From Sarajevo to Sarajevo in Three Generations

November 07, 1993|By WARREN I. COHEN

Seventy-five years ago, Nov. 11, 1918, we celebrated an armistice ending a world war that began in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Today the horrors being endured by the residents of that city symbolize the persistence of evil in human affairs, the ability of men and women to inflict misery on each other in the name of nationalism, ethnic purity or religious hatred.

There are, however, important lessons to be learned from our experiences since 1918. First, international organizations can be enormously helpful, but they are not panaceas; the world's problems cannot be dumped on them.

Second, if the next generation of Americans is to enjoy a world in which democratic values are to thrive, in which human rights are to be respected, the United States must lead.

Third, the limits of American power and wisdom must be recognized. It must be understood that some of the world's problems are intractable, not amenable to American intervention, and that it is inherently unwise to intercede in the internal affairs of peoples whose grievances and allegiances are hardly comprehended.

President Clinton and his advisers are doing a first-rate job of identifying the threats to the vital interests of the United States. They are attempting to shore up the economy that is the foundation of American power. Externally, they have focused their attention and their efforts on coping with the problems posed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continued existence of hostile elements and nuclear weapons within the territories once ruled from Moscow. They have recognized the danger posed by allowing China to become a rogue nation, violating its international obligations with impunity and mistreating its own people at home.

If they have done less well with problems like those of Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti, it is precisely because no vital interest of the United States is directly threatened in any of these countries, and we are unwilling to risk the lives of our children for the ideals we espouse.

For most Americans, Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti are tragedies best ignored, places to which American servicemen and women must not be sent to fight and die. Most would agree that the Serbs should be stopped, that those who usurped power in Haiti should be removed, that crises like that in Somalia should be addressed, but few argue that the United States should accept a major role in these "police" actions. Certainly the Clinton administration has not presented Americans with a compelling argument for military intervention -- and neither words nor economic sanctions have proved effective.

But genocide against Bosnia should not be accepted and abetted by the world simply because no one nation has a vital interest in the survival of Bosnia. Nor need starvation in Somalia or the subversion of the democratic experiment in Haiti be tolerated. The United States, working closely with other democratic states, with the United Nations, with regional powers like the Organization of American States and NATO, can make a difference.

When Sarajevo first attracted U.S. attention, Woodrow Wilson was president. He learned during his years in office that America had neither the power nor the will to right wrongs in distant lands where major national interests were not threatened directly. He concluded that an international organization, through which the nations of the world acted collectively, could create a just world order. He wanted the United States to join the League of Nations, predecessor of the United Nations, and provide the leadership that its economic and military power permitted. But the United States did not join, and it did not lead.

Even without the United States, the League, led by Great Britain and France, succeeded in coping with a host of complex problems in the 1920s. But in 1931-1932, when the Japanese military seized total control of China's northeast provinces and created the puppet state of Manchukuo, the League without the United States was immobilized. Collective security proved to be a sham for the victims of Japanese aggression, as the British and French proved unwilling to sacrifice the lives of their young men to obtain justice for China.

Unhappily, Americans also stood aside and watched as Japan began its brutal march through China. It was, after all, the depths of the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover and his advisers did not need to be told that the economy came first, that the depression constituted the most grave threat to democracy in America. Nor did their successors, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt disagree -- until the late 1930s, when full-scale war in Europe as well as in China, threatened the vital interests of the United States.

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