When Milosevic fell in the same week that fighting broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, was this merely a matter of the coincidence of bad news and good news that always marks human affairs? What are we to make of this arrival of peace in one place and loss of it in another? The difference between the good and the bad news is not as great as it might seem, and not only because the problems are far from over in the Balkans or because something may be patched up in the Middle East. In the one case, flawed policy just barely achieved a kind of success, and, in the other, flawed policy has led to a tragic failure. The flaws, too, were of a similar order - policy driven by domestic pressures, policy that paid too little attention to the facts on the ground, and policy too wary of difficulties and costs.
A decade that began in an atmosphere of great confidence in many countries and across the political spectrum has ended with a sharp reminder of limits and an unmistakable loss of momentum. Remember that good was supposed to build on good. A peace in one place would lead to a peace in another, a successful intervention in one region could be a model for others elsewhere, and the gradual accretion of new international institutions would eventually change the framework in which all societies made their decisions. The hope was for synergy. Failures certainly littered the decade - the Rwandas and Srebrenicas, the downward plunge of the Russian economy, the Asian economic crash, and all the rest of it - but for those keeping score it was possible to feel that the successes were the precedents rather than the other way round.
The change now may be a diminishing of that sense that a broad improvement is under way. Consider how attitudes to "people power" have shifted. In Serbia and now in the Ivory Coast the removal of a leader who had lost, or never enjoyed, legitimacy may be welcomed - but "people power" is not seen as the magic potion that it once seemed to be. Indeed, in the Philippines, one of people power's most striking successes, we may be coming round for a second dose, and, if so, it will be with a certain weariness.
The sense of foreboding arises at this moment in part because this decade was Bill Clinton's decade and in part because his presidency is finishing with such a defeat in the Middle East. Clinton's departure will mark the end, if not of an era, at least of a time when the United States had extraordinary opportunities which are unlikely to reoccur. Clinton was a world leader in a way in which neither George Bush or Al Gore can be in the future. This was because America had a capital of influence and power when he took over which is now much drawn down. Much of the world was awed, ready to listen, and, up to a point, ready to be persuaded.
But America under Clinton did not use its influence to the full or to the best effect, whether in the Far East, south Asia, Russia, or in the Balkans. Above all, in the Middle East it was by turns serious and timorous in its campaign to isolate and bring down Saddam Hussein and it was slow and often partial in its mediation between Israelis and Palestinians. In the dismal towns of the West Bank and Gaza the bitterness which led to the collapse of the peace process was meanwhile brewing. The daily bombing of Iraq, now an activity entirely divorced from any coherent strategy for dealing with that country, is one index of America's failure. The savage daily encounters between Israeli and Palestinian young men, boys who grew up during these Clinton years, is another. Perhaps American power to change the Middle East was not as great as it seemed. But Clinton was not the man to test it to the limit. His successor will find it hard indeed to mend matters and may not seriously try.
If these were the years in which America failed to live up to its potential, that was also true of Europe, which notoriously mishandled the crisis in former Yugoslavia. But America and Europe together did, in the end, adopt policies which halted the Serbian campaign in Bosnia and later forced a withdrawal from Kosovo, which in turn contributed to Milosevic's fall. A new report by an independent international commission charts how Kosovo was allowed to fester to the point where Serbian suppression of rebellion provoked Nato intervention. It allows that this intervention was "illegal but legitimate". In its broader conclusions, it states in a measured way the need for early engagement in the kind of situations which could produce violations of human rights on a scale that may later give grounds for a humanitarian military intervention. If, as a last resort, such intervention becomes necessary, it proposes "a principled framework" for it, which it would like the United Nations to take up in some way. These are of course sound conclusions, to which a UN secretary general such as Kofi Annan will be sympathetic and some of which he has already anticipated in other reports he has commissioned.
What is striking about the Kosovo report, like those others, for all their criticism of the behaviour of governments and international organisations, is their essential optimism. They look to a managed world, in which most disasters are headed off by preventative action, and others are dealt with, when they have to be, by the judicious use of force. But whether the US after Clinton, or a muddled European Union, uncertain of its own course and far from agreed on external policies, are in a position to learn the lessons laid out is another question. In any case, the potentially grave regional crises which the world could face, such as a further breakdown in the Middle East, a confrontation between nuclear armed India and Pakistan over Kashmir, or a clash between China and Taiwan, are of an order in which humanitarian expeditions are irrelevant. It is only in the context of the containment of these larger conflicts that these lesser, internal problems may be amenable to solution.
One lesson that has been understood is that such quarrels are more obdurate than is sometimes lightly assumed. Europe's less than inspired efforts to deal with its Balkan problem were, with American help, eventually successful, but only just. They absorbed the European Union's energies and distracted it from other tasks. The United States took especial responsibility - to the point of largely excluding other outside powers - for the Middle East and has nevertheless brought it to the present pass. The past 10 years should have been a time when the US and Europe, the two wealthiest and most developed regions, took a strong grip on affairs. Instead they have come perilously close to losing it.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000