On November 6, 1881, in a small town in West Africa, two local chieftains wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Great Britain. It read as follows:

Dear W. Gladstone,

We both your servants have met this afternoon to write you these few lines of writing trusting it may find you in a good state of life as it leaves us at the present. As we heard here that you are the chief man in the House of Commons, so we write to tell you that we want to be under Her Majesty’s control. We want our country to be governed by British Government. We are tired of governing the country ourselves, every dispute leads to war, and often to great loss of life, so we think it is the best thing to give up the country to you British men who no doubt will bring peace, civilization, and Christianity in the country. Do for mercy’s sake please lay our request before the Queen and to the rulers of the British Government. Do, Sir, for mercy’s sake, please to assist us in this important undertaking. We heard that you are a good Christian man, so we hope that you will do all in your power to see that our request is granted. We are quite willing to abolish all our heathen customs. . . . No doubt God will bless you for putting a light in our country. Please to send us an answer as quick as you can.

King Bell and King Acqua
of the Cameroons River
West Africa

William Gladstone received this letter at an extraordinary moment in British history. Britain made up roughly 25 percent of world GNP—the same as America’s share today—and 50 percent of European GNP. London was the unrivaled financial center of the globe. In political-military affairs, Britain had defeated Napoleonic France’s bid for continental hegemony and helped establish a stable balance of power on the European continent. More recently, in the Crimean War, it had thwarted Russian expansion in Southeastern Europe. Outside Europe, at very low cost and to great economic benefit, it had conquered large tracts of India and West Asia. In 1881 Britain could reasonably have been called the only superpower in the world.

Gladstone declined King Bell and King Acqua’s kind invitation. But Britain accepted many others, so many that over the next twenty years it added five million square miles to its empire. Some of these extensions were motivated by greed or glory or great-power competition, but many were prompted by humanitarian concerns (ending the slave trade, infanticide, bride burning, etc.), and in all cases the dominant cause was a fear of instability and a desire for order. Most of Britain’s interventions were, as the great historians of imperialism Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher explain, “involuntary responses to emergencies arising from the decline of Turkish authority.” (It was the retreat of Egyptian authority that drew a very reluctant Britain into Somalia, over a part of which it established a protectorate in 1884.)

With its tentacles all over the world, Britain witnessed every outbreak of chaos no matter how distant and felt that it had to do something about each one, fearing in some instances that local conflicts might spill over, in others that inaction might damage London’s credibility in the region. Robinson and Gallagher write that because of these fears, “These once remote and petty interests in the Sudan, Uganda, and the northern hinterlands of the Zanzibar were changing into safeguards of Britain’s world power.”

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the rise of Germany had massively altered the continental balance of power. Yet Britain—and France, which during the same period added three million square miles of new colonies to its own empire—were utterly distracted by an unending series of crises in Africa and Asia, leaving them neither the time nor the energy nor the resources to address their central security problem. Ironically, the exploits of Britain and France in these hinterlands made them inattentive to the very conditions that had created an era of peace and prosperity in Europe and allowed them to engage in imperialism in the first place. Ultimately, both powers retrained their gaze on the central balance of power, but by then it was too late, and what they could do—and did—was ruinously expensive. Britain and France—and the world—paid dearly for these distractions.

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The case against a substantial American intervention in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia is not based on any concern that the peoples of these countries do not want American involvement—many do; nor that the United States will always fail in its missions—it will not; nor on any doubts that American intervention would do good—it would. The case against substantial intervention in areas, conflicts, and crises that are peripheral to America’s long-term strategic interests is that by focusing on the periphery, America, like Britain before it, will lose the core. And devoting itself almost single-mindedly to its central political and economic problems abroad is particularly necessary for the United States in the post-cold-war world because the stable order of 1945 is unraveling. It will take every effort of the United States to arrest this descent and secure the central achievements of the last 45 years—peace and prosperity in East Asia and Europe and an absence of serious rivalry among the great powers of the world.

Great-power peace and the resulting global prosperity are rare. They existed for the first time in modern history during Britain’s economic hegemony and the stable balance created by the Concert of Europe during the mid- and late 19th century. During this period—which the historian A.L. Rowse has called the belle époque of interdependence—world trade grew, regimes everywhere liberalized and democratized, capitalism surged, and global standards of living rose. The underpinnings of this world crumbled in the wake of World War I with the collapse of British power and the unwillingness of the United States to take its place. Then came mercantilist rivalries, depression, xenophobia, fascism, and war.

The second flowering of peace and prosperity, which took place over the last 45 years, was a direct consequence of the cold war. The Soviet threat and America’s security umbrella over East Asia and Europe created a climate of stable fear in which longstanding enemies forswore national rivalries and concentrated on the creation of wealth at home. America’s political-military role, the dollar’s pivotal place in the world monetary system, the free-trading system (also sponsored by Washington), and American foreign investment all created an open world economy that more than any other single factor explains the extraordinary progress toward peace, democracy, and civilized conduct in the industrial nations over the last half-century.

We take this world for granted, but in fact it is fragile. Henry Kissinger argued in A World Restored that the 19th century’s era of stability might have been “so pervasive that it contributed to disaster. For in the long interval of peace the sense of the tragic was lost; it was forgotten that states could die, that upheavals could be irretrievable. . . .”

Today we seem similarly to take for granted the conditions of peace and stability among the great powers, and we are eager to move beyond “mere stability” and expand the zone of democracy and justice abroad. But the “long peace” of the cold war rested on both the Soviet threat and American power, and we must first ensure that the collapse of the world’s last multinational empire does not unhinge the global balance—as has happened after almost every previous imperial breakdown. Strains in the balance are already apparent: increasing protectionism and trade rivalries at home and abroad; the disarray of European unity; rampant populism, xenophobia, and radicalism in the heart of Western Europe; and the rise of tensions among East Asia’s great powers.

If the Soviet threat constituted one ingredient of the long peace, American power and purpose was the second and more important one. This is why it is crucial, and not just for selfish and parochial reasons, that America husband its power and use it with wisdom and caution. If Washington gets so distracted by Africa, the Caribbean, and the Balkans that it loses the ability to focus the bulk of its energies on Europe and East Asia, the resulting strains in global politics and economics could make what is happening in Somalia look like a picnic.

The signs on this front are not encouraging. President Clinton and his senior advisers admit that they have spent 80-90 percent of the time, resources, and political capital that they devote to foreign policy on the three televised hot spots. That leaves 10 percent for various trifles like the future of Europe, the crisis in Russia, relations with Japan, the rise of China, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Perhaps this misallocation of time explains why the State Department seemed quite surprised to discover that Israel and the PLO were on the verge of an agreement. It surely explains why NAFTA has gone from certain passage to probable defeat, why GATT is unlikely to be resolved by its December deadline, why the administration’s position on the expansion of NATO is ambiguous, and why U.S.-Chinese relations seem to sour with every passing day. In the long run what happens in the hot spot of the moment will not matter compared with these big issues, which are the ones that will determine the fate of the post-cold-war world.

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This is not an argument for doing nothing in the three crises at hand. It is an argument against setting goals that would involve a serious and sustained use of American power. Here the Clinton administration has scored poorly. In all three instances the President and his advisers began by defining America’s objectives in a strikingly extravagant manner—“the preservation of Bosnia as a multiethnic state within its original borders”; “the restoration of democracy to Haiti”; and “nation-building” in Somalia. All three goals are praiseworthy; but all three would require a significant expenditure of energy, resources, and political capital over a long period of time. Given the stakes involved, are they worth that kind of effort?

Evidently on closer examination the administration thought not. As each crisis unfolded, when confronted with the reality that its goals would require a more vigorous assertion of American military power, the administration backed off, sometimes scaling down those goals, sometimes making a novel distinction between its “preferences” and its “objectives” (the latter being what it could achieve through consensual talks with its allies). While casual about willing the ends, the Clinton administration would not will the means to these ends, exposing the nation internationally to the image of hypocrisy and the reality of a “Lippmann gap”—with its commitments exceeding its power.

Many new interventionists argue that the United States loses credibility when it decides not to intervene in foreign crises. In fact, credibility does not require that the United States respond to every act of aggression anywhere in the world at any price. It does require that the United States choose its interests carefully, that it protect those interests vigilantly, and, most importantly, that in all matters it make threats and promises that it intends to fulfill. Thomas Schelling of Harvard has remarked that in international relations it is always important to remember how expensive are threats when they fail and promises when they succeed. It is the casual use of threats and promises that has damaged American credibility.

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On Haiti, after its first reversal over the admission of refugees, the administration seemed stung by the charge—entirely accurate—that it was following George Bush’s policy of keeping the Haitian boat people out—the very policy Clinton had attacked as immoral during the presidential campaign. The administration then moved to more active attempts to restore the ousted President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power. But the band of thugs who run Haiti cannot be negotiated with. Restoring Aristide will take the use of the American armed forces—by which I mean soldiers and sailors, not technicians.

America does have interests in Haiti. Instability in the area could affect the neighboring democracies. There is also the threat of an influx of refugees (though ironically this problem is in large part caused by an American action—the economic embargo). These are not, however, possibilities so fraught with danger as to justify an armed intervention at this point. The United States should make clear that it does not condone what the military government of Haiti is doing. It should, perhaps, break diplomatic relations with this regime. If targeted economic sanctions can be devised that do not simply cause general misery, they should be put to work. Such a policy might well result in a change of regimes. If it does, so much the better. But attempting to engineer a domestic revolution should not be the focus—or the yardstick of success—of American policy.

In Somalia, it does appear that Clinton expanded the goals originally set by Bush from a food-aid mission to what the New York Times describes as “the largest, most expensive, and most ambitious operation [the United Nations] has ever undertaken.” It could be argued that “nation-building” is implicit in famine relief, and that in sending troops to Somalia, Bush was biting off more than he—or Clinton—could chew. But the U.S. was at a decision-point in March, and then again in August, when the hunt for Mohammed Farah Aidid began. And given everything we know about Bush’s instinctive caution and prudence—the very qualities many disliked so much—it is difficult to imagine his ambassador to the United Nations saying, as Clinton’s ambassador, Madelaine K. Albright, did about the expanded mission in Somalia: “[This is] an unprecedented enterprise, aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning, and viable member of the community of nations.”

The famine had indeed been caused by a political breakdown. Thus it was claimed that if that breakdown were not addressed, the United States would have withdrawn only to see the return of the very same conditions that it had intervened to end. In foreign policy as in domestic policy, however, an obsession with “root” causes is futile and self-defeating. One can never “solve” the problem of crime; one can merely alleviate its consequences. The United States should not have attempted to address the underlying causes of the famine in Somalia, if by that one means creating order out of chaos; it should have sought to alleviate its symptoms. Creating a polity in Somalia may be beyond America’s capacity. It is certainly beyond its capacity at any reasonable cost. But food and medical aid are effective and important cures for a famine; they save countless lives and rescue hundreds of thousands of people from terrible suffering. Since part of the problem was that the aid could not get through, modest military efforts to open up channels of distribution were worthwhile. But the model should have been America’s massive aid efforts during the Ethiopian famine, not an attempt at nation-building.

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Haiti and Somalia are easier cases to discuss than Bosnia, because in the former most observers agree that American interests (however broadly defined) are minimal and that while American policy should be responsive and helpful, Washington cannot be asked to solve their problems. Bosnia is the most vexing of all three, and one of the most painful dilemmas America has had to confront in recent years. This is because where Bosnia is concerned, one could maintain that America has strategic interests in the region, that the response to this crisis has larger implications for American credibility, and that American policy under both the Bush and the Clinton administrations has failed.

There is truth in all these arguments and it is also true that American diplomacy—particularly the politically and morally obtuse arms embargo—has been a failure. But in the final analysis I still come to the painful conclusion that while the United States should do more than it has done in the past, even in this area it should resist any significant and sustained military intervention.

Nobody believes that America has vital interests in the Balkans per se. The argument about our national interest in the Bosnian crisis is an argument about European stability in general, and particularly about Western Europe—the most important part of the continent. For this argument to be meaningful, however, there has to be some indication that the Balkan war is likely to spread and become a more general European war. And this is precisely the claim that has been made by many advocates of American intervention, most famously George Kenney, the former State Department desk officer. Kenney wrote in the New York Times in September 1992 that within three to six months the war in Bosnia would spread through the Balkans, drawing in Iran, Libya, and other Islamic nations, then Greece and Turkey, and then, against their will, the Western powers.

Needless to say, one year after Kenney’s prediction, the first step in this chain of events has not occurred and does not seem likely to occur. Even if it should happen, the second step also seems unlikely. And the last—Western intervention—is the most remote. It is important to understand that conflict in the Balkans led to a general European war in 1914 because the great powers cared too much about instability in the Balkans; today they care too little. This may cause many problems, but it cannot cause a general war. When Bismarck was asked to intervene in a similar Balkan crisis over 100 years ago, he is reported to have said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian Grenadier. Bismarck’s indifference led to peace; the paranoia of his successors in 1914, during another Balkan crisis, led to a general European war.

The less specific argument for intervention in the Balkans is that staying out would encourage dictators and would-be ethnic cleansers all over the world. But deterrence is a complex matter. Why did America’s breathtaking victory in the Gulf war—televised live all over the world—not deter the Serbs, or, for that matter, the Azris, the Georgians, or the Sudanese? The answer is that most local dictators come to power because they have a very acute understanding of threats and force. They know that the United States would not send a force of 500,000 troops to liberate Nagorno Karabakh, even though it did so for Kuwait. Conversely, the Red Army refrained from crossing the Fulda Pass in West Germany because it knew that if it did, NATO would respond to such a move with massive force. Yet even in deterring Soviet client-states on the margins, the United States had mixed success during the cold war (hence Korea and Vietnam). Generalized deterrence is difficult.

The problem with American diplomacy throughout the Bosnian crisis has been its utterly incredible nature. It first urged the Bosnian Muslims not to accept partition, then imposed an arms embargo on them—out of a reflexive arms-control mentality—and finally encouraged them in their hope that NATO would intervene on their side. The result has been no Western intervention and an ever-shrinking map for the weak but defiant Bosnian Muslims.

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It is impossible to discuss Bosnia without referring to the moral issues it raises. For many, the brutal Serb aggression against the Bosnian Muslims and the even more brutal atrocities by the aggressors have made this a supreme moral drama in which the West should intervene, even if it has no strategic interests in the area. To address the moral issue seriously, however, we must first ask the question, “Why Bosnia?” For some the answer is simple, “Why not Bosnia?”—the fact that we cannot right every wrong does not mean that we should never act at all.

But this argument does not stand scrutiny. It is disingenuous to claim that the United States has simply stumbled upon Bosnia in the way that a rich man notices a beggar at his door and feeds him without worrying about all the other, equally deserving beggars he is not helping. There is a reason that every Western news organization has cameras in Bosnia, that Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz have traveled there and not to Azerbaijain and Sudan, that it is discussed day after day in newspapers, magazines, and chancelleries.

The most serious reason is this: that for many people it is unthinkable that such horrors should happen in Europe. It is one thing for ethnic cleansing to take place in Central Asia, but in Europe? In fact this response rests on a profound misreading of European history. The paradox of European civilization has always been its capacity for supreme achievements of literature, art, music, and politics and for supreme acts of violence at the same time. The history of Europe is a history of fratricidal wars and—yes—ethnic cleansing. Compared to Latin America, Asia, and Africa, European civilization has been marked by almost continuous interstate and intrastate violence.

For the last 45 years, Europe experienced an era of peace and came to believe that it had transcended its history. With the end of the “free security” provided by the United States it will have to accustom itself to the kinds of crises and minor instability that other continents have always lived with. The solution does not lie, at this point, in an ambitious, futile, and probably counterproductive attempt to resurrect the original Bosnian state—noble as that cause is—but to make sure that this conflict does not spread and that it serves to immunize the rest of the continent from violent nationalism and ethnicity. War in Bosnia is tragic; a general European war would be worse.

I would not have written this essay ten years ago. When the Soviet Union existed as a strategic, political, and military threat to the United States, there were dangers of local conflicts spilling over, or of a lack of resolve being misunderstood, or of weak defenses encouraging aggression. Everything we have learned from the archives of the former Soviet Union confirms that the Kremlin was as diabolical and malicious as many cold warriors feared (whether it was as competent and dangerous is another matter). But the Soviet Union has collapsed, bipolarity has crumbled, the cold war is won, Eastern Europe is liberated. In the past, local conflicts were significant because of their role in the broader strategy of containment. One is now struck, with apologies to Alfred North Whitehead, by the unconnectedness of things. Local conflicts really are local. Credibility is amorphous with no great enemy to be credible to. In the face of this world-historical change and utterly new international situation, it is only natural that the United States would need a new foreign policy, one that is “interest-based” rather than “threat-based.” Otherwise we will lose the peace we have won.

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