How quickly diplomats and international lawyers are misled ++ by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's military leader (and by Ayatollah Khomeini and the Argentine generals and Saddam Hussein). Mr. Milosevic ''can utter the most egregious falsehoods with the appearance of the utmost sincerity,'' a senior European diplomat remarked.
It is difficult for the civilized leaders of civilized governments to believe that the man across the negotiating table is about to bomb civilians, wipe out families and towns and break solemn agreements. It is difficult to conceive that the smiling leader who is offering assurances of his peaceful intentions is a political psychopath who will respond only to force.
As peace talks lead to cease-fires and breakdowns and more talks and cease-fires and breakdowns, the reality emerges. Now, at last, Western diplomats think they understand Mr. Milosevic's violent behavior. Thus, to protest, the European Community has withdrawn its military monitors and the United States has withdrawn its ambassador, to wait him out in a safer place.
As mortar and tank shells bombard neighborhoods of Sarajevo and snipers pick off anyone in sight, Europeans and Americans announce they will punish Mr. Milosevic. They will isolate his new Yugoslav state. They will impose economic sanctions. They will deny the new state membership in all international bodies.
And, from a safe distance, they will wait while the sanctions do their work. Meanwhile, Mr. Milosevic's troops slaughter Slavic Muslims, more than a thousand of whom have already perished in the Serbian effort to seize Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The American response is no more heroic -- or helpful to the victims of Serbian violence -- than that of the European Community. The State Department announced that, in addition to recalling the ambassador, the U.S. will join in diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions.
''But we are not about to get out in front of the Europeans. They must define the distance and set the pace for the international community in dealing with Yugoslavia,'' a high-level State Department official commented to me last week while requesting anonymity.
His heroic lines could as easily have been uttered when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia or when Adolf Hitler marched into the Rhineland.
''There's no percentage in injecting yourself in the crossfire between people intent on killing each other and yelling 'Stop' when they're not listening. We had to fall back on the idea that there wasn't much we or anyone could do until they got the bloodlust out of their system and became more willing to listen to reason,'' he said.
How readily the will of the international community gives way before violence. How flimsy the structures of conflict resolution and peacekeeping turn out to be. How limited the Western commitment to collective security is when confronted with guns and determination -- even when slaughter and civil war occur in the heart of Europe, in the very city where World War I was born.
Let us not speak, then, of collective security except as a dream. Collective security depends on having force and will available when mediation and diplomacy fail. Without the option of force to deal with force, there is no collective security. Neither diplomacy nor economic sanctions are an adequate shield against tanks and mortars.
There is anarchy today in Yugoslavia. There is timidity in Brussels and Washington. So let us not speak yet of a new world order. It remains to be built.
Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.