NATO's 11-week war against Yugoslavia may be the most important geopolitical event to occur in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In a way, the victory over Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic represents the second act of the drama that began when Germans attacked their concrete partition with hammers and bare hands.
The wall's demise transformed the eastern part of the Continent. The USSR fell, the nations of the old Warsaw Pact awoke from the deep sleep of Communist rule.
Now the bombing campaign over Kosovo could transform the West. Specifically, it may define the purpose of NATO in the post-cold-war era. Stability in southeast Europe could become the alliance's raison d'tre and a hinge on which relations with Russia and other remnants of the Soviet empire turn.
In the struggle of wills with Mr. Milosevic, "first prize is responsibility for a perpetual protectorate in the Balkans," says Walter Russell Mead, a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
If nothing else, the effort to protect Kosovar ethnic Albanians has crossed something of a threshold in world affairs. By intervening in a dispute that Yugoslavia claimed to be its own internal business, NATO has in effect said there are times when the desire to enforce human rights can trump the need to respect national sovereignty.
That's a lesson that US officials want to draw from the whole experience, anyway. "This victory brings a new hope that when a people are singled out for destruction because of their heritage and religious faith, and we can do something about it, the world will not look the other way," said President Clinton in his address to the nation last week.
Maybe. But when it comes to Mr. Clinton's definition of "the world," it's not clear how many nations would count themselves in. Most prominently, Russia did not applaud NATO's "humanitarian" intervention. Indeed, the pre-emptive arrival of Russian peacekeeping troops in Kosovo - a move that surprised and vexed NATO leaders - is seen by some Western diplomats as a way for Russia to say it won't be sidelined any further in eastern Europe.
"The Russians have made their statement," says one Western military observer. "Let's hope it remains at that."
Russia may not have great cause for worry. For a number of reasons, the Yugoslav conflict may turn out to be a one-time event, as opposed to the beginning of a trend, say experts.
To begin with, Milosevic was a repeat offender. US and European leaders had been embarrassed by their earlier weak responses to Serb aggression in Bosnia and Croatia.
Moreover, Milosevic was too close for comfort. He was Europe's unruly neighbor, the guy down the block who throws his trash over your fence and dares you to do something about it.
"It may be that Milosevic was a uniquely reviled person.... I can't imagine NATO using force in essentially similar circumstances in the future," says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
NATO may not have time, anyway. Russia's entanglement notwithstanding, the alliance could be preoccupied with policing the most restive part of the European subcontinent. The United States and its allies already have thousands of troops enforcing peace in next-door Bosnia. Now they will be cop, mayor, and banker for a bombed-out region swarming with Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas looking for revenge.
Albania, Macedonia, and other front-line states that housed refugees will be looking for their reward. Montenegro, the province of Yugoslavia whose pro-Western leaders refused to fight NATO, may be looking for protection.
Before the Kosovo crisis, NATO was riven by an internal dispute about what its focus should be in the 21st century. US officials wanted the alliance to broaden its aims, to become a sort of global security force looking to fight scourges such as drug trafficking and nuclear proliferation wherever they might be found. Many European allies resisted this approach, fearing they would be drawn into long-term commitments to the Middle East and other far-flung places.
But the US doesn't talk so much anymore about expanding NATO's "out of area" mission. Keeping 19 democracies in step for the Kosovo campaign was hard enough.
During the decades of the cold war, NATO was a defensive alliance standing against the shadow of the Soviet Union. In the first years of the 21st century, at least, NATO may be a more offensive-minded force intent on stamping out the last sparks of instability in its own region.
That could take a long time and a lot of effort. "The lack of movement [toward reconciliation] in Bosnia reflects what will be a lack of movement in Kosovo and a long-term NATO commitment," says Mr. Hannum.
Whether NATO's change in emphasis has a long-term effect on US and European relations with the rest of the globe remains to be seen. Some nations in Asia see the West as hypocritical for intervening in the name of human rights in Kosovo, after ignoring greater tragedies elsewhere, such as Rwanda. China has been angered by the inadvertent destruction of its embassy in Belgrade by a NATO bomb. Anti-Americanism is growing in Russia, fueled by the perception that the world's sole superpower has become a swaggering bully.
"A backlash is possible," says Peter Balakian, director of the Center for Ethics at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. "It remains to be seen whether we've established or further destabilized this complex region, and alienated Russia."
Even after Russia and NATO work out whose troops will be where in Kosovo - and under whose command - the side-by-side closeness in Kosovo could prove to be an irritant in the overall relationship. Nobody in the US leadership knows what Russia's president, the mercurial Boris Yeltsin, will do next.