With the onset of war in the Balkans, President Clinton has taken to wrapping himself in the cloak of Winston Churchill. Defending his own decision to face up to Slobodan Milosevic and bomb Serbia, he asked an audience on March 23: Wouldn’t everyone be better off if people had listened to Churchill and stood up to Hitler?

The implicit comparison does not merit comment, but it prompts a different, more plausible historical reference. For there was once another British leader and statesman. Like Bill Clinton, he came to office with a long record of experience in local government and built his political coalition upon a claim to competence in domestic management. Like Bill Clinton, he found himself faced with an unexpected crisis in Eastern Europe. He too calculated that public opinion was not interested in overseas military ventures, and he accordingly went to great lengths to negotiate and compromise with a foreign dictator, assuring his fellow citizens that he had no intention of dragging them into a ground war over a faraway country of which “we know nothing.”

When the foreign dictator finally went too far and undertook the systematic bloody destruction of an Eastern European state, the British statesman reluctantly declared war—a war that he pursued with such lassitude and incompetence that he was finally replaced by Winston Churchill himself. That British statesman, of course, was Neville Chamberlain—and his mantle fits all too snugly upon the shoulders of our present commander-in-chief.

I invoke this comparison as a reminder that we can indeed learn from History—but only if we choose the right examples. The war in the Balkans has been the occasion for all manner of claims about the things the past does and doesn’t teach. We have been told that it is an “age-old” conflict dating at least to 1389, and that our intervention would change nothing: a half-truth invoked to support a self-serving falsehood. We have been told by leftists nostalgic for cold war certainties that the US’s own past misdealings overseas make us no better than those we are attacking and that we thus have no business judging the behavior of others: a sophistic assertion of moral equivalence that cuts the ground from under the very universal principles upon which the left itself purports to stand.

We have been told by isolationists of the right that we have no reason to care or react to overseas events that don’t touch our “vital interests”: as though, since 1941, America’s interests—however amorally calculated—have not been intimately dependent upon developments around the globe. And we have been reminded by realists of all stripes that we failed to stop mass murder in Rwanda, Cambodia, or Kurdistan, and thus look rather odd taking a stand in Kosovo: as though our past irresponsibility in the face of genocide were a warrant and justification for repeating the mistake. Today, it seems, it is those who remember the (recent) past who are doomed to repeat it.

If we must invoke the past, let us not be quite so selective. What is happening in the Balkans did not begin six centuries ago, but it does have a history. Ethnic cleansing was not invented by Slobodan Milosevic. To confine ourselves to the present century, population clearances have a long pedigree. After World War I an unsuccessful effort was made to leave people where they were and draw new boundaries around them in the name of self-determination—leaving Poland, Czechoslovakia, and especially the newborn Yugoslavia as multinational states under nationalist rulers. The experiment failed.

World War II produced the opposite outcome: with the notable exception of Poland, which was shifted westward in accordance with Soviet dictates, frontiers were left in place and people were moved instead. By 1945 there were some 46 million people who had been forced to leave their homes in East-Central Europe alone; most of them never returned. Ukrainians were expelled from Poland, Hungarians from Czechoslovakia, and Germans from everywhere (there were 13 million German “expellees” in the Federal Republic by 1949). The complex and conflicted social and “ethnic” landscape of the continent had been radically simplified: by involuntary emigration, expulsion, resettlement, imprisonment, and extermination.

The ethnic cleansing undertaken by Hitler and Stalin thus “solved” the ethnic problem in Europe. The solution was not one that the democracies of the West would have sought, nor were they in a position to prevent it. But in conjunction with the enforced stability of the cold war, the radical “tidying up” of Europe’s interwoven nations and peoples prepared the ground not just for the peace and prosperity of Western Europe but for the post-Communist trajectory of Eastern Europe too (except, significantly, in Yugoslavia, where neither Hitler nor Stalin had been in a position to enforce his writ during or after the war). The majority of Eastern European politicians today have little interest in reviving memories of injustices suffered at the hands of their erstwhile ethnic foes—Ukrainians in Poland and vice versa, Transylvanian Hungarians in Romania, etc.; the prospect of a European future trumps the demagogic advantages to be gained from invoking local pasts. The exception proves the rule, and not just in Serbia: Slovakia’s Mecå?iar saw little hope of securing early entry into the EU and thus felt no inhibition about exploiting nationalist sentiment against the remaining Hungarians in his country. He was defeated in Slovakia’s last election.


But it is one thing to build a postwar world on the unacknowledged foundations of someone else’s crimes, quite another to endorse those crimes for the future. Since 1945 we have set in place a plethora of precedents (the Nuremberg and subsequent trials), treaties, charters (notably that of the UN itself), and accords such as the 1948 Genocide Convention, whose purpose has been to outlaw any further “solutions” of this kind and to provide legal and practical grounds for intervention and punishment should someone seek to undertake them. At first this framework of international disapproval for final solutions of one sort or another was, correctly, understood to be an effective, realistic response to behavior that was not only immoral but deeply disruptive of international relations, and thus a threat to everyone’s interests, however selfishly conceived. But the passage of time, and the fond illusions fostered by the security of the cold war era and the fall of communism, have returned us to an earlier perspective in which ethics and national self-interest have parted company. We are now taught to think of foreign conflicts, in James Baker’s deathless phrase, as fights in which we have “no dog.”

This is curious, and made curiouser still by the occasional emphasis upon “national sovereignty.” Like General Pinochet’s defenders in Chile and elsewhere, the critics of armed intervention in Yugoslavia point to the inviolability of sovereign states. If Slobodan Milosevic wants to do nasty things in the poor little country he rules, that’s his business; even if it means stamping roughshod over years of nonviolent attempts at conciliation and local self-rule by Kosovo’s Albanian representatives. But if he starts crossing frontiers, it becomes our affair. Even if we don’t want to refer to the dictators of the Thirties, we ought to find this stance rather bizarre: we live today in a world where the “sovereign state” is hemmed in by an ever-growing body of international laws, regulations, treaties, and unions. “Globalization,” if it means anything, means that the national state has been forced to abandon many of the economic and fiscal instruments that once defined its claim to autonomy. If a sovereign state can’t make multinational companies conform to its tax laws, can’t ignore international regulations on air traffic safety or food manufacture, and can’t block the cross-border flow of money and goods without facing the wrath of various international agencies and banking authorities, why are we so quick to acknowledge its right to rape and murder its citizens?

The war on Slobodan Milosevic, then, is a war we have to fight (albeit we are fighting it in the wrong way and under the most inappropriate leadership). Our responsibility is not diminished by the fact that in many ways we invented Milosevic—he was “our man” in the Balkans (Richard Holbrooke built a second career on his assignment to “deal” with the Serbian dictator, a project which required that the latter be accorded an appropriate level of recognition and honor for many long years). The end of the cold war has not brought History to a close, nor has it returned us to the starting point. But it has confronted our reluctant leaders (political and military alike) with a reminder of something they either forgot or never knew: that the extermination of minorities within national frontiers has many recent European precedents. It is illegal, unethical, and threatens the interests of everyone. But it works, as Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman, and others well know. Unless we want to collaborate not just in the slaughter of Kosovo’s Albanians but also in the dismantling of the fragile international system built on the ruined landscape of the last great exercise in ethnic cleansing, this is our war, too, and we had better win it.

—April 22, 1999

This Issue

May 20, 1999