America says: never again!

After Kosovo, the US is wary of a humanitarian foreign policy. A Kissinger-style realpolitik may be

The most humanitarian war fought in modern times may be the last of the genre for some while. In the US the lessons being drawn about the war in Kosovo are not encouraging for those who think that foreign policies should be ethical and humanitarian. Where, before the war, some mocked the idea, now many mock the practice.

This re-examination will change foreign policy, especially if George W Bush becomes president of the US (at present, he is the preferred candidate, Republican or Democrat). But it is also likely to be the case if Al Gore keeps the White House in Democrat hands. The Kosovo "adventure" is widely thought to have been a mistake.

In the US recently, I interviewed Condoleeza Rice, the provost of Stanford University, in California, and a former national security aide to George W's father, in the Bush presidency. Rice is now chief foreign policy adviser to George W: in a second Bush presidency, she would likely be either secretary of state or national security adviser.

Rice talked largely about Russia, on which she is an expert. She said that the efforts by the west to micro-manage Russia's transition to the market and democracy were ill conceived; and that we were too insouciant about a corruption so huge that it enveloped the very top. "I think that what's called for now is a major disengagement from Russia's domestic politics," she said. "What we've learnt is that if reform is not supported strongly at home, as it was in Poland, then there is not much we can do and it won't work." When I asked her to broaden this approach out into other areas, she was cautious: George W has not thought through his foreign policy posture yet and doesn't want anyone putting him into a box too soon. But she ventured: "US foreign policy, if it's going to be effective, needs US domestic support; a humanitarian intervention is difficult for most people to understand when it is prolonged. I can see the need to respond to terrible tragedies, but we have to be sure we're doing it for the right reasons in the right way."

Rice is here appealing to a strand of thought which has gathered force over this past year. It might be called "Kissinger revisited". It views the world as made up of states and alliances of states that, in general, pursue their own interests as strongly as they can. Those interests are often centuries old, dictated by geography. While they can change very radically - Britain's interests changed in this century from being those of a world power to being those of a major European state - they do so over a period of time and are usually dictated by outside pressure, rather than by the sudden dawn of enlightenment. Though democracies are often more easily dealt with than non-democratic states, there is no presumption in favour of alliances with other democracies. One-party states may be more important to one's strategic interest - as is the case with China. US foreign policy must thus be a hard-headed calculation of short-term gain and long-term security - the calculation all other states are making, too.

But - the critics say - foreign policy under Clinton has not been like that. "US foreign policy has been basically Fukuyamist," says Charles William Maynes, head of the Eurasia Foundation, a non-governmental organisation in Washington that runs civil society programmes in the former Soviet Union. "It has assumed that the world was ready for democracy and the market and that there were no other large beasts in the jungle. But history, as we've found, has not ended."

Dmitri Simes, who was an adviser to Richard Nixon and who now heads the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, in Washington, recalls in his book After the Collapse that the former president went to Russia in 1993 and warned its foreign policy establishment of the "myth . . . that American democracy can be exported to other nations" and that "all economic problems can be solved by adopting free market policies".

The gathering consensus points to a US that defines its interests more narrowly, assumes that other states do not necessarily wish to be like Americans and takes a much more sceptical view of humanitarian missions. Three political scientists who were high officials in the Pentagon in Clinton's first term - William J Perry, the former defence secretary, with Ashton Carter and Graham Allison, who were assistant defence secretaries - have produced a matrix that they call the "ABC list". In this hierarchy of risks and interests, the "A" list includes threats to US survival - as the USSR was and Russia, because of its nuclear arsenal, still is. The "B" list includes threats to US interests but not to its survival - such as North Korea or Iraq. And the "C" list is composed of contingencies that "indirectly affect US security but do not directly threaten US interests . . . the Kosovos, Bosnias, Somalias, Rwandas and Haitis".

In the nature of things, much more time should be given to the "A" than to the "C" list. But in fact the "C" list issues have dominated our attention and our leaders' time. The crisis in Kosovo, though it took place in south-east Europe, did not directly threaten the interests of the major European states much more than it did America's.

Traditional "A" list issues have come to seem less threatening with the end of the cold war; but the "C" list issues are also more televisual. Joseph Nye, the dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and himself a former assistant defence secretary, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that "the dramatic visual portrayals of immediate human conflict and suffering are far easier to convey to the public than 'A' list abstractions like the possibility of a 'Weimar Russia', the rise of a hegemonic China and the importance of our alliance with Japan, or the potential collapse of the international system of trade and investment. Yet if these large, more abstract issues were to turn out badly, they would have a far greater impact on the lives of most Americans [and Europeans]."

Humanitarian ventures in foreign affairs have two sides: the "nice" is dispensing aid to the needy, which makes the donors feel better. The "nasty" side is deterring those who create the needy and the victims - but who rarely do so in a simple black and white manner. The crisis in the former Yugoslavia has seen Serb as well as Bosnian victims; the decision to fight the forces of Slobodan Milosevic was replete with moral and other hazards; and the decision to wage war claimed innocent victims.

The calculations now being made in and for the US will soon be made for Europe - or rather, since there is no effective common foreign policy, will be made in and for each of the European states. There will be a certain rowing back from the rhetoric we heard over Kosovo: though the result was a victory, the financial cost was huge and will get larger if the promises to bring in a "Marshall plan for the Balkans" ever become reality. We cannot do this regularly: if our larger strategic interest demanded that we pour resources into the former Soviet Union to stop its collapse, we would be forced to make real sacrifices.

From these debates we begin to see some trends. The US will withdraw somewhat; it needs a European ally but it needs that ally to take more responsibility for its "backyard". Increasingly the US will focus upon China and the Far East.

The "humanitarian" or "ethical" dimension will have to be redefined. Governments are pushed by public outcries generated by the media; yet the will to do something collapses the moment that there are casualties - as happened in the US when its soldiers were killed in Somalia. It is likely to happen in most of Europe, though Britain may genuinely be a bit different in this regard.

The call made by Tony Blair in his speech in Chicago in April - to develop agreed principles of intervention - is being worked through. It will be hard to get agreement, especially with a Russia and a China rendered hostile by their experiences of the Kosovan war.

The peace dividend has been taken. European military strength is both low and ineffective. The two main military forces - Britain and France - are naturally configured for national defence, not for European missions. The German and Italian forces are conscripted and relatively lightly equipped. If Europe is to take responsibility for its "backyard", it must have a credible military force that it can deploy as a single entity. That is a long way from being the case. Military budgets will increase.

Finally, we should not welcome the triumph of Kissinger revisited. Under the rhetoric of globalisation and universal democracy, there is a flight from authoritarianism.

The demonstration against ayatollahs in Iran and against Milosevic in Yugoslavia do not have the stars and stripes on their placards, and many in these demonstrations are hostile to the west; but they do want some of the freedoms that we have. We have to live not at the end of history but between various stages of it.

This article first appeared in the 02 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, America says: never again!