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U.S. Policy in the Balkans: A Hobson's Choice

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank, Dr. William T. Johnsen, Dr. Earl H. Tilford Jr.. | August 1995

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The United States is already engaged militarily in the ongoing crisis in the Balkans. Since November 1992, U.S. naval vessels have taken part in the maritime enforcement of the U.N. embargo of the belligerents. U.S. Air Force transport aircraft have dropped tons of humanitarian aid to besieged enclaves. U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft participate daily in the enforcement of the U.N. "no-fly zone" over Bosnia-Hercegovina, have shot down Bosnian Serb aircraft, and have been the principal participants in NATO bombing missions supporting the U. N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia- Hercegovina. American planes have been fired on by Bosnian Serb anti-aircraft batteries and surface-to-air missiles and one USAF F-16 has been shot down. U.S. Marines have already undertaken military action on the ground in Bosnia to rescue downed Air Force pilot Captain Scott O'Grady. To the south, over 500 U.S. soldiers are in Macedonia to deter expansion of the conflict.1

Given the escalating nature of the conflict (e.g., Bosnian Serb seizure of "safe havens" and Croatian offensives in the Krajina region), U.S. engagement may deepen suddenly, requiring quick decisions concerning increased U.S. military involvement in the crisis. Indeed, nearly every potential turn of events could lead to an increased commitment of U.S. military force to the region. Potential ethnic Bosnian Serb attacks against the remaining "safe havens" have brought NATO threats of "firm and rapid response of NATO's air power" that would undoubtedly involve large numbers of U.S. aircraft.2

The United States also has pledged to assist the withdrawal of UNPROFOR in Bosnia should that become necessary. Increased fighting, failure to achieve a negotiated settlement, or the unilateral U.S. lifting of the arms embargo could trigger such an operation, involving up to 25,000 U.S. ground troops.3

A rise in the already high levels of violence against civilians could lead public opinion to demand increased U.S. military involvement.4 The current U.S. peace plan being explained to allies, partners, and belligerents contains numerousmilitary "sticks" that might be employed if "carrots" fail to bring about an end to the fighting. These "sticks" include replacing UNPROFOR peacekeepers with NATO forces, undoubtedly including U.S. forces.5 Should a peace settlement be brokered, the United States has committed to providing upwards of 25,000 personnel to participate in peacekeeping operations.6 In short, the United States may be inexorably drawn into increased military engagement in the Balkans.

Before U.S. political leaders make their decisions on whether (or more likely, when and how) to increase U.S. military involvement, they must factor a number of complicating considerations into their deliberations.7 First, Bosnian Serbs and Serbia are likely to see any increased NATO or U.S. military commitment as directed against them. Second, the government of Bosnia-Hercegovina is likely to view increased U.S. engagement as a guarantee of Bosnia's existence and sovereignty, thereby bolstering the will to resist. Third, Serbia will undoubtedly perceive increased U.S. engagement as a threat to Serbian interests, precipitating a Serbian reaction that could lead to intervention by the Yugoslav Army and a widening of the war. Fourth, other states in the region and Russia may view increased U.S. or NATO military activities as a commitment to a Balkan-wide security system.

Decisionmakers also must look beyond the current crisis and fit Bosnia into the larger pattern of U.S. interests and policy. For example, increased U.S. involvement in the crisis could add to existing tensions within NATO, strain U.S. bilateral relations with key allies or new partners in Central and Eastern Europe, or generate substantial repercussions for U.S.- Russian relations. Intra-European relations could also be strained. Understanding the potential consequences of their actions offers policymakers an opportunity to identify new or clarify existing U.S. policy options for Bosnia-Hercegovina. To that end, this report will explicate the wider issues involved in the current and potential U.S. engagement in the Balkan crisis to establish a broader framework for the strategic decisions facing the United States. To provide this context, the report addresses four major questions overarching the ongoing crisis in the Balkans:

  • What are the key principles that the United States wishes to uphold?
  • What are U.S. objectives concerning the conflict, and are they mutually reinforcing or in conflict?
  • Under what conditions should the United States apply military force to achieve those objectives?
  • What are the potential consequences inherent in the use of military power?


As the foregoing discussion indicates, 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?including staying on the present course. 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 aneven more proactive role in conflict resolution efforts, for much more is at stake than simply the fighting in Bosnia.

Should the fighting spill over the borders of the former Yugoslavia, for example, 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. As discussed above, 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.

Increased strains within NATO could spur European efforts to build a Common Security and Foreign Policy based on the European Union and a European Security and Defense Identity based on the Western European Union. Either result would reduce the U.S. ability to influence events in Europe?especially if combined with a withering of NATO; an outcome certainly not in long-term U.S. interests.

Continued 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 ineffectualness 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.

Whether a creative and decisive application of U.S. military power could contribute to a satisfactory conclusion to the war without causing more harm than good is unknown and probably unknowable at this juncture. In the wake of its experiences in Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia, the United States understands that there are limits to what even great powers can accomplish. Memories of these ordeals, especially when combined with the frustrations resulting from past efforts to resolve the apparently intractable Balkan tragedy, temper any inclination to use military power.

Continued frustration at apparently ineffective economic and diplomatic initiatives, and a reluctance to use military power to force a resolution of the crisis might tempt the United States to withdraw from efforts to end the fighting. But the United States cannot simply throw up its collective hands and walk away.

Frustrating as the crisis in the Balkans may be, and even if new efforts fall short, the larger issues involved require continued U.S. engagement. The consequences for U.S. European and global security interests are too great. Moreover, the first major setback of the war for ethnic Serbs has changed conditions sufficiently to offer an opening for flexible and innovative approaches to end the fighting. This is a welcome opportunity and the United States must make the most of it.

Because so much is at stake, the United States must use this opportunity to reassess its policies for ending the war in Bosnia. This reassessment must take into account not only the changed conditions on the ground in the former Yugoslavia, but also larger U.S. European and global security interests. This may require, for example, that the United States reconsider whether continued pursuit of the goal of restoring the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Hercegovina serves either its short-term objective of stopping the fighting or long-term U.S. European and global security interests. In short, while it may be simplistic to say it, any decisions concerning further U.S. involvement in the Bosnian war must be framed in light of the broader consequences, and not simply to accommodate exigencies of the day.


1. The United States began participating in maritime enforcement in July 1992. U.S. participation in Operation SKY MONITOR began in October 1992, and became Operation DENY FLIGHT in April 1993. U.S aircraft supporting NATO operations shot down four Serbian aircraft in February 1994. The first close air support missions occurred in March 1993. U.S. soldiers first deployed to Macedonia under Operation ABLE SENTRY in July 1993.

2. The quotation is taken from Press Statement by the Secretary General Following North Atlantic Council Meeting on July 25, 1995, NATO Information Service, p. 1, as evidenced by the waves of NATO airstrikes and the high U.S. level of participation that commenced on August 29, 1995.

3. See, e.g., Ann Devroy and Bradley Graham, "Seeking to Reassure Europe, Clinton Alarmed Congress," The Washington Post, June 5, 1995, p. 1.

4. For example, a broad coalition of 27 groups that normally support only peaceful initiatives has called for U.S. and western military forces to protect the remaining Bosnian "safe havens" and to take military action to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid in Bosnia. Dana Priest, "Coalition Calls for Action in Bosnia," The Washington Post, August 1, 1995, p. 14.

5. Potential "carrots" include a land swap that would favor each side, lifting sanctions against Serbia, and a "mini-Marshall Plan" for Bosnia. "Sticks" include, if Serbs refuse, lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia and replacing UNPROFOR with NATO troops. Should the Bosnians refuse to accede to the terms of the plan, UNPROFOR could be withdrawn and the embargo lifted against all sides. See various reports in e.g., Ann Devroy, "Europeans Respond Favorably to Ideas for Bosnia Settlement, Clinton Is Told," The Washington Post, August 16, 1995, pp. 1, 26; and "U.S. Talks with Serb President ?Useful,'" The Washington Times, August 18, 1995, p. 13.

6. The United States first announced it would provide peacekeeping forces in the wake of a negotiated settlement in February 1993. See, for instance, Elaine Sciolino, "U.S. Backs Bosnian Peace Plan; Serbs May Keep Occupied Land," The New York Times, February 11, 1993, p. A1. The numbers of troops have fluctuated, but 25,000 has been articulated since September 1993. See, e.g., John Lancaster and Daniel Williams, "U.S. Shapes Terms For Role in Bosnia," The Washington Post, September 26, 1993, p. A1. Changes in the situation in Bosnia and Croatia may reduce the required U.S. commitment. See Eric Schmitt, "Fortunes of Bosnian War Ease U.S. Military Tasks," The New York Times, August 21, 1995, p. 6; and "Administration Retreats from Troop Plan for Bosnia," The Washington Post, August 28, 1995, p. A24.

7. Administration officials have begun to hint that U.S. troops will be dispatched to the region in 1996, either to assist in an UNPROFOR withdrawal or to implement a peace settlement. Schmitt, "Fortunes of Bosnian War Ease, U.S. Military Tasks," p. 6.