The Pusillanimous West

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By George Weigel

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Has Western Europe entered a period of political decadence such that it cannot even police its own neighborhood?

The question is unavoidable today. The Balkan crisis is, first and foremost, a European crisis. The people directly involved are Europeans (including the Bosnian Muslims). The people most likely to suffer the consequences of a spillover from an expanding Balkan war are Europeans. But where are the leaders of Western Europe? It is said that there is no political will in Western Europe to impose a settlement in ex-Yugoslavia. But isn’t one of the functions of political leadership to forge the necessary political will amongst a democratic citizenry when a moral and strategic crisis presents itself? Instead of leading, on a matter in which their own strategic interests are directly at stake. Western European politicians have, for two years now, been trying to wish the problem away.

Not that the United States has a record it can be proud of. Indeed, one can date the beginning of the present troubles in ex-Yugoslavia with some precision: to June 1991, when Secretary of State James A. Baker III informed the Serb-dominated leadership of a strained Yugoslav federation that America’s interest in their neighborhood, then beginning to show the first telltale signs of crack-up, was order and stability. Not peaceful, democratic, non-violent change; not a reasonable process of adjustment, within the old South Slav federation or among the micro-states that might succeed it; but order and stability. Not unreasonably, this was taken by thuggish leaders like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic as a signal that Washington (and the West) would not object to a bit of head-knocking if that was what was required to keep the lid on in Yugoslavia.

And so the war came. U.S. policy didn’t cause it. But U.S. policy under Bushbaker did nothing to make the war less likely, and a lot to make a disaster virtually certain.

Bushbaker’s crude power realism and the general pusillanimity of the Western Europeans led to a policy towards Yugoslavia that was, in truth, not a policy, but rather a comprehensive abdication of responsibility. Michael Ignatieff of the London Observer caught the full measure of this fecklessness in a recent essay:

 

 

…Western failures of policy were caused by something deeper than inattention, misinformation, or misguided good intentions. The very principles behind our policies were in contradiction. In the light-headed euphoria of 1989 our political leaders announced their support for the principle of national self-determination and for maintaining the territorial integrity of existing states, without recognizing that the first principle contradicted the second. We insisted on the inviolability of frontiers, without also making clear whether we also meant the frontiers between the republics within federal states like Yugoslavia.

Most of all, we allowed guilt over our imperial past to lead us to evade our responsibilities for defining the terms of the post-imperial peace. The Western Europeans and the United States could have ended the cold war with a comprehensive territorial settlement in Eastern Europe, defining new borders, establishing guarantees of minority rights, and adjudicating between rival claims to self-determination. After Versailles, after Yalta, the collapse of the final empire in Europe gave us a third opportunity to define a durable peace for the whole continent.

Yet so concerned were we to avoid playing the imperial policeman, so self-absorbed were we in the frantic late-Eighties boom, that we let every post-communist demagogue exploit the rhetoric of self-determination and national rights to their own nefarious ends. The terrible new order of ethnically cleansed states in the former Yugoslavia is the monument to our follies as much as it is to theirs.

 

Enter the New Kids on the Block

 

Not unreasonably, candidate Bill Clinton seized on this pattern of incomprehension and irresponsibility and urged a more assertive U.S. posture toward the Yugoslav war (especially toward the vicious cruelties of “ethnic cleansing”) during the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign. But President Bill Clinton and his administration have not shown any greater leadership at the level of actual policy and performance than their conventional Realpolitik predecessors. While the rhetoric has been stiffer, the performance has been limp. And if the performance should be taken as a preview of coming attractions, there is cause for serious worry.

The president remained in campaign mode during most of his first four months in office, seemingly unable to decide just how high a priority the Bosnian crisis should have. For a week or so, it was at the top of the agenda; but then, at an impromptu press conference in early May, the president started griping about how those nasty South Slavs were distracting him from his economic program. Such adolescent whining by the leader of what is supposed to be the world’s sole great power is, to put it charitably, unbecoming.

Then there was the Christopher mission to Western Europe in early May. Did the Secretary of State go to Europe to lay out a bold and imaginative plan and get the allies lined up behind it? No, he went to “seek consensus,” or somesuch. Thus we were treated to the spectacle of the secretary going hat in hand from capital to capital, being politely stiffed by such proconsuls of empire as the Italian foreign minister.

Note to Foggy Bottom: When difficult decisions have to be taken, diplomacy in the post-Cold War world should not be understood on the analogy of lawyers meeting in a dark-paneled room over after-dinner Courvoisier to “work things out.” There is no consensus and there will be no consensus, on the Balkans or on virtually any other serious security issue, until the United States defines a policy that others are then persuaded (or, more likely, obliged) to accept. That is what happened during the Gulf crisis of 1990; and that is what is likely to happen throughout the rest of the decade.

The Balkans are, to repeat, primarily Europe’s problem. But “Europe” doesn’t exist, as an effective instrument of policy. American leadership in forging a pan-European policy, and then in helping to provide the diplomatic and perhaps military muscle to back it up, has been the key missing ingredient in the diplomatic mix for almost two years now. Bushbaker “realism” and its successor, Bill Clinton’s imitation of Jimmy Carter, have left the United States in the ridiculous position of supplicant before people who can’t even rouse themselves to restrain the neighborhood hoodlums.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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