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When the definitive catalogue of twentieth-century horrors is assembled, the agonies endured by Bosnia in the 1990s are unlikely to rate many pages. It’s been that kind of century.

Yet the ongoing debacle in Bosnia—more specifically, the utter ineffectiveness of U.S. efforts to end the conflict there—stings Americans as no other event in the brief time after the Cold War. Bosnia is an affront. The suffering of innocents resulting from the break-up of Yugoslavia afflicts our conscience. The cynicism of loathsome politicians who fan ethnic hatred in pursuit of petty ambitions fills us with disgust.

But however disturbing the grisly images beamed into our living rooms from Sarajevo and however despicable the latest reported machinations of such Bosnian Serb leaders as the toad-like Radovan Karadzic, outrage alone does not explain the extent to which this particular crisis has disconcerted the United States. Bosnia rankles because the intractability of the problems manifested there mocks the premises of modern American diplomacy. To examine the Bosnian crisis squarely and honestly is to understand that the entire Wilsonian enterprise, the cornerstone of American diplomacy since the United States entered upon the world stage, faces collapse today.

As Americans, we are all Wilsonians—just as we are all Jeffersonians. While we may be selective in drawing on Jefferson’s view of democracy, we nonetheless rely heavily on it; Jefferson’s vision of liberty and equality is intrinsic to our definition of nationhood. Similarly, in matters of foreign policy, although we are not uniformly enamored with the more extreme expressions of missionary diplomacy, virtually every American accepts the proposition that American political ideals are universal in application. With few exceptions, we assume that those ideals and values are destined to encompass the globe.

Indeed, ever since the U.S. entered World War I, this expectation has been central to the way that Americans have viewed the world; whatever the trials and tribulations of the moment, history would in the end propel others to embrace our values. American power and American ideals would transform international politics, leading to that Lasting Peace Woodrow Wilson and his successors routinely claimed as the ultimate reward of the nation’s exertions.

Thus, when at Wilson’s urging the United States flung itself into World War I, the President did not justify the departure from America’s tradition of so-called isolationism as necessary to secure vital national interests. Instead, he cast America’s purpose in cosmic terms. In his war message to Congress of April 2, 1917, for example, Wilson declared German aggression to be a threat not simply to the United States but to humanity itself. Germany, he said, had embarked upon a policy of waging “warfare against mankind. It is a war against all nations.” Yet even the overthrow of this evil power was not in itself sufficient to justify American participation in the war. Rather, in Wilson’s famous formulation, America would fight to make the world “safe for democracy.” America, he vowed, must fight “for democracy . . . for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free”—the very purposes, according to Wilson, “we have always carried nearest our hearts.”

In a cynical age, when the presumption of duplicity taints even the mildest use of lofty rhetoric, it requires a real exercise in historical imagination to appreciate the impact of Woodrow Wilson’s summons of America to a world mission. But in 1917 the President’s desperate conviction—for he hated war and could accept its necessity only for purposes that approached the transcendent—and the popular American susceptibility to the imagery of salvation invested Wilson’s summons with extraordinary power.

Of course, the Wilsonian crusade failed. Far from discrediting Wilson’s vision, however, failure somehow seemed to validate it. Wilson’s insistence that for Americans the struggle for peace and worldwide liberty defined the cause “nearest our hearts” became enshrined as prescient and profound. Although rejected, Wilson himself became a mythic figure, a prophet abandoned and betrayed by small-minded men of ill will. Textbooks provided to later generations of American school children often claimed that his betrayal had made inevitable a second and even more terrible war.

For Wilsonians, that war provided a much anticipated “second chance.” Once again, Americans were called upon to resist monstrous evil. Wilson’s political heirs in World War II hastened to revive his assurances that American sacrifices in this conflict would purchase permanent world peace.

Despite the triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, however, peace again failed to materialize—frustrated this time by a Cold War the Wilsonians had not anticipated. And yet, to its proponents, this second failure did not mean that the Wilsonian enterprise itself had failed. That the world would make only halting progress toward redemption—that in the ensuing decades violence, avarice, vanity, and iniquity continued to mark the conduct of international affairs—simply suggested that Wilson’s prophetic vision would remain unfulfilled until the end of the Cold War itself.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1980s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Wilsonian moment seemed at hand. Long-stalled, the march toward peace could now resume. At long last, American power and American ideals would work their magic, culminating (so we were advised) in the creation of a New World Order under the benevolent direction of the United States.

A bare half-dozen years later, the very idea seems laughable. The phrase “New World Order” has become an object of derision. More importantly, the entire Wilsonian premise—that by eliminating monstrous evil America’s power would permit a world hungry for peace to find salvation in American ideals—has begun to appear preposterous. Nowhere is this more clearly the case than in Bosnia, where the face of evil is not so much monstrous as contemptible, yet where evil remains as persistent and as unyielding as human nature itself.

In a performance that would undoubtedly have embarrassed and angered Woodrow Wilson, the United States has waffled and temporized over Bosnia, attempting to get by with half measures. Yet the uncertainty that has marked the American response to that crisis does not arise from confusion regarding the moral and political issues being contested there. Nor does American hesitation in employing its power in Bosnia reflect any serious disagreement regarding the operational risks and requirements of such an undertaking. Rather, uncertainty and hesitation have risen from the recognition—now impossible to suppress—that even massive intervention in Bosnia would solve very little. Although the United States undoubtedly possesses the capability to end the conflict, the Wilsonian goal of securing the “universal dominion of right” appears infeasible for the former Yugoslavia. Transforming the Balkans—just the Balkans, not the entire planet—exceeds the capability of the world’s only superpower.

The dilemma that the United States faces in Bosnia exemplifies the larger dilemma of post-Cold War American foreign policy. In the real world (rather than the world of Wilsonian delusions), diplomacy involves choosing from among various imperfect alternatives to achieve limited purposes. This does not mean that any use of American power becomes an exercise in futility. Employing that power judiciously, case by case, the United States can—though never without substantial cost—punish some evil-doers, thwart some aggressors, and ameliorate the suffering of some oppressed people. Even if such an effort succeeds, however, the United States is sure to be confronted the next day with evil in some fresh incarnation, with new threats of disorder, and with yet further instances of humanitarian catastrophe to tug at our conscience. To pretend otherwise is to commit the United States to waging—in the words of an early and much reviled critic of Wilsonian pretensions—“perpetual war for perpetual peace.” Down that road lies only frustration, exhaustion, and failure. Simple prudence demands that the United States craft its policies and establish its priorities accordingly.

Yet accepting the irrevocable failure of America’s redeeming mission, acknowledging the blunt fact that American ideals will not transcend politics, does not come easily. The Wilsonian conceit that America can bend history to suit its will has conferred psychic and substantive rewards not willingly surrendered. It has permitted a nation given to seeing itself as historically unique to indulge in the proposition that it can enjoy the prerogatives of being a Great Power and yet remain above the squalid nastiness inherent in the actual exercise of power. It has enabled a foreign policy establishment long since grown lazy and complacent to sustain extraordinary popular deference by proclaiming itself sole arbiter of the practical implications of the Wilsonian enterprise.

Shorn of the grandeur of Wilsonian idealism, United States foreign policy loses its presumptive claim to moral superiority. Americans are left to contemplate the unwelcome realization that American exceptionalism—at least on the world stage—is illusory. No longer able to justify American diplomacy in terms of some pretentious obligation to humankind, foreign policy experts intent on making a case for intervening in places like Bosnia must devise a new rationale in a new vocabulary. Making such a case is not easy—and should not be.

Divesting the United States of its infatuation with Wilsonianism does not legitimize amoral statecraft. But only by stripping American policy of its Wilsonian fig leaf can the United States take a first step toward seeing the true dimensions of the challenge it faces in a turbulent post-Cold War world: that of a democracy and a superpower whose behavior must somehow reconcile both moral and pragmatic imperatives. If nothing else, Bosnia suggests just how daunting that challenge is likely to be.

A. J. Bacevich is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.