World in ferment After the Cold War: Problems abound, less gargantuan but more confusing than before.

1996: A

January 03, 1996

NO SOVIET MENACE threatens in 1996. True, China is arming at a worrisome rate and its frail rulers see the West as hostile, but China is not yet the military power the Soviet Union once was. Nothing so catastrophic threatens our world in 1996 as it did in 1956, 1966, 1976 and 1986.

Cheering as that should be, the end of the Cold War has brought no relief from anxiety. The dangers are smaller, yet harder to define and categorize. The elegant simplicity of the Cold War is gone. As a framework for understanding, it has not been replaced.

Butchery revived as a political expedient this decade, with national rivalries in the former Yugoslavia and ethnic hatred in Rwanda pursued in methodical slaughter on a scale previously associated with such evil dictators as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Pol Pot.

To intervene or not? Pretending not to notice encourages the precedent. Going in to stop it risks American life in problems not of America's making, and perhaps not in America's power to resolve.

In the series of interventions begun during the Bush administration -- Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti (none popular with the public) -- the questions become where does it end and will a more urgent danger emerge while forces are pinned down in the Adriatic?

Interdependence is increasingly a fact while isolationist nostalgia grows. Just after the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico, the Mexican economy and polity showed fissures that American planners had chosen not to notice. Whether Japan is considered capitalist ally or commercial rival, its huge banks show the weaknesses of Maryland's savings and loan industry a decade earlier. This is for Japan to deal with, and it is doing so, but a great bank failure there could send shock waves from Appalachia to the Eastern Shore. Isolationism is not an option.

This by no means exhausts the list of things that could go wrong, but the U.S. has had successes, too. Lately: Haiti, Bosnia, the Middle East -- so far. Things can go right as well as wrong. It is a confusing world, but with potential for good as well as for evil, for success as for failure, for peace as for war, and that should never be forgotten.

If there was one historic concept that took place in the year just past, it was the emergence of NATO (with Russia's grudging and far-from-final acquiesence) as the peace-enforcement mechanism the United Nations never was. The stage was the Balkans, previously somewhat out of NATO's range. But if the Bosnia experiment turns out right, the U.S.-led alliance could go farther afield to deal with future crises.

Having been schooled over four decades to accept collective action under the NATO banner, the American public is currently a lot more ready to put its military at risk through that organization than through a U.N. Security Council subject to Russian or Chinese veto and the Third World pressures welling up from the U.N. General Assembly.

NATO is no panacea; nothing is. There are limits to its reach, from within and without. But if it can continue to represent the interests of North America and Western Europe, it may be a sometime surrogate for the Security Council as well as a counterweight to the isolationism that remains a central element on the U.S. political scene.

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