Confronted by new Serbian defiance over Kosovo, the United States and its NATO allies are again brandishing the threat of force to prevent Europe's latest ethnic conflict from spinning out of control.
To underscore its readiness to hit Serb forces, NATO yesterday ordered an aircraft-carrier-led flotilla into the Adriatic, and cut from 96 hours to 48 hours the time it needs to ready airstrikes.
Should it make good on its threat, NATO would be breaking new ground. It would be the first time the regional defense alliance intervened in an internal crisis of a sovereign state without the approval of the United Nations.
The possibility of NATO action grew after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to restore a US-brokered truce by ending a new Serbian drive against rebels of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority. He also balked at rescinding the expulsion of William Walker, the American chief of an international observer mission, and allowing UN war-crimes investigators to probe the Jan. 15 massacre of 45 ethnic Albanian villagers.
Mr. Milosevic's "obdurate" stance - he insists on his right to crush ethnic Albanian "terrorists" - was conveyed to NATO in Brussels yesterday by the pact's top general, American Wesley Clark, on his return from talks with the Yugoslav leader in Belgrade. The US held separate consultations with Russian and European officials in Vienna and London.
The precedent set by NATO airstrikes on Serbia would hold profound implications beyond Kosovo. With ethnic and religious conflicts that endanger regional stability raging around the world, other states or regional groupings could use NATO's action to justify their intervention in crisis-torn neighbors. In the process, the authority of the UN could be eroded.
NATO airstrikes against the Serbs would "set a precedent under which local security networks in other parts of the world could act without the UN's approval," says Gary Dempsey, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington.
China and Russia are especially anxious to avoid such a precedent. Both face crises - China over Taiwan and Russia with independence-seeking former Soviet republics like Chechnya - in which they adamantly reject outside "interference." Both have used their permanent UN Security Council seats to oppose any actions they see as undermining their stance.
Other countries, including some NATO members, also say UN authorization is needed for international military interventions.
Yet the US has already made clear in Iraq and Kosovo that it will take action without the UN's imprimatur when its interests and those of its allies are in question. Having this flexibility is especially critical to the Clinton administration. In addition to facing Republican charges that it too often cedes US foreign policy to the UN, the administration is pushing to have NATO adopt at its 50th anniversary summit in Washington in April new missions outside its members' borders.
"To require the Security Council's blessing would essentially hand them a veto over our policy," says Richard Haas, a former Bush administration National Security Council official now at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy institute. "It's wrong to argue that legitimacy only stems from the legitimacy of the United Nations."
NATO airstrikes against the Serbs would also revive a debate over the circumstances in which military intervention in a local crisis is warranted. US and Western European officials say intervention in Kosovo is justified under international conventions prohibiting atrocities against civilians, and also to stop the Kosovo conflict from spilling over.
Yet neither the US nor its allies have moved decisively to save civilians in Sierra Leone, the war-wracked West African nation. Nor did they take concerted action to halt the slaughter of civilians by Russian troops in Chechnya in 1994-95, favoring the preservation of relations with Moscow.
"Foreign policy is always rife with double or triple standards," says Dr. Haas. "No two situations are alike.... In Kosovo, you have strategic as well as humanitarian stakes, whereas in some parts of Africa, the stakes might be limited to humanitarian issues."