Picking a Good Fight

Does "humanitarian intervention" have a future? How can -- how should -- the United States and its allies exert their power as we enter the twenty-first century? What lessons should the next U.S. President learn from the record of the Clinton Administration? Atlantic Unbound has invited a group of foreign-policy thinkers -- Robert D. Kaplan, Edward Luttwak, David Rieff, and Benjamin Schwarz -- to take up these questions in an interactive roundtable discussion, hosted by The Atlantic's Cullen Murphy

New! Go to Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- April 14, 2000

Cullen Murphy
Introduction -- April 6, 2000

Almost exactly one year ago, on the night of March 24, 1999, NATO aircraft initiated the eleven-week campaign of bombardment that ultimately persuaded the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, to withdraw his armed forces from the Serbian province of Kosovo. NATO's attacks were routinely described at the time as representing by far the most substantial military action in Europe since the end of the Second World War. They came in response to the ever-worsening oppression of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population by Serbian police, paramilitary, and regular army forces -- in response, that is, to what was seen as a humanitarian catastrophe, one that was likewise described as being without parallel in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

In waging war over the deteriorating situation in Kosovo, NATO leaders showed themselves willing to disregard Serbian sovereignty and to dismiss Serbian claims that the Kosovo situation was purely an "internal" matter. NATO leaders also showed themselves willing to gamble that their actions would prove effectual -- not only in a narrow military sense (the removal of Serb military and police forces) but also in the larger sense of social stability (the suppression of ancient ethnic enmities in the province, if not the building of a multi-ethnic society). A military victory was achieved, despite the expectations of many, and despite the campaign's aroma of inadvertance -- "They just shut their eyes and hoped," the military analyst John Keegan has observed. The broader mission, which was compounded by the need to resettle the half million Albanians the Serbs pushed from the country once the war began, continues to be pursued, in large measure by the thousands of NATO troops currently deployed as peacekeepers in Kosovo.

In the April issue of The Atlantic Monthly three contributors assess several aspects of the situation in the Balkans one year after NATO intervened on behalf of the Albanian Kosovars, and four years after the Dayton Accords brought an uneasy peace to another part of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia. The three articles are subsumed under the umbrella rubric "After the Wars." But if anything is clear in the aftermath of the most recent Balkan wars, it is that the very word "after" may be the most inconclusive and open-ended word in foreign policy. "After" has a way of never quite seeming to arrive, or to arrive strangely leached of meaning. Indeed, anniversary articles with titles like "After Kosovo" are not so much about "after" as they are about "ongoing" -- an ongoing NATO presence that may need to be increased; ongoing ethnic hatred; ongoing murder and mayhem. To this list of "ongoing" issues must be added an ongoing debate over when and how -- or, indeed, whether -- armed intervention for humanitarian purposes makes moral and practical sense.

After Somalia, after Haiti, after Bosnia, after Rwanda, after Kosovo, after East Timor, after Chechnya -- after all these widely varying instances of action or inaction, does "humanitarian intervention" have a future? And how do we ensure that humanitarian intervention, if and when it occurs, does not bring about more harm than good?

New! Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- April 14, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

Round Two -- April 11, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

Round One -- April 6, 2000
Robert D. Kaplan | Edward Luttwak | David Rieff | Benjamin Schwarz

What do you think?

Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.

Cullen Murphy is the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the author of, most recently, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.