WASHINGTON — Washington.--When the heads of state of the NATO governments -- meeting in Brussels -- announced that they had decided to use NATO's air power to lift the sieges in Bosnia, I believed them. Their appearance of decisiveness was strengthened in my eyes by the insistence of President Clinton that they must not make the decision unless they intended to implement it.
My confidence was only momentarily shaken by Mr. Clinton's comment that the decision would require ratification by the North Atlantic Council and the U.N. Security Council. After all, the very men assembled in Brussels were also heads of state of the governments represented in the North Atlantic Council, and the Security Council long ago authorized air strikes, if necessary, to deliver humanitarian assistance to Bosnian civilian populations under siege. President Clinton's caveat was only a formality, I supposed.
Soon it became clear that most of the heads of state who decided that NATO should use air power in Bosnia did not expect that air strikes would actually take place as a consequence of their decision.
Investing time and credibility in making decisions that are not decisions seems to be a characteristic of the contemporary style pTC of international affairs. It is a style that features more activity than action and confuses reaching an agreement with solving a problem. The pretense that significant action has been taken when nothing significant has transpired was also a characteristic of Bill Clinton's first European trip as President.
The French President Francois Mitterrand, too, participated actively in what has become an international game of hot potato in which decisions are passed among multinational bodies -- from the European Community to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe or NATO and finally to the United Nations and back again.
This multilateral polka is not the only option for seeming to act without actually doing so. Programs without content and decisions without consequences have the same effect. We do not know yet if the Partners for Peace will turn out to be only a slogan or a meaningful military relationship. If the lat- ter, a sustained program of joint activities must follow the rhetoric of concern dispensed by President Clinton on his trip.
The agreement on Ukraine's nuclear weapons can also easily come to naught --because the Ukrainian president has the will but not the authority to implement it, or because the Ukrainian parliament has the authority but not the will.
The high point of Mr. Clinton's trip was a media event in Russia where the American president was attractive, articulate and well-informed. I for one welcomed his pronouncement that Russia will be (or perhaps already has been) invited to make the Group of 7 the Group of 8. Clinton is a sensitive and skillful practitioner of symbolic politics. Russian membership in the G7 is an important symbol of respect and inclusiveness.
But air strikes threatened and never carried out are worse than useless. They make paper airplanes of NATO's superb flying forces. American pilots are already fully prepared to carry out air strikes threatened in Brussels. Are they authorized to do so? Do they require a further authorization from the U.N. secretary general?
The final decision on air strikes will be made by Messrs. Clinton and Mitterrand, the two presidents most deeply involved in the issue. If there are no air strikes to deliver the miserable inhabitants of Sarajevo, Tuzla and Srebrnica from their tormentors, it will be because they have not desired to do so. The buck stops there.
Often there are real consequences of a politics of appearances. In Brussels there was an appearance of decision. On Partners for Peace there was an apparent program. Concerning the Ukraine there was an apparent agreement. In Moscow there was a great performance. Making a real decision and overseeing its implementation by real planes could rescue Bill Clinton and NATO from the interblocking politics that have so far prevented action on genocide in Bosnia.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.