CNN Mission: Peace

American intervention in Bosnia: The evolution of a new grand strategy for America?

From Military Analyst Maj. Gen. Perry M. Smith (USAF Ret.)

January 9, 1996
Web posted at: 9:45 p.m. EST (0245 GMT)

(CNN) -- Since 1989, the United States has struggled to define a new strategy. It is the strongest nation in the world. It is the single and supreme superpower. America's influence reaches into every corner of the world. The United States has the world's largest economy ($7.2 trillion); Japan is a distant second. America's military has no peer in technology, training, talent or combat experience. The American political system, for all its faults, is the model for much of the world. The American cultural influence (books, ideas, movies, music, clothing, etc. ) is much more widespread than any other nation or state. The American agricultural sector is the most efficient in the world and the depth and breadth of American innovative and entrepreneurial skills exceed all others. Finally, in what is probably the best, up-to-date measurement of national economic power, MIPS (millions of instructions per second), the United States share is 48% (Japan is second with 7% and Germany is third with 6%).

In the past, American grand strategy has been one of splendid isolation (from 1776 to 1941) or containment of the Soviet Union (1948-1989). However, the United States did have a brief imperial period a hundred years ago when it acquired many islands in the Pacific and a few in the Caribbean. Also, America intervened in two world wars when our vital interests were at stake -- stopping Germany from conquering Western Europe in 1917 and stopping Japan and Germany from conquering the world in 1941. However, since 1989, the United States has had no grand strategy.

Soon after the Soviet Union fell apart, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Deciding to go to war in the Persian Gulf region was an easier decision for the United States. A vital economic interest (oil) was at stake for America and for its most important allies; a recognized nation-state had been invaded by an aggressor nation with ambitions beyond the control of the small state of Kuwait. The United States did not need a new grand strategy to deal with this kind of violation of our vital interests. However, America does need a new grand strategy to deal with less clear-cut problems such as those in Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Bosnia, the Southern Sudan, Mozambique, Cambodia and many other spots of instability, civil war or chaos.

Although certainly not clearly defined, the grand strategy of the Clinton administration is one of enlargement (of democracy), engagement (with every nation of the world) and exclusion (of the monster states). It is a strategy that roughly balances vital national interests (the realpolitik school of a Bismarck or a Henry Kissinger) with value-based interests such as enlarging democracy and preventing mass starvation and genocide (the idealist school of Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter).

The easy answer to our strategy dilemma is for the United States to commit military forces only when vital interests are at stake. If America should pursue only its vital national interests, there may be very little for our military to do and small justification for a robust combat capability. There are no significant military threats to America today and none likely to emerge in the next decade. If a nation such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq should decide to invade a neighbor, it should be quite easy to pull together a coalition and defeat the aggressor nation.

What is at stake in Bosnia are some important and concrete American interests: revitalizing NATO, ending a war that could spill out beyond the borders of Croatia and Serbia, establishing a closer relationship with the Russian military, demonstrating that we are both willing to use our military power and skillful at employing it in non-combat missions. By combining these concrete interests with American value-based interests (enlarging democracy, feeding the starving multitudes, ending mass murders, rapes and forced migrations) the Clinton administration is beginning to establish a strategy for the next century. Let us hope that this tentative grand strategy is vigorously examined and debated in the 1996 election.

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