After the war, robust patriotism, cultural confidence

June 13, 1999|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- History, which lurches along its zigzag path by fits and starts, has had a particularly twitchy period since the bombing in the former Yugoslavia began March 24. The world is different now, but not as different as some summations suggest.

NATO, formally defined as a defensive alliance for the protection of the territorial integrity of its members, has waged a war for, effectively, the dismemberment of a nonmember state that had not attacked or threatened a NATO member. NATO has waged war to affirm certain values, and the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, acting in the name of those values, has indicted, for attacking citizens in his nation, a serving, elected president of a non-NATO nation.

It is emphatically not true that what has been affirmed is the principle that "the international community" will "not tolerate" barbarism. The Sudan may be counter-example A, but there are many other such examples, too.

Rather, what has been established is that the North Atlantic community -- which, unlike the "international community," is not a fiction -- has again proved itself to be more than a geographical expression. It has shared values, political institutions for expressing them, military institutions for defending them, and the will to do so-- with two huge limits on its will.

One limit is that it believes the defense of these values is important enough to kill for, but not important enough to be killed for. Some say the defining characteristic of this war was that it was not a war of national interests, as traditionally defined in terms of territorial security or aggrandizement.

That is indeed an important characteristic: The generally liberal-to-left governments now in power in most NATO nations could only be comfortable with war waged for reasons untainted by calculations of merely national interests.

Potent symbol

The war was, in a way, symbolized by the 24 Apache helicopters that were deployed with much fanfare but never saw action because the battlefield environment was deemed too hazardous. The war was waged for 11 weeks without a single NATO combat casualty.

To achieve this, tactics were adopted that obviously increased the perils of Kosovars under the hammer of Serbian forces, and of civilians in the downward paths of NATO's ordnance. Those tactics included purchasing alliance unity by a pledge not to use ground forces, relying exclusively on air power operating from high altitudes, and dramatically expanding, after two months, the list of eligible targets.

The second limitation on NATO's will is that it will act in defense of its values only in its own back yard. There is a pleasant irony in this.

The "progressive" elements in America who finally found, in Kosovo's sufferings, a cause worth waging war for, are often the same elements who decry "Eurocentrism" in the teaching of history and literature, and in the interpretation of what it means to be an American. But this was not just a war in Europe. It also was a war about what Europe means at the end of the century. Hence it was a war also about America's identity.

An intense century

For Europe, and for Americans, who participate in Europe's dramas, this 75-year century -- what it has lacked in length it has made up for in intensity -- began in June 1914 in the Balkans, where a spark (an assassination) lit the fuse (Austria's desire to punish Serbia) that ignited the guns of August. The century ended in 1989, when one remaining consequence of World War I -- Soviet communism and its footprint in central Europe -- crumbled with the Berlin Wall.

Europe has spent the subsequent 10 years gingerly tiptoeing toward "pooled" sovereignty. Eventually, its advocates say, this must mean federalism, symbolized by the euro, the common currency. All this is being undertaken to make the continent safe, at long last, for its system of nation-states.

There is under way an acceleration of the Americanization of Europe, and not just, or even primarily, in the sense that America provides the great precedent of a federal union spanning a continent. The war has intensified the rhetorical Americanization of Europe. It is now speaking, and hence thinking, as Americans began doing in their Declaration of Independence, as custodians of values with universal validity.

NATO nations are not claiming a manifest destiny to colonize the world with their values. But they will police their back yard with a new boldness. This, many "progressives" will be disconcerted to learn, reflects a robust patriotism and cultural confidence that is not bashful about claiming moral superiority in the hierarchy of nations.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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