Paris. -- We again are at Munich. I never believed that I would find need for this trite and abused analogy, but consider the reality of Yugoslavia at this moment. Serbia is deliberately challenging a system of international legality and political values which has given Europe and the West nearly 50 years of peace. As in 1938, the West European powers refuse to do anything serious to meet this challenge. Unlike 1938, the public seems more realistic than its governments. But unless some Western leader takes courage and acts, this will end in something much worse than the tragedy we already confront.
The practical consequences of what Serbia is doing corrupt the existing European system and threaten to halt -- possibly to destroy -- the progress Europe has made in economic and political unification during the past half-century, the great achievement of the postwar generations.
But the West European governments do no more than debate the fate of the 2.5 million refugees Serbia's aggression has already generated. Should they be admitted to neighboring countries? That makes it easy for Serbia, and implicitly endorses the genocidal policy of ethnic "cleansing" of conquered territories. Those opposed to that demand a political solution. But it is obvious by now that there will be no political solution until Serbia has what it wants -- and Croatia has the rest.
Western action to stop aggression, restore overrun borders, punish war crimes and defend the principles of international law, would cause Western governments domestic political difficulties. It could be costly. It would involve military force. And Yugoslavia is a distant country of which we know little; its people have, after all, brought this on themselves; theirs is a brutal part of the world. One hears today the very words spoken of Czechoslovakia in 1938, as the Chamberlain government prepared to sell the Czechs out.
But it is not Yugoslavia which is at stake. It is not even justice; justice rarely is served in such affairs. There has been little justice in Yugoslavia's past and will probably be little in its future. Milovan Djilas, the eminent Yugoslav writer and political dissident, a Montenegrin, wrote in his autobiography that generations of his family died at the hands of other Montenegrins. "My father's grandfather, my own two grandfathers, my father . . . and his brother and my brothers . . . it seems to me that I was born with blood on my eyes. My first sight was of blood, my first words were blood and bathed in blood."
It is European order which is at stake. Germany wanted Croatia's and Slovenia's recognition, and got it, touching off a campaign of visionary aggression that had been prepared by some Serbian intellectuals for a half-century, and awakening a political paranoia which existed in the haunted memories and resentments of the Serbian people since they were defeated by the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389.
Today's invasion of Bosnia is part of a program for a Greater Serbia advocated by intellectuals close to the tragic royalist guerrilla leader Draza Mihailovic, abandoned by the Allies in World War II and executed by Tito in 1946. It expresses a Serbian expansionist ambition that undermined the prewar kingdom.
The Serb irregulars besieging Sarajevo today are led by three tenured university professors. They are destroying Sarajevo and Bosnia's other Muslim cities and villages, forcing more than 2 million people from their homes and homelands, in order -- they say -- to save Europe from the Turk. They are trying to redo the outcome of the battle of Kosovo Field.
Serbia itself, they contend, is a martyr-nation also under concealed attack by a re-Nazified Germany that controls all of Europe, an imperialist and aggressive United States allied with this Germany, and a Vatican determined to destroy Orthodox Christianity. As if the Turks were not enough.
The Germans now have the refugees flooding in, as do the Italians and Austrians -- whose foreign minister, Alois Mock, demands military intervention in support of U.N. decisions. "Law without power is absurdity," he says. Since neither the other Europeans nor the United States will defend even the U.N.'s humanitarian efforts, to say nothing of international law, Germans as well as Austrians feel themselves abandoned with this problem by their allies. The German press accuses the French of serving Serbian propaganda interests, and accuses the British -- calling fruitless conferences -- of irrelevance.
This comes at a moment when the construction of Europe has already been undermined by the ill-considered and overambitious Maastricht Treaty, objections to which have been mounting in all the major European states since the Danes turned the treaty down in a spring referendum. It comes when Germany's reunification and the Cold War's end have overturned power relationships and perceptions in Europe, and when the United States stands at the edge of a return to isolation.
The British were piratically delighted to send a task force to the South Atlantic in 1982 to recapture the Falklands. The French take for granted sending the Legion and the "paras" to enforce order in west Africa. Both willingly seconded George Bush's obsession with driving Iraq out of Kuwait. Neither will do a thing to save West Europe itself from a fundamental threat to European order and to Europe's future. That challenge is too serious and the job too unpredictable. Moreover, they do not have Washington to tell them to do it.
The United States today has a president who for the most contemptible reasons of partisan advantage has reversed his own policy course and now has committed the United States to refuse any Yugoslav intervention whatever -- attacking his opponent, Bill Clinton, as "reckless" for proposing a minimal air intervention to protect U.N. humanitarian missions. The conqueror of Panama and Kuwait wants re-election.
If Serbia is permitted to demonstrate that military force again rules in Europe, and that a genocidal ethnic policy will meet no effective resistance, reinstalling in the modern West a politics legitimated by millenarian hatreds and historic grievances, "Europe" is finished. The famous New World Order is finished, before it began. It's back to the old order. We will all be sorry, but it will be too late.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.