In Defense of Maximalism
Posted by Derek Chollet
Yesterday over 30,000 people gathered in a small hill village in eastern Bosnia to mourn over 8,000 people – mostly men and boys – who were slaughtered 10 years ago at Srebrenica. Much has been written about this grim anniversary over the past few days – about the horror of the biggest war crime in Europe since the Holocaust; about the failures of the United Nations, Europe, and the United States; about the pathetic fact that, a decade after thousands of international peacekeepers poured into Bosnia (first led by NATO, and now the EU), the chief perpetrators of this and other genocidal acts – Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – remain on the loose, even though we know where they are and have the power to apprehend them; and about how far Bosnia has come, but most important, how far that deeply troubled country still has to go.
But there’s another reason to remember Srebrenica: for what came next. After years of dithering, letting the Europeans take lead and trying endlessly to reach consensus before taking any action, Srebrenica forced President Clinton and his team finally to decide to move decisively and launch a muscular, no-holds-barred American effort involving both diplomacy and military force to end the war, culminating in the November 1995 Dayton peace accords. Their policy had a patina of allied involvement and buy-in, but in the end it was—do I dare say it?—unilateral, rejecting the UN and keeping allies at long-arms-length (and ticking them off in the process) so the United States could basically do what it wanted.
Yes, the Administration tried to work with others first (remember the Clinton mantra: try to work together if we can, go alone if we must), but it tried for too long – after all, it did not prevent Srebrenica. And many Clinton officials (including Albright and Holbrooke) were calling for decisive, unilateral U.S. action for some time.
The course the Clinton Administration belatedly chose fit within a well-established American diplomatic tradition: a policy that challenged the status quo and rejected incrementalism, reflecting an all-or-nothing approach that was driven less by concerns about niceties or allied consensus than by getting something done.
In a recent article in The National Interest (and in a New York Times oped making many of the same points), former Clinton Administration official Steve Sestanovich describes this as “maximalism,” making the point that this is the way the U.S. typically—and successfully--addresses big international problems. It often makes people nervous, and always ruffles allied feathers, but it gets results. “Had the most controversial American policies…been more thoroughly compromised,” Sestanovich writes, “had they, to be blunt, been diluted by the counsels of allies—they might easily have failed.”
This is not a wholesale endorsement of unilateralism--we are seeing everyday, in Iraq and elsewhere, the costs of going it alone. But thinking about Srebrenica does serve as a reminder that when it comes to solving the world’s problems, a little American muscular unilateralism—maximalism—ain’t always a bad thing.