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Deciphering the Balkan Enigma: Using History to Inform Policy

Authored by Dr. William T. Johnsen. | November 1995

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The statesman must cross the Rubicon not knowing how deep and turbulent the river is, nor what he will find on the other side . . . He must face the impenetrable darkness of the future and not flinch from walking into it, drawing the nation behind him.
?Hans J. Morganthau281

Pressures are building for a stronger U.S. military intervention in the former Yugoslavia, to include the introduction of ground troops. Before such steps are taken, policymakers must recognize several key points. First, whether we admit it or not, the United States is already involved. Second, there are no easy answers to the many Balkan conundra and potential long-term solutions could be painful. Third, all alternatives have consequences: some intended, others unintended. Decisionmakers must be fully cognizant of the former and identify as many as possible of the latter. Fourth, all short-term options are flawed: each has drawbacks, costs, and risks that must be weighed against the potential gains. Fifth, there is no agreed-upon script on how these options will play out. Policymakers, therefore, must understand the second and third order consequences of their decisions and must be prepared to implement alternatives. Finally, the American public must be made aware of the U.S. interests involved, and the risks inherent in increased U.S. intervention in the conflict.

To assess the potential consequences of U.S. involvement, policymakers and the public can first turn to the general criteria for the employment of U.S. forces laid out in A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement:

  • Have we considered nonmilitary means that offer a reasonable chance of success?
  • Is there a clearly defined, achievable mission?
  • What is the environment of risk we are entering?
  • What is needed to achieve our goals?
  • What are the potential costs?human and financial ?of the engagement?
  • Do we have reasonable assurance of support from the American people and their elected representatives?
  • Do we have time lines that will reveal the extent of success or failure, and, in either case, do we have an exit strategy? 282

Not included within the criteria spelled out in A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement are a number of additional questions that merit reflection.

  • What are the specific political objectives to be achieved in Bosnia-Hercegovina? What is the desired end state of the conflict? How do these objectives contribute to U.S. objectives for the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, as a whole? How will they affect U.S. relations with European allies and partners? What are the potential effects on U.S.-Russian relations?
  • Will the employment of military power help achieve national objectives?
  • What are the appropriate military ends, ways, and means to achieve political objectives?
  • Will allies or partners join, or at least endorse, the U.S. resort to military force?
  • How long and to what extent is the United States willing to commit forces to the region?

The reasons for asking these questions deserve repeating. If policymakers do not clearly understand their goals and the possible directions their decisions may take them, the United States runs the risk of its policy being controlled by, rather than controlling, events. As former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara noted in his recent book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, the failure to ask the difficult questions about policy, questions the answers to which were bound to be unsettling, allowed the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to make decisions based on addressing short-term crises. "Over and over again . . . we failed to address the fundamental issues; our failure to identify them was not recognized; and deep-seated disagreements among the president's advisers about how to proceed were neither surfaced nor resolved."283 Thus, if not careful, the United States could be incrementally drawn into the miasma of the Balkans with no clear idea of how it got there or how it can get out.

Answering such difficult questions, particularly given the number of weighty issues, is not an easy task. And, a comprehensive answer to each question is beyond the constraints of this monograph. Nonetheless, the issue of U.S. national interests in the ongoing crisis in the Balkans deserves some attention. The United States has a vital interest in ensuring a peaceful and stable Europe, and the ongoing wars in the former Yugoslavia represent a significant threat to that goal.

Should the fighting spill over the borders of the former Yugoslavia, the stability and security of the entire Balkan peninsula may be at risk. This disequilibrium could set back the development of newly emerging market-based democracies in the region that have struggled successfully, to date, to change their national and international behavior. An expanded war also would likely involve Greece and Turkey?two key U.S. and NATO allies? probably on opposite sides. The ramifications for Balkan security and NATO would be significant.

Instability in the Balkans naturally influences security within the remainder of Europe. Most immediately, a massive exchange of populations could generate a wave of refugees that destabilizes the region. Of greater importance, perhaps, prolonged strife in the Balkans could strain relations between Western Europe and Russia, as well as between the United States and Russia. This could lead to a nationalization of security agendas throughout Eastern Europe, which would have cascading effects for security agendas in Central and Western Europe, as well.

Continued war in the Balkans also holds significant potential to increase strains within NATO. Differences with key NATO allies over the course of policy regarding Bosnia already have placed a heavy strain on relations within the Alliance. These tensions could be exacerbated by continued stagnation of the peace process, escalation of the fighting to include Greece and Turkey, or the withdrawal of British, French, or other NATO forces from UNPROFOR.

Ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia is also likely to diminish support within the United States for substantial U.S. engagement in international affairs. The apparent ineffectiveness of the United Nations, and the intramural squabbling within NATO could undermine U.S. public support for both of those key security organizations; thereby undercutting the larger role anticipated for these institutions in supporting and promoting U.S. security interests.

The inability of the United States to shape a resolution of the war in the former Yugoslavia is likely to have additional indirect consequences for U.S. global security interests. Should nations question the depth of U.S. commitment to security and stability or its willingness to confront aggression, U.S. influence might be undermined in key areas of the world. At the same time, potential opponents might perceive that they could challenge U.S. interests at low levels without fear of penalty. At the very least, subnational and transnational groups may draw the lesson that they have a fairly free hand to pursue their agendas in this new security order. If combined, these phenomena could have a "snowball" effect that contributes to a downward spiral of U.S. influence abroad. Eventually, the United States might find its deterrent capability sufficiently eroded that an adversary might directly confront major U.S. interests.

Normally, the United States would rely on European states or security bodies to address a crisis such as the Balkans, but few, if any, states or multinational organizations are prepared to cope with this conflict. Nor does it appear that a European coalition, much less individual states, have the capacity or the will for decisive political, economic, or military action to settle a war in what has been perceived as a distant land. As a result, national interests compel the United States to take a leading role in resolving the violence in the former Yugoslavia.

As the preceding analysis indicates, however, there are no easy alternatives for U.S. policymakers to pursue in their efforts to resolve the ongoing war in the former Yugoslavia. Each has its pluses and minuses; each is fraught with risk. But, while the war is complex, confusing, and appears intractable, the United States should not be deterred from seeking potential solutions. In fact, the severity of potential consequences should drive U.S. policymakers to take an even more active role in conflict resolution efforts, for much more is at stake than simply the fighting in Bosnia.

In pursuing policy options for the ongoing conflict in the Balkans:

  • The first priority for policymakers must remain ensuring that the war does not spread beyond its current confines.
  • The second priority is to sustain a viable, cohesive, and effective North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
  • The third priority is to cap the violence, as the United States is currently attempting to do, and provide a basis for a more lasting peace in the former Yugoslavia?and, by extension the Balkans.
  • While arguably a harsh choice, this priority represents strategic reality. This conclusion, however, does not argue that policymakers should assess options only from the cold detachment of harsh strategic realities. The leadership role of the United States has been built not only on its political, economic, and military power, but on American values. As pressures build for the United States to exercise its leadership role, American policymakers will have to factor this critical imperative into their strategic decision-making calculus.


281. Cited in Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., The Diplomat's Dictionary, Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1994, p. 357.

282. A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, p. 13.

283. Robert S. McNamara (with Brian Van De Mark), In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, New York: Times Books, pp. 331-332. I am grateful to Dr. Earl H. Tilford, Jr., for bringing this citation to my attention.