In the last decades of the twentieth century, military interventions took a different form and were justified in different ways. Peace broke out among the major powers of Europe that had waged war against each other in the past so many times, for reasons that had little to do with collective action against aggression. The Cold War standoff between two great blocs that characterized the decades after 1945 also ended with the collapse of the Soviet communist side in the late 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. In other parts of the world, and indeed in southeastern Europe, the problem was less about armed aggression across borders than about upholding order within collapsing states. In her New and Old Wars (1999), Mary Kaldor described the new kind of violence as a "mixture of war, organized crime, and massive violations of human rights." Ethnic feuds that crossed boundaries, civil wars, guerrilla movements, and private armies appeared in states that were breaking up or, as in much of Africa, not clearly defined. For example, guerrilla warfare in Colombia, anarchy in Bosnia, and ethnic massacres in Burundi did not involve repelling an invasion of one nation by another. It was even hard to find an "aggressor": though blame might be placed on Serb wickedness in Bosnia and Kosovo, or on the Hutus of Rwanda and Burundi for unleashing the latest round of genocide in 1994, in fact these were ancient feuds in which both sides had been guilty many times. This did not prevent brutal punishment of the Serbs for committing savagery in Kosovo, but this NATO action, not approved by the UN Security Council, was hardly a "collective security" success, leaving as it did the problem in Kosovo, as in Bosnia, still unresolved. When the United States and NATO decided in 1999 to condemn and then bomb Serbia for its atrocious actions in Kosovo, they chose a shocking episode of violence and genocide ("ethnic cleansing") that did not at all fit the collective security model, for here was no case of one nation assaulting another: Kosovo, like Bosnia, was a part of the Yugoslav state that Serbia headed. This was a civil war resulting from the dissolution of the Yugoslavia created in 1919.
Huge losses of life, dwarfing even those of the two great European or World Wars of the first half of the twentieth century, occurred in these new wars outside the Western world or on its fringes. A true holocaust took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, barely noticed at the time, conducted by a regime that Western governments recognized and evidently approved of. No one knows quite how many millions were slain, not by nuclear bombs or even guns but hacked to pieces by knives. In Algeria, a ferocious internal war took an estimated 100,000 lives, in massacres first by terrorist rebels and then by government death squads.
There were literally millions of killings in Rwanda and Burundi. So many other instances of deadly internal conflict throughout the world came into view that the public mind became saturated with them. They were usually in places formerly remote, but now very much a part of the international society, such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, many parts of Africa from Angola and Sierra Leone to the Sudan, and so on. But they also appeared in southeastern Europe.
"Security" was not a factor in the new interventionism. Nobody thought of Serbia, much less Sierra Leone, as a threat to the security of the United States or Great Britain or the NATO powers, or indeed to anybody to any serious degree except themselves. In British Prime Minister Tony Blair's words, this was "a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated," an internationalism defined by intervention to prevent or punish "massive violation of human rights" or "crimes against humanity," committed usually by a government against its own people, or by one segment of its people against another. In the case of Bosnia, the motive for intervention was partly to limit and punish ethnic massacres, partly just to end the chaos and confusion of a region left stranded by the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
The trouble with this doctrine was that its application was selective to the point of whimsy, and thus subject to the criticism of being hypocritical, even cynical. Russia did things in Chechnya similar to what Serbia did in Kosovo, but there was no thought of intervention, and only the mildest of protests, because Russia was, well, Russia, a great power still and a nuclear one. There were worse massacres in several places in Africa but no intervention. "Why do British troops help to bring peace to Bosnia and Kosovo but not to Angola and Sudan?" asked Douglas Hurd. The other problem was that where such humanitarian interventions did take place, they did little good and had to be prolonged into something like permanent occupations. (NATO and international forces entered Bosnia in 1996 promising to stay only a year; five years later they were still there with the situation almost as bad as before. Only the continued presence of UN forces prevented more bloodbaths; no legal system was in effect, and murder and gangsterism were prevalent. The punitive bombing of Belgrade left the economy not only of Serbia but also of much of the adjoining region a shambles.) British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook argued that a few such interventions might "deter future perpetrators of crimes against humanity," but this seemed to the highest degree improbable.
The Soviet Union's massive invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and 1980 elicited from the United States only the response of a boycott of the Olympic Games being held in Moscow, though subsequently much aid was given to the Afghan resistance. But in 1991, Iraq's attempt to seize its small neighbor Kuwait resulted in the Persian Gulf War, which repelled this invasion. Here was a classic case of aggression. The United Nations approved the response, which was overwhelmingly an American military action, although other NATO powers contributed. The Soviet Union was then in the process of dissolution, and its total disarray precluded any Russian veto. But many Middle Eastern countries remained aloof or disapproved, and the outcome was not very satisfactory. While Iraqi forces were defeated and expelled from Kuwait, the Iraqi regime that had launched the attack remained in power and the issue of how to handle Saddam Hussein became a headache and a source of divisions within the West for the next ten years.