Washington, 13 February 1998 (RFE/RL) --Moscow's reported efforts to convene a meeting of countries opposed to the use of force against Iraq do not represent a return to the patterns of the cold war.
Rather they reflect a new and potentially destabilizing characteristic of the post-cold war environment: No country can hope to put together a coalition of states for any purpose without some other country seeking to assemble other states to oppose it.
Such a leveling of power across the international system is likely to make it more difficult for any country to respond to threats to the international order and thus also make it more likely that such threats will emerge.
And because these coalitions will have shifting rather than stable memberships, the tasks of diplomacy in such an international system are certain to be far more difficult than those diplomats confronted during the Cold War or in its immediate aftermath.
On Thursday, Iran's official news agency IRNA reported that Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov had called for a meeting of countries opposed to any military strike against Baghdad.
Primakov's comments reportedly came in a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazi. And the news service said that Primakov hoped that such a meeting of such countries, including Iran, would help to promote a "political" solution.
This Russian proposal follows American and British efforts to assemble a coalition prepared to use force against Iraq unless Saddam Hussein agrees to provide United Nations inspectors unconditional access to sites suspected of housing weapons of mass destruction.
Because this pattern superficially recalls the events preceding the Desert Storm military action against Baghdad in 1991, many observers have suggested that the international system is moving back toward the bipolar world of the Cold War.
And such suggestions have gained additional currency because of reports -- denied by Moscow -- that Russia has supplied some of the technology to Iraq that have allowed Baghdad to manufacture the weapons of mass destruction at the core of the current crisis.
But a focus on these parallels obscures the ways in which the situation in 1991 and the situation now are fundamentally different. Even more it detracts attention from the ways in which this crisis reflects a change in the international order since the immediate aftermath of the cold war.
In 1991, the United States took the lead in organizing the international community to respond to what was naked Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. And despite Moscow's efforts at the time to oppose the use of force, the U.S. was able to assemble a broad coalition, including ultimately the Soviet Union as well.
With the collapse of the USSR, the United States became what many have called "the last remaining superpower." And many analysts and statesmen concluded that the U.S. could not only lead but in most cases even dictate outcomes.
Indeed, much of the harmony in the United Nations Security Council and international cooperation more generally reflected the initial willingness of many other states to defer to the American position, even when Washington avoided flaunting its special position. But as time passed, a world with only one dominant power turned out to be in some ways extremely problematic. Not only does the United States on occasion find it difficult to justify the maintenance of such a position, but other countries almost inevitably combine to oppose it.
Over the last few months, the United States and several of its allies, principally the United Kingdom, have pressed the international community to take a tough line on Saddam Hussein.
Working together, they have managed to put together a series of UN Security Council resolutions condemning Iraqi policy and demanding that Saddam Hussein open up his country.
But when the United States has tried to assemble a coalition of the kind that it had in 1991, it has run up against the fact that the nature of the challenge has changed.
In 1991, Baghdad was guilty of direct aggression. Now, it is guilty only of developing the capability for even greater aggression in the future.
Not surprisingly, many countries willing to stand up to the former are less willing to do so in the latter. The United States made it very clear at the time that no diplomatic solution was really possible; now, the search for such a solution is at the center of American policy.
And finally, the relative power positions of the players have changed. In 1991, the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolution; its interventions could be dismissed without much concern about the consequences. Indeed, Moscow had little choice but to fall in line.
As a result of these changes, many countries have more room for maneuver. Russia can seek to play up both concerns and dissatisfaction with American policy. And Iraq can play off the one group against the other.
This is not to say that the United States is not about to use force against Iraq. Rather it is to note that such use of force will take place in a very different environment and with potentially very different consequences.