First as a military negotiator in Bosnia and later as NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the second Clinton Administration, Clark was one of the figures at the center of the process that shaped current Democratic foreign-policy views. In its early years, rhetoric aside, the Clinton Administration hewed closely to George H.W. Bush's policy of studied non-involvement in the Balkans, even as Yugoslavia slid into chaos. But over time that region became a forcing ground for re-evaluating Democratic beliefs about foreign policy. The Balkans proved that soft-sounding concerns like human-rights abuses, ethnic slaughter, lawlessness, and ideological extremism could quickly mount into first-order geopolitical crises.
By the mid-1990s this had led the Clinton Administration to focus on terrorism, failed states, and weapons proliferation, and as it did, its foreign-policy outlook changed. The key threats to the United States came to be seen less in terms of traditional conflicts between states and more in terms of endemic regional turmoil of the sort found in the Balkans. "The Clinton Administration," says Jonathan Winer, "started out with a very traditional Democratic or even mainstream approach to foreign policy: big-power politics, Russia being in the most important role; a critical relationship with China; European cooperation; and some multilateralism." But over the years, he went on, "they moved much more to a failed-state, global-affairs kind of approach, recognizing that the trends established by globalization required you to think about foreign policy in a more synthetic and integrated fashion than nation-state to nation-state."
As Winer argues, the threats were less from Russia or China, or even from the rogue states, than from the breakdown of sovereignty and authority in a broad geographic arc that stretched from West Africa through the Middle East, down through the lands of Islam, and into Southeast Asia. In this part of the world poverty, disease, ignorance, fanaticism, and autocracy frequently combined in a self-reinforcing tangle, fostering constant turmoil. Home to many failed or failing states, this area bred money laundering, waves of refugees, drug production, gunrunning, and terrorist networks—the cancers of the twenty-first-century world order.
In the Balkans, Holbrooke, Clark, and other leading figures found themselves confronting problems that required not only American military force but also a careful synthesis of armed power, peacekeeping capacity, international institutions, and nongovernmental organizations to stabilize the region and maintain some kind of order. Though the former Yugoslavia has continued to experience strife, the settlement in the Balkans remains the most successful one in recent memory, and offers the model on which a Kerry Administration would probably build. As Holbrooke told me, the Bush Administration's actions in Iraq have shown that the Administration understands only the military component of this model: "Most of them don't have a real understanding of what it takes to do nation-building, which is an important part of the overall democratic process."