DURING the cold war, the United States provided leadership and key military capabilities to deter an attack by the Soviet-led Warsaw pact. Today, the US seems to be emerging as a self-deterred power - a country preventing itself from using force. This leaves the international system without the political credibility and military force needed to discourage aggressors.
The first victims of self-deterrence may be in obscure places like Gorazde, Bosnia. The long-term consequences, however, may strike at the heart of US interests and the hope for a stable world.
One could lay sole responsibility for this phenomenon on the Clinton administration. But self-deterrence is rooted in the mood of the public, reinforced by a perception of this mood in Congress, and given voice in the White House interpretation of its mandate.
At the end of the cold war, Americans were eager to focus on a wide range of domestic problems. The ``peace dividend'' was to be spent on America's future.
Well before the 1992 campaign, it was clear to most politicians that the public, suffering from cold-war leadership fatigue, did not want the US to be the post-cold-war world's policeman. Then-President Bush had sought to justify the response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in terms of a ``new world order'' in which US-Soviet cooperation could make the UN and the international system work to deter aggression. The concept was critiqued from many perspectives. The most telling was that a new world order wouldn't work without US leadership, but Americans weren't willing to accept this burden.
President Clinton's election mandate therefore was to turn the government toward issues like jobs, crime, and health care. His political advisers told him (and continue to tell him) that ``the economy, stupid'' will determine a successful first term and reelection. International commitments pose a potential threat to such a scenario. They can be expensive, and costly in human terms when young Americans die in combat. Vietnam and the fate of President Johnson's Great Society initiative seem burned into the administration's political vision.
The Clinton White House first hoped multilateral organizations could relieve the US of overseas burdens and protect a domestic agenda. The White House seemed disinclined to use force unilaterally. In May 1993, a high-ranking State Department official told reporters that the US had neither the inclination, the will, nor the money to respond militarily to behavior that did not directly threaten US interests.
Congress was wary of foreign military commitments after the cold war. When the humanitarian mission in Somalia became difficult, and particularly when 18 US soldiers were killed, it became evident that most members of Congress had less faith in the UN than did Clinton. Congressional critics suggested the US should not put its own forces under UN command and should not make any commitment to supply the UN with forces. Members also suggested that, for every case in which US forces might be used for peace operations, the administration should be able to specify the purposes of this proposed use of military forces, present an estimate of the costs of such operations, and project the likely date for completion of the mission.
The administration's acceptance of such restrictions by repeating them in numerous official statements has reinforced the tendency toward self-deterrence. The consequence is that there are very few circumstances in which the administration could use force, even if it decided to do so.
Some would say this leaves the US where it ought to be: ready to tend to domestic woes. This is not unreasonable. But, as with any approach, it may have costs.
Recent events in Bosnia demonstrate the consequences of self-deterrence. Very limited and largely symbolic uses of air power were insufficient to overcome the Bosnian Serbs' assumption that the US, and thus the UN and NATO, did not have the stomach to use sufficient force to prevent them from taking Gorazde. ``Might'' therefore made ``right.''
It is becoming more clear that, in the post-cold-war world, as goes the US, so goes the UN and NATO, particularly when it comes to the use of force. Without US leadership and military capabilities, the international system has a very limited capacity for responding to threats to the peace.
As long as the US remains a self-deterred power, therefore, there will be no disincentive (deterrent force) in the international system to discourage leaders and states with aggressive intent from using force when they believe it will serve their interests - whether to change borders, to seek revenge, or to gain access to natural resources.
The green light may be on - not just for the Serb military, but for potential aggressors in the Middle East and elsewhere. UN and NATO arrangements designed to organize responses to aggression will look increasingly like a modern Potemkin village - an impressive security facade with nobody at home.
Today, tomorrow, and next month it may still be possible to say that such aggressions are tolerable in terms of US interests.
The question, however, is at what point of international lawlessness does the US (and therefore the international community) say ``Stop''? At what point does the US start losing critical leverage in international relations when other countries stop paying attention to US views and interests? And at what point does the inability of the US to act start undercutting the meaning of professed US principles and purposes in the international system?
The Chinese proverb says that the longest journey begins with a single step. America, having taken the first step toward self-deterrence may be on a journey toward a world in which the rule of the jungle begins to overtake the rule of law. This law must be policed in order to be effective. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.