'At least we tried'


ONLY TWO weeks ago, I watched Secretary of State James Baker III wage deft diplomacy in Berlin. At the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, he for the first time in history was instrumental in bringing together the United States, Europe, the Soviets and even Albania into one group.

But only two weeks later, one sees here a different American diplomacy under the same Bush and Baker hand. This diplomacy toward a rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia is confused, contradictory and tremulous in its indecision.

First, immediately after the American triumphs in Berlin, Baker rushed to Belgrade for only a few hours to proclaim with obvious sincerity that the United States supported a united Yugoslavia. Fine, if a little late! But once Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25 and once fighting began two days later, the State Department all but gave its blessing to the two republics' independence.

At this point, one of the major outcomes of the Berlin meeting came into play in the violent and unruly Yugoslav scenario. In Berlin, the CSCE had pioneered by creating an undefined new "mechanism" for dealing with precisely the prototypical ethnic conflicts within nations that we now see erupting.

This CSCE mechanism -- which probably means diplomats trying to negotiate away the conflicts, although no one exactly knows -- was a struggling attempt to deal with this new form of Balkanization. And so European negotiators were soon headed toward Slovenia and Croatia to do something, no one being sure just what.

It would be easy, perhaps, to be overly critical of the American and European diplomacy toward Yugoslavia. Both dithered too long, while it was clear for the past two years that Yugoslavia was breaking up into at least six republics.

By the time the United States acted to support Yugoslav unity and reversed its actions to support the dissident republics, one had to wonder: What exactly was the real interest of the United States and Europe here, unity or democratic separation? And why did these very limited outside forces, exemplified by the CSCE's new ethnic-conflict mechanism, even think there was really something outsiders with such restricted power could do in such divided and fanaticized situations?

As Milovan Djilas, the great Yugoslav scholar, told me here of the outside pressures: "We see that the economic pressure from the European community and the U.S. was absolutely without effect. These people are obsessed fanatically with nationalism."

Indeed, one wonders exactly what outside forces could do in a country whose newest president, the Croatian Stipe Mesic, has announced for months before finally being accepted by the Serbs that he would only supervise the disintegration of the state of which he was now president. Or where it is reliably reported that the presidents of Serbia and Croatia, the two major rivals, nevertheless these last months discussed the dividing up between them of the third republic of Bosnia. Or where the demagogic president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, is probably correctly analyzed as wanting to destroy Yugoslavia in order to pick up the pieces for a "Greater Serbia" under his authoritarian hand.

So the question is not a simple one, either for the United States or for Europe. American policy for the last three years, as Yugoslavia headed down the disintegration path, has been to want unity (at least 30 other independence groups wait in the wings). But if unity was too expensive in terms of Yugoslav federal intervention, then the United States would choose democratic separation.

An ideological problem also underlies this bedeviling situation. American history gives little moral guidance on these matters. Independence of nations? Sure! Just look at our Revolutionary War. Unity of nations? Of course! We fought a sanguinary war of brothers to preserve the Union.

We are faced in Yugoslavia with a watershed "politics of devolution." Different from the traditional diplomacies of the Berlin meeting and different from the old exigencies of revolution (where at least we know what we are dealing with), devolution presents the world with the question of how to push the contradictory values of democracy and unity at once where centralized power is devolving to smaller groups.

The American policy here so far has been "At least we tried," that hapless expression heard across many forms of American diplomacy, and it has always been disastrous. Here, it symbolizes the fact that American diplomacy today can deal brilliantly with the largely consensual needs of the big countries, but that we are in for a new period of chaotic and to date ineffective and vacillating diplomacy in these new and troubling situations.

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