From Sarajevo to Sarajevo in Three Generations


Seventy-five years ago, Nov. 11, 1918, we celebrated an armistice ending a world war that began in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Today the horrors being endured by the residents of that city symbolize the persistence of evil in human affairs, the ability of men and women to inflict misery on each other in the name of nationalism, ethnic purity or religious hatred.

There are, however, important lessons to be learned from our experiences since 1918. First, international organizations can be enormously helpful, but they are not panaceas; the world's problems cannot be dumped on them.

Second, if the next generation of Americans is to enjoy a world in which democratic values are to thrive, in which human rights are to be respected, the United States must lead.

Third, the limits of American power and wisdom must be recognized. It must be understood that some of the world's problems are intractable, not amenable to American intervention, and that it is inherently unwise to intercede in the internal affairs of peoples whose grievances and allegiances are hardly comprehended.

President Clinton and his advisers are doing a first-rate job of identifying the threats to the vital interests of the United States. They are attempting to shore up the economy that is the foundation of American power. Externally, they have focused their attention and their efforts on coping with the problems posed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continued existence of hostile elements and nuclear weapons within the territories once ruled from Moscow. They have recognized the danger posed by allowing China to become a rogue nation, violating its international obligations with impunity and mistreating its own people at home.

If they have done less well with problems like those of Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, it is precisely because no vital interest of the United States is directly threatened in any of these countries, and we are unwilling to risk the lives of our children for the ideals we espouse.

For most Americans, Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti are tragedies best ignored, places to which American servicemen and women must not be sent to fight and die. Most would agree that the Serbs should be stopped, that those who usurped power in Haiti should be removed, that crises like that in Somalia should be addressed, but few argue that the United States should accept a major role in these "police" actions. Certainly the Clinton administration has not presented Americans with a compelling argument for military intervention -- and neither words nor economic sanctions have proved effective.

But genocide against Bosnia should not be accepted and abetted by the world simply because no one nation has a vital interest in the survival of Bosnia. Nor need starvation in Somalia or the subversion of the democratic experiment in Haiti be tolerated. The United States, working closely with other democratic states, with the United Nations, with regional powers like the Organization of American States and NATO, can make a difference.

When Sarajevo first attracted U.S. attention, Woodrow Wilson was president. He learned during his years in office that America had neither the power nor the will to right wrongs in distant lands where major national interests were not threatened directly. He concluded that an international organization, through which the nations of the world acted collectively, could create a just world order. He wanted the United States to join the League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, and provide the leadership that its economic and military power permitted. But the United States did not join, and it did not lead.

Even without the United States, the League, led by Great Britain and France, succeeded in coping with a host of complex problems in the 1920s. But in 1931-1932, when the Japanese military seized total control of China's northeast provinces and created the puppet state of Manchukuo, the League without the United States was immobilized. Collective security proved to be a sham for the victims of Japanese aggression, as the British and French proved unwilling to sacrifice the lives of their young men to obtain justice for China.

Unhappily, Americans also stood aside and watched as Japan began its brutal march through China. It was, after all, the depths of the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover and his advisers did not need to be told that the economy came first, that the depression constituted the most grave threat to democracy in America. Nor did their successors, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt disagree -- until the late 1930s, when full-scale war in Europe as well as in China, threatened the vital interests of the United States.

Americans did not lead in the 1920s or 1930s. Collective security failed, and the world exploded in a second world war. A generation of American statesmen concluded they would not abdicate again. After this war, the United States would join an international organization and provide leadership to keep the peace. It would permit no act of aggression to go unchecked, leave no vicious dictator free to tyrannize the world.

But the United Nations never fulfilled public expectations. It did not keep the peace; it did not punish aggressors; it did not deter tyrants. Americans led the battle against the Soviet empire, rallied their friends, tormented their enemies. These were the years of the Pax Americana, when America was enormously powerful, incredibly rich.

These were also years in which American power was exercised arrogantly, foolishly, at great cost in American lives, at extraordinary cost to the Africans, Asians and Latin Americans in whose affairs the United States meddled -- sometimes ignorantly, inappropriately, even murderously.

Vietnam is the most obvious example of the most obvious example of the abuse of power, but Angola, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Zaire are also examples of the fallibility of the men and women in Washington. And these abuses eroded the public and legislative support essential for a successful foreign policy in a democracy.

Of the many problems currently confronting the international community, only in the Haitian situation are Americans uniquely concerned and responsible. There, the application of overwhelming military power by the United States, in cooperation with the Organization of American States, would bring a rapid restoration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's fragile democracy.

In a situation such as now exists in Somalia, U.S. military power is irrelevant and there are ample alternatives for satisfying humanitarian imperatives. To the extent force is needed in such cases, the United Nations must be allowed to recruit and deploy an international volunteer army, as advocated by Brian Urquhart, former under secretary general of that organization.

The horrors of Sarajevo unfortunately cannot be stopped by U.N. peacekeeping forces as presently constituted or imaginable in the foreseeable future. The United States has no direct responsibility, but it can and must lead a NATO intervention. We are not as rich and powerful as we once were: The United States is not the overwhelmingly dominant power it was in the 1940s and '50s. But it alone has the strength and vision to lead.

Ultimately, we must decide what kind of world we want for our children. Will it be a world composed largely of stable democracies, unlikely to start aggressive wars because their citizens are no more willing to send their children into battle than we are to send ours? Will it be a world in which crimes against humanity are punished?

Or, will it be a world in which murderous tyrants are free to brutalize their own people, sponsor acts of terrorism abroad, commit aggression that can spread into regional wars, conceivably using nuclear weapons whose fall-out knows no boundaries? The question is easily answered. The problem is to find the most likely means of achieving the better world -- and to determine the price we are willing to pay.

Warren Cohen, professor of history at University of Maryland Baltimore County, is past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. His most recent book is "America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945-1991."

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