The US Is Half Right On Yugoslavia

THE tragedy of Bosnia is a hard case that is producing bad policy advice.

For a generation the United States has been criticized, mainly though not solely from the left, for indiscriminate involvement in other countries. It is ironic that the administration has been attacked for doing too little about the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. Ironic because the official US position gives evidence of a new, discriminating approach to the world.

Leaving aside the question of a solution to the Yugoslav situation - and there is strong reason to doubt that any conceivable outside effort could produce a solution - just what is the US interest in Yugoslavia, and is it significant enough to justify the potential loss of American lives?

With the end of the cold war, Yugoslavia's significance as a buffer state has vanished. That has reduced the US interest in the country to humanitarian concern, a sufficient basis to justify diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions, but not the armed intervention that is almost the only hope of attaining peace.

If Yugoslavia's problems spilled across its borders, there would be a stronger motive for intervention. But unhappily for Yugoslavia and fortunately for the rest of the world, the strife is between the peoples of Yugoslavia. It is not likely to spread or provide the basis for clashes between outside powers. Yugoslavia is not, as in 1914 and 1939-41, a tinderbox for European conflict.

There is, of course, fear that Yugoslavia will set a pattern for the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. But civil wars are not usually the product of imitation. In any case, Yugoslavia's process of disintegration predated the end of the cold war and is the product of historic conflicts within an artificial multinational state; unhappy though some of the other states of the area may be, none of them is as predictably explosive as Yugoslavia.

So American policy, whatever its tactical errors, seems to have made the right strategic judgment: Yugoslavia does not warrant US military involvement.

BUT our policy is only half right.

While we have significant interests in Europe, we are not physically part of Europe. The Yugoslav situation may create problems, such as massive emigration, which we do not have to face. Yugoslavia's neighbors and near-neighbors in Western Europe have expressed great concern, but they have not found the Yugoslav situation a clear enough threat to their collective interests to intervene with military force. This may reflect not so much a cool calculation of those collective interests as a lack of instrume nts of collective security. And for this American policies are partly responsible.

The US, out of an understandable fondness for NATO, not just as a mutual defense organization but also as a vehicle for American political leadership in Europe, has reacted negatively to efforts to develop a European defense identity. We have behaved similarly with regard to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), opposing its becoming a collective security organization for fear that it would then displace NATO.

As a result, while the European Community and the CSCE can and do discuss the Yugoslav crisis, the only organized force in Europe that could act to end that crisis is NATO.

There are two ways out of this dilemma. One would be for the CSCE to call upon NATO to serve as its military agent and for NATO to agree. The recent agreement by NATO that it would consider requests for assistance made by the CSCE should not be read as the prelude to NATO's dispatching military forces to Yugoslavia. Since the organizational core of NATO is provided by the US, that would involve acceptance by the US of a collective decision that is not in our narrow national interest.

The alternative is the realization by Europeans that they cannot, in the post-cold-war era, rely on the US to protect interests not fully shared by the US, and the consequent development of a European security system. But this development, if it takes place, will come far too late to help the Yugoslavs.

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