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The Intervention Question

April 7, 2000

One year after the war in Kosovo and four years after the war in Bosnia, American involvement in the Balkans continues. Just this week, eleven American soldiers serving in Kosovo were injured by a group of Serbians protesting the arrest of a man who had hidden grenades in his home. Most of the Bosnian Serb leaders indicted by the international war-crimes tribunal have yet to be apprehended (though on Monday French troops arrested Momcilo Krajisnik, a high-ranking aide to Radovan Karadzic), and tensions in the area continue to run high. Many Americans have objected to U.S. and NATO intervention in the region, and many continue to doubt the wisdom of a prolonged presence in Bosnia and Kosovo. Such skepticism raises the perennial question of when, where, and under what circumstances American intervention in the affairs of other countries is appropriate.

During the Vietnam War, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota spoke out in The Atlantic's pages against America's habit of overreacting to international troubles by intervening militarily while more genuinely pressing concerns at home were neglected. In "Foreign Policy and the Crisis Mentality" (January 1967) McGovern wrote, "The crisis addict becomes impatient when it is suggested that a nation's strength is measured as much by the quality of its schools, the health of its citizens, the vigor of its economy, and the treatment of minorities as by the size of its weapons.... How will the world see us if we succeed in pacifying Vietnam but fail to pacify Chicago?"
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Related Feature:

Roundtable: "Picking a Good Fight" (April 6, 2000)
After Somalia, after Haiti, after Bosnia, after Rwanda, after Kosovo, after East Timor, after Chechnya, does "humanitarian intervention" have a future? Robert D. Kaplan, Edward Luttwak, David Rieff, and Benjamin Schwarz join us for an interactive roundtable hosted by The Atlantic's Cullen Murphy.

From The Atlantic:

"After the Wars: Yugoslavia and the World" (April 2000)
Three articles take stock of the situation in the former Yugoslavia one year after the Kosovo war and four years after the Dayton Accords.

Also in Flashbacks:

"Saving the World From Ourselves?" (April 28, 1999)
What is the relationship between America's domestic problems and its foreign policy? Between our own history and our efforts to shape the history of other nations? Recent Atlantic articles by Ronald Steel and Benjamin Schwarz offer some answers.

"Conflict in the Balkans" (March 26, 1999)
"The Balkans," Robert D. Kaplan wrote in the July, 1989, Atlantic, "could shape the end of the century, just as they did the beginning." Ten years later, NATO is waging war against Yugoslavia. Atlantic articles from 1913 to 1995 help put the conflict in perspective.

McGovern's line of reasoning has run through recent arguments against American intervention abroad. In "The Domestic Core of Foreign Policy" (June 1995), the historian Ronald Steel warned that it is futile to try to solve the world's problems when vexing domestic issues have not first been resolved.
A nation prey to drugs, guns, and violence, increasingly stratified by social class, torn by racial tension, and riven by insecurity, will be a weak player on the world stage. It may also be a threatened democracy.... For this reason a valid foreign policy must be geared to the needs of American society. It cannot indulge in flights of rhetoric, dedicating itself to the pursuit of vague objectives like 'democracy' and 'pluralism' in lands inhospitable to these values and posing no threat to the United States, without inviting the failure of our efforts and the alienation of a public asked to support such quixotic goals.
Rather, Steel argued, we must learn "to recognize our limitations, to reject the vanity of trying to remake the world in our image, and to restore the promise of our neglected society."

Such "America first" arguments have been heard on both the left and the right since the end of the Cold War. In the early 1990s, with communism no longer a concern for American policymakers, and with worries about the potential for nuclear war between the superpowers allayed, some politicians and political scientists proclaimed that the time had come for America to rein in its military pursuits and focus its resources on its own economy and society. In "The Conceptual Poverty of U.S. Foreign Policy" (September 1993), Jonathan Clarke, a former member of the British diplomatic service, described the post-Cold War era as "a unique opportunity to make healthy, safe, and much-needed adjustments to America's role in the world." The Clinton Administration's defense-spending cuts, he wrote, "are real indeed, but, compared with the opportunity, do not go far enough."
There is simply less need for the United States to guard the frontiers against the forces of darkness. There is no evil empire. The level of threat does not call for the forward deployment of heavy-infantry divisions, which are, in any case, ill equipped to answer the more subtle questions posed by the contemporary world. Furthermore, problems at home cast an ever-lengthening shadow.
Not everyone agreed, however, that the end of the Cold War era warranted America's letting down its guard in international affairs. John J. Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, predicted that the post-Cold War world would in fact be more unstable -- and therefore more dangerous. "We may ... wake up one day lamenting the loss of the order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations," he wrote in "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War" (August 1990). "The prospect of major crises, even wars, in Europe is likely to increase dramatically now that the Cold War is receding into history."

During the Cold War, Mearsheimer observed, the East and West were locked in perpetual stalemate, and the likelihood of out-and-out war was actually low because the stakes were so high: any minor conflict had the potential to draw the two superpowers into a serious confrontation -- with nuclear annihilation as the possible consequence. Once the Cold War ended, however, and countries were no longer allied in ideological blocs, many countries would function more or less as free agents -- and there would be plenty of opportunities for conflict among competing, self-interested powers. Within the context of such a chaotic world system, Mearsheimer emphasized, the United States would need to play an active military role in preserving the peace. America, he argued, "will have to counter any emerging aggressor actively and efficiently, in order to offset the ganging up and bullying that are sure to arise in post-Cold War Europe." Drastically cutting back America's military involvement in other parts of the world in order to focus on America's domestic welfare would thus be foolish.

Given America's longstanding sense of having a special mission in the world, discussion of intervention often rests on abstract generalization and lofty rhetoric. However, in "Proportionalism" (August 1996), Atlantic correspondent Robert D. Kaplan offered a straightforward formula for deciding when and whether intervention is appropriate:
The so-called Powell Doctrine -- which calls for intervention only when it can be quickly and easily accomplished -- has been criticized for moral obtuseness. But the Powell Doctrine is in fact a good start. The degree of difficulty of a humanitarian relief operation must be a criterion in making a decision, for if it is not, our misadventures will preclude intervention even when intervention would otherwise have been worthwhile. The other criteria should be the strategic value of the place where we are considering intervening and the psychological weight that such an intervention might exert on other parts of the world. Interventions in places and situtations in which morality coincides with ease, strategic value, and leverage would meet what the military calls the parents' test: when a Pentagon official can stare a soldiers' parents in the eye and tell them that their son or daughter died in the service of something worth dying for.
—Sage Stossel

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Sage Stossel is a senior editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."

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