BY SARAH BENTON LONDON — The consequences of the war in Kosovo are almost unimaginable. But whatever they turn out to be, one is already clear: the rough fashioning of the 19 members of NATO into a cohesive fighting force.

This, at least, postpones some pressing questions: Can the European Union create an independent fighting force of its own? Can the countries of the EU collaborate on weapons procurement and particularly on the intelligence systems which will be at their center? Will the United States withdraw wholly from its military-strategic engagement in Europe? Will Russia and its wobbly ruble and unstable, leaky nuclear power, be drawn into the confines of the European political economy? In today’s world, let alone tomorrow’s, can any modern state mobilize and conduct a military action entirely on its own?

For the time being, the members of NATO are hanging together. The world-shaping questions this military alliance creates for the next millennium can be postponed, for the time being. But the demand for a new set of ethical rules governing international relations has crept up to become the most urgent of all.

In the modern world, the sacred heart of international relations has been the inviolability of a sovereign nation. This maxim replaced the American mantra of “drawing a line” against the Soviet empire. The inviolability of sovereign states was a maxim that the left as well as the right could accept, faute de mieux. After all, if a nation’s sovereignty can be violated, who is to decide when and how an outside force can intervene?

But against that maxim the modern, post-Cold War world has thrown up two equally powerful imperatives: the minor relevance of national boundaries when faced with trade and technological communications and humanitarian aid. In a world of television and satellite communication, national borders are violated every second of the day. And there is no boundary to our responsibility as human beings as we sit in our front rooms and watch starvation, pillage and genocide. It seems more responsible to demand that something be done to remove this suffering from the face of the world than to opt for ignorance and turn off the TV set.

So today, in Britain, support for intervention in Yugoslavia comes equally, if not more strongly, from the left as it does from the right. The strongest criticism of NATO policy is not that it should have nothing to do with events inside Yugoslavia; it is that outside forces should have intervened sooner and more strongly.

The implications of this are awesome. There have been many critical voices inside the NATO countries, and one of the loudest voices says: “If Kosovo, why not Rwanda? If the Persian Gulf, why not Cyprus or Chechnya?” Adding to this dismay are the voices saying, “If Gen. Pinochet of Chile can be extradited from Britain to Spain to stand trial for his crimes of torture, why can Queen Elizabeth not be extradited for the crimes carried out by her troops against insurgents in Malaya or Kenya?” Even those who support attacking Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and extraditing Pinochet are perturbed and have no easy answer for this new world order, where neither sovereigns nor sovereign states are inviolable.

This war against Serbian aggrandizement would not be taking place if social democratic governments were not in power in the majority of NATO members’ states. This is not because leftists are hungrier for war than conservatives. It is because rightwing governments could never have secured popular consent for a military onslaught dominated by U.S. military technology and personnel.

Opposition to the war in Britain is significant, but not coherent. The strongest impulse to oppose comes not from any particular view about the Serbs; it stems directly from hostility to U.S. power. It reflects an unshifting position: The United States only ever uses its military power for the wrong (i.e., selfish, oppressive and capitalist) purposes. Ergo, this action must be opposed and all those governments who support it are condemned as puppets of U.S. militarism.

Although this position has been developed since the 1950s by my postwar generation, the chaos in the Balkans has also presented this generation with its first test of international responsibility. Up until now, almost every international question has come in one of two categories: solidarity with the oppressed or opposition to imperialism. And the wars between 1920 and 1990 could all be fitted (sometimes rather roughly) into one or other of those categories.

But since the end of the Cold War, the ferment in the Balkans has evaded this categorization. For a generation that has been used to taking up its positions according to a simple ideological schema of capitalist and imperialist oppression vs. popular self-defense and liberation, the activities of Milosevic simply didn’t fit.

What muddled it even more was the history that the British left thought Milosevic trailed: leader of a socialist party, a Serb and inheritor of the heroic Serb Chetnik role performed by the antifascist partisans in World War II. No wonder the Serbs always refer to today’s Croats as Ustashe fascists. That is their delusion, but it is certainly one that confused opinion in Britain for a long time.

This war has also confounded the older and simpler categories of capitalist imperialist vs. oppressed people by forcing us to recognize that the worst oppressors may be people’s own governments (as in Yugoslavia and Chile) or even (as in Rwanda and Bosnia) their next-door neighbors.

It is likely that these moral questions and anxieties will, at first, be settled by moral certainties and clarifications. A reality is taking place on the ground, and that is an old reality: Military effort is doing more to define the EU as a coherent force than any number of treaties or propaganda for the euro. In other words, realpolitik will deem that, within Europe at least, the day of the inviolable nation state is definitively over.

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