A Success for a Reluctant Superpower

March 14, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.--If President Clinton can for a moment take his mind off his Whitewater problems, he will find that he at last has a significant foreign-policy success.

It is fragile, but real. The United States' decision to push NATO into Bosnian intervention has lifted the siege of Sarajevo and been followed by a successful American diplomatic effort to bring the Croatian and Bosnian governments to form a federation. This agreement is scheduled for signature in Washington within the next few days.

The futile Owens-Stoltenberg negotiations were brushed aside by American diplomats, a rebuke to Europe's disunity on the Yugoslav issue and also a demonstration of how badly the program for Europe's political and security unification has gone wrong. It demonstrated that in a case like this, without the United States, ''Europe'' for practical purposes is impotent.

This American-sponsored agreement reverses the European Community's (and later the U.N.'s) effort to end the Yugoslav war through an ever-more detailed ethnic partition of Yugoslavia, meant to pre-empt through political negotiations what Serbia and Croatia were already accomplishing by war and ''ethnic cleansing.''

At Geneva, all of Bosnia-Herzogovina was being chopped into smaller and smaller ethnic entities in what amounted a reductio ad absurdum of the disastrous idea of universal ethnic self-determination. Under the American-sponsored plan, Croatians and Bosnians will collaborate on a limited number of issues at a federal level, while governing themselves otherwise on a cantonal basis.

It is a politically fragile agreement that the Croatian leader, Franjo Tudjman, has agreed to only under heavy German as well as American pressure, and because he has the wit to grasp that Croatia has no future as a European outlaw state -- the direction in which it was headed. He sees that membership in the Council of Europe, and collaboration with the EC and NATO, with World Bank loans to follow, is the only intelligent way to go.

The eventual fate of this agreement for Bosnian-Croatian federation will depend on what the Bosnian Serbs do, and that depends on what the Serbian and Russian governments tell them they must do.

Thus far, Russia's role has been one of generally constructive collaboration with the Western powers. The Serbs have found their fantasies of omnipotence unfulfilled, and their proclaimed conviction that Russia would support them against all the world unwarranted.

There is thus a slender reason to think that the war may be brought to an end, or at least to an enduring armistice. Several conclusions emerge from the consideration of how this has happened.

The first is that force works and, in some circumstances, is essential. The use of force has transformed the political climate surrounding Yugoslavia. The present American military doctrine of acting only with an irresistible and overwhelming commitment to total victory has been shown to be a misapplication of the

lesson of past wars. In practice this proves an obstacle to the politically useful employment of limited force.

There obviously are cases where limited force may prove insufficient and where political as well as military considerations preclude a larger application of force. That is not -- as often made out in the debate over Yugoslav policy -- a reason for no use of force at all. It is a practical issue that has to be assessed case by case.

In Yugoslavia, there is reason to think that a limited foreign intervention to punish the initial aggressions and bring the parties to negotiations could have succeeded. On the other hand, a massive intervention to impose a solution was out of the question. In the event, the European powers' well-intentioned humanitarian intervention merely facilitated all sides' waging total war.

The most important lesson of the last month has been the demonstration that ''the West'' is incapable of acting without the United States. This does not follow from the United States' advantage in military and material power. In purely economic and industrial terms, Europe is stronger. Western Europe has simply demonstrated its inability, as ''Europe,'' to conduct a foreign poli- cy. Once again it has been demonstrated that coalitions do not have foreign policies; nations do.

Even when a European government takes an individual initiative, despite the hesitations of its allies -- as France did at the beginning of February by demanding that NATO lift the Sarajevo siege -- there are results only when the United States also acts.

In terms of practical politics, there is no reason today to expect this situation to change.

The United States is the only superpower today because the Europeans have made it so. But Bill Clinton's United States remains a reluctant superpower, and its Balkan successes are more likely to disquiet the American public than reassure it. The situation is one of continuing and dangerous Western uncertainties.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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