When he launched the military action against Yugoslavia, U.S. President Bill Clinton said he was sending a message to Serb President Slobodan Milosevic. “If President Milosevic will not make peace, we will limit his ability to make war,” Mr. Clinton declared. But in addition to their specific aims — forcing Yugoslavia to accept the West’s peace plan for Kosovo and averting a humanitarian catastrophe, perhaps even a major war, in the Balkans — the airstrikes are also designed to send the rest of the world a message about U.S. credibility and intentions.
“It is also important to America’s interests,” said Mr. Clinton. Failing to back up its threats “would discredit NATO, the cornerstone on which our security rests.” Mr. Milosevic has gotten the message: He no longer doubts the West’s seriousness. Whether that has changed his mind is another matter. Unfortunately for the United States, other countries also see a message in the military action, and their reaction could be even more troublesome for U.S. interests.
To Russian minds, the NATO moves are another reminder of their country’s growing impotence in international relations, and even in what Moscow likes to consider its sphere of influence. President Boris Yeltsin’s growls, the suspension of contacts with NATO and the cancellation of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s trip to Washington had no impact on U.S. thinking.
During the Persian Gulf War, then U.S. President George Bush assiduously courted his Soviet counterpart, Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev, to build the alliance against Iraq. Mr. Primakov was halfway across the Atlantic when he realized he couldn’t afford to be in Washington as Western missiles hit one of Russia’s allies. That certainly doesn’t look as if the U.S. was catering to Russian sensitivities.
If Russia considers the NATO action in Yugoslavia an affront to its status as a world power, China sees a direct threat to its security in Western support for the Kosovars. Beijing’s shrill condemnation of the violation of Yugoslavia’s sovereignty isn’t posturing. A country with its own restless regions — Taiwan and Tibet — has to be deeply concerned about external support for ethnic self-determination.
The message those two governments get from recent U.S. actions is simple: The U.S. is bent on unilateralism and will do what it can to shape the world in its image. That view is certain to reinforce the position of hardliners in China and Russia and promises to complicate American attempts to manage relations with both countries.
U.S. policy on Yugoslavia will affect more than atmospherics in Northeast Asia. North Korea is drawing dire conclusions from the U.S. airstrikes. A recent report by Russian analysts quotes North Korean officials as saying that their government “has discarded all illusions about Washington’s intentions.” The bombings have convinced the North Korean leadership that it is dealing with “a new Hitler determined to conquer the entire world through intimidation, pressure and aggression.”
Some in the U.S. may be pleased to hear that North Koreans are now worried about U.S. intentions. Mindful that deterrence depends on credible threats of action, hardliners will take comfort from reports that some officials in Pyongyang apparently believe that, given the slightest opportunity, the U.S. will attack North Korea like a “vulture.” They will not be pleased by the North’s response, however. According to the Russian report, North Korea will continue its talks with the U.S., but will also speed up its missile development and related military programs.
“It is a matter of our national security,” a high-ranking North Korean official is quoted as saying. Officials now say their country intends to acquire such a significant deterrent force that the U.S. “will not dare even to think about attacking North Korea.” Bluster? Perhaps, but there are enough warning signs in North Korea — suspicious construction sites, doubts about its commitment to the 1994 nuclear accord signed with the U.S., the testing of new missiles and the deployment of other missiles — that dismissing such threats out of hand would be foolhardy.
If the past is any guide, the U.S. should be concerned. The Gulf War showed the world the lethality and destructive potential of the U.S. high-tech arsenal. But rather than be intimidated, Chinese military planners accelerated efforts to modernize their forces. Although most analysts don’t anticipate a change in the regional balance of power for at least another decade, the message from that conflict was not missed — even if it was not one the U.S. intended to send. That is an ominous precedent for the U.S. as it ponders its next message to the world.
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