PRESIDENTS CLINTON AND YELTSIN, by invoking the overriding importance of a peaceful American-Russian relationship, have put Bosnia in its place. If logic were to prevail, that little rump state in the Balkans would not -- could not -- be a force driving the world's two mightiest nuclear powers apart. But logic did not prevail when the assassination of a Hapsburg archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 precipitated World War I. At their summit at FDR's Hyde Park yesterday, Messrs. Clinton and Yeltsin were doing their rhetorical best not to have history repeat itself.
But Bosnia, despite its size, is not that easy. It presents precedents and dilemmas that must be dealt with now lest they cause immense problems later. For if the United States and Russia cannot peacefully resolve this latest Balkan civil war, what can they handle?
The issue is fundamental. If NATO sends 60,000 troops to enforce a peace agreement among the Muslim, Croat and Serb factions, what role can Russia play? Mr. Yeltsin made it clear at the United Nations Sunday that Russian troops would not serve under NATO command -- that his government would insist on a controlling U.N. mandate where its veto power in the Security Council would come into play.
Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin, while proclaiming their "complete agreement" on Bosnia, did not actually resolve this matter. Instead, they turned it over to their defense ministers and ordered them to come up with solutions "this week." One could dismiss this as buck-passing to avoid admission of an impasse. But by putting so much of their personal prestige on the line, at a time when both face re-election campaigns next year, the two leaders launched an initiative that would fail only at their personal political peril.
They made no comment, moreover, on another sticking point: NATO's plan to incorporate old Warsaw Pact countries in an alliance extending to Russia's borders -- a development that has inflamed and given a hot election issue to anti-Yeltsin ultra-nationalists. The Russian president walks a tightrope between his need for Western economic help and the perceived humiliation that springs from America's undoubted Cold War triumph. Mr. Clinton, in turn, has to fend off cold warriors in Congress if he is to avoid a firestorm over plans to send 20,000 American troops to Bosnia.
Some early solution is required not only to sustain the credibility of the two leaders but to give the world assurance that America and Russia can indeed prolong the peace they imposed on Europe during the Cold War era. If they succeed, something called "the spirit of Hyde Park" could have global significance.