Let’s Get Real

Sunday, April 30, 2000

Carrying a Big Stick

The city of Kishinev, once part of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union and currently the capital of Moldova, is only about 500 miles from the province of Kosovo, which was once part of Yugoslavia and is now officially still part of Serbia. Neither place can be said to have riveted the attention of the United States during most of the twentieth century. And yet there is a curious connection between them, for in each location—Kishinev at the beginning of the century and Kosovo at its end—the United States confronted the question of what it should do when the government of another sovereign state brutalizes its own citizens. Despite sympathy for the victims, the presidents in power at the time, Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton, answered it very differently.

Begin with the events in Kishinev in April 1903, when a pogrom resulted in the deaths of about forty-five Jews, injury to another four hundred to six hundred, and the destruction of the homes of about ten thousand more. No Americans were involved, but the American Jewish community demanded that the Roosevelt administration forward a petition of protest to the Russian government. This Roosevelt agreed to do. It was the first time the United States had condemned Russian anti-Semitism solely on humanitarian grounds. The effect was minimal, for St. Petersburg rejected the petition and the pogroms continued. "For the Jews in Russia we were able to accomplish a little, a very little," the president commented. But "out in the west we always used to consider it a cardinal crime to draw a revolver and brandish it about unless the man meant to shoot. And it is apt to turn out to be sheer cruelty to encourage men by words and then not to back them up by deeds."

Now fast-forward to the events of March 1999. In response to concerns about Serbia's treatment of its Kosovar Albanians, the United States negotiated the Rambouillet Agreement in an effort to safeguard their rights, only to have Slobodan Milosevic reject it as peremptorily as the Russian tsar had rejected Roosevelt's petition ninety-five years earlier. This time, though, the United States did a good deal more than just protest. Together with its NATO allies, it began an immediate bombing campaign against Serbia that produced, almost as immediately, the expulsion from their homes of as many as a million Kosovars. It took two and a half months before Milosevic capitulated and agreed to withdraw his troops. In contrast to what one might have expected of these two American presidents, it had been Roosevelt who spoke softly and Clinton who wielded a big stick.

There has emerged, as a consequence, something that is already being called the Clinton Doctrine: an implied promise that the United States will now assist victims not just of aggression but also of brutality, even if this occurs within the borders of sovereign states. In short, we are now to encourage men and women by words and follow up with deeds. This is, I believe, a more sweeping shift in the objectives of American foreign policy than most people have yet realized.

Fallout from Kosovo

When President Clinton took office in 1993, he inherited a situation in which the requirements of international order and justice were closer to coinciding than at any other point in the century. All the great powers accepted capitalism, most (China being the exception) practiced democracy, and none was committed to seeking the overthrow of any other. The fact that both the United Nations and the Soviet Union had sanctioned military action to liberate Kuwait in 1991 suggested the possibility of a "new world order"—one in which the old Cold War dilemma of having to balance geopolitics against ethics might no longer exist.

The years that followed have made it clear, though, that things are not that simple. No one did anything to stop genocide in Rwanda. Starvation in Somalia produced a United Nations response, but the United States pulled out once it became apparent that its troops could get killed doing this sort of thing. That same reluctance to take casualties led the Americans and the Europeans to allow a series of civil wars to go on for three years in the former Yugoslavia, with horrendous results. And even after the United States and NATO imposed the Dayton Agreement in 1995, Bosnia remained a divided country. Those responsible for the atrocities were, for the most part, left alone. The policy seemed to be "don't look, don't find."

After the experiences of Rwanda, Somalia, and especially Sarajevo and Srebrnica, there was a determination in Washington and in European capitals no longer to avert eyes. So when the Kosovo Liberation Army began challenging Milosevic's control within that province, the crisis there quickly escalated.

It is striking that U.S. relations with bothRussia and China were worse at the end of 1999 than at any point since the early 1960s.

It's still not clear whether NATO's decision to start bombing caused the Serbs to start expelling the Kosovars or whether that had been Milosevic's intention all along. Several other things about Kosovo are, however, clear: The United States and its allies acted on their own without securing United Nations approval; the bombing succeeded in its purposes but not without damaging an already frayed American relationship with Moscow and Beijing; and there is no resolution of the situation in sight apart from the possibility that Kosovo may remain, for the foreseeable future, a NATO protectorate.

What's also clear is that a precedent has been set: The United States and its allies have intervened with military force in the internal affairs of another country to prevent the abuse of its own citizens. The claims of justice appear to have triumphed over the requirements of order, if by order we mean the tradition of sovereign state authority. So what are the implications?

One of them is likely to be, as Theodore Roosevelt feared, encouraging peoples throughout the world who see themselves as—and in many cases are—oppressed minorities. In Kosovo, we backed up words with deeds. We brandished our bombs, to update Roosevelt's metaphor, and we did in fact drop them. It's already obvious, though, that we are not prepared to do the same for the Chechens; nor are we likely to do so for the Kurds or the Tibetans. Is it right, then, to assist some peoples by deeds when words are all we offer others with equally compelling claims?

Kosovo also impaired our relationship with Russia. Still smarting from the loss of Eastern Europe and the expansion of NATO into it, Moscow saw in this assertion of American military might new evidence of American aggressiveness. Worried about their own discontented minorities—the Chechens are hardly alone—former president Boris Yeltsin and his advisers also resented the fact that they were given so little opportunity, before the bombing started, to try to bring Milosevic around. It's odd, now that Russia is a capitalist state and a cacophonous democracy, that the Clinton administration has treated it with less respect than its predecessors did the old Soviet Union during most of the Cold War.

We must not allow our current preoccupation with justice on behalf of small powers to undermine the balance of power among the world's major powers.

And then there is China. The bombing of its embassy in Belgrade was never the principal basis for the Chinese government's concern over Kosovo. That lay, again, with precedents set and encouragements provided. President Lee Teng-hui appeared to confirm this danger when he announced, in the wake of the Kosovo campaign's success, that Taiwan's relations with the mainland would henceforth be handled on a "state-to-state" basis. The logic seemed clear enough in Beijing and Taipei: If the United States went to war on behalf of the Kosovars, why would it not do so for Taiwan? But was this what Washington intended?

It is striking that U.S. relations with both Russia and China were worse at the end of 1999 than at any point since the early 1960s. And it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the cause has been a privileging of justice over order in this administration that has few, if any, precedents in American foreign policy. Should it be a precedent for the future?

Order or Justice?

I can conceive of two quite different ways in which one might seek to enlarge the realm of humane governance: Call them the "inside-out" and the "outside-in" models. Both would accept that there will always be disparities of power, wealth, and influence; that there will continue to be big and small states; that majorities and minorities will exist within them. But there the similarities end.

The inside-out model would work with the powerful to discipline their use of power. It would seek to convince those who possess authority that it is in their own interest to treat those without it in ways that they themselves might wish to be treated if the roles were reversed. Whether through the use of international legal norms or the lure of economic rewards or threatening the isolation that comes with sanctions or simply withdrawing the acknowledgment of legitimacy—something never to be underestimated in dealing with authoritarian regimes—the idea would be to encourage a long-term process by which dictatorships would evolve into democracies.

Can this work? In a surprising number of instances, it already has. It has done so within NATO, where authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Greece, and Turkey gradually subjected themselves to constitutional checks and balances. Spain's 1982 admission into the alliance took place only after it had made an equivalent transition. The whole premise of Ostpolitik was to work with the East German and other East European regimes to make them more humane; and although the results are still debated, they were by no means totally negative. Similar policies have produced similar results outside of Europe: in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and in much of Latin America. And the biggest success of all for the inside-out strategy was the Soviet Union itself, where a formidably powerful autocracy, having concluded by the mid-1980s that it could not continue to live that way, proceeded to change its character profoundly from within.

Such inside-out strategies are, of course, subject to criticism. They make no effort to challenge the sovereignty of a distasteful regime or even to question its authority. There are few if any attempts to rescue its victims, who are told only that they must be patient and that things will gradually improve. It's often necessary to defer to, and even flatter, whatever despot is running the place: You can't expect to convince by condemning. As a consequence, it's easy to look like you're consorting with dictators instead of subverting them. But the inside-out strategy has, in the end, produced such subversion—not everywhere all the time but more often than one might think.

In the outside-in model, one champions the cause of small states, or of groups within states, without regard to the interests, concerns, or prestige of the regime that is oppressing them. The point is to stick to principle: If confrontation results, so be it; if sovereignty is compromised, well, many people think it's an outdated concept anyway. Where the inside-out model seeks justice by transforming those who have denied it, the outside-in model directly challenges the deniers in the expectation that, because they are clearly in the wrong, they can only surrender. The inside-out approach assumes the possibility of redemption. The outside-in approach regards that prospect as naive and those who entertain it as morally compromised.

Can such a strategy work? Some dictators are surely not redeemable: one thinks of Hitler and what the practitioners of an inside-out strategy—we remember them now as the appeasers—had to learn about him. It is not at all clear that Stalin could have been persuaded to change his methods, even though several of his successors were persuadable. We'll never know whether the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan horrors, or the Bosnian atrocities could have been prevented by challenging those that perpetrated them. It's clear enough, though, that appealing to their better natures, as the inside-out strategy would recommend, did not succeed. Those precedents weighed heavily in the minds of American and NATO planners when they confronted Milosevic's intransigence in Kosovo.

In its often short-sighted pursuit of regional humanitarian concerns, the Clinton administration has neglected the larger global geopolitical order.

It's already apparent, though, that our brief experiment with the outside-in approach in Kosovo has created a common grievance for Russian and Chinese leaders. Do they not both now have reason to worry that American policy has shifted from efforts to work with them to achieve reforms to a campaign aimed—even though in the name of reform—at splitting away portions of what they regard as their territory? Does this not in turn raise the possibility of a new Moscow-Beijing alignment directed against the Americans and their NATO allies, not unlike the old Sino-Soviet bloc, the emergence of which marked one of the darkest and most dangerous moments of the Cold War?

Far-fetched? No more so, I think, than Mao's decision to lean toward Moscow seemed to Americans in 1949—a development, we now know, that was powerfully reinforced by the Truman administration's decision, after the Korean War broke out, to defend Taiwan. Nor is such an alignment so improbable when you consider China's current appetite for sophisticated military technology—which the Russians still have in abundance—alongside Russia's need for the consumer goods China now produces in even greater abundance. Actions, even well-intentioned actions, have consequences. It would be a tragedy if our pursuit of justice in one part of the world should set off a reaction elsewhere that could deny justice on a far wider scale.

Finding a Balance

I raise this gloomy prospect to make a simple point: that the pursuit of justice and order ought not to be mutually exclusive. The quest for order at the expense of justice can of course lead to tyranny. But seeking equity at the expense of stability can be equally dangerous. For if we allow our current preoccupation with justice on behalf of small powers to undermine the order among great powers that has emerged since the end of the Cold War—if the great powers once again align themselves in competitive coalitions, as they did in so much of the twentieth century—then the prospects for the early twenty-first century could be depressing indeed.

Actions, even well-intentioned actions, have consequences. It would be a tragedy if our pursuit of justice in one part of the world should set off a reaction elsewhere that could deny justice on a far wider scale.

As we approach a presidential election and the certainty of a new administration, we will need to decide not whether to seek justice but which of these methods of seeking justice we're going to employ. Will we return to the inside-out approach that brought such surprising benefits during the later Cold War, even though this may require postponing immediate payoffs and collaborating more than we might like with regimes of which we disapprove? Or will our quest for justice proceed along the paths suggested by the Kosovo operation—of standing firmly for principle, letting the chips fall where they may?

I don't pretend to know the answer: There are valid arguments on both sides. What sticks in my mind as I think about this, though, is one of Charles Dickens's most memorable characters, Mrs. Jellaby from Bleak House. That formidably well-intentioned lady stood solidly for principle by devoting all her energies to saving the starving children of Africa—even as she neglected her own children at home. What Mrs. Jellaby forgot was the importance of infrastructure: that one must secure one's own surroundings before one goes about rescuing others.


The infrastructure that concerns me is the global geo-political order, which the Clinton administration has neglected in its pursuit of regional humanitarian concerns. We need now to regain a sense of strategic ecology, of how the various parts of one's strategy relate to the whole. Otherwise there's the real possibility that we will, like Mrs. Jellaby, wind up with the best of intentions producing the worst of results.