WASHINGTON — There is a tantalizing resemblance beetween the worlds of 1992 and 1918. The great ''isms'' of the century seem to have left few traces in our consciousness. The Western world is again preoccupied, as in 1918, with democracy, nationality and self-determination. (''I am proud to be an Eritrean,'' the bumper sticker on a car at a Washington intersection recently proclaimed.)
They all go together. Democracy, nationality and self-determination reinforce one another nicely. But hard experience demonstrates that all are vulnerable to violent movements and violent men like Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. For this reason, many governments have been trying harder to control aggression through international cooperation within multilateral frameworks. But nothing is going as hoped.
So now questions are being raised about collective security. Is it an unachievable dream? Can we succeed now where earnest men failed after World War I?
The question is posed today because of the inept international efforts to deal with conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cambodia. Nothing has worked out yet, and the villains seem to be winning.
The Iraqis claim they won a ''brilliant victory'' in their negotiations with United Nations inspectors regarding access to buildings and documents. The Serbian government continues its campaign of ''ethnic purification'' through the siege and shelling of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge refuses to turn in its weapons or permit U.N. access to areas under its control.
In each case, an aggressor government or would-be government has refused to carry out an agreement to which it had acquiesced earlier. In each case, a settlement in which the U.N. is prominently involved is on the verge of collapsing. In each case, it has become clear that the government or would-be government acquiesced in peace negotiations and agreements in order to achieve short-range military advantages, and violated the agreements when greater advantage could be gained by non-compliance.
Saddam Hussein agreed to a cease-fire to save his forces from imminent destruction. He refused to comply with its provisions once he believed he had more to gain by non-compliance. Mr. Milosevic has used the negotiation of cease-fire as a tactic to delay international action in the U.N. Security Council and in Bosnia-Herzegovina while his forces have continued to win control of more territory and drive out the non-Serbian population.
The Khmer Rouge has used a painstakingly negotiated international agreement for disarmament, resettlement and elections as an opportunity for its troops to re-enter Phnom Penh and other areas of Cambodia from which they had been driven by force.
Karl von Clausewitz and Thomas Hobbes would not have been surprised to see peace negotiations and solemn covenants used as tactics to buy short-range advantages for cynical combatants. But modern peace-makers seem not to have expected that this would happen. U.N. spokesmen speak as if Mr. Hussein, Pol Pot and Mr. Milosevic rather suddenly developed a will to peace and could be counted on to honor their commitments -- next time. They talk as if they did not know the consequences of such delays are irreversible.
Rolf Ekeus, the U.N. commission's leader in Baghdad, spoke as if he did not understand that the long stand-off in front of the Department of Agriculture gave Mr. Hussein's government ample time to dispose of information on its chemical and nuclear-weapons programs.
''We have not given up the possibility of finding something,'' he said cheerily on leaving the building, as if there were still a possibility of meaningful inspection.
Nor can the thousands of people killed and homes destroyed in (( Bosnia-Herzegovina be restored by a belated agreement.
And all the while, U.N. peace-keepers in Cambodia proceed with implementation of the peace plan as if they do not understand that the Khmer Rouge is steadily improving its position under U.N. auspices.
Clearly, this is not working. But what can be done?
The elaborate architecture for collective security in Europe -- the U.N., the European Community, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, NATO, the Western European Union -- has proved ineffective in the face of aggression.
Is the hope of controlling aggression unrealistic? Is it just a matter of time until another Hitler or another Lenin rises in the ashes of communism? Until Saddam Hussein renews his war against the world?
The failure is not in the goal, but in its pursuit. We have made unnecessary mistakes. The decision to leave Mr. Hussein in power was a terrible mistake -- and not just George Bush's error, but that of all those coalition leaders who, like Mr. Bush, worried more about creating a vacuum of power or fragmenting Iraq than about the future harm Mr. Hussein would do.