Relations with China and questions of policy concerning national missile defense and North Korea have dominated U.S. foreign policy news in the first few months of the Bush Administration. Pundits qua amateur contemporary historians are already referring routinely to the “spy plane incident” as the administration’s first, formative test under pressure. But it’s not exactly true. The initial U.S. response to the flare-up on the Kosovo-Macedonian border in March was the first test, and the administration flunked it. It did so, moreover, in a most depressing way: by mistaking the very subject matter at hand. It mistook a critical case of alliance management for a “mere” humanitarian crisis.
George W. Bush may not have much foreign policy experience, but he knows that he doesn’t want the U.S. military to get mired further in humanitarian interventions, not least in the Balkans. He and his senior advisors favor a Reaganite approach to such matters— Nancy Reagan in this case, as in “just say no.” The administration pegged the trouble in Macedonia as essentially a humanitarian issue, hence by definition something marginal to its intended foreign policy focus. And that is why, despite much tough and blunt talk on missile defense, Kyoto, North Korea, Russian proliferation activities, and other issues besides, the administration’s first instinct in Macedonia was to keep its distance— an instinct that it was not shy to proclaim, and which the Allies echoed. In this early stage of the crisis, NATO did bolster modestly its military forces inside Kosovo, allow Serbian forces to operate in the Presevo Valley buffer zone, and help the Macedonian government with intelligence and material support. That was the right thing to have done; but the Allies seemed almost apologetic about it, giving the impression that they were deliberately doing as little as possible under the circumstances.
Behind this flurry of unwonted activity, the consanguinity of U.S. and NATO-European approaches masks a strange disagreement, best defined as equal but opposite strategic incoherence. Well before the Bush Administration undertook a formal strategy review, its basic strategic instinct was clear. It wants to maintain and if possible extend U.S. global primacy. It wishes to do so, in large part, by ensuring sound alliance relations and by drawing other major powers into the international mainstream over which the United States stands preeminent. But, as Richard Betts observes, if the United States would maintain primacy — both within NATO and over a region abutting an historical Russian sphere of influence — stressing U.S. reticence to act in Macedonia is not the way to do it. (See Betts, “The Balkans: How To Get Out,” The National Interest, No. 64, Summer 2001.) Similarly, if the main European Union elements within NATO want to shift defense resources and status to an EU security and defense identity, hiding behind American timidity when trouble erupts in their back yard is a strange way to do that.
The administration’s instinct to avoid engagement in Macedonia thus contradicts its strategic instinct to primacy. The Allies’ avoidance of responsible leadership contradicts their desire to assert the EU role in European security. What drives the double contradiction is the sour political context of coalition diplomacy, the elements of which are manifest, and which were not assuaged by the President’s recent journey to Europe: disagreements over trade, global warming, missile defense, Russia, North Korea and Iraq policies, and more besides. Particularly germane to the Macedonian case is that after the Kosovo War the Europeans have doubted U.S. judgment and resented U.S. power in the Balkans— hence the acceleration of the notion of an EU-based European defense and security identity. And both American judgment and power are now wielded by a man they trust even less than Bill Clinton.
Since circumstances are not conducive to effective coalition diplomacy, it follows that the allies can agree to do less far more easily than they can agree to do more. Doing more, after all, would force the allies to define alliance leadership and aims in new circumstances, and the anxiety about how such an effort might turn out is almost palpable. This anxiety is so manifest that not even a Presidential declaration suggesting U.S. support for expanding NATO to the Russian border can stir high Alliance officials even to ask, let alone to answer, the elementary questions one would think necessary to raise: What are NATO’s principal military missions and how would expansion affect the alliance’s ability to achieve them? How does expansion affect what the U.S. role in Europe is and ought to be, and how does that role elide with the presumed evolution of the European Union?
This anxiety reinforces the inclination in Washington, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere to see the Macedonia problem as a humanitarian crisis. But the Macedonia problem is less about a looming humanitarian crisis and how to manage it, and more about U.S.-EU relations and how to manage them. Thus, President Bush’s instinct to avoid open-ended, high-profile American peacekeeping obligations is the right one— and the Balkans mess overall proves it. But the place for exercising that instinct is not Macedonia. Macedonia is a multiethnic democracy, and a good neighbor in a bad neighborhood. Until a few weeks ago, no blood had been shed there. The seminal error of U.S. military engagement in the Balkans notwithstanding, the United States cannot say it supports multiethnic democracy in the former Yugoslavia and then flinch when the only genuine example of it is undermined by a NATO creation: the rump Kosovar statelet.
Of course it is true that, had it not been for the U.S. intervention in Bosnia, there would probably have been no Kosovo war, and Macedonia, in turn, would not now be standing on the cusp of disaster. But it is pointless to perseverate over old mistakes. The situation is what it is, and NATO is thus bound to lead. It needs to support the Macedonian government, not lecture it publicly about its democratic deficiencies — a discussion that in any event would do more good if convened in private. Most important, it must credibly curb the rebels’ “greater Albania” fantasies, and in so doing no tactic should be ruled out beforehand.
NATO will not adopt a strong posture without strong American leadership. For a while, such a posture seemed unnecessary. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s mid April trip to the Balkans struck some of the right notes and, for a while, the crisis seemed to be in remission following an application of Macedonian military resolve. But despite the formation of a coalition government in Skopje, the problem has metastasized and, it bears note, a civil war in Macedonia has a greater potential to spread— to Albania proper, and to Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria— than the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo ever did. Washington thus needs to assert its interests, less for the sake of the Balkans or for any humanitarian purpose than for the sake of a strong Atlantic Alliance.
Despite the stakes, until just a few days ago NATO seemed determined not to engage. Both the United States and its EU allies have wanted to be big chiefs in European security but to act like little Indians in Macedonia. This will never do. Administration principals must understand that Macedonia represents a potential crisis in coalition management in which the U.S. and European sides of NATO are underbidding their true stakes. It would be wiser to see the problem as an opportunity to work out NATO issues between the United States and the Europeans against a concrete background and to do that work before making other major decisions, such as those concerning a second round of NATO expansion.
Despite the Allies’ inclination to stay away from Macedonia, the Balkans has a way of attracting attention nonetheless. It is not the “heart of Europe” as some would have us believe; in diplomatic terms, it is more like Europe’s Venus fly-trap. And so, as the shells kept falling and the refugees kept flowing, the Alliance pushed the Macedonian government and its disgruntled Albanian parties first into a coalition government and then into an attempt at a political solution to the insurgency. Then, on June 20, NATO agreed to a lowest common denominator response to the crisis: it agreed to a British-led force of about 3,000 soldiers to implement the disarmament elements of an agreement— but the United States has refused to participate in this force save as a supplier of some logistics. If there is any plan as to what NATO might do should the current talks fail to produce a stable agreement— as is more likely than not— it is not evident. And again, without American leadership there really cannot be a plan proportional to the level of danger in Macedonia.
The persistent refusal of the Bush Administration to take the lead in this crisis could come to threaten the viability of NATO itself, even as the administration urges NATO’s expansion. (Note that NATO would not be at such risk had its credibility not been wagered foolishly in Bosnia and Kosovo, but, alas, as noted above, that is besides any practical point today.) If a full-fledged civil war breaks out in Macedonia, and NATO either cannot or will not exert itself to stop and then settle it, it will cause an entire continent to wonder what NATO is for, and what it can do, in the post-Cold War world. One hopes, then, that the Macedonian episode isn’t the start of something big— like a big disaster for the Atlantic Alliance.