a cooperative structure that could make it more responsible for its own security? The Bosnia NATO mission is drawing troop contributions from a range of European states, small and large - and even from non-NATO members such as Russia, Poland, and Finland. Could it provide a new laboratory for shaping critically needed European cooperation?
Some theorize along these lines, including Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, whose small country (5 million) will contribute a force (400, according to Mr. Lipponen) roughly equal to that of the US as a percentage of population. Speaking from a distinctly different perspective than the larger powers already singed by the Yugoslav war, he suggests the Bosnia operation could allow a cooperative experience unlike anything in the past.
It's taking place at a time of extraordinary change in Europe, of a largely peaceful and potentially constructive kind. The European Union is in the process of substantial expansion - both in scope and in membership. The post-cold-war era is forcing extensive rethinking of NATO, the bulwark, till now, of Western European security. Countries east of the old Iron Curtain, including Russia itself, are casting about for new economic and political alliances, as well as a new military direction.
What will be the eventual security apparatus of the EU? How fast should NATO spread eastward to countries like Poland that crave membership? How can Russia be included in, rather than threatened by, any revamping of security arrangements for Europe?
Those are the background questions as forces from dozens of European countries and the US muster for Bosnia. And they won't stay in the background forever. Americans are clearly in the lead as this latest allied effort in Europe takes shape, but it's by no means clear that the time-limited American involvement, relatively big as it is, can bring long-term peace to Bosnia. And it's equally unclear that the US, for all its military might, can or should be the long-term guarantor of peace and security in Europe.
The United States will retain close ties to Europe, but its far-flung economic and security concerns, along with changing domestic politics, will likely alter the preoccupation with Europe that has characterized the 20th century.
Europe's destiny is primarily in European hands, and that should include, ultimately, the capacity to resolve issues of security and peace.
Ultimately, Europe will have to take greater responsibility for its own security.