Zurich. -- American policy-makers have taken warning once too often from the much-quoted Yeats: '' . . . the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.'' They are resolved that the center the centers will hold: They will make them hold, in Yugoslavia as well as what used to be the Soviet Union; and they are used to having their way. But can these centers hold? And why?
The United States remains determined that Yugoslavia stays together. The American ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, made that once again plain in private conversation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' annual conference here last weekend, even as the war between Serbia and Croatia was sucking in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Germany, Italy and Austria were ready to recognize the country's dissolution.
The same commitment to preserve union among the Soviet states that a center, with power, should continue to exist has been evident in the Bush administration's policy ever since the revolution began in the Soviet Union. Despite the failed coup in August, it still is Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Boris Pankin with whom James Baker prefers to deal. There remains, in the American foreign policy establishment, a palpable hostility to Boris Yeltsin.
A belief that the former U.S.S.R. needs union is perfectly reasonable. The agreement recently made by 10 Soviet republics on centralized food distribution acknowledges this logic. But American policy must recognize where power actually is rather than postulate where it should be.
There is a deep hostility in Washington to ''nationalism.'' I put the word in quotation marks because I am not sure what the State Department understands by this term. Nationalism is a bad thing, in Washington's conventional usage. But what do officials think sustained the Balts and Poles, Hungarians and the rest through the long darkness of Soviet rule, if not nationalism?
National feeling provided the moral core of resistance to totalitarianism in all of the Soviet-controlled nations. It provided that conviction of unalterable identity which made it possible for people to endure Soviet rule knowing who they were and who, despite all, they would remain. It allowed them to believe that they would emerge as themselves at the end of their ordeal.
I suppose that American officials would reply that it is ''destructive nationalism'' to which they object. This is all very well as an intellectual distinction, but is of little practical use. There is nothing to be done about the existence of nationalism, destructive or otherwise. Policy must address reality, and nationalism is the reality. It must be accommodated and dealt with.
Not to do so causes the United States to risk irrelevance to what is happening in Yugoslavia and in what the policy community now calls the Soviet Successor States (fashionably abbreviated to ''S-cubed''). The chance that Croatian and Serbian nationalists can be put back into cohabitation in a revived Yugoslavia is today effectively nil.
It is argued in influential non-governmental circles in the United States that the survival of central authority in ''S-cubed'' no longer is even a hypothesis worth attention by U.S. policy-makers. Power over anything that still works in that society has already been taken over by republican and regional fTC authorities, in this argument.
Mikhail Gorbachev is held to preside over an enormous but empty apparatus whose connections to what actually happens have been cut. Their phones are dead. In this argument, Mr. Gorbachev's surviving function is to greet Mr. Baker when the secretary of State visits Moscow, and to communicate from time to time with President Bush and other foreign leaders.
There is something in this argument, although it may underestimate the interest and surviving capacity of the old structures of party and army to hold onto important, if isolated, chunks of power. Most power has certainly left Mr. Gorbachev's office and the Soviet parliament as well. Nothing the United States can do will re-create a Soviet center.
American policy-makers have a bias, which goes back beyond Woodrow Wilson's version of liberal internationalism to the origins of the American republic itself, inclining them to believe that the destiny of peoples is to federate in larger ensembles just as the American states did.
If larger ensembles break down, as they are doing in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, this is taken to be retrogressive, a development going against the course of a naturally progressive history; hence one that cannot prevail.
It is time that this be recognized as a bias, distorting how Washington and the American policy community see contemporary events. Yeats said on another occasion, ''Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,/It's with O'Leary in the grave.'' So is romantic internationalism.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.