Unilateral American Withdrawal from the Balkans Would Be a Bad Idea

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

November 2, 2000

In recent comments to the New York Times, George W. Bush’s national security adviser Condoleeza Rice made the most explicit suggestion yet that a Bush presidency would mean a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Balkans. Providing some specifics to Bush’s vague campaign charge that the United States military was “underfunded and overcommitted,” Rice argued for a “new division of labor” that would have Americans focus exclusively on preparing for major military contingencies like the Persian Gulf or Taiwan Straits, while Europe takes on the burden of regional peacekeeping missions.

Getting U.S. troops out of the Balkans is a desirable objective, but unilateral withdrawal is a bad idea based on a faulty premise. It could undermine American leadership in Europe, damage NATO’s cohesion, and threaten the huge investment made in Balkan peace by the United States and its European allies over the past decade.

The premise of the Bush withdrawal plan is faulty because it seems to be based on the suggestion, made twice by Bush in his second debate with Al Gore, that Americans were bearing the Balkan peacekeeping burden while Europeans were free-riding on our backs. In fact, however, the United States now provides less than 20% of the 65,000 NATO troops in the region, with Europeans contributing more than 80%. The Europeans have also provided more than 75% of Western non-military assistance to the region since 1991 and are taking the lead in providing aid to post-Milosevic Yugoslavia, with 200 million euros already committed. As former NATO commander General Wesley Clark has said, “If we want to be part of this, we can’t do much less.”

Bush is also wrong to imply that the relatively small U.S. presence in the Balkans is responsible for the alleged lack of military “readiness” that he has made a key part of his campaign. Leaving aside the debate over whether there really is a readiness shortfall (there are signs of strain, but Bush overstates the problem), the role of the Balkan deployment needs to be put into perspective. The 11,400 U.S. peacekeepers currently in Bosnia and Kosovo make up less than one percent of America’s 1.4 million strong armed forces, and only about five percent of the country’s top combat forces. This valuable deployment is not going to “degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do,” as Rice has argued.

A unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Balkans could threaten the regional peace that Americans and Europeans have worked so hard to bring about. While Slobodan Milosevic’s ouster last month was a great success, it would be naïve to believe that his departure in itself puts an end to the need for military force and effective deterrence in the region. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, armed communities remain ready take advantage of any lack of Western capability or resolve. In this context, Europe’s growing defense ambitions notwithstanding, an American military presence on the ground remains the best way to convince the parties that any attempt to overturn the political settlement by force would be met with a decisive military response. It is the only way to provide the security needed for political stability to take root. Proponents of a division of labor should look back on the experience of 1991-95, when the U.S. decision to leave the Europeans alone on the ground resulted in a divided and hesitating Western response, a failure to deter the parties and bitter transatlantic recriminations.

Unilaterally withdrawing from the Balkans now could have an equally negative effect on the NATO Alliance. A “new division of labor,” whereby Europeans take the daily risks and incur the daily costs on the ground, while Americans train exclusively for a new war with Iraq or China, would erode Alliance solidarity and diminish Europe’s incentive to support the United States politically or militarily in global contingencies. It would undercut the case for maintaining interoperable military forces, and do away with the one operation in which American and European military commanders and forces get actual experience interacting with each other, thereby building up the trust and familiarity they would need if ever asked to fight together again. Since Europeans could not be expected to give Washington a political say if its troops were not involved on the ground, withdrawal could also mean giving political control of the operation to the European Union instead of NATO, effectively undercutting U.S. influence over Balkan affairs and in Europe more generally.

We should all look forward to the day when American military forces are no longer needed in the Balkans. Scheduled reviews of the Balkan deployments, assuming continued political progress, might well allow further U.S. force reductions, especially in Bosnia. But to just pick up and leave, on the hope that bringing less than one percent of our soldiers back to camp will solve the problems of the U.S. military, would be a bad way for a new American administration to get started.