Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Many Americans are asking what was accomplished by the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo, other than a withdrawal of Serb forces from that battered province. Recently we saw photos of atrocities committed by the Kosovar Albanians against Serb farmers, a renewal of ethnic violence that NATO peace keepers were sent there to prevent.

Colbert King, a columnist for the Washington Post, made a stunning observation about the war in Yugoslavia last spring. In his column June 26, entitled "Our Own Little Kosovo," King describes the outrageous killing of an old woman in Washington, D.C.: "East Capitol Dwellings, where grandmother Helen Foster-El was shot in the back while shielding neighborhood kids from gunfire, is the city's largest public housing project. It is also the nation's capitol's own little Kosovo."

The columnist compared the violence in Kosovo with shootings that happen all too frequently in this small neighborhood in Washington: eleven murders and forty-one assaults were recorded last year. Statistics may show that major crimes declined last year in America, residents of this Washington neighborhood do not notice a change.

Beginning thirty years ago middle class Americans moved to the suburbs in great numbers trying to escape urban crime. Recent high school killings in Littleton, Colorado, and in other suburban schools around the country are now shaking their complacency.

Montgomery County, Maryland, is one of Washington's most affluent suburbs. But Paul Vance, its superintendent of public schools, is worried: "I never thought at any point in my career I would recommend electric cameras in school.....But we've never had anything like this before in America." ("Montgomery Schools Weigh Threat From Within," Washington Post, July 12)

How does the term "Our Own Little Kosovo" fit into this discussion? Here are two themes that are currently heard regarding the use of violence in Yugoslavia, and in America.

With help from the European allies, America demonstrated in Yugoslavia as it had in 1991 in Iraq, that it has the capability to stop troublesome dictators who threaten neighbors and abuse ethnic minorities at home. But the basis for intervention was different in these two cases.

In 1991 President George Bush asserted that he was engaging in warfare against Iraq to reverse its invasion of Kuwait and to protect Persian Gulf oil from Iraqi seizure. In 1999 President Clinton justified U.S. intervention in Kosovo on the basis of a moral responsibility to halt ethnic cleansing. That is a debatable argument for launching a war.

Some commentators expressed doubts about the morality of massive bombing which kills thousands of Serb civilians as well as troops, yet results in no American or allied combat deaths. Europeans are asking: will America now engage in war only if none of its forces are killed?

Another question asked is this: what kind of victory did we win if the perpetrators of the violence, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, are still in power and continue to threaten neighbors and their own people? If we are engaged in a moral crusade, should the U.S. government be satisfied with anything less than the enemys capitulation?

No one suggests a direct correlation between the use of American military force abroad and the growing violence in American schools. But members of Congress and editorial writers around the country criticize the motion picture industry and television for producing an avalanche of violent movies and TV shows that, together with extensive coverage of the bombing in Yugoslavia, contribute to a pervasive atmosphere of violence in American society.

I share the view of Bill Bradley, former senator and now a presidential candidate, who stated several weeks ago that all hand guns in the United States should be registered. Still, registering guns and requiring background checks on buyers would not by themselves have stopped the teenagers who killed classmates at Columbine High out of hatred and vengeance. The cause of their desire to murder runs far deeper than their method of venting that rage.

In my view, the Columbine killings and similar tragedies elsewhere reflect a serious breakdown of civility and order in America. This reality stands in sharp contrast to President Clinton's recent pledge to use U.S. troops abroad to stop ethnic violence wherever it occurs. Pundits are calling this the "Clinton doctrine."

As America approaches the end of the 20th century and debates what kind of international role it wishes to play in the new century, it becomes crucially important that we realistically appraise where the country is today.

Conventional wisdom in 1999 concludes that because America is the most powerful country in the world, we should use our enormous wealth and influence to ensure democratic, free-market, peace-loving governments everywhere. Costs are seldom mentioned.

The term "triumphalism" is used to describe an attitude that is held by many of our political leaders. They assert that America is so rich and powerful that it should remake the world in our image. "Globalism" is a new buzz word that encompasses what some call imperialism. American advocates of this view want this new globalism to be promoted everywhere because it enhances this country's wealth and power and gives it enormous influence abroad.

A contrary view is that, although the United States enters the 21st century as a rich and powerful country, it is failing to deal adequately with dangerous economic and social problems in its own society. Critics argue that America is taking a huge risk in becoming a world policeman while it fails to deal effectively with rampant lawlessness at home.

The danger for America today is hubris, the excessive arrogance that ruined many great powers in history. Their leaders lived with an illusion that they had not only great wealth and military power, but also superior wisdom. Spanish, French, British, Russian, Japanese, and German empires succumbed to an inability, or unwillingness, of their leaders to comprehend the limits of their power and to make crucial adjustments in time.

Our system of government provides Americans with an opportunity to judge the performance of a president every four years and congressmen every two years. But the constitution only permits needed change, it does not guarantee it.

Kosovo should be a wake-up call to Americans who are concerned with the growing discrepancy between Washington's new willingness to use force abroad to stop ethnic cleansing but is unable to curb violence in America, even murders where our children go to school.

File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST

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