For months now, Gov. George W. Bush and his senior foreign policy advisors have complained that the U.S. military is overextended and engaged in too many peacekeeping operations. As a general statement, the charge is without much merit. The U.S. deploys substantial forces in only six foreign locations: Germany, Japan, Korea, the Pacific, the Persian Gulf region and the Balkans.
It is this last deployment that has drawn Bush’s ire, even though the 10,000 U.S. troops in the Balkans represent less than 1% of the U.S. military and only a small fraction of what our NATO partners in Europe deploy in the region. Why withdraw this small U.S. presence when doing so would have little impact on readiness or morale? The answer has not been clear. Until now.
In a remarkably candid interview with the New York Times, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s chief foreign policy advisor, called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Balkans as part of a “new division of labor” under which the U.S. would “handle a showdown in the Gulf, mount the kind of force that is needed to protect Saudi Arabia and deter a crisis in the Taiwan Strait” while Europe would be asked to do peacekeeping on its own.
If implemented, the idea of a new division of labor within NATO would be disastrous. It would undermine the unique U.S. leadership role in the Balkans, weaken our most successful alliance to the point of irrelevance and shift the burden of maintaining global stability almost completely onto the United States.
Once the U.S. withdraws its small number of troops from the Balkans, it will be impossible to maintain our leading role in bringing peace and stability to that critical European region. And, let there be no mistake, that leadership role was absolutely crucial. For three years, as war engulfed the former Yugoslavia, the United States stood by watching as hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions were forced from their homes in what was Europe’s most brutal conflict since the end of World War II.
In 1995, the Clinton administration decided that the U.S. would have to lead to end the fighting. It has done so ever since, and with notable successes. American leadership ended the war in Bosnia, prevented a calamity in Kosovo and tightened the noose around Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, which helped oust him from power. Now, at the pinnacle of success, is not the time to change a successful U.S. policy.
A new division of labor also would fatally undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, perhaps even resulting in its dissolution. The primary purpose of NATO today is not to stand guard against a nonexistent threat to its members’ territory, but to strengthen European security and stability wherever it is threatened. For the past decade, the principal threat to Europe’s stability has come from the Balkans, which is why NATO’s involvement there is now one of its core missions.
A U.S. withdrawal from this core NATO mission would come at great cost to the alliance. It would shatter the concept of shared risk that has united the allies for more than 50 years. And the Europeans, now much less certain about the American commitment to Europe’s security, increasingly will hedge their bets by focusing their efforts on building up the European Union—including its budding defense arm—as the primary security organization in all of Europe. Over time, NATO would be little more than an empty shell.
Finally, even though Bush and his advisors repeatedly warn that the U.S. military already is stretched too thin, the Bush proposal would increase rather than reduce the U.S. burden to keep the peace around the globe. The division of labor implies that while Europeans concentrate on peacekeeping in the Balkans, the U.S. would meet the multitude of threats around the globe on its own.
Rather than standing alone, the United States needs a strong strategic partner to confront threats to common interests. Our interest is in strengthening Europe’s military capacity to act with us in Europe—and beyond. If, to encourage Europe to improve its capacity to act, we keep a small number of troops in the Balkans alongside the much larger European commitment, then that is a small price to pay.
The United States does not need a new division of labor with Europe; it needs a strong and self-confident partner willing to share in the risks and burdens of promoting our joint security. Withdrawing our troops from the Balkans is unlikely to get us there.