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World View: The Bosnian Peace Agreement

November 30, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to a central point underlying the U.S. mission to Bosnia; that there can be no peace agreements like the one in Bosnia and no peace on the ground without the direct involvement of the United States of America. We explore that premise with three men who have written extensively about the modern, as well as the ancient world: Ronald Steel, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, author of the Temptations of a Superpower; Donald Kagan, professor of history at Yale University whose latest book is on the origins of war; and John Lukacs, author of many histories of modern Europe, a professor at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Ronald Steel, how important a development is this that only the United States can make and keep peace in Bosnia?

RONALD STEEL, University of Southern California: I think it’s probably more accurate to say that only the United States will intervene to keep peace in Bosnia. If it’s just a question of 20,000 men, clearly the Europeans have the capacity to do that. But they don’t have the will to do that. And I think this is the crucial element that’s missing. They’ve tried to keep out of direct involvement in civil war. They’ve wanted to help the refugees, help civilians, but to stand aside while the combatants were fighting. They– they were able to achieve this for a time, but the war has continued. There’s been a lot of pressure in this country to do something about it to end it, and now the, I think, the pressure for the United States to intervene has been building for some time, and the leadership, if you will, of the United States was, I think, the crucial factor. The Europeans didn’t want to get locked out of there. They didn’t want this to be an American operation. The Americans did not want–the American government did not want this to be simply a European operation. So I see there’s–there’s two elements there, I think. There’s one that the United States wanted to end this war, the government wanted to end this war. I think for humanitarian reasons it’s also voiced a security argument, which I don’t think is very compelling. I think that’s very confusing. I think it’s muddying the waters here. It’s essentially a humanitarian argument here. And the second one is that the United States wants to continue to play a major role in NATO, and the–to make clear to the Europeans that the United States is going to remain a European power.

JIM LEHRER: Prof. Lukacs, how do you see this? The question–the word “historic” is one that’s thrown around a lot. Is this a turning point of some kind that the United States is now in this role of the maker and the keeper of the peace?

JOHN LUKACS, Chestnut Hill College: (Philadelphia) It’s a small turning point. I thought for a long time that it was a mistake for the United States to get involved as much in what was the former Yugoslavia, that the Europeans should have done it. But the Europeans didn’t do that. And now that this agreement or armistice is cobbled together in Dayton, it’s sort of extraordinary and because of this, I think that given this armistice agreement, the United States must sustain it. If the United States now refuses to go along and implement it, it will be a tremendous loss for American prestige with rather incalculable consequences. In this respect, I’m very impressed–what I saw Sen. McCain say. I mean, he was very statesmanlike about this. On the other hand, what is slightly historic about this, that by and large, the prestige of this country has been declining for the past few years. The very fact that the United States now filled a vacuum means, I hope, more than a temporary rise of the prestige of this country.

JIM LEHRER: Prof. Kagan, how do you read this, this development?

DONALD KAGAN, Yale University: (Stamford) Well, I think one thing we need to understand is what the real character of NATO is and has been from the beginning. It’s–I would describe it in the way that we ancient historians use to describe some ancient alliances. An alliance with a hegemon, that is to say even though everybody is a voluntary member of this organization, even though there are no formal distinctions among them, from the first, it was understood that the United States was the leader of this organization. So the allies have always looked to the United States for leadership. There’s just no tradition, no history of the rest of NATO acting independently. I think we have to accept the fact that that’s the kind of alliance that it is. We shouldn’t be surprised that Europeans were unwilling to act independently but looked to us for leadership. And we need to fill our part there, not merely because of the humanitarian issues, which are of course very important, but it’s deeply in our interest to see that NATO continues to function as a force for preserving peace.

JIM LEHRER: But beyond NATO, Prof. Kagan, before NATO–I mean, before Bosnia came Haiti, came Somalia. All of those were also driven by the United States. Is this the new world, wherever it is?

PROF. KAGAN: Well, I think the great question of where it’s necessary to intervene is always a difficult one, and will never be able to be determined in advance. That’s what we need statesmen for, to make good judgments about particularities. But on the larger question, my own opinion is that the world was presented at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, for the very rare opportunity for establishing a system that would preserve peace over a period of time. We find that there’s only one great military superpower in the world, and it turns out that that power is widely and rightly understood not to have aggressive designs and not to be interested in changing things in its own favor but really having an interest in preserving the situation that exists. In those circumstances, if that nation is willing to accept its responsibilities, it can and, along with the people who feel the same way, of which fortunately there are many, that violence as a solution of international problem is not legitimate. And I think Bosnia is about in a deeper way precisely that point.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

PROF. STEEL: No, I don’t. I think that first of all NATO is a historic fact, it’s an alliance that was designed to protect Europe from Russian power during the Cold War. It was an alliance that is today without an enemy, and what we’re living in, I think, is the kind of after-shadow of NATO, if you will. We’re living with the heritage of European pacivity and dependency upon the United States, the fact that the Europeans have not constituted themselves as an independent power in any way and, therefore, are unable to take a lead in an issue like this; however, I don’t–I think it’s critical for us not to lose the distinction between tranquility and security. The President has talked about our security is deeply involved in Europe. Of course, it’s involved in Europe. It’s historically been involved in not allowing Europe to be dominated by a single power which will then be able to do us great harm. That was why we were in World War I. That was why we were in World War II. But it’s not about ensuring domestic tranquility within every European border. This is–

JIM LEHRER: So what is it about this?

PROF. STEEL: About NATO, what is NATO?

JIM LEHRER: No, no, no. What is the–what does Bosnia say that the United States is about? Forget the NATO part, just the United States. What is it about now?

PROF. STEEL: I think the United States has inherited a role as a leader of a great alliance and it has become the only powerful really super powerful country of the world, therefore, there are tremendous demands made upon the United States by the participants in this war to do something, by the Europeans to do something. There’s an expectancy to do something. There’s also this feeling among Americans that if we have the power to do something, we should do something. What we’re not doing in this country is having any kind of debate about what we ought to be doing, the distinction between what we can do and what we should do. And that’s why I think that this is a historic moment. I think that this is the first time that we’ve engaged in what is quite likely to be a military action which is quite divorced from military security.

JIM LEHRER: From our own security?

PROF. STEEL: From our own security. Previously we said even in places like Vietnam, Korea, that these were important for global balance, Communists would benefit from it if we didn’t help these countries, and that, therefore, our own security was directly involved because we are in this competition with the Russians anymore or anybody else anymore. What is the meaning of alliances? Why should the United States become, in effect, the global peacekeeper? Now that is the role we can play, but I think it’s one we ought to debate.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. And that debate–has that debate begun, Prof. Lukacs? Is that what this is really going to lead to? I mean, is that where we’re in the middle of, actually right now?

PROF. LUKACS: I don’t think so. I think that the present debate within the country is a very short range one. I think in the short run this is, if I may say so, an interesting experiment. It sort of reverses what’s been going on in the past few years. I hope it works. But allow me to attempt a–

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, if I can make sure I understand what you mean, you hope the Bosnia experiment works, is that what you mean?


JIM LEHRER: If it doesn’t work, then what happens to the long–the long range is over?

PROF. LUKACS: Well, that I don’t know, because I’m a historian, not a prophet.



JIM LEHRER: Sorry about that.

PROF. LUKACS: But I want to say something to attempt at the risk of being presumptuous of the longer view, this goes against what is the long range development. The long range development that these three big institutions–NATO, the United Nations, and the European Community–are now 50 years old. They were the result of the world situation after the Second World War. They fulfilled a purpose, but they are all to some extent antiquated, as you know, even NATO, NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. What does the North Atlantic have to do with Bosnia? I mean, of course, this goes back to 1951, when Mr. Atchison included Greece and Turkey into NATO, which I think was probably a geographical misnomer. The United Nations is certainly not united. It’s certainly not an assembly of nations but simply a compendium of governments. The European Community is not a community. It’s an economic organization with a very, very vague and unknown political future. We have to think about that. You see, the United States in a way is now, is an exception, the Bosnian thing, withdrawing from Europe. We have fewer European bases; we have fewer troops in Europe than we had five or ten years ago. The entire movement of the United States, the composition of the American population is moving westward, away from Europe. It is a new age that’s beginning. That is the long range development. To some extent, this short range development of Bosnia goes in the opposite direction. I welcome it. I hope it works. What’s going to happen in the long run I do not know.

JIM LEHRER: Prof. Kagan, what do you see in terms of the United States long range as a result of what this Bosnia–call it an experiment–call it whatever you would like?

PROF. KAGAN: Well, it depends how it plays out. I see the–

JIM LEHRER: It has to be successful or it will mean–

PROF. KAGAN: The results will be very bad news in a long range way, if it’s not successful. I think we have to make up our minds that this is going to be successful. The definition of success is going to be argued about, of course. In my eyes, the critical element is that we have to show that we are committed not to allow war to be the way to settle these questions and that we are prepared to use force to avoid that in the–in the extreme situation, if we have to. But I think Mr. Lukacs’s observations are interesting and valuable, and I would just make some distinctions about these different organizations. The one that seems to me to have hope and usefulness for the future if it is used in that way, is NATO. It’s perfectly correct and fine to point out what its origins were and what its technical orientation is and so on, but it needn’t be only what it was in the past. Of course, it can’t be, since it was chiefly aimed at the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist. But it’s clear that the participants in NATO are reluctant to just let it fade away. And they’re right to be reluctant. What it presents is a tool, if properly used, that could be a new element in international relations, something we haven’t seen in the past that could be used to the general good, and I think we need to try to make it that.

JIM LEHRER: But, Ronald Steel, whether it’s NATO, whether it’s UN, any of these organizations, are they all dependent on the will of the United States for them to actually perform these missions?

PROF. STEEL: Well, I think NATO and the way that it’s been constructed, it’s clearly an alliance that all during the Cold War has been dominated by the United States. We were the leader of it, of course, and, therefore, if NATO is to continue in anything like it’s old form, if the Europeans are continuing to remain rather passive and concern themselves mostly with enrichment and the United States continues to want to play this role of global leader, then I suppose NATO is useful. Certainly I think one of the reasons why the administration has been drawn into involvement in the Bosnian war after being so reluctant for such a long time is a concern about making NATO relevant, of–

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think it’s a concern over making the United States relevant?

PROF. STEEL: Well, but I think they’re connected in the sense that there’s the belief that we don’t want the Europeans just left to their own devices; we want to play a role in Europe, and, therefore, we want to do something for the Europeans that they’re not doing for themselves. We protected them from the Russians all those years, which they felt they couldn’t do for themselves. When they worked out a settlement in Bosnia among the contending forces in 1992, we refused to back it, saying that it wasn’t good enough.

JIM LEHRER: People forget that, that there was a peace agreement similar to the one that was negotiated–


JIM LEHRER: –in Dayton by the Europeans.

PROF. STEEL: But we said, no, that’s ethnic cleansing; we don’t like that, we’re not going to–we’re not going to support it, but as a result, the various factions said that they didn’t think it was going to last, and so they continued fighting all these years. But I do think it’s–it’s critical for us not to argue over constitutionality and what should be the prerogative of the President, all the kinds of things the Congress is concerned with these days in the name of credibility. I think there’s something very important at stake here. And this is: Does the United States continue to define its place in the world the way it did during the Cold War? I think Prof. Kagan states it very well. I don’t agree with him, but should the United States be, in effect, the international peacekeeper? I don’t like to live in a world where grievances aren’t settled by war anymore either. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that kind of world, and I don’t think that the United States has the power to bring about that kind of world. I think it would bankrupt the United States. I think it would divide the American people terribly, and it would bring us all to grief; therefore, we have to choose our involvements very carefully, and we have to say, how is this related to the interests and the concerns of the American people? Now, I think you can make an argument for intervention in Bosnia, but I think it has to be essentially on humanitarian grounds. It’s not about stability because Europe has been stable.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

PROF. KAGAN: Could I say a word about that?

JIM LEHRER: One quick word. Yes, sir.

PROF. KAGAN: I simply want to say that we mustn’t imagine that if we just back off from Europe and back off from the rest of the world, everything is going to be nifty. The assumption is you’ve got dangers and troubles if you act, but none if you don’t act.

JIM LEHRER: We have made the point that there must be a debate, and we started it tonight, and it will go on and on and on. Thank you all three very much.