Can the U.S. Government Do More for Bosnia than for Baltimore?

June 04, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- For 50 years, from the invasion of Poland in 1939 to the fall of the Wall in 1989, the world was too much with us. Then for six years it seemed to go away, leaving Americans undistracted in their debate that produced the cymbal-crash elections of 1994. The debate is about what kind of people we choose to be. Now the world is back, with a vengeance, giving another dimension to that debate.

Before the Moscow summit the president's policy was that Russia must cancel its planned sale to Iran of materials useful in making nuclear weapons. Russia did not.

Trade sanctions were announced against Iran without any evidence that the compliance of other nations will make the sanctions more than an empty gesture.

North Korea resists U.S. entreaties that it return to negotiations about its nuclear weapons program.

RF The president is threatening to impose prohibitive tariffs on Japa

nese luxury cars, evidently assuming -- evidently mistakenly -- that Japan will yield to U.S. demands for ''managed'' trade.

Regarding Bosnia, U.S. policy seems to be nothing more than (in the words of Sen. Richard Lugar) ''a fix of the previous fix.'' Strongly prompted by the U.S.. NATO responded to contemptuous Serbian transgressions by bombing a Serbian ammunition dump. So Serbian forces shelled a ''safe area,'' killing more than 70, and took U.N. peacekeepers hostage. So, now what? No one seems to have thought seriously about that before the bombing.

If what comes next is the involvement of U.S. ground and other forces in the removal or reconfiguration of U.N. peacekeeping forces, that may be the occasion for a congressional debate that will be a timely analogue to the domestic-policy debate. The subject of the domestic debate is a hardy perennial: How much government do we want? The foreign-policy debate also revisits old themes: What is our capacity to shape world events? What do we owe to others -- and to which others?

These debates should proceed concurrently because the growth the government has been linked to war. Political scientist Bruce Porter, author of ''War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics,'' notes that between the founding and the Civil War more than 85 percent of the growth of civilian employment in the executive branch was in the postal service. The Civil War transformed the national government from a minor purchaser in the economy to the largest purchaser. The central government then waned until Woodrow Wilson's ''war socialism.''

The New Deal expansion of government was slight compared to the expansion wrought by the Second World War, which made the government ''capable of assuming the kind of predominant role in American society that New Dealers could only dream of in the 1930s.'' Because of the quick coming of the Cold War, America never really demobilized.

America, says Mr. Porter, has been at war for only 34 years of its 219-year existence, yet all but five Cabinet departments and nearly all lesser agencies came into being during wars or their immediate aftermaths. For 30 years conservatives have praised a weak central government and an assertive foreign policy, and liberals have wanted an energetic central government but a foreign policy only as strong as it could be without relying on military strength.

Perhaps conservatives' skepticism about government -- that Washington can do more for Vietnam than it can for Cleveland -- cannot forever be so selective. Today the country's conservative mood may involve doubts about government's competence to do good abroad as well as at home. The debate about Bosnia will reveal much.

President Clinton's experiences with Russia, Iran, North Korea, Japan, Serbia and with NATO allies concerning Bosnia suggest a paradox: In the span of six or so years the U.S. has become both the world's only superpower and more marginalized as a shaper of events than at any time since it was preoccupied with domestic problems in the 1930s. Perhaps the country has implicitly made a choice that Bosnia may force it to make explicit -- the choice to end a long patrol. Right or wrong, that would be a choice about what kind of people we want to be.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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