Washington. -- What ever happened to the ''New World Order''? What accounts for the bold, principled response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the barely serious efforts to contain Serbian horrors in Bosnia? The differences deserve our attention.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States, its European associates and most other member states of the United Nations Security Council demanded immediate withdrawal of Iraq's forces and compensation for the victims of aggression. They issued an ultimatum with a deadline and a warning that all necessary force was authorized to secure compliance.
When, after the withdrawal from Kuwait, Saddam Hussein's policies caused Iraq's Kurds to flee for their lives, a mobilized Security Council proclaimed an unprecedented ''right to interfere.'' The U.S. and its associates used force as necessary to deliver food and medicine to Kurdish refugees huddled on the borders of Turkey and Iran. When Saddam Hussein refused U.N. inspectors access to information and premises involved in the production of weapons of mass destruction, a clear ultimatum elicited Iraqi compliance. When the Security Council promulgated a no-fly zone to prevent annihilation of Iraq's Shiite population, the U.S. made immediate, credible preparations to ensure its enforcement.
Even though Saddam Hussein is still in power and continues his deception and violence whenever he sees the opportunity, this was the most successful case ever of a collective response mounted through the United Nations.
Governments were justifiably pleased with the success of their policies. George Bush and other leaders associated with Desert Storm encouraged the world to believe that they had dealt not only with Iraq, but had laid the foundations of a ''New World Order.''
Such hopes were soon disappointed. The international response Serbia's bloody assault against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is a case study in collective inaction and ineffectiveness.
When Serbia launched a violent attack on a nearly independent Croatia, the Security Council adopted a posture of careful neutrality. Its resolution spoke not of aggression, but of ''the fighting in Yugoslavia.'' This habit persisted even after Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were recognized as sovereign states and were admitted to the U.N. Although the Security Council focused again and again on the various aspects of war, violence and ''ethnic cleansing,'' it has never issued an ultimatum nor threatened action to enforce a resolution to stop Serbian aggression against non-Serbs.
Instead, the Security Council has taken a series of ineffective actions. It has imposed an arms embargo whose principal effect has been to deprive Bosnia's Muslims of weapons needed for self-defense. It has sent peace makers to negotiate cease-fires which were violated as soon as they were negotiated. It has authorized humanitarian assistance for Bosnians under siege and shelling, only to have its delivery blocked. It has demanded access to prison camps, and has taken no action when that access is selectively granted and denied. It has imposed a no-fly zone without a provision for its enforcement.
It has dispatched U.N. officials to assist more than 2 million refugees created by this violence, but it has taken care not to offer a viable alternative to the dangerous circumstances in which Bosnians under attack find themselves.
In its defense, the United Nations has imposed trade sanctions and stiffened them. It has passed a resolution authorizing
investigation of atrocities for a possible ''war crimes'' action. The General Assembly declared the Yugoslav seat vacant. But no action was taken in the Security Council to expel the Serbian-Montenegrin pretenders to that seat. Meanwhile, the murder and mayhem and ''ethnic cleansing'' have continued.
The failure of the U.S. or European countries to take effective action through the U.N., the European Community or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe has prompted some interesting discussion in both Europe and the United States.
In France, opponents of the Maastricht treaty charged that EC membership paralyzed the French capacity for action. They may be right. Multilateral action requires the consensus of multiple governments. Such consensus develops only when there is great clarity, determination and leadership.
On Bosnia, the necessary consensus has been lacking within countries as well as among them. In America, Gen. Colin Powell has argued publicly that the U.S. has ''no clear military goals in Bosnia.'' He added, ''the solution must ultimately be a political one.''
He is, of course, correct. But war is politics by other means. And aggression is a military as well as a political problem -- one which unfortunately requires a military solution more often than not.
The acting secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleberger, has repeatedly and publicly expressed misgivings about military action in what was Yugoslavia.