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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

September 1999

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The Coming American Retreat from Global Military Interventions

By J. R. Bullington

Ambassador Bullington, a thirty-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service and frequent contributor to this journal, assesses the results of recent U.S. intervention, through NATO, in the Balkans. He believes that, given the failure of the Clinton Doctrine, future U.S. global activism is unlikely. ~ Ed.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the United States has developed overwhelming military power, which it has exercised in an unprecedented outburst of worldwide military interventions. Kosovo was only the latest in a long series of major and minor engagements in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean designed to promote human rights and punish various malefactors.

Current U.S. foreign policy requires this sort of global military activism. The Clinton Doctrine proclaimed in conjunction with the Kosovo War expanded further on an already expansive policy to assert the right to intervene militarily in humanitarian situations worldwide without regard to national sovereignty or United Nations authorization. The only constraint is that these crusades must be conducted with little or no risk to American forces, against foes unable to retaliate.

However, there are reasons to believe that America’s global military activism of the past decade will not be sustained.

The first reason is that it has not been successful. The failure of military intervention in Somalia was dramatic and glaring. Our continued air strikes against Iraq, nine years after Desert Storm, seem purposeless. It’s hard to see any positive results from our anti-narcotics operations in Columbia. Democracy and the economy in Haiti are no stronger now than they were before our invasion. Bosnia remains at peace only so long as we occupy it militarily.

As The National Interest editor Owen Harries pointed out in The New York Times, we must distinguish between the concepts of “victory” and “success.” Kosovo is a shining example of a military victory that was a total failure. We compelled the enemy to withdraw his forces from the field of battle, but the practical results were:

  • A humanitarian catastrophe for those we sought to protect;
  • replacement of one ethnic cleansing with another;
  • open-ended Western responsibility for maintaining an international protectorate in one of the world’s most politically unstable regions;
  • serious deterioration in our relations with Russia and China; and
  • a still-unsettled outcome in terms of the war’s fundamental issue, in dependence for Kosovo.

Paying the piper

The second reason American global military activism is unlikely to be sustained is the unwillingness of the American people to pay for it. Put simply, continued growth in military commitments is incompatible with stagnating or declining military capabilities. Today, our armed forces are already stretched beyond their sustainable limits. This is reflected in declining readiness, reduced investment and inability to meet recruitment needs. To a large extent, we have been living off the military build-up of the Reagan years, but those reserves have now been consumed.

We are thus faced with the choice of an expensive long-term rebuilding of our armed forces in order to meet growing global commitments, or reducing those commitments. The optimal solution would be to do both, rebuilding forces while shedding some commitments and avoiding new ones. However, given historical precedents of military decline following the end of wars, and in the absence of a clear-cut foreign threat, Congressional financial support for a sustained build-up looks unlikely. Therefore, we will have to limit our commitments.

Adversaries’ reactions

The third reason for fewer American military interventions in coming years is the developing reaction of our potential adversaries to U.S. global military power and our use of it in places such as Kosovo.

In Russia, the pro-Western reformers have lost power. The pendulum is swinging back, as often before in Russian history, to Slavophile xenophobia and chauvinism. A more anti-Western leader will almost certainly replace Yeltsin. Primarily internal forces have driven this trend, but it has been reinforced by U.S. actions in expanding NATO, changing its defensive character and using it to intervene in the Balkans.

In coming years, we can expect Russian efforts to reclaim great power status, with increased defense spending and moves to reassert control in the area of the former Soviet Union. This will in turn make Western military intervention in regions near Russia, including the Balkans, much more dangerous than in the recent past.

In China, two decades of rapid economic growth have ended. More than a cyclical downturn, this probably represents a natural limit to continued growth under the present system. Painful reforms, including dismantling massive state-owned industries, will be necessary to rekindle growth. Either way, with such reforms or in their absence, political unrest will grow. It will be met with increased repression and heightened nationalism, mostly directed against the U.S. and our allies. This trend has already become evident, and was dramatized in the reaction to our bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

Seen through Chinese eyes, Kosovo demonstrated that the United States believes it has the right to intervene in the affairs of sovereign states without United Nations endorsement and to redefine national boundaries for moral or humanitarian reasons. With ongoing insurrections in Tibet and Xinjiang and unwavering determination to keep Taiwan as part of China, the Chinese see themselves as prime U.S. targets. These new American policies, they believe, could result in U.S. participation in the fragmentation of China and return to the humiliating foreign domination of the past.

A more belligerent and unstable China will limit our options for low-cost military interventions in Asia.

Sino-Russian alliance?

Moreover, a new Sino-Russian alliance, designed to counter American actions throughout Eurasia, may be emerging. Both countries increasingly fear and resent U.S. power as exemplified in Kosovo, and have much to gain and little to lose by joining together to offset it. Recently, the Russians have reportedly sold the Chinese some top-of-the-line warplanes and two nuclear powered submarines capable of firing long-range missiles, and their political and military contacts have become increasingly frequent and cordial.

A Sino-Russian alliance would mark a major change in the international system, and would sharply constrain U.S. global military interventions.

Finally, it is likely that rogue states such as Iraq and North Korea, as well as non-state actors they harbor and support, are working to develop weapons of mass destruction and ways to deliver them effectively.

The lesson that evil dictators have drawn from Kosovo is not that they should refrain from doing evil—they don’t think of themselves as evil. Rather, they have most likely concluded that they must find ways to deter American intervention in their countries. Since they can’t hope to match our military power, their only option to deal with U.S. threats is to develop weapons of mass destruction.

If a Saddam or Milosevic or Kim is able to credibly threaten a chemical, biological or nuclear attack on the U.S. or our allies, will we be willing to bear such costs in pursuit of less-than-vital national interests? And if such an attack actually occurs, would not our military resources quickly be refocused on homeland defense rather than expeditionary crusades?

For all of these reasons, the Clinton Doctrine will soon be no more than a historical footnote, with Kosovo the leading monument to its failure.


Other commentary in this issue:

Barry Ryland-Holmes on Waging Peace in Kosovo: "Western intervention, however civilized it may appear, runs the risk of replacing the economic imperialism of the nineteenth century with a cultural imperialism for the twenty-first."

Lawyers Harry Inman and Walter Gary Sharp on Revising the UN Trusteeship System – Will it Work?: "The international community has all the legal authority it needs to solve humanitarian crises and armed conflicts around the world. The real difficulty is gaining a consensus on what should be done and how resources will be provided."

Also by J.R. Bullington:

American Interests, American Values, and War in the Balkans (Summer 1999)
President Clinton and his advisors simply miscalculated Milosevic’s reaction to the bombing and were wholly unprepared to cope with the results."

Other recent commentary in American Diplomacy:

Walter A. McDougall, in Religion in Diplomatic History: "Americans have been prone to justify their behavior abroad in Protestant Christian terms, however much they may disagree about what constitutes right and wrong." [Summer 1999]

Amb. Ronald Palmer, assessing the South-east Asian case in Globalism vs. Economic Nationalism: "The 1997 financial crisis revealed problems that the surging growth of the go-go years had obscured, problems rooted in inward-looking development strategies designed for yesterday's world." [Summer 1999]

Elvio Baldinelli on Latin American integration in Exitos y Retrocesos: "La principal explicación del poco éxito de esquemas como ALALC-ALADI y del Grupo Andino se encuentra en ... la fuerte oposición de intereses amparados por altísimas protecciones arancelarias." [Summer 1999]

Elsewhere in this issue:


Focus on

Ralph D. Sawyer on Chinese Warfare: The Paradox of the Unlearned Lesson. "From any reasonable perspective China’s continuity has been cultural rather than political, its heritage throughout one of incessant conflict as different peoples, states, and popular movements fought to control its populace and resources."

Minxin Pei asks, Is China Unstable? "China... will face rising instability if the regime fails to undertake significant political reform in the next decade."

Carl Fritz on China in 1945: One Man's Experience. "My unit was an air service group, and when the war ended members of the unit were widely scattered all over China."

Thomas D. Grant on Taiwan Trouble. "Taiwan had almost all the traits of a separate state, except that it never claimed to be a separate state."

Joseph J. Borich on US-China Relations: Springtime Ice Beginning to Melt. "Since mid-June, there have been several signs that bilateral relations may be gradually improving."

Other Current Articles:

Nicholas Sarantakes on American reaction to the 1960 US-Japanese security treaty crisis, in Alliance in Doubt:
The American media convinced many senators that Japan was on the edge of a Marxist revolution."

David Brown on policy implicataions for the US one year after the outbreak of the financial crisis in Southeast Asia:
"The Treasury Department has played too prominent a role . . . . The Secretary of State should be [more] visibly involved in defining and implementing U.S. policy."

Ambassador BullingtonJ. R. Bullington is Director of the Center for Global Business and Executive Education at Old Dominion University and a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Armed Forces Staff College. A former U.S. ambassador and career diplomat with extensive experience in Asia and Africa, he is a graduate of Auburn and Harvard universities and the U.S. Army War College.

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