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...And Fractured U.S. Resolve

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow
June 13, 1999
The Washington Post


The battle for Kosovo is likely to be America’s last major war on the European continent. On the face of it, the apparent capitulation of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president, should give the United States and its NATO allies new confidence to confront tyrants and safeguard human rights across Europe. But the political and strategic legacy of the war promises to be quite different. We can expect a curtailment of America’s role in Europe, a European Union (EU) no longer able to rely on the United States as its chief peacemaker and protector, as well as Western timidity about intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

There is no doubt that the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia demonstrated the importance of American power and purpose. The United States ran the war, kept recalcitrant allies in line and contributed the main share of military assets to the bombing campaign. That Russian troops raced to be the first to enter Kosovo only exposes how humiliated Russia is by the scope of U.S. power. In addition, the air-only military strategy imposed by the United States seems to have been vindicated, implying that America may again be able to use force without putting its soldiers in harm’s way.

The bigger picture, however, suggests anything but a new era of NATO crusades to preserve European stability and protect endangered ethnic minorities.

The American effort in the Balkans was at best halfhearted and enjoyed uncertain political support at home. From the outset, President Clinton blocked the use of ground forces, meaning NATO got into a fight with one hand tied behind its back. Even after weeks of air attacks that only deepened the humanitarian crisis NATO was supposed to resolve and increased the probability that the war could spread southward, Clinton maintained his veto. Moreover, he insisted that allied aircraft bomb from no lower than 15,000 feet to avoid being shot down. Congressional dithering and sniping only made matters worse. A month into a conflict that had not produced a single U.S. combat casualty, the House nevertheless expressed grave misgivings, voting (249 to 180) to refuse funding for sending U.S. ground troops to Yugoslavia without congressional approval. On the air war, it was a shade more adventuresome with a tie vote (213 to 213) on a resolution endorsing the bombing campaign.

If the United States has zero tolerance for casualties in a region considered key to stability in southeastern Europe, it will have no appetite whatsoever for engagements farther afield. America fought the right war in Kosovo, and it has prevailed. But the sobering lesson is that it is very unlikely to happen again, and in this there is a dangerous paradox.

For despite the demise of the Soviet Union as a major threat to Europe, America’s strategic commitments on the continent have expanded markedly during the past decade. Earlier this year, NATO admitted Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, extending new American security guarantees into Central Europe. In addition, the violent breakup of Yugoslavia has lured the United States and its allies into the Balkans. Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania have effectively become NATO protectorates. Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria are hoping to qualify for NATO membership. Like it or not, the Atlantic alliance now owns the Balkans.

The United States is thus taking the lead in building a larger European edifice covering the continent’s new and aspiring democracies. But the foundation is shaky, because America has a dwindling interest in paying for construction and upkeep. As U.S. responsibilities in Europe increase, the attraction of robust internationalism is shrinking at home. This turning inward of the U.S. public mind could be countered by strong presidential leadership, but Clinton has never risen to the occasion. The mismatch between the United States’s external policies and its internal politics was highlighted by the war in Kosovo. Clinton knew that a failure to confront Milosevic over Kosovo would likely jeopardize Macedonia and, with it, the entire Balkan peninsula. Doing nothing was therefore out of the question. At the same time, even before the conflict began, centrists from both main U.S. political parties argued passionately that Kosovo did not involve America’s vital interests and that Europe should assume responsibility for its own troubles. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, hardly an isolationist, argued before the bombing campaign began that "the proposed deployment [of U.S. troops] in Kosovo does not deal with any threat to American security as traditionally conceived. If Kosovo presents a security problem, it is to Europe."

Clinton responded by taking the middle road, authorizing an air campaign but nothing more. As a result, rather than forcing U.S. policymakers and voters to confront the gap between increasing commitments and decreasing internationalism, NATO’s war for Kosovo may have served only to reinforce the illusion that the United States can preserve global stability on the cheap.

In Kosovo, immaculate coercion from the air seems to have succeeded in reining in Milosevic. But it should not be seen as a reliable model for the future. NATO aircraft were able to inflict serious damage on the Yugoslav army only after a ground offensive by the Kosovo Liberation Army forced Yugoslav units to concentrate in exposed positions. And throughout the conflict, Milosevic could easily have taken advantage of NATO’s weakness on the ground to widen the war to Macedonia or Montenegro. Embarking on a massive air campaign without first putting a substantial ground force in the region was not just shortsighted, it was irresponsible. NATO is just plain lucky to come away from this war in one piece.

Now that the conflict is winding down and NATO troops are preparing to settle in for years of peacekeeping, claims that America’s burdens in Europe are excessively onerous are already reemerging with fresh vigor. The notion that the United States should take the lead in managing Europe’s affairs is an especially hard sell among younger American politicians, who lived through neither World War II nor the postwar reconstruction of Europe. Clinton is already yielding to the pressure. In his address to the nation on Thursday evening, he promised that of the troops deploying to Kosovo "our European allies will provide the vast majority" and that "our European partners must provide most of the resources" for reconstruction.

America’s deep ambivalence about the Kosovo war has not gone unnoticed in Europe. It is no coincidence that EU leaders met in Germany a few days ago to launch plans for a collective military establishment capable of operating independently of the United States. Nor is it chance that Javier Solana, NATO’s secretary general, has been tapped to oversee the development of a Europe-only defense force. Europeans are acting on the recognition that they may well be on their own when the next military crisis emerges on the continent. As Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain asserted in justifying the initiative, "We Europeans should not expect the United States to have to play a part in every disorder in our own backyard."

Europe’s renewed interest in a collective defense capability stems not from fear of U.S. disengagement alone. Many European politicians and military leaders have lost confidence in U.S. leadership as a result of the war over Kosovo. They are growing wary of having no option other than relying on a distracted superpower. Despite the outcome of the conflict, the British and French in particular remain quietly critical of America’s conduct of the war and especially its unwillingness to risk casualties. As one British defense expert complained, "Clinton’s public dismissal of a ground option was inexcusable, as was the absence of alternative strategies for prevailing if Milosevic failed to back down."

Europeans also fret about the possibility that the United States will see the war over Kosovo as a precedent that attenuates national sovereignty and legitimizes humanitarian intervention even without the U.N.’s approval. Russia and China share this concern about America’s circumvention of the Security Council, concocting exaggerated fears that U.S. forces will soon be engaged in liberating Chechnya from the Russian Federation, or Tibet from China.

On this score, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese need not worry. Clinton repeatedly asserted that the war was motivated principally by humanitarian considerations, an argument that resonated with the U.S. public. But it was traditional geopolitics—fear of the southward spread of the war and the unraveling of Europe’s security order—that ultimately triggered NATO action. Indeed, the strategic importance of the Balkans explains why the United States intervened in Kosovo, but only looked on during the mass murders in Rwanda and elsewhere. Furthermore, in light of the international fallout over NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia and the difficulties that lie ahead in repairing relations with Russia and China, it will be a long time before the United States, with or without its European allies, compromises a state’s sovereignty to protect abused citizens. The United States has been at the helm of global politics for more than 50 years. Much of the world has benefited. For the sake of global stability, it may well be desirable for the United States to run the show for decades to come. And American hegemony could be extended, at least temporarily, by a president who leads the polls rather than follows them.

But the war over Kosovo sends an ominous signal about America’s dissipating willingness to bear the associated costs and responsibilities. Presidential leadership was certainly lacking, but so was an enlightened Congress. Rather than pursue a hollow hegemony that misleads and creates unmet expectations, it is better for the United States to give advance notice that its days as a guarantor of last resort may be numbered. As NATO edges toward an uneasy peace in the Balkans, it is time for Europe and the rest of the world to begin preparing for life after pax Americana.