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NATO's failure in Bosnia

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Defense Secretary William Perry acknowledged over the weekend that he sees "no prospect" for reversing the broad military gains the Serb militia has made in Bosnia. That public admission amounted to a declaration of defeat for Bosnia's Muslim-led government _ and for international efforts to bring an honorable end to Bosnia's civil war.

Perry's statement also was a blunt admission of the abject failure of the international community to meet the political and military challenge presented by the Bosnian Serbs' aggression. The failure in Bosnia may even foretell the death of a NATO alliance whose core members no longer share a defining common purpose. The United States, Britain, France and Germany were bound for almost 50 years by the Soviet bloc's nuclear and conventional threat, but Bosnia revealed deep divisions in those governments' current interests.

Some of those divisions are based on geography. Others are based on history. Soviet ICBMs threatened Europe and North America alike, but Bosnia has no direct bearing on the United States' strategic interests. At the same time, European governments know firsthand the terrible pitfalls of becoming immersed in a Balkan war. Washington officials occasionally have had good reason for being frustrated with Europe's skittishness on Bosnia, but it is Europe, not the United States, that must coexist alongside whatever governments emerge from the former Yugoslavia.

The tension between the United States' traditional NATO leadership and Europe's predominant interest in Bosnia led to indecision within the alliance. The Serbs, sensing that lack of consensus, have repeatedly called NATO's bluff, and the result has been a potentially fatal humiliation.

The NATO governments never should have invested an iota of their military and diplomatic credibility in Bosnia if they weren't solidly commited to a common purpose. Ineffectual NATO air strikes haven't been nearly enough to deter Serb ground forces, and Perry and other Western leaders are finally admitting the self-evident fact that NATO members aren't willing to make the huge military commitment that would be required to change the course of the war. Meanwhile, efforts to reach a tolerable diplomatic settlement are doomed as long as the NATO governments and Russia are so far from agreement on what the terms of such a settlement should be.

The second-guessing over NATO's failure in Bosnia is already rampant, but the United States and its allies must look to the future as well as the past. The fissures within NATO were inevitable. The Bosnian crisis just brought them to the surface before Western leaders were prepared to deal with them. Western Europe is re-establishing natural bonds with Russia and Eastern Europe that were severed during the Cold War. At the same time, the United States is building new ties with Latin America and the Pacific Rim that may challenge traditional relationships with Europe.

These diverging cultural and economic interests naturally lead to divergent strategic interests. The United States and Western Europe would be foolish to act prematurely to cast aside an alliance that has effectively protected our common democratic values for so long. But the civil war in Bosnia has shown how quickly that alliance can turn into an empty shell if its members are not bound by a defining purpose.