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The Limits of Meliorism In Foreign Affairs

ISSUE:  Winter 2000

Webster’s dictionary defines meliorism as “the belief or doctrine that the world tends to become better and that man has the power of aiding its betterment.” Meliorism presumes that the world is not hopelessly corrupt, but rather that it can, through proper leadership and motivation, advance morally, politically, and economically. This optimistic view of the world became endemic to this country’s early presumptions of human progress and the concomitant conviction that the United States, because of the universal validity of its institutions, was ideally constituted to lead the world toward an ever-improving future. The belief that institutional and moral superiority distinguished the United States from other countries found its central expression in the concept of “exceptionalism.” This assigned to American suppositions of exceptional virtue and power the imperative of exceptional obligation. From the beginning, however, American meliorism remained largely a private affair, taking the form of missionary and educational work, international charity, and proposals for world peace. None of these activities were peculiarly American; few achieved their declared objectives. Sovereign nations revealed little interest in foreign meliorist enterprises. President Jimmy Carter’s human rights crusade defied the odds; it failed again to achieve the meliorist dream.

President George Bush, emboldened by his triumph in the Gulf; toyed with the notion of a new world order of peace and stability. Confronted with the world’s post-Cold War chaos, he quickly eliminated the pursuit from his foreign policy agenda. But his refusal to confront the genocide in Bosnia and his tardy, reluctant involvement in feeding the starving people of Somalia, raised a storm of protest from those who argued that the end of the Cold War presented the United States, as the world’s lone superpower, an unprecedented opportunity actively to embrace the country’s historic mission to humanity. For critics who demanded principled, consistent, and effective responses to the world’s barbarism, the ad hoc and risk-avoiding approaches of the Bush years assured only the loss of national self-respect and the denial of America’s proper role in world affairs. Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington, in the Spring 1993 issue of National Security, spelled out the unique role that America’s power dictated: “A world without United States primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country shaping global affairs.” Robert Kagan, writing in Foreign Policy, termed the United States the “drivewheel of the international economic, security, and political systems.” Even countries that decried American arrogance, he wrote, depended on the United States as the single guarantor of world stability.

Such hubris and exuberance reflected much of the country’s post-Cold War outlook on world affairs. Not since classic Rome did a single state tower so completely over its potential rivals. American military, economic, and political structures, even the soft power of American culture, seemed to reign supreme. The country had the obligation, some argued, to exercise its apparent power aggressively in its own and the world’s deepest interests. Writer Mark Whitaker proclaimed in Newsweek that its superpower status permitted the United States no choice but to use force, both in its own defense and in defense of international law and democratic values.

Clearly such expressions of global obligation had no precedent in the country’s history. Historically the United States, like other states, had never countenanced massive interventions in the affairs of other countries. Indeed, exceptionalism was never the foundation of an American internationalism that conveyed special rights or obligations abroad. From George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Quincy Adams, all Founding Fathers defined American exceptionalism in terms of what America was at home, not by what it did abroad. American exceptionalism comprised largely the recognition of the country’s constitutional system and whatever rights its rule of law and separation of powers guaranteed. Foreign policy was the shield of American uniqueness, a protection of what was peculiarly American; it was never an expression of external ambition. The country’s early leaders concluded from theory and practice that humanitarian and ideological crusades, with their excessive partisanship, would endanger the American experiment in freedom and democracy. John Quincy Adams, as secretary of state, took the lead in chastising those who would support good causes and revolutions abroad. He declared emphatically in his famed address of July 4, 1821, that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” To undertake crusades, even with the best of intentions, Adams warned, would involve the United States “beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition.” America “might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Why exceptionalism, when pursued abroad, had little efficacy and generally ended in failure was clear enough. It comprised a self-assigned obligation to pursue moral, humanitarian objectives not shared by other nations, except when such purposes served their interests directly. In such cases it was the interest, not the abstract ideal, that produced the required external support. Few foreign writers or leaders would acknowledge any special virtue or obligation that gave the United States the authority to dictate the external policies of other sovereign states—or the right to interfere in their internal affairs. Two central conventions of the modern international order were the separation of internal from external national behavior and the supposition that the actions of a government within its borders were its concern alone—an outright prohibition on interference by outsiders. Thus in the absence of external aggression, internal behavior, however reprehensible, lay traditionally outside the province of other states, unless that behavior was demonstrably a danger to international peace and security. At issue, finally, were the specific means whereby the United States, or any country, could involve itself effectively in the domestic civil strife of others. In challenging America’s deepest traditions, goals based on individual human rights rather than definable national interests simply defied the creation of policy. No country would accept external interference willingly; every such attempt would face resistance, rendering the effort doubtful and expensive.

No one could recommend a body of policies that would guarantee the expansion of democracy at reasonable cost or with any assurance of success. Governments reflect internal conditions, not external principles. Democracy, as Americans understood it, required a set of exacting conditions rooted in society, including relatively high literacy levels and personal security, favorable econonomic conditions, some degree of social pluralism, a tradition of civil participation, and other conditions that were more the exception than the rule outside the industrialized world. Attempts to spread democracy could turn out to be costly and ultimately frustrating. As scholar Terry Deibel advised in the summer of 1993: “If the United States is going to announce as its goal the promotion of democracy, then it had better be prepared either to pay a stiff political and/or economic price for it. . .or be called hypocritical when it hedges its bets.”


Undaunted by the doubtful relevance of American exceptionalism in a world of power politics, William Clinton and his foreign policy team promised that, after January 1993, U.S. foreign policy would focus on the goal of expanding democracy and humane values. During his presidential campaign Clinton asserted that American economic and security interests demanded such intervention because democracies did not export terrorism, were more responsible environmentally, and made more reliable partners in diplomacy and trade. That the objective of spreading democracy would demand the most blatant interference in the internal affairs of other countries appeared secondary to the possibilities and the necessities of the times. In his inaugural, Clinton pledged U.S. action when “the will and conscience of the international community is defied.” There would, he promised, be interventions not only to defend national interests, but also to satisfy the national conscience. On becoming U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in February 1993, Madeleine Albright acknowledged: “If there is one overriding principle that will guide me in this job, it will be the inescapable responsibility. . .to build a peaceful world and to terminate the abominable injustices and conditions that still plague civilization.” Woodrow Wilson hoped to make the world safe for democracy. The Clinton administration set out to make the world democratic and humane. In this endeavor the new president’s central challenge lay in making a case for the pursuit of democracy and human rights in terms of national self-interest, something that none of his predecessors had ever achieved. Yet only then could he prepare the public for the necessity of using armed forces and risking casualties where historic U.S. interests were nonexistent. Friendly countries such as Saudi Arabia feared that Clinton might take his concern for democacy and human rights too seriously.

Clinton entered the presidency boasting that his administration, unlike that of his predecessor, would pursue a consistent, effective, long-range foreign policy. He failed, however, to explain how he intended to achieve the three promises of the campaign: restructuring the country’s military and security capabilities, elevating the role of economics in international life, and promoting democracy abroad. His opening statements on foreign affairs offered no clues. He suggested that the United States carried global responsibilities, but he refrained from defining them. The United States, he assured the nation, would act only when it had gained the support of NATO and the United Nations. He spoke freely of global economic integration and technology sharing. During July 1993, he spent a week in Asia cementing trade pacts with Japan and South Korea. But trade agreements were no substitute for an overall coherent foreign policy. By late summer the administration was under attack from foreign affairs commentators and members of Congress for its timidity in addressing turmoil where Bush had failed to act. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger accused the president of lacking any grand design and relying on ad hoc decisions that added up to nothing. Clinton’s own foreign policy advisers agreed that the president required a larger vision if he intended to enter the ranks of the great presidents.

Responding to the criticism, Clinton asked members of his foreign policy team to find some slogan that would cover the three external goals of his campaign. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake had toyed with such phrases as “democratic engagement” and “democratic expansionism,” but NSC staffer Jeremy Rosner came up with the winner, “enlargement.” Clinton clutched the concept with both hands: the expansion of free states would strengthen the international order and render the world more prosperous and secure. Lake explained to his audience at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), on September 21, that the successor to containment must be “the strategy of enlargement. . .of the world’s free community of market democracies.” Clinton elucidated the new agenda before the UN General Assembly on September 27. “During the Cold War,” he said, “we sought to contain a threat to [the] survival of free institutions. Now we seek to enlarge the circle of nations that live under those free institutions.” For the first time in history, the president added, “we have the chance to expand the reach of democracy and economic progress across the whole of Europe and to the far reaches of the world.” In December, Lake addressed the Council on Foreign Relations: “I believe that in the best tradition of twentieth-century American diplomacy, enlargement . . .marries our interests and our ideals.”


Three countries seemed to require the immediate attention of the new administration—Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. All three countries were small, poor, and relatively weak, far removed from the critical centers of power that had dominated U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Moreover, the administration’s preoccupation in these three areas was not the establishment of more stable international relations, but rather the improvement of social, political, and economic conditions within the countries themselves. For scholar Andrew J. Bacevich the goal of Clinton’s external mission was simply “to convey disapproval, change attitudes and dictate behavior.” Clinton could make no case that events in Haiti, Somalia, or Bosnia threatened the security or welfare of the American people. That Clinton’s interventions carried the burden of promoting American values, not interests, prompted Michael Mandelbaum’s observation that the president sought to convert foreign policy into some form of social work. The proposition was potentially demanding; the world was replete with distressed peoples, the victims of poverty, misrule, civil war, and violence, that had equal claims to American benevolence. Moreover, ending the suffering in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia required the removal of its causes, requiring deep, lasting, and costly engagements in the hopelessly tangled politics of each country. Such commitments Clinton hoped to escape.

Upon entering office in January 1993, Clinton inherited an ongoing U.S. intervention in Somalia where the United States was achieving its fundamental purpose of feeding a mistreated, starving population. President Bush had assumed no greater obligation, but Albright promised more. She informed the country that the Clinton administration aimed at no less than “the restoration of the entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.” Bush’s rescue mission revealed that a few thousand troops handing out food could not establish a secure environment, much less a responsible government. Somalians, no longer overawed by the American presence, became bolder in their defiance of American and UN attempts to maintain security against mining and sniper fire. During August 1993, land mines killed four American soldiers and wounded six others. The president now unleashed a secret operation designed to capture Somalian warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed, try him for murder, and thereafter bring some order to the country. But on October 3, the seventh and final effort by the Special Operations team ended in a firefight that left 18 Americans dead and 77 wounded. What shocked the American public was the television broadcast of Somalians dragging a U.S. soldier’s body through the dusty steets of Mogadishu. Clinton had adopted the quick and dirty solution under the urging, not of the UN, but of the CIA and the Mission Impossible men of Delta Force. The bloodbath sent the Americans into rapid retreat and withdrawal, completed by March 1994. As the Marines left Somalia there were no wellwishers as there had been 15 months earlier. Rather there were scattered shots at the departing soldiers. A small boy clasped the leg of a departing Marine, not in a touching farewell, but to demand $20 that he claimed the Marine owed him.

For many Americans, Haiti presented a more compelling and promising intervention. The country was destitute and powerless, living under an unacceptable military dictatorship, and close to American shores. The United States had occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. The 19 years of American tuteledge had left the country poverty stricken, with perhaps the least excusable government in the world. Untroubled by the long, failed American effort to democratize the island, Clinton determined by 1994 to eliminate the military junta of General Raoul Cedras with a trade embargo that soon devastated the Haitian economy, causing widespread starvation and a steady flow of refugees to the United States. The president’s determination to remove the island’s unwanted regime assumed a zero-sum quality when he demanded Cedras’s capitulation without terms. Cedras, predictably, refused to capitulate. In Congress the black caucus demanded a U.S. military intervention to restore the deposed Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Before resorting to force, Clinton, in September 1994, permitted former President Jimmy Carter to open negotiations with Cedras. Carter recognized some legitimacy in the Haitian government and arranged for its easy and satisfactory exodus. In October, the United States landed troops in Haiti as Cedras departed and Aristide returned. The U.S. troops assured Aristide’s survival and free democratic elections, but little else. In 1998 Haiti remained politically, economically, and socially, a basket case. Its police force of 5000 men was too incompetent and undisciplined to provide elemental domestic security. Its desolate economy made life a nightmare for almost all; unemployment and underemployment hovered at 70 percent. With no effective government or civil service, the political system could not function. Without the support of teachers, lawyers, political parties, and a disciplined populace, democracy in Haiti had no future.

During his campaign for the presidency, Clinton repeatedly chided his predecessor for his inaction in the Balkans. By January 1993 the incoming president had pledged his administration to some form of military action in Bosnia even as Warren Christopher, his secretary of state, urged caution in favor of diplomacy. U.S. inaction continued into the summer while Clinton assured the country that he had not ruled out any options. Such ambivalence threw both the UN and NATO into confusion. European critics condemned and ridiculed the Clinton administration for its lack of effective engagement in the Bosnian crisis. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger reminded a California audience that the flow of unfulfilled threats was destroying U.S. credibility. The Economist (London) blamed the continuing Bosnian disaster on the inability of the American people to agree on anything that mattered in foreign affairs. When Under-secretary of State Peter Tarnoff, in an off-the-record encounter with Washington reporters in late May, outlined new rules of engagement in which the United States would play a more modest role in world affairs, the administration moved quickly to erase the notion that it had adopted a new doctrine of limited engagement abroad. Still, Christopher acknowledged, the United States, even as a superpower, could not always act alone. He explained on ABC’s “Nightline” that the country had a hierarchy of interests. “We can’t do it all,” he said; “we have to measure our ability to act in the interests of the United States, but to save our power for situations which threaten our deepest national interest, at the same time doing all we can where there’s a humanitarian concern.”

Bosnia’s challenge exposed the fundamental realities in post-Cold War politics. In an environment of pervading human tragedy, the West could not define a role in matters of conscience. It declared ultimately that purely humanitarian action was not acceptable. In practice, the goals of democracy and human rights became an ideological veneer for pursuing limited national interests. In Bosnia the United Nation’s capacity to intervene effectively in ethnic and tribal strife was washed away. The Bosnian experience suggested as well that the North Atlantic Alliance would not confront challenges that the United States chose to avoid. Perhaps the West could prove its mettle without intervening in every domestic conflict, but how and when would it act? If not in Bosnia, where? If the United States, the UN, and NATO could not frame a unified, telling response in Bosnia, it was not clear where they could do so.

As late as 1994 Bosnia gave the Western powers the choice between a wider war and humiliation; they chose the latter. For The Christian Science Monitor, in April, that decision eroded not only NATO’s credibility but also “the basic moral and strategic order of the past 45 years.” Analysts predicted a NATO withdrawal from Bosnia. But the Bosnian Serbs, carrying all before them, overreached by threatening Croatian interests. Soon the Croatian army joined the Bosnian Muslims in a telling counter-offensive that sent the Bosnian Serbs into rapid retreat. Supported by Croatian forces on the ground, NATO, in late August 1995, launched an air war against Serb positions that brought the Serbs to the bargaining table in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Accord of November provided essentially for the return of Bosnian refugees to their original homes, the creation of a multi-ethnic state in Bosnia, and the capture and trial of Serb leaders responsible for the genocide of previous years. The occupying NATO forces, led by the United States, maintained the peace, but failed to resettle the refugees, deserted the goal of a multi-ethnic state, and refused to pursue those guilty of genocide. With little resolved in Bosnia, NATO forces remained to keep the peace into some unknown future.


Even as the U.S. assumed responsibility for the economic, societal, and political improvement of Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, it accepted the task of chastising and reforming a number of pariah states that defied the rules of behavior as Washington defined them. Among these rogue nations were Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Libya. None of these countries seriously threatened any neighboring state, but their behavior ignored acceptable international norms. Some, indeed, appeared responsible for the terrorism that too often was aimed at U.S. citizens and installations. As the world’s only superpower, declared Anthony Lake in the March/April 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs, the United States carried “a special responsibility for developing a strategy to neutralize, contain and, through selective pressure, perhaps eventually transform these backlash states into constructive members of the international community. Each back-lash state,” he added, “is unique in its history, culture and circumstances, and U.S. strategy has been tailored accordingly.”

Unfortunately, such adverse judgments of other governments never contributed very much to their reform, but they rationalized an unwillingness to examine any outlawed country’s outlook, motives, and objectives. Washington’s intentions toward the new pariah states, as earlier toward China, Cuba, and Nicaragua, included the elimination of their leaders. U.S. officials could hardly negotiate successfully with governments that they hoped to displace. The rogue regimes persistently defied U.S. sentiments without challenging U.S. interests sufficiently to evoke any resort to force. In not one instance was the American interest in their overthrow commensurate with the price required to secure their demise. The persistent rejection of both diplomacy and force in dealing with unwanted regimes sustained tensions without visible solutions. Except for Haiti’s military junta, all governments that Washington marked for elimination outlasted the administrations that sought their overthrow. Repeatedly the U.S. inability to deal successfully with unwanted regimes lay in the formulation of objectives that were essentially unilateral but whose achievement required international cooperation. When the U.S. was generally compelled to retreat for lack of international support, it did not relieve its predicament by creating the impression that it was being dragged by its friends into acting against its will.

Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and Libya had confounded the policies of previous administrations, but the Clinton team was determine to succeed where others had failed. Washington broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1960 and thereafter coexisted with Fidel Castro even as it attempted, with ever-stronger trade restrictions, to undermine the Cuban economy and hopefully eliminate the Castro regime. What blocked any movement toward official accommodation with Cuba was the perennial determination of congressional anti-Castro majorities to support the cause of Cuban exiles in Florida and New Jersey who favored Castro’s overthrow. Having failed with overt economic pressure to overthrow Castro for 36 years, Washington, in 1996, embarked on a program to eliminate Castro by totally under-mining the Cuban economy. Cuba inadvertently created the occasion when, on February 24, a Cuban fighter shot down two U.S. civilian planes piloted by Cuban exiles. Cuba insisted that the planes were in Cuban air space and had received warnings. Clinton responded by suspending all Havana-Miami charter flights and informing Congress that he was prepared to sign a sweeping embargo bill, prepared earlier by Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Dan Burton of Indiana. Clinton signed the measure on March 12, 1996.

Helms-Burton sought to undermine Castro by denying Cuba access to foreign trade and investment. The policy was doomed from the outset because the United States stood alone in its determination to unseat Castro by punishing his country. The Helms-Burton law contained provisions totally unacceptable to the world’s trading nations. One, already in effect, sought to stifle Cuba’s access to hard currency by barring U.S. trade with foreigners, largely Canadians and Europeans, who had “trafficked” in property expropriated by the Cuban government from U.S. firms after the 1959 revolution. The provision permitted former owners of such property to sue present owners or proprietors in American courts. Even as Helms-Burton went into effect on July 16, 1996, the president moved to delay the application of the law for six months to appease the Europeans, Canadians, and others who opposed it. He assigned the task of securing the needed European and Canadian support to Commerce Undersecretary Stuart E. Eizenstat, hoping that during the six-month delay the administration could coax the allies to join the boycott of Cuba.

The effort failed. The Economist offered an explanation: “America’s friends reject the very idea of making foreign policy under the threat of a lawsuit.” One Canadian official complained that America’s domestic politics had crashed “headlong into everybody else’s foreign policy.” Europeans wondered why the United States would insist in bashing a neighboring island that represented no threat at all. The UN General Assembly voted 138—3 for a resolution condemning the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. The three negative votes came from the United States, Israel, and Uzbekistan. By late 1996 the Helms-Burton Act confronted the World Trade Organization (WTO) with the task of determining whether Helms-Burton served some genuine U.S. interest. For some analysts the issue threatened the WTO’s very existence. Whatever the ultimate price of Helms-Burton, the act achieved nothing.


Simultaneously with the crusade against Cuba, Washington considered similar retaliatory measures against Iran and Libya for their suspected and proven terrorist attacks against European and American targets. The bitter animosity against these two pariah states was of long standing. Washington’s perennial reluctance to act against either of them recognized the opposition of Europe’s major allies whose considerable energy investments in these desert countries would suffer from tighter sanctions against the production and export of oil. Undaunted by such perennial restraints, Senator Alfonse D’Amato of New York introduced a bill that would impose tough sanctions against Libya and Iran by restricting access of foreign companies, investing or conducting business with Iranian or Libyan oil industries, to U.S. markets and other business opportunities. D’Amato’s proposed bill would apply only to future investments in Iran and Libya, but it would imperil projects under way that had heavy French and Italian funding.

For members of the Atlantic Alliance, the D’Amato legislation threatened the strategic relationship between the United States and its European partners by disrupting trade with extraterritorial legislation and sanctions. As Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien observed, “Unilateral application of international law is unacceptable.” France’s President Jacques Chirac warned from Paris: “The European Union will retaliate if the D’Amato bill becomes law. And I do not want that off the record.” Despite ubiquitous warnings that the D’Amato measure would serve no American interest, Clinton signed it on Aug. 5, 1996.The European Union termed the measure an illegal attempt to impose U.S. foreign policy on the world. It planned reprisals against U.S. companies doing business in Europe if the United States penalized any European firms. The French oil giant, TOTAL, warned that it would continue investing in Iranian oil production.

Clearly the unilateralism and partisanship that sustained the country’s long animosity toward Iran and Libya scarcely served the interests of the U.S. That same partisanship enabled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to torment the United States through a half dozen years with repeated maneuvers to negate the United Nations weapons inspection program authorized by the 1991 UN inspection agreement. In February 1998, Saddam created a major crisis by barring UN inspectors from entering presidential palaces. Washington officials spoke freely of air strikes in a vacuum of international support. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan headed off an armed clash by negotiating an acceptable, if unenforceable, accord with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Finally, on August 5, Saddam flatly repudiated the UN Special Commission charged with searching out and destroying all prohibited Iraq weapons of mass destruction. The UN Security Council was too divided to act. Washington, totally isolated, now deserted its long, uncompromising defense of the 1991 inspection agreement, cancelled a number of surprise inspections, and retreated to economic sanctions. Behind that collapse of U.S. policy was the predictable failure of weapons inspections without a military occupation, and the refusal of the world community to support the United States any longer in its perennial demands on Iraq.

Perhaps the true measure of Washington’s willingness to defy the world was best demonstrated in its totally unprecedented resort to sanctions on countries declared guilty of some defiance of U.S. principles, policies, or preferences. More than half the sanctions imposed by the United States on other states in the present century came after Clinton entered the White House. These sanctions, varying from minor reductions in U.S. aid to crippling embargoes, affected more than 70 countries, home of two-thirds of humanity. Congress, in 1998, considered no fewer than 30 additional sanction bills. The same determination to punish invaded state legislatures that leveled sanctions against dozens of foreign countries, industries, and companies. The allure of sanctions was easy to understand: they permitted the country to act in the face of declared wrongdoing without running the risk of war. Whether the results were commensurate with the antagonisms they produced was doubtful. Unilateral in nature, U.S. sanctions received little support or approbation from the international community. They were costly, diplomatically and fiscally, and seldom worked. The refusal of other countries to support them enabled foreign competitors to replace American businessmen and investors. In 1995 unilateral sanctions cost the U.S. economy approximately $15 billion. Clinton acknowledged that American efforts at retaliation had gone too far and had become counterproductive. When the Helms-Burton and D’Amato measures finally brought the U.S. to the brink of a trade war with Europe, Clinton waived the sanctions, receiving in return European promises to support U.S. efforts to fight terrorism and to discourage the use of nationalized properties in Cuba.

Clinton’s persistent resort to unilateral, antagonistic, and ineffectual approaches to penalize foreign countries defied the sage advice of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. Hamilton, in his “Camillus” papers of 1795, admonished the American people to foster policies that appeared meritorious to foreign as well as domestic observers. Such attention to the judgment of others he regarded essential for two reasons. The first, he wrote, “is, that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desireable on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honourable policy; the second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed and known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.” In his famed Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington admonished the country to observe faith and justice toward other nations, cultivating peace and harmony with all. That goal, he wrote, required the exclusion of “permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others.” He suggested the price of behaving otherwise: “The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty or its interests.”


Kosovo emerged in 1999 as the defining issue in Clinton’s long crusade to improve the human condition by scolding and chastising foreign transgressors. Embarrassed by Milosevic’s repeated dismissal of American demands to terminate Serb repression of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians and accept temporary autonomy for the province, Clinton, on March 24, 1999, unleashed a NATO-backed air war against Serbia. Its mission, he proclaimed, was “to seriously damage the Serbian military’s capacity to harm the people of Kosovo.” The president presumed that a few bombs would produce Milosevic’s acceptance of NATO’s demands. Instead, he stumbled into a war that NATO did not want and was not prepared to fight. The high-altitude, precision bombing destroyed much of the Serbian economy and inadvertently killed hundreds of Serb civilians. Meanwhile, Milosevic’s forces on the ground, uninhibited by the bombing, expelled some 860,000 Kosovars to neighboring lands, sent several hundred thousand more into hiding, massacred other thousands, and burned countless towns and villages.

Those who lauded the air war to save Kosovo viewed Milosevic’s capitulation in June as a dual triumph for air power and the cause of human rights. For President Clinton and Secretary Albright, with their ready acceptance of military interventionism, the victory for air power was essential. The American people had long rejected sacrifice for other than the defense of clearly-perceived national interests. Thus the Clinton doctrine, with its focus on humane objectives, required the avoidance of armed combat and the targeting of countries vulnerable to air attack and without the capacity to retaliate. Even more important in the Kosovo triumph was the widespread supposition that henceforth international relations would rest, not on respect for national sovereignty, but on respect for human rights. After months of hesitation, NATO, at its 50th anniversary celebration in Washington during April 1999, formally enlisted in America’s global crusade. “We are,” declared Albright, “reaffirming NATO’s core purpose as a defender of democracy, stability and human decency. . . .”

NATO’s basic goal in Kosovo, as in Bosnia, was a multiethnic state, with Serbs and Kosovars coexisting peacefully. NATO’s bombing and diplomacy terminated Serb authority in Kosovo, enabling almost a million Kosovars to return from exile or hiding to their ruined towns and villages. In no manner did Serbia’s defeat resolve the question of Kosovo’s future. The Serb-Kosovar struggle for power continued, vastly embittered by the recent experience of war, but with the scales tipped to the advantage of the ethnic Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA proceeded to torment, terrify, and even massacre remaining Serbs in defiance of occupying NATO forces. NATO’s elimination of Serb rule had transformed the emboldened Kosovars from clients to antagonists who, in their pursuit of independence, now required NATO’s departure. Having rejected both Serb and Kosovar domination of Kosovo, NATO was left with the obligation to maintain an endless international protectorate over more of the bitterly divided Balkans.

If the ends of NATO policy remained in doubt, the means of policy available to NATO—the bombing of defenseless countries, scarcely won the plaudits of countless Americans, Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and Third World populations. Much of the world looked to the United States, because of its wealth and power, for some resolution of its festering problems. But it rejected the country’s employment of high-tech weaponry against the weak. European leaders embarked on the search for a European defense structure that would eliminate American leadership. After Kosovo it was unclear whether the American meliorist crusade had any future.

In the Atlantic world, at least, massive repression had become unacceptable, especially if the repression occurred in a small country. This conclusion illustrated the essentially Eurocentric nature of Western humanitarian concerns. The Serbian experience was no measure of the West’s response to the ubiquitous challenges, unanswered and unanswerable, to Western values elsewhere. Neither Washington nor the European capitals responded seriously to the pervading horrors of Africa and Asia. Central Africa’s unanswered civil strife began in 1994 when Rwanda’s Hutu majority massacred more than a half million Tutsis, largely with machetes. President Clinton discouraged any international response to that tragedy or any that followed. Global suffering illustrated the magnitude and tenacity of the world’s political and societal disabilities—as well as the absence of external power and will to confront it.

Still, the dramatic evidences of widespread human disaster scarcely dampened the meliorist rhetoric of Americans who continued to attribute to the country’s superpower status both the opportunities and the obligations to influence and shape global institutions. Critics who argued that the country’s external policies be guided by national interests and the simple desire to maximize stability and minimize harm, not visions of some ultimate good, doubted that any policy choice would achieve Utopia. They asked, therefore, that the U.S. exert its leverage in pursuit of humane objectives only where assured successes were commensurate with costs and effort. Clinton’s long quest of meliorist dreams demonstrated that the U.S. had neither the knowledge nor the power to institute democracy and order in other lands. The successful occupations of Germany and Japan, the triumphs of the Marshall Plan, were no models for American triumphs elsewhere. If the U.S. could not bring salvation to its own inner cities, it could scarcely rescue the unstable regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America from misrule, violence, poverty, and crime. Faced by a nationalistic and highly resistant world, pursuing its own interests and reflecting its own conditions, Clinton’s meliorism, characterized by an arrogant, defiant, often sanctimonious unilateralism, not only failed; it denied the country the natural, unobtrusive, reassuring, potentially stabilizing role that a deeply troubled world desired.


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