After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson had an idealistic notion called "the self-determination of nations": National boundaries should be drawn around peoples who have a common language and cultural heritage. A generation later, in the face of Nazi aggression, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt made "self-determination" a part of the Atlantic Charter.

Sounds great, but it runs counter to every nation's natural impulse to hold itself together. The United States fought a civil war successfully to resist secession. Contrariwise, the Soviet Union lost the power to retain Ukraine and the rest of its empire.Serbia today wants to hold on to a historic part of its territory called Kosovo. But nine out of 10 people who live there are ethnic Albanians. They want to break away from Serbia's oppressive rule and determine their own political future.

Not surprisingly, Serbia says no. Branding an uprising there as terrorism, Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic have driven a quarter-million Kosovars from their homes; 50,000 are living in the woods facing the oncoming winter.

As a result, world opinion has been demonizing Milosevic. This is understandable; with his Nazi-style ethnic-cleansing in Bosnia, he has shown himself to be demoniacal.

But independent Bosnia, which Serbia invaded, is not Serbia's own territory of Kosovo. The world cannot tell Milosevic to get out or else. All the world can do is tell him to give more autonomy to the Kosovars. But he says no, he's putting down an insurrection - which is undeniable - and his hard-line resonates with nationalist Serbs.

The Kosovars, under siege, look to the United Nations to provide air cover for their uprising; the United Nations looks to Europe; the Europeans look to the United States, and the United States looks around.

Defense Secretary William Cohen says if Milosevic does not ease up, NATO will respond "sooner rather than later," a phrase President Clinton made famous in another context. The Serbs responded by turning up the heat on the luftetars, or rebels, by burning villages.

Here is where the age-old power of a nation to put down a rebellion comes up against this generation's power of unacceptable suffering.

The Clinton administration, facing the prospect of television coverage of tens of thousands of freezing refugees, will ultimately order casualty-free missile attacks on Serbian bases. If that fails to deter Belgrade, air strikes will hit Serbian depots and airfields around Kosovo's main city of Pristina. Milosevic will then suspend his war on civilians until our attention wanders.

That's what happened after our "victory" over Saddam Hussein. Only when we saw the televised human tragedy of the Kurdish people, with their biblical exodus from threatened extermination by Saddam's airborne poison gas, did we create a sanctuary for them in northern Iraq - in effect, limiting Iraq's sovereignty in that "no-flight zone."

Thus, with no formal announcement, a new policy is being backed into by the Western world: If enough civilian lives are in danger of starvation or massacre, and if intervention by airpower can make a difference - and if the U.S. takes the lead - then an alliance of nations will reluctantly act to impose a temporary, de facto self-determination.

A courageous journalist from Kosovo came to my office the other day. Veton Surroi, 37, editor of the independent daily Koha Ditore, has seen his staff beaten by police, some of their homes shelled by the Serbian Army. As a result, past U.S. promises of "no repeat of Bosnia" have no meaning to him.

He styles himself as a "post-pessimist," in Bob Dylan's phrase, because he believes "even when your world is crumbling, you need to create some way ahead." He is sensible enough to call for autonomy rather than independence: "status cannot be resolved today."

Needed now is a new policy of evolutionary self-determination that time can advance or modify. Some leader must formulate and sell a new form of shared sovereignty to accommodate insurgencies and defuse ethnic conflict not just in Kosovo, but in other lands where there can be no clear winner - from Iraq to East Timor and the West Bank.

History awaits that newly practical and more sophisticated Wilson, even as we must strike hard now to prevent unacceptable suffering.

New York Times News Service