The 1930s: Back to the Future

ON POLITICS

Have you ever wondered how great mistakes in foreign policy are made? If you have, the United Nations, Europe and the United States are currently putting on a textbook-ready demonstration in the Balkans. The show is available on any newscast free of charge--unless, of course, you happen to be part of it.

By not intervening forcefully in Bosnia, the world ensures that a wider conflict will erupt, one which could be easily avoided.

But are things really that simple? Today's conventional wisdom dictates that the conflict cannot be solved by intervention. But for world leaders looking for a solution, some historical perspective may help.

Reading about the events before the Second World War, a few events have always puzzled me. Why, for instance, did Europe's most powerful nations allow Japanese aggression in Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia to stand unopposed? Up until that point, the new League of Nations had succeeded in ensuring that several conflicts did not explode.

Couldn't the great powers see that allowing aggression to stand would only lead to a wider war? Apparently not. Their rationale for inaction against Japan was that Manchuria was a disputed area anyway and that intervention was not practical. Britain and France were consumed by internal worries and not in the mood for a far-flung foreign adventure. When 1935 rolled around and Italy invaded Ethiopia, the League did have the backbone to impose sanctions. But they lacked the will to make sure they struck, and Italy swallowed up its catch.

Sound familiar? It should. In both cases, what was lacking was not the conviction that the aggression was wrong--it was the will to do anything about it. In both cases, rational people said that intervention didn't make sense. And in both cases, those people were wrong. The costs of their mistakes can be seen in graveyards all over Europe.

The "rational" arguments for staying away from Bosnia run something like this (in no particular order): it's a civil war, it's a quagmire, it's not our business. All these reasons have some validity. Citizens of the former Bosnian republic are fighting on both sides, so there are aspects of civil war involved. The mountainous terrain does give the conflict potential to last a long while. And Yugoslavia is a long way from the cozily isolated U.S.

It seems so easy to stay on the sidelines, content with our statements of horror and pleas for restraint. Intervention appears messy and frightening, just as it did in China and Ethiopia.

The United Nations is in a position similar to that of the League in the 1930's, and it appears ready to make the same mistakes.

The Vance-Owen peace plan, currently the only plan in town, does nothing to turn back the aggression or prevent Serbia's military from pursuing its goals elsewhere. For months, Bosnian Muslims have known that the U.N. and Europe would offer them little real hope. They did believe, though, that eventually the U.S. would come around to their side.

President Clinton is doing a good job of shattering that belief. His paltry and ineffective air-drop gimmick is clearly an attempt to deflate pressure for action, partially the result of his own campaign rhetoric, while allowing him to continue focusing on his economic plan. Recent statements by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher make it clear that the administration sees no hope of reversing Serbian gains.

So there seems to be little chance that the United States will alter the trend toward appeasement in the former Yugoslavia. And without the U.S., there is no one else to offer help.

Years from now, scholars will puzzle over why leaders did not have the foresight to alter the path to war in Eastern Europe. The answer will be the same as it was in the 1930s.

If foreign policy were simple, well-meaning leaders would never make mistakes. The great powers did not intend to pave the way for World War II when they ignored Japanese and Italian aggression. Europe's leaders acted in what they perceived as the best interests of their states, but their perceptions were narrow and leaders took the easy short-term solution over the difficult long-term remedy.

Candidate Clinton harassed President Bush for lacking vision throughout the 1992 campaign, and rightly so. Yet on what is the crucial foreign policy issue of the time, Clinton is just as blind.