For European governments, humiliated by their failure to avert bloodshed in Bosnia earlier this decade, Kosovo could mark the hour of redemption.
At least, that is the hope in capitals around the Continent, as diplomats prepare for a European-sponsored peace conference outside Paris that is meant to halt the conflict in Kosovo before it spirals beyond all control.
Serbian leaders and ethnic Albanian separatist rebels have been summoned to negotiations here Saturday and given two weeks to agree on "substantial autonomy" for the Serbian province, on pain of NATO airstrikes.
The ethnic Albanian rebels have said they will come; if the Serbs also accept, the talks will be managed by French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and his British counterpart, Robin Cook.
This newfound European activism in the Balkans, diplomatic observers say, is a deliberate attempt to make up for the indecision, squabbling, and weakness that hindered efforts to head off the Bosnian tragedy.
"The main difference between Kosovo and Bosnia is that we've had Bosnia," says Dominique Moisi, an analyst with the French Institute for International Relations, a Paris-based think tank.
Prodded into action by public opinion, which strongly supports intervention, the British, French, and German governments are readying troops to monitor and enforce on the ground any agreement that comes out of the talks. Washington has not ruled out sending soldiers to such a force.
This European show of initiative contrasts sharply with the dithering that surrounded its diplomacy in Bosnia. "In Bosnia the United States acted [to impose the Dayton accord] after the Europeans failed to make any impression," recalls Dr. Moisi. "Today it is the complete opposite: The Europeans are acting in the wake of what they see as an American failure."
A Kosovo peace deal that US envoy Richard Holbrooke brokered last October with Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic broke down within weeks.
The Balkans have long been unfamiliar territory to Europeans - part of their landmass but not of their culture. Inhabited largely by Orthodox Christians and Muslims, belonging for centuries to the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the region was always beyond the frontier of Western Christendom and largely beyond the comprehension of Western observers.
A decade ago, that ignorance compounded European uncertainty about how to deal with violently competing nationalist extremists. Today the threat to the whole continent posed by an uncontrolled conflict in Kosovo is simply too great to ignore.
The Serbian province, whose population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, borders Macedonia, which has an Albanian minority, and Albania. Continued unrest in Kosovo would almost certainly spread to those neighbors.
That, diplomats fear, could draw in nearby Greece and prompt its bitter rival, Turkey, to intervene on behalf of fellow Muslim Albanians. Two NATO allies could thus find themselves on opposite sides of an all-out regional conflagration.
At the same time, such a war would likely unleash a flood of refugees. This prospect is especially unsettling to Germany, which took in nearly 400,000 refugees from the Bosnian war.
Kosovo offers a first test for Anglo-French ambitions to give Europe a different dimension by strengthening its diplomatic and security role. At a meeting last December, French President Jacques Chirac and British Premier Tony Blair declared that the 15-member European Union (EU) "must have the capacity for autonomous action backed up by credible military forces."
"Here is a chance for them to put their money where their mouth is," says Gordon Wilson, an analyst with the Western European Union, a defense grouping of European countries. "If we are ever going to get some political will together, now is as good a time as any, and the chances are probably better than ever."
This is partly because leaders have learned from their mistakes in the Balkans, says Moisi, and partly because they sense "a discrepancy between the self-confidence born of the euro [Europe's single currency, launched on Jan. 1] and the impotence of their efforts at a common foreign and security policy."
Equally important, adds Dietmar Hertz, who teaches politics at Bonn University in Germany, "there has been a far-reaching change in Germany over the past few years.... Now there is a wide consensus that it might be necessary to send German troops to Kosovo."
The difficulty, he points out, is that while European leaders might have reached agreement on Kosovo's ideal future as an autonomous province within Serbia, it will be another matter to make the Yugoslav government and ethnic Albanian leaders compromise on autonomy.
At the very best, Professor Hertz worries, Europe's interventionist enthusiasm will lead only to "a military solution but no political solution, and a long, drawn-out period when Kosovo will be a European protectorate."