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'Ethnic Conflicts and U.S. National Interests'

by Thomas Ambrosio, Assistant Professor of Political Science, North Dakota State University.

This article appeared in ECRD Volume 4, Number 2 (September 2001)

REVIEWING: Donald NUECHTERLEIN, America Recommitted: A Superpower Reassesses Its Role in a Turbulent World (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Second Edition) 326 pp. Index. Pb.:$19.00; ISBN 0-8131-9005-3; and Thomas W. LIPPMAN, Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy (Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 2000) 372pp. Biblio. Index. Pb.: ,16.50; ISBN 0-8133-9767-7.

American policymakers may well rue the day that the Cold War ended. When confronted with the complexity of ethnic conflicts, the difficult questions of whether, when, and how to intervene in communal wars makes the confrontation against the Soviet Union seem almost simple by comparison. As the possibility of an apocalyptic nuclear war recedes into the background, the fracture of states along national lines has come as a largely unforeseen consequence of the end of Cold War stability. The very breadth of cases where ethnicity has become politicized, spanning every continent and type of state, has left may foreign policy decision makers with little to guide them but gut instinct, antiquated foreign policy concepts, and a desperateness to do something.

Nuechterlein's America Recommitted and Lippman's Madeleine Albright and the New American Diplomacy address these difficult issues. While the scope of both of these works is broad, this review essay will primarily focus on what they have to tell us about U.S. foreign policy toward ethnic conflicts. In doing so, it addresses two central questions. Do traditional conceptions of national interests (as expressed by Nuechterlein) apply in the post-Cold War era, especially in regard to communal violence? How did Madeleine Albright's foreign policy reflect (or fail to reflect) a well-conceived notion of America's national interest in preventing or halting ethnic conflicts?

America Committed is a tour-de-force through U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War and beyond. In some 300 pages, Nuechterlein addresses an impressive number of issues including U.S.-Soviet relations, provides three chapters which are region specific (North and South America, East Asia, Europe and USSR), and includes two chapters on the post-Cold War period. Nuechterlein's book is hampered, however, by the fact that it is a second edition in which the post-1990 world appears tacked on and the regional case studies almost exclusively address the security environment of 1990. Nevertheless, he provides some useful insights into the definition of national interests and its application by the United States. Moreover, his chapters on the post-Cold War period are excellent.

Nuechterlein begins by admitting that the very concept of national interests is ambiguous, with different policymakers and international relations thinkers debating over definitions, applications, and even whether or not the entire concept should be thrown out altogether. The author has faith in the applicability of the concept and identifies four unchanging or long-term U.S. national interests: (a) defense of the United States and its constitutional system; (b) enhancement of the country's economic well-being and the promotion of trade; (c) establishing a world order favorable to U.S. interests; and (d) the promotion of American democratic values and the free market system. These 'national interests' are vague enough to allow for flexibility, but specific enough to be useful in understanding policy and changes in policy. For example, during the Cold War, interests (a) and (c) were the most important, whereas the importance of (a) has largely been replaced by (b), given the changes in America's international environment. In order to understand how national interests intersects with a particular dispute or issue, it is necessary to determine its 'intensity' or 'stake' for each of America's four fundamental interests. (17) The results are placed in what Nuechterlein calls a 'national interest matrix'. This may sound too mechanical, but it is not. Instead, it aims at focusing the thinking of policymakers (and scholars) and forcing them to identify levels of interest before advocating a specific foreign policy. It is meant as a tool (and is quite useful in that regard), not a machine.

For example, U.S. interest toward the Bosnian conflict was not one of state survival or economic well-being, but rather the promotion of a specific type of world order and American values. However, his examination of the Clinton administration's policy toward Bosnia identifies a number of problems with not only Nuechterlein's framework, but the very notion of national interests: any vagueness in the notion of national interests will be exploited in order to justify any policy position. While this criticism has been made in the past, it is especially relevant when relatively straightforward geopolitical conflict is replaced by a fluid international system and complex ethnic conflicts. What constitutes a 'favorable world order'? One could make a perfectly reasonable argument, as the administration did, that a world in which ethnic partition is illegitimate is the best. If all ethnic groups are allowed to become independent (especially through force), no state would be immune from fracture and the world would likely descend into chaos. However, the opposite case could be made equally well: ethnic conflicts will merely fester if the international community forces ethnic groups to live together when they would feel more secure (and therefore less prone to violence) in their own states. The resolution of the 'German Question' after World War II, though brutal and responsible for upwards of two million deaths, appears to have worked for Central Europe. While not advocating one position or the other, both could be justified under the rubric of a favorable world order. Even as cogently as Nuechterlein identifies America's core national interests, there is so much room to maneuver that they could become vacuous in the hands of skilled politicians.

This problem is notably acute because ethnic conflicts only very rarely have a direct impact on U.S. national interests. All the arguments about U.S. intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo (two examples that Nuechterlein explores) involved multiple steps before they directly affected even the amorphous 'favorable world order' interest. For example, if the Serbs were allowed to conduct human rights abuses in Kosovo, this could spill over in Macedonia, which could drag surrounding countries (such as NATO-member Greece) into the conflict, and then could threaten the stability of NATO. Even the most parsimonious argument -- that NATO's credibility (or even its very existence) could be threatened by not actively stopping ethnic conflicts and human rights abuses, which in turn affects U.S. national interests -- relies on an assumed chain reaction. While this argument may be valid, it appears to harken back to America's misguided belief in the domino effect in Southeast Asia. Without a coherent notion of U.S. national interests and an understanding of the dynamics of ethnic conflicts, America may find itself stumbling blindly from one conflict to another as it did during the Cold War.

Regardless of the abuses that policymakers inflict on the notion of national interest, Lippman (a reporter for the Washington Post who spent some two and a half years traveling with Albright) illustrates the dangers of when even a vague notion of national interests is jettisoned. In this wonderfully balanced and insightful work, Lippman makes a significant contribution to our understanding of American foreign policy during the Clinton years. He seamlessly shifts from interesting anecdotes about the media swirl surrounding Albright and the relationship between the press and government officials, to a cogent analysis of both Albright's world view and her application of foreign policy.

What strikes one the most when reading this book is how little a coherent notion of America's strategic national interests played a role in the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy under Clinton. NATO's intervention in Kosovo was called 'Madeleine's War' for good reason: she tirelessly built a coalition that military force against Milosevic was necessary, she took that consensus to war, and dealt with the strains of fighting the war. However, the reasons for U.S. intervention were largely divorced from American national interests: "More than anyone else in the administration, Madeleine is driven by her own biography. Time and again she raises the sights to the moral and historic issues. ... In practice, this view of the world has inclined Albright to inject the United States into problem areas around the globe even when there has been no demonstrable U.S. security interest, commitments she has sought to validate by expanding the definition of national security." (97)

International relations scholars have long debated the causes of foreign policy, but it is very clear from Lippman's account of the Albright years (as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and later, Secretary of State) that her personal experiences as a refugee (first from the Nazis and later from the Soviets) and as an immigrant to America, drove her foreign policy. As she had often said, and Lippman recalls prominently, "My mindset is Munich, not Vietnam." (89) Moreover, like many immigrants to the United States, a fierce devotion to the ideals of her adopted homeland became part of her world view. Albright strongly believed that the world was fundamentally torn between the forces of good and evil and that the United States had not only an obligation to intervene against evil, but the unique moral standing to impose its own values upon the rest of the world. A number of assumptions were including in this mindset: (a) American foreign policy is inherently altruistic and morally good; (b) the American experience (i.e., its form of government and economic system) is universally applicable and morally good; and (c) doing good things, and promoting American values, were more important than balance-of-power diplomacy. While her views were not totally a negation of Nuechterlein's national interest framework (the 'promotion of values' was clearly Albright's primary concern), these preconceptions made U.S. intervention in ethnic conflicts more difficult and less successful than a more balanced approach would have.

For example, the notion of good versus evil may not apply to all ethnic conflicts. As a scholar who studies ethnic conflicts, I have run into my fair share of partisans (either by birth or choice) who believe that their side could do no wrong and their opponents were genocidal nationalists. While sometime this characterization may apply, other cases are more complex. For example, Lippman cites Albright's seeming inability or unwillingness to understand the depths of Palestinian despair. Her lecture to Palestinian schoolchildren about the distinction between (Arab) terrorists and (Israeli) police actions illustrates Albright's tortured attempt to make the world fit with her preconceptions. Likewise, her Balkan policy was consistently filtered through the lens of Munich. By painting Milosevic with the Hitlerian brush, any legitimate interests the Serbs may have had were subsumed by the Western need to atone for its inaction against Germany. While the notion that 'aggression must be resisted' might make good foreign policy sense, how does this apply to actions within one's own country (i.e., Kosovo)? And this does not even address the inconsistency of bombing Yugoslavia but permitting Turkey and Russia to use military force against their respective minority populations. There may be good reasons for acting in one case and not acting in another, but the disconnect between foreign policy and strategic national interests made explaining it to the American people and the international community more difficult.

Moreover, Albright's belief in the universal applicability of the American system of multiethnic democracy (which many would criticize as hypocritical given the racial problems in the United States) caused additional problems for U.S. foreign policy in the Balkans. The plans for the reconstruction of postwar Bosnia and Kosovo appear to be stymied by intractable problems of rebuilding a multiethnic community. By simply assuming that these war torn regions could become multiethnic democracies 'just like the United States', ignored the issues of whether this was possible and, even if it were possible, how the international community would achieve its goals. Moreover, Albright showed little comprehension of how multiethnic democracy could be the cause of conflict, not its cure. Her repeated lectures to Kosovar Albanians about the need to allow the Serbs to return would appear laughable if it were not the U.S. Secretary of State making the comments. The spread of violence from Kosovo to Macedonia (the very violence NATO's intervention was meant to prevent) and the deterioration of U.S. relations with China and Russia on account of U.S. intervention in Kosovo (though not altogether the administration's fault) further illustrates the mismatch between means and ends when one's preconceptions clouds one's perceptions. As Lippman writes, "The problem...is that such an approach often seems divorced from reality." (121)

In short, these two books are highly recommended by anyone attempting to make sense of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War period.

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