Ever since the United States led more than 30 countries to victory over Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, use of multilateral coalitions to defuse crises has become a hallmark of its strategy for global stability.
Washington's emphasis on collective action, especially in the United Nations, is evident on both diplomatic and military fronts. These range from US-authored intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina and new Asian and African security initiatives to plans to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe.
But this year, the Clinton administration has found itself at odds with coalition partners over crises in Iraq and Yugoslavia. The disputes have forced the US to compromise, leaving it short of its policy goals while stoking frictions with key allies.
As a result, some experts question whether coalitions are helping or hindering US foreign policy. Some believe the US has become more concerned with averting the humiliation of a coalition collapse than with using its political and military muscle to extinguish threats to US interests.
"A deal is not worth anything if it undercuts the objectives you are trying to achieve," a Pentagon consultant says on condition of anonymity. "We want the appearance that a coalition is working. But that gives the weakest sister ... the power to coerce other members to change policy."
Not much glue left
Feuds between the US and its coalition partners are inevitable, say some experts, citing the absence of a common foe, greater economic competition, and a perception of American arrogance of power.
"There is no massive threat to provide cohesion to any coalition over the long term," says Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, a libertarian group in Washington. "Nations are increasingly pursuing their own interests and in many cases, they do not overlap with Washington's interests."
Anger is especially sharp in Congress, where some lawmakers perceive a failure or reluctance of European nations to work in concert with the US.
Even senior US officials acknowledge being frustrated by the outcome of the recent Iraq confrontation over weapons inspections, and by the international response to unrest in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province between Serbs and ethnic Albanians seeking independence.
In Iraq, the US failed to win much support among its Gulf War allies for the use of force to compel Saddam Hussein to come clean on his weapons of mass destruction. Despite the UN-brokered accord that defused the standoff, many US officials expect Saddam to stage new confrontations over his nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs. Consequently, the Clinton administration must keep a huge force of ships, aircraft, and troops in the Gulf indefinitely at a cost of billions of dollars.
In recent talks with Russia, France, Germany, Britain, and Italy on Kosovo, the US sought sanctions against Belgrade, fearing that its crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebels may spark a Balkan-wide war. Britain backed the US.
But Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was rebuffed by the rest of the so-called Contact Group, which is overseeing international policy in Bosnia. To keep the coalition together, she was compelled to accept what US officials concede was a "least common denominator position" of a one-month delay in the sanctions.
The group did agree to a US call for a UN arms embargo to be imposed on Yugoslavia by March 31, but Russia insisted on watering down the proposed resolution before agreeing to its adoption by the Security Council on Tuesday.
While US officials anticipated obstructionism from Russia and, to some degree, France on Iraq and Yugoslavia, they are irked by other European allies' unwillingness to get tough with despots like Saddam and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
"The majority tendency in Europe is to not want to face up to situations where sticks have to be used in an uneasy way," says a senior US official. "The problem we face is those instances where ... carrots just don't work."
"It makes it very frustrating," he says.
Yet the US lacks the domestic support and the resources to tackle regional crises on its own, he notes. Furthermore, coalitions such as the NATO-led operation in Bosnia can be great successes, he adds.
"We don't have infinite resources," says the senior US official. "We need others who have an ability, only if it is in a relative way, to augment what we do both militarily and diplomatically. That's clearly what we were looking to do in this latest Iraq crisis and that's clearly what we've had to do in former Yugoslavia," he says.
Many experts agree the US cannot abandon its use of coalitions.
But the Clinton administration must better communicate its foreign-policy objectives at home and abroad - and work harder to win support for them - if the coalitions are to achieve American goals, they say.
More important, they add, Washington will have to be prepared to exclude states, including traditional allies, that do not share its strategy or even go it alone when vital American interests are at stake.