NATO'S airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs - the only combat missions that the United States-led alliance has undertaken in its 46-year history - may be remembered less as the catalyst for a settlement in Bosnia than as the opening round of a new cold war.
Since last year, Moscow has repeatedly raised restrained but serious objections to NATO's military intervention in Bosnia and to the alliance's plans for expansion into East Central Europe - objections that Washington has blithely dismissed.
Finally, in a series of declarations, Russian President Boris Yeltsin dropped his measured language to issue his sternest warning yet. Pointing to the alliance's air attacks as evidence, he declared that Russia has much to fear from a NATO with an expanded reach. NATO's current operations and its future intentions, he said, will lead to "a return to two armed camps that are at war with one another." The US, however, still gives no indication that it appreciates the gravity of its actions and seems unlikely to alter the dangerous direction of its policy toward areas within Moscow's historical area of interest.
Rather, most American observers claim that Yeltsin's objections are meant merely to forestall criticism by Russia's extreme nationalists. These arguments assume that NATO military intervention troubles only "extremist" Russians. But Washington should have no illusions: Opposition to NATO's attacks and plans for expansion is probably the one major foreign policy issue on which virtually the entire Russian political class is united. Even devoted liberals and partisans of good relations with the West, such as legislator Alexei Arbatov, fear their old superpower nemesis is encroaching on their regional interests and bullying Russia by threatening its friends.
NATO, after all, was supposedly designed as a defensive alliance to repel a military attack on its member states. But in Bosnia, it has radically extended its writ by intervening within a state unconnected to the alliance. Furthermore, from Moscow's perspective, the US, by pushing to bring its powerful military alliance to Russia's borders, has reneged on a bargain it struck with Russia at the end of the cold war. Moscow agreed to quit Eastern Europe and to allow German reunification - a development that, given the history of German-Russian relations in the 20th century, Russia regarded with trepidation. Also, Moscow acceded to the continued existence of an alliance that had been hostile to it and even agreed to the inclusion of the newly reunified Germany in that alliance. In return, Russia received assurances from the US and its allies that they would not take advantage of this situation to tip the geopolitical balance, thus potentially threatening Moscow's security.
NATO's bombing in Bosnia, an area in which the alliance's security is not threatened, makes Russians understandably worry that an American-led NATO with expanded geographical responsibilities will present Russia with an intimidating presence, permitting it little choice but to go along with the alliance's preferences.
US policymakers, however, myopically assume that if the US regards NATO's actions as benign attempts to promote stability in Eastern and Southern Europe, Moscow has an obligation to view matters the same way. Any deviation from that perspective is to Washington evidence of malicious designs and a truculent attitude.
Moreover, NATO expansion, as its advocates acknowledge, is a means to preserve and consolidate America's military and political leadership in Europe. But Russia, a European power, must be a significant player in the continent's international politics and must not be excluded from the councils of Europe, as will be inevitable if the US-led NATO becomes the dominant security organization on the continent.
Yeltsin insisted that in the post-cold-war era Europe's security not be tied to cold-war institutions but to broader organizations, such as the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, in which Russia plays an important, though not dominant, role. Why, Yeltsin asked, must Europe's security remain the responsibility of an organization run by a superpower across the Atlantic? Why, that is, does the US continue to insist that it must regulate - and dominate - international politics on the European continent?
Americans must pursue their foreign policy with their eyes open. We can take up the burden of "world leadership" that is apparently thrust upon us. We can seek to exorcise anarchy in other lands. But we should know that what to the US appears to be, or is portrayed as, merely the thwarting of aggression may be interpreted quite differently by some of the parties to the conflicts that we seek to influence or resolve. To those parties, attempts to impose order may well be regarded as crude intrusions in their regional affairs, and they will react accordingly. If America is heedless of Russia's interests and suspicions, it is we, not the Russians, who may be responsible for a new cold war.