WASHINGTON — It is, frankly, a relief. The wretched war in Bosnia has answered the question nagging Europe since the end of the Cold War and the disruption of the 45 years of enforced stability it brought.
We Europeans were all nervously curious about the shape of geopolitical life after losing the adult supervision U.S. and Soviet armies brought in the Cold War. Now we know: It's just like the old days.
As the Balkans plunge deeper into tribal wars, we Europeans are back on familiar ground. The dangerously creative people who gave the world the novel and the concentration camp, the symphony and industrialized genocide, we Europeans are back on form as the most warlike, greedy and vicious folk on the face of the planet.
It was the Fourth Reich that got us into this latest mess--with the German insistence on recognizing the independence of Croatia and Slovenia and forcing the breakup of the old Yugoslav state. There's a proud historic record. The first major diplomatic initiative of the newly united Germany has been to provoke the first European war since it plunged us into the last one.
Deep down, perhaps we even like it this way, playing the great old game of the balance of power--the Italians against the French, the Turks against the Russians, the Germans against the rest, the British hovering for advantage. We slip easily into the old roles, like so many retired actors who can never quite forget the lines of the Shakespearean classics.
The Balkan imbroglio is only the first of the wars of the Soviet succession, a miserable heir to all those other battles Europe suffered whenever a great empire fell. There were the wars of the Spanish and Hapsburg successions in the 18th Century; the wars of the Ottoman succession in the 19th Century, and now, in the Balkans and the Caucasus and in Moldova and Tajikistan, we see the jostlings for position after the Soviet implosion.
President Bill Clinton has just learned the first lesson of these European succession conflicts: Coalitions matter, and he is not doing a good job of holding his old Cold War coalition together. Britain, France and Germany were all unwilling to fall in behind U.S. leadership, not only because they are worried about the costs of military commitment but because they have long institutional memories of this kind of conflict.
Those memories bring traditional policies in their wake. For Britain and France, the long-term objective is to establish a stable, prosperous and (preferably) democratic Serbia as a force for equilibrium in a troubled region. That is the polite way to put it. In fact, worried by the prospect of a united Germany transmuting its economic power into political dominance, the British and French are looking for some useful balances and bulwarks against German ambition.
But Clinton is not seeing matters this way. He has an immediate problem of faltering political support at home as he is increasingly distracted from the domestic agenda he was elected on. The White House wants a tidy and quick solution in a region where the Europeans know in their ancestral bones that neatness and speedy resolutions are unlikely.
The point is that all the Europeans have their hidden agendas in the Balkan back yard. For Germany, the policy seems to be to bring Slovenia and Croatia, neighbors of Austria and former members of the Austro-Hungarian empire, back into a German sphere of economic influence. For Russia, the ancient instincts of Slavic solidarity call them to the succor of the Serbs. The moment Boris N. Yeltsin warned that a Russian veto at the United Nations would be used against U.S. military action was the moment Clinton's "lift and strike" plan died, and Europe's old rules came back into play.
This Russian rescue of the Serbs was what happened in 1914--the last time the city of Sarajevo hit the global headlines, and sucked the great empires of Slavs and Teutons into World War I. Worried that the Slavs were fighting out of their weight, the French and British joined in.
That was the greatest failure of European diplomacy, as the Continent's governments collectively forgot the warning of the man who put modern Germany together, the "Iron Chancellor," Otto von Bismarck. "The Balkans," Bismarck once observed, "are not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier."
At the time, in 1878, Bismarck was putting together the Congress of Berlin, an attempt to stop the endless wars in the Balkans between Czarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire. That peace conference awarded independence to Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro. The idea was that a group of small independent nations would keep the heavyweights apart. In the course of all this diplomatic haggling, Britain was awarded the island of Cyprus. Don't ask why. It's just the way the Europeans do these things.