The end of the millennium coincides with the moment when America's preeminence turned into predominance. Never before has a single country achieved a comparable ascendancy on a global basis and in so many fields of endeavor, from weaponry to entrepreneurship, from technology to popular culture.

The American ascendancy finds the United States acting as the bulwark of stability, mediating the key trouble spots and stationing troops around the world in peacekeeping missions that shade into near-permanent occupation duties. America dominates the international financial system by providing the most attractive haven for investment capital as well as the largest single pool of it.

Yet America's dominance has expressed itself less as a strategic design than as a series of seemingly unrelated decisions taken largely in response to specific crises and driven less by an overarching concept than by responses to domestic pressure groups. It came about in an administration preoccupied with domestic politics, the views of many of whose leading members were shaped by the protests of the early 1970s deprecating the role of power and seeking to replace it with "New Age" issues such as the environment and humanitarianism. Ironically -- and perhaps because of this ambivalence -- the Clinton administration has found itself drawn to a more frequent use of military power than any other postwar administration.

In the heyday of their preeminence, the Roman and British empires managed to transform their power into consensus and their governing principles into widely accepted norms. The United States has not yet achieved such a position. Its decisions shape international events to an unprecedented degree, but they have often appeared, especially to non-Americans, as either arbitrary or random responses to domestic constituencies. The problem goes beyond the biases of the Clinton administration. A society that has never known a permanent threat has been tempted by the end of the Cold War to impose its preferences unilaterally, without calculating the reactions of other peoples or the long-range costs of such a course. Vigorous and highly competitive media have compounded the tendency for foreign policy to become a subdivision of domestic politics.

One result has been to spur groupings of nations at least in part designed to reclaim a greater freedom for regional or national decisions. To some extent, this is an inevitable reaction to our dominant position. Yet while regional groupings may turn out to be the building blocks of a new international order, it makes a great deal of difference whether they seek their identity in cooperation with America or in opposition to it.

A dominant power unable to shape an international consensus fails in its principal potential contribution to world order. Administration diplomacy has been most successful where the challenge was most comparable to domestic politics, as in the Arab-Israeli negotiations. It has not managed to integrate either Russia or China into a workable international order. And it has failed to develop a strategy for the two most fundamental issues of global order: how to deal with rogue states and how to translate our moral values into an operational diplomacy.

Iraq has been a test case for America's policy toward rogue states. But we have been in retreat since December 1998. Then, British and American planes attacked Iraqi military installations in retaliation for flagrant Iraqi violations of the U.N. inspections system. Coupled with tough sanctions, the inspections system established at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 was supposed to eliminate Saddam Hussein's ability to pose a military threat to Iraq's neighbors and to stability in the gulf.

The Clinton administration codified this into a containment strategy designed, in the words of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to "put Saddam in a box." Implemented in the style of the "New Age" diplomacy, it alternated the rhetoric of conciliation with ineffective spasms of military confrontation.

For his part, Saddam Hussein moved tenaciously to wiggle out of international restraints. In 1996 he moved his army into the Kurdish autonomous zone, heretofore, at least tacitly, under U.S. protection. By 1998 he felt strong enough to challenge the U.N. inspections system frontally. Nevertheless, on Nov. 15, 1998, President Clinton still spoke of giving Saddam Hussein an opportunity "to become honorably reconciled by simply observing U.N. resolutions."

Predictably, Saddam Hussein accelerated the pursuit of the three objectives that have guided his policy: (1) to shift the world's attention away from Iraq's flouting of U.N. obligations and to the alleged harm being done by U.N. sanctions to Iraq's population; (2) to magnify and force into the open the latent disagreements among the permanent members of the Security Council over Iraq and (3) to involve the Secretary General of the United Nations as a mediator, thereby placing his grievances on the same level as his adversaries'.

President Clinton reacted to Saddam Hussein's defiance by ordering airstrikes. But the administration's ambivalence about the use of power for strategic or political objectives turned that enterprise into a cover for abandoning the inspections system rather than for enforcing it. Unrelated to any specific political demand, the bombing lasted but three nights, earning us opprobrium without political benefit.

Clearly, these events have left Saddam Hussein far closer to his objectives than the United States is to its own goals. The U.N. inspectors he evicted have not returned. And U.N. diplomacy has focused on the removal of sanctions, so that their end seems only a question of time.

As a result, the victory of the Gulf War is in danger of unraveling. None of the gulf states believes in the possibility of reconciliation with Iraq. The Islamic Republic of Iran watches amid its own domestic debate over the relative merits of moderation and intransigence. When Tehran's hard-line leaders see how a defeated neighbor succeeds in defying a multilateral coalition ostensibly headed by the United States, their incentive for moderation surely will diminish.

A political vacuum is emerging in which an ambivalent United States will be obliged -- without significant allies -- to defend the weak gulf states against the two strongest states in the region -- hardly an ideal example for deterring rogue states globally.

The strategic and political paralysis in dealing with the rogue challenge in the gulf has been overshadowed by the most dramatic use of NATO military power since World War II -- the 78-day bombing campaign over Kosovo. Nothing could show more clearly the emotional priorities of the Clinton administration than the fact that it devoted 78 days to destroying the infrastructure of Serbia, a country representing no strategic threat, and only three nights to overcoming Saddam Hussein's eviction of the U.N. inspections system, heretofore considered the key to stability in the vital gulf.

For weeks during and after the Kosovo crisis, both Washington and London trumpeted their humanitarian foreign policy as the progressive alternative to traditional diplomacy based on equilibrium. But life has been far more complicated. Multi-ethnicity in the Balkans has proved far more difficult than "progressive" exhortations to that effect. Ethnic cleansing by Serbs has been replaced by ethnic cleansing by Albanians -- under the eyes of NATO forces.

Nor has the Kosovo intervention solved the political problem that gave rise to it. NATO occupation of Kosovo is based on a U.N. resolution that explicitly describes Kosovo as an autonomous part of Yugoslavia (Article 5) and reaffirms the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all of Yugoslavia (Article 8). To underline the U.N. commitment to a multi-ethnic state, the KLA (the armed forces of the Albanian resistance) was supposed to be disarmed by NATO.

None of these provisions has been implemented or has a prospect of being implemented. The KLA has not truly disarmed; the opposite of a multi-ethnic society is coming into being; Yugoslav sovereignty can only be exercised at the price of a bloody Serb intervention. In the name of a humanitarian foreign policy, NATO has maneuvered itself into a position in which it is condemned either to the permanent occupation of Kosovo or to seeking a different U.N. rationale -- a change Russia probably would veto -- to permit the emergence of an independent Kosovo.

But an independent Kosovo is precisely what all NATO states have sought to avoid. They have evaded their own principle of self-determination because they know that an independent Kosovo would evoke claims for a similar status for Albanians in adjoining Macedonia. Yet a breakup of Macedonia could unleash another Balkan war and lead to yet another NATO protectorate.

America and its allies were right in resisting Serbian ethnic cleansing. But their means were inappropriate to the objective. The NATO demand at Rambouillet for unlimited right to move forces across Yugoslav territory and occupy a province of a sovereign country -- before ethnic cleansing had started on a large scale -- guaranteed the most bloody outcome. Not even a reasonable Yugoslav government could accept such terms. Less emphasis on domestic politics and more thoughtful understanding of history would have produced a better balance between the humanitarian and political challenges, saved more lives and created better conditions for a long-term political evolution. And it would have avoided the uneasiness caused in many parts of the world by NATO's drift from defensive to offensive missions.

The same tendency to seek immediate solution to a historical problem has also exacerbated the situation in East Timor. The West pressed an interim, unelected Indonesian government that already had granted autonomy to East Timor to move toward independence -- in the middle of Indonesia's first democratic election. This perversely reduced that government's ability to restrain its dissident military. And the lack of sensitivity to Indonesia's concern with the precarious unity of its state and of the religious issues involved has mortgaged not only the fledgling democracy but Indonesia's historical partnership with the West.

Six months after the proclaimed triumph over Kosovo, the West's reaction to Russian repression of Chechnya showed that Kosovo had established far from a general principle. Russia, like Serbia, is trying to impose its rule on a dissident province. In both cases the conflict is religious in origin, with the rulers seeking to break the will of their subjects by making their lives in their home province unendurable, generating mass migration.

What differs is the reaction of the Western allies. The apostles of the so-called ethical policy can bring themselves to utter criticisms of Russia only in a shamefaced form designed to placate critics at home rather than affect decisions in Moscow. Moscow is criticized, if at all, for inflicting excessive casualties, not for the purpose of the operation -- which, in fact, President Clinton endorsed as protecting the integrity of Russia's borders and fighting terrorism. Both in official statements and in the media the "freedom fighters" of Kosovo have been transmuted into the "rebels" or "militants" of Chechnya.

The reluctance to jeopardize relations with a potentially powerful Russia is understandable. But if the absence of historical perspective caused us to veer too far in the direction of moral crusades in Kosovo, we now have erred by adopting too narrow a definition of the national interest. Even granting that blocking Russian intervention was impossible, it nevertheless was important to discourage Russia from future attempts to rely on force in regulating its relations with its many neighbors. And this required a less timid response.

Moral precepts are absolute and make no allowance for historical evolution. When thwarted, they allow no fallback. But foreign policy must deal with nuances and processes rather than terminal points. Public relations myths -- or worse, self-delusion -- cannot serve as a substitute. Oscillation between overcommitment and abdication will vitiate our power and our capacity to shape a stable international order.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm that has clients with business interests in many countries abroad.

(C) 2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate