An Imbalance of Power

The challenges facing Europe make America's Afghan problem look simple

The most striking phenomenon in the discussions at the New Policy Forum in Sofia last week, sponsored by Moscow’s Gorbachev Forum and the Bulgarian Slavyani Foundation, was that the U.S. "war on terror" was not mentioned. No one seemed to think it worth attention, although the national outlook for the United States was alluded to, usually in pessimistic terms.

Since the conference participants were East-Central European and Eurasian, as well as West European-British-American, this seemed to indicate that others are not all that interested in Washington’s military and geo-strategic preoccupations. There was much more interest in the possible future configurations of global political and economic power of Russia and its Central Asian and Caucasian neighbors, the European Union bloc, and China.

The formal subject of the meeting was “Europe Looks East,” and while that seemed to mean Atlantic and Central Europe looking at Russia and beyond, more important was Western Europe looking at relations between Europe and Russia, plus Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Moldova. The second perplexing subject was the Balkans, still the location of Europe’s most persistent troubles, including those of West Europe’s own problems in dealing with Balkan immigrants and migrants.

In Balkan state relations, the interested parties now blame the problems on the American-drafted 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war of Yugoslav succession, and the effective amputation of Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 (while leaving several other ethnically defined nations on the fringes, in parlous independence).

However the American intervention was the consequence of Western Europe’s own disgraceful refusal to deal seriously with the Yugoslav succession wars, instigated by Serbia’s efforts to seize the Serbian-populated areas of neighboring Croatia and Bosnia. Instead of demanding that Slobodan Milosevic desist, under threat of a (UN-mandated) European military intervention (the U.S. refrained--“we have no dog in this fight,” James Baker said; and indeed it was time for Western Europe to assume responsibility), the Europeans settled for an absurd and pusillanimous UN peacekeeping resolution and mission.

Since there was no peace to keep, personnel were shot at by both sides until the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, and Serbia’s repression of the Kosovo population prompted the Europeans to appeal to the United States for help. NATO bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina followed, and then of Serbia, until the Dayton Accords ended the war. 

Those events produced several troublesome precedents: NATO’s illegal bombing intervention, and Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, confirmed in international law in 2010. (It has been suggested that on the Kosovo precedent, the Palestinians could demand UN enforcement of their national independence within the territories assigned Palestine by the UN partition of the country in 1948. Caucasian irredentists also have taken note of the possibilities of unilateral declarations of independence.) It has also left the European Union with the question of admitting to the Union the Balkan states still outside it--and if not, what to do about them.

Turning to the larger geopolitical issues, Russian membership in the EU was broached at the conference, not too seriously, as was Russia’s joining NATO. The latter would seem to make NATO’s existence rather pointless, although presumably leaving the United States the permanent leader, which would please Washington. The mission of the alliance in the past was to fight Russia. Now it seems to be to fight America’s wars, which one would think Russia reluctant to do. (What would Georgia and the Baltic states make of Russian membership, since their main reason for belonging to NATO is to be protected from Russia?)

Among the Russians present at the meeting, and some of the Europeans, there seemed more interest in a Russian-EU grouping--Mikhail Gorbachev’s Common European Home--which offers peaceful relations as well as economic and trade advantages, especially with respect to energy markets and supplies. However under Vladimir Putin, at least, this relationship with Russia is understood in Western Europe as containing an unspoken danger, implying possibilities ranging from political intimidation by Russian energy suppliers, to wholesale energy blackmail, a serious source of conflict.

No one knows quite what to make of China’s future, nor of what its role would be in a future global geopolitical scheme, the possibilities seemingly including conflict with the United States over Far Eastern domination (or global rule, as the neoconservatives would suggest). During the European Cold War there was concern in Europe about the U.S. and the USSR’s dividing up Europe between them. What would Japan make of an (improbable) American-Chinese political condominium?

All of this makes the Afghanistan war seem simple. All the NATO allies have to do is to go home and leave the Afghans (Talibans and the others), Pakistanis, Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Indians to settle the region’s problems among themselves, which in the end is what they will do.

© 2010 by Tribune Media Services International. All Rights Reserved. 

Related: War or Peace in Kosovo? and Post Bellum by the Editors

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).

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