As Australian soldiers fanned out this week to restore order in East Timor, and United Nations diplomats voted to launch an international investigation of alleged murders, pillage, and rape there by Indonesian forces, they were doing more than trying to heal a broken land.
They also were acting as shock troops in a dramatic clash that could reshape international relations. Four months after the war in Kosovo, the world was again meddling in a nation state's business, and claiming a "humanitarian" right to ignore national sovereignty.
"This developing international norm in favor of intervention to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter is an evolution that we should welcome," UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan said in his opening speech to the UN General Assembly last week.
No it isn't, retorted Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan in a speech two days later. National sovereignty and noninterference in another country's affairs "are the basic principles governing international relations," he insisted, reflecting the views of most governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
"There is going to be continuing tension between these two views for a long time," says Joseph Nye, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "It is not going to be resolved this year. In the meantime, you can expect a fair amount of messiness."
Horrified by the way the world stood by and did little or nothing to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, Mr. Annan has become a passionate standard-bearer for the cause of humanitarian intervention.
"State sovereignty, in its most basic sense, is being redefined by the forces of globalization and international cooperation," he said, while "individual sovereignty ... has been enhanced by a renewed consciousness of the right of every individual to control his or her own destiny.
"Massive and systematic violations of human rights, wherever they take place, should not be allowed to stand," he said.
His speech shocked many observers. "The general principle of an occasional need to intervene where there are ghastly violations [of human rights] is a good one," says Adam Roberts, a professor and international law expert at Oxford University in England. "The risk is he may seem to be opening a door to lots of interventions and run headlong into national sovereignty concerns."
He did indeed. Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh argued that "The state continues to have a crucial role and relevance, also, therefore, national sovereignties." Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, speaking for the Organization of African Unity, described national sovereignty as "our last protection from the rules of an unjust world." Mr. Tang warned that "the outbreak of war in Kosovo has sounded an alarm for us all."
Coming to Annan's defense was President Clinton. "The outcome in Kosovo is hopeful," he said. "Ethnic cleansers and mass murderers can find no refuge in the United Nations, no source of comfort or justification in its charter."
But how this new approach might be implemented is unclear, critics say. "You don't throw away a very useful tool like national sovereignty unless you have a better one to put in its place," says Uri Ra'anen, director of Boston University's Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology, and Policy. "You had better have a clear, coherent, and sensible system."
No such system has been evident in the handful of humanitarian interventions tried so far, in Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, and East Timor, none of which were unqualified successes. And Annan himself acknowledges more questions than answers when it comes to interpreting the UN charter's injunction that "armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest."
"What is that common interest? ... Who shall defend it? Under whose authority? And with what means of intervention?" he asked rhetorically.
One thing is clear, Annan stressed: Any intervention must be based on "universal legitimacy" - in other words, a UN Security Council mandate.
But the Security Council issued no mandate to bomb Yugoslavia (Russia and China were opposed). But NATO went ahead of its own accord, arguing that it was acting to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo.
This, though, raised a question: "If you intervene regionally, how do you stop the largest state in a region from bullying the rest?" wonders Dr. Nye.
The Security Council sent UN troops to East Timor only after the Indonesian government was persuaded to consent to such a force, and would not have risked alienating such a major country as Indonesia by authorizing an invasion.
"The way the international community responds will depend upon the capacity of countries to act, and on their perception of their national interests," Mr. Clinton said. But that, worries Philippe Biberson, president of the French humanitarian group Doctors Without Frontiers, smacks of "double standards. What's good for East Timor and Kosovo may not be good for other countries."
Such as China, where nobody is suggesting international intervention to help Tibetans shake off Beijing's oppressive rule, or Russia, which can be confident there will be no foreign initiative to defend Chechnya from Moscow's troops.
"This is a moral principle that is going to be used selectively in the least moral way, against the weakest, by the strong," argues Dr. Ra'anen. At the same time, he fears, "it is a weapon with a life of its own which cannot be controlled by anyone."
For example, Kremlin ideologists defended their attack on Chechnya this week on the grounds that a humanitarian crisis is brewing in the North Caucasus.
As Annan struggles to keep the genie of humanitarian intervention under some sort of control, few experts expect the concept of national sovereignty to fade.
"I can see why people are pushing for human rights" over sovereign rights, says S.K. Singh, a former head of the Indian foreign ministry, "but this all needs more thinking through. And for this to work, I think the world needs to be a little more equal than it is today."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society