Washington. -- The Yugoslav civil war and coups in Haiti and Peru have exposed a glaring void in the post-Cold War world: the inability of regional groupings of nations to police their own backyards.
The European Community, which assumed the lead in trying to halt bloodshed in what was formerly Yugoslavia, has failed to deter Serbian aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina, prolonging a conflict that has left thousands dead and displaced one million. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the political body intended to bridge East and West, has been equally ineffectual. NATO, the U.S.-led military arm set up to keep the Cold War cold, has been silent.
"The institutions set up for security in Europe were not configured for these kinds of problems," says Paul Stares, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Designed for conflicts between countries, they have proven to be unwieldy and inflexible in dealing with localized bloodshed. He worries that the credibility of CSCE will be undermined before it has had a chance to develop as a security organization.
In our hemisphere, the Organization of American States has been unable to reverse Haiti's military coup. More embarrassing, America's European allies have balked at joining OAS sanctions against Haiti, undermining the hemisphere's collective pressure.
The OAS has been even less forceful against Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's imposition of one-man rule, even though members are skeptical of his promise to lead a return to democracy. The apparent success of both coups has dealt a major blow to the American vision of a hemisphere embracing democracy, with Cuba as the isolated holdout, and may have emboldened military establishments elsewhere.
The absence of effective regional security structures is not limited to Europe and Latin America. The United States has pressed for more than a year, without success, for the Persian Gulf nations and other Arab states to agree on a security arrangement that would block another Iraq-style assault.
The result of these failures is a growing despair that a New World Order, the idea of an internationally enforced minimum standard of behavior, is but a fanciful vision.
By default, more responsibility is being heaped on the United Nations, the one multilateral organization that has proved its effectiveness. Already spread thin and far afield with peacekeeping operations of unprecedented cost and scope, the world body now is being pressed inexorably into a deeper involvement in Yugoslavia.
But without an implicit military threat from the United States, its most formidable power, the United Nations has few effective tools to quell conflicts. It can be a peacekeeper, but can't force a settlement or even impose a blockade.
Thus, the United States is increasingly thrust into the role of the only available world policeman. When it chooses to lead and is prepared at least to threaten military action, strong pressure can be applied, as with Iraq and Libya. When it abdicates, as in Yugoslavia, conflicts fester and grow.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The Persian Gulf triumph, President Bush proclaimed to Congress, was "a victory for the rule of law and for what is right."
"Our uncommon coalition must now work in common purpose: to forge a future that should never again be held hostage to the darker side of human nature."
Widely inferred from this was that world pressure would be brought to bear with some consistency on countries that violate recognized norms of behavior. The euphoria obscured key lessons from the Gulf War:
* Economic sanctions can work to the extent of largely sealing off an offending country's trade with the outside world. But they depend on military enforcement, as occurred with the embargo of Iraq, and a universal understanding that violators face punishment.
* Condemnation, isolation and sanctions didn't drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait; a major war did.
* The United States can only be expected to lend its military muscle if a series of conditions are met: vital national security or economic interests must be at stake; a strong political case must be made on Capitol Hill, and other countries have to kick in forces.
With Yugoslavia, the United Nations has avoided a leading role, accepting a division of labor that leaves to Europe the task of resolving the political dispute and assigning the U.N. only a peacekeeping role. The United States has been all but absent. Top American officials want to avoid conflicts such as Yugoslavia's, fearing they would nick and bleed the U.S. military.
With Yugoslavia, and also with Haiti and Peru, regional bodies have copied Gulf-style collective action in form, not in substance. Diplomatic isolation and various sanctions have been imposed and more are threatened. But neither course has been backed by a clear message of determination.
The offenders are keenly aware of this and have been, if anything, emboldened.
Some U.S. policy advisers have been embarrassed enough by what has happened in Yugoslavia to press for tougher American steps and greater pressure on allies to join in. They made some headway this week with a suspension of American landing rights for Yugoslav aircraft.
There is growing fear that U.S. standing in Europe will be weakened, that a new disillusion about the United States will set in among moderate Muslims appalled at the killing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that ethnic extremists and other would-be strongmen worldwide are getting the message that borders can, in fact, be changed by force.
As the internal debate builds, people inside and outside government are casting about for new mechanisms to fill the obvious void. There has to be a "dramatic rethinking," as one policy analyst put it, of how to head off or end conflicts.
So far though, these are mere ideas that have yet to be put into concrete proposals. Meanwhile, the ethnic blood bath in Yugoslavia, Alberto Fujimori's defiance of the OAS and a new flood of Haitian boat people are eating away at the New World Order.
Mark Matthews covers diplomatic affairs from The Sun's Washington bureau.