Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Other People's Backyards

Two recent posts/events got me thinking (again) about America's foreign policy role in the world of 2010. The first was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent swing through the Balkans, with stops in Kosovo and Bosnia (her stop in Kosovo led to what might be the foreign policy picture of the year, her posing in front of the statue the Kosovars put up to honor her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in their capital, Pristina). Part of her trip was the usual mission of just flying the US flag in some part of the world to let them know that America still remembers them; the other rationale for the trip though was to highlight the unresolved problems of the region and to gently prod the Europeans into taking action. While Kosovo may have won its independence from Serbia three years ago, the country is still in a delicate condition with foreign aid, expat remittances and a thriving black market accounting for much of Kosovo's economy; in Bosnia the situation is even more precarious, 15 years after the end of the bloody Bosnian conflict, the nation remains really two separate states – one Serbian, one Croatian/Bosnian Muslim – loosely bound together by a weak central government. The second story was this one from RealClearWorld about Afghanistan, which argues that the US presence in that country has brought enough stability to allow regional Asian powers – namely China and India – to start their own economic investment in the place. China, for example, is looking to invest in natural gas pipelines that would run from Turkmenistan (holder of one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas) through northern Afghanistan to help fuel China's economic growth, they are also investing in a massive copper mine south of Kabul.

And that brings us to the question; should the United States really be pursuing security goals (and in the case of Afghanistan sacrificing the lives of our soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars) to make the backyards of Europe and Asia safe places? Shouldn't these be projects for the regional powers in Europe and Asia to undertake? Or in other words, if China wants Afghanistan to be safe enough for pipeline routes and mineral exports, why shouldn't they send in their own soldiers and spend their own budget on the project? If Europe is serious about making the Continent a safe and secure place (which was the point of the whole European Union project), shouldn't they take the lead in Bosnia and Kosovo?

Past the theoretical question of whether the United States should be involved in bringing order to places on the other side of the globe, there is the practical question as well. The Afghan mission has been hugely expensive both in terms of money and the lives of soldiers; yet nearly a full decade into the mission and the primary goal – the capture or elimination of Osama bin Laden still has not been achieved, nor is Afghanistan yet a stable and secure member of the global community of nations; it's hard to imagine that another year or two or five will appreciably change that situation. In the Balkans, 15 years ago through tough negotiations, the United States managed to stop the brutal war in Bosnia, but stopping a war is not the same as securing a lasting peace. The Dayton Accords, which stopped the fighting in Bosnia, also set up the dual state system and enshrined the Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, as a political system – a situation that has led to the deadlock that grips Bosnia today and has observers worried that nationalists on both sides could drag the region back into conflict. In Kosovo, the United States again dragged a reluctant Europe into stopping the conflict there as well (this time via a “NATO-led” aerial bombing campaign of Serbia conducted mostly by the United States Air Force), yet little has been done to make Kosovo into a real and sustainable state.

Logically the Chinese, Indians, Russians and other neighboring lands should be more concerned with the growth and stability of Afghanistan than the United States; ditto for Bosnia/Kosovo and Europe. Yet in both cases, the United States is put in the position of taking the lead. Perhaps it's time to let other people deal with the problems in their own backyards.
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