Nations Act, Not the 'International Community'

February 10, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.-- The tragedy of Bosnia has demonstrated the bankruptcy of the idea of collective international responsibility and action. The belief that it is up to ''the international community'' to do something in Yugoslavia has proved the decisive obstacle to anything serious being done.

Only nations act. That is what has been demonstrated. Serbia, in 1991 a nation but not yet a state, launched this war. The Croatian nation, which had contributed to provoking the war, retaliated against the Serbs. Subsequently a Bosnian nation, which before did not really exist, was created by the war and now has begun to impose its will upon events, to the dismay of Serbs and Croatians.

The international community, in all of its guises -- U.N., European Union, CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe), NATO -- has proved incapable of an effective response because it is internally divided. There is no international community with a coherent common view of Yugoslavia or a capacity for common action.

The idea that there is such a community derives from the conviction that there ought to be one. The lethal rivalries of nationalism and national self-aggrandizement during the last two centuries have inspired two attempts to establish international quasi-governments, or agencies of international order: the League of Nations and the United Nations.

Both were founded on the false notion that a parliament of the world's governments represents the will of the world's peoples. Those peoples have themselves been sentimentally thought to possess common interests that outweigh their national differences, and to be fundamentally disposed -- as peoples, not nations -- toward peace and altruism. Evidence to the contrary, as in Yugoslavia, has generally tended to be disregarded.

The United Nations, in fact, includes only a limited number of democratic nations, and these are only erratically devoted to justice and a better life for others than themselves. The U.N.'s membership otherwise is composed of self-aggrandizing authoritarian governments of various hues, or frankly despotic ones.

Nations usually concern themselves with the fortunes of others only when this suits their own interests. There are exceptions, but not many. Altruism exists but is rarely disinterested. The international interventions of the United States government, from the First World War to the Persian Gulf War, have invariably been produced by a theory or ideological conviction that American interests ultimately were implicated.

The five permanent members of the Security Council -- only three of them confirmed democracies -- decide what the U.N. does. This, in practice, has meant that in the absence of the Soviet veto the U.N. has mostly done what the United States has wanted, from the intervention in Korea in 1950 to the intervention in Iraq, and non-intervention in Yugoslavia, during 1991.

Only nations are responsible actors. Even when they act collectively it is allied action, not community action. There is a fundamental difference. Nations are responsible. Communities are not. Alliances add up to more than their individual members because all have agreed on what to do. Communities add up to less, because their members do not necessarily agree, yet everyone has had to be brought along for the community to act at all.

The 12 countries of the European Union have been unable to agree on a common program of action and risk with respect to Yugoslavia, because they have never reached a common agreement on how their interests are at stake. Even the European demand that Sarajevo's siege be lifted, issued after Monday's foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, had to be equivocal in order to reconcile the new belligerence of France and Belgium with Greece's reluctance to endorse any ultimatum to the Serbs. The European 12, plus the United States, simply do not see the Yugoslav issues in the same way. Hence they have been incapable of collective action.

The countries of the European Union have set for themselves the goal of a common foreign policy. The fundamental lack of logic of this has once again been demonstrated in the Yugoslav crisis. A European Union in economic and social matters is possible because its members have common economic and social interests, as well as a consciousness of themselves as a historical and cultural community.

But the members of the European Union do not have a common view of their foreign-policy interests, or any geopolitical conception of a world role for Europe. There is a common interest in collective security against external aggression, an interest in peace, a concern to defend the values of Western political civilization. That does not add up to a European foreign policy.

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