The triumph of democracy in Serbia last week may well rank as the most important international event of the post-Cold War era. As a practical matter, it almost certainly means the end of a decade of extraordinary brutality and misery in southeastern Europe, a decade that witnessed four wars and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Until last week, there was still a very real possibility that Slobodan Milosevic might launch a fifth war, against Montenegro. Now there is a very real chance of lasting peace, economic growth, and the integration of the Balkans into Europe and the West. No, ethnic tensions will not disappear from the Balkans, but the passing of Milosevic from the scene removes an evil catalyst who skillfully and repeatedly turned ethnic tensions into ethnic cleansing.
Contrary to the cultural determinists and historical "realists" who managed to convince so many policymakers that tribal violence in the Balkans was inescapable, the Balkan peoples are not fated to kill one another. Last week's democratic triumph in Serbia may well inaugurate an era in which democratic leaders in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and perhaps even Kosovo can re-learn the habits of peaceful coexistence and accept the principles of natural rights and the consent of the governed. The mandarins of the American foreign policy establishment will no doubt smirk at such optimism. But, then, they smirked at the prospect of democratic change in Serbia, too.
Which brings us to the larger significance of last week's revolution. The Serbian people and their neighbors in the rest of the former Yugoslavia are the most immediate beneficiaries of the change in Belgrade. But make no mistake: For the United States and its democratic allies, this is a strategic triumph of the first order. Milosevic's rampage in Europe this past decade was a constant refutation of any claim that, with the Cold War ended, the United States and the West had finally determined to safeguard freedom and security across Europe. As a few farsighted statesmen saw at the beginning of the decade -- notably Margaret Thatcher and George Shultz -- Milosevic's early and repeated successes raised doubts about Europe's will and ability to overcome its bloody past, and about America's commitment to lead the Atlantic Alliance and the world.
The electoral defeat of Milosevic reconfirms some fundamental truths too often neglected in recent years. It lays to rest the notion, so popular nowadays among foreign policy sophisticates and their corporate sponsors, that economic sanctions never work. Clearly, they worked in Serbia, where a majority of voters knew their only hope of ending international sanctions and beginning economic renewal lay in the removal of Milosevic. It is also likely that Milosevic's indictment as a war criminal helped prepare the way for his ouster. Again, the Serbian people knew that their country could never be embraced by the West so long as Milosevic was head of government. Perhaps even more important, the indictment put an end to the American policy of treating an ethnic cleanser as someone with whom we could do business. That was supposed to be the smart, "realistic" approach. The more moral course of treating Milosevic as an international pariah actually proved the practical means of settling the Balkan conflict. Funny how often that turns out to be the case.
Perhaps the most important truth confirmed by events in Serbia is that the United States serves its own interests best when it wields its great power on behalf of its principles. We often hear that we should not be in the business of "nation-building," and that we should limit our overseas involvements to the defense of so-called vital national interests. Many congressional Republicans opposed the American intervention in Kosovo last year, on the grounds that there was nothing at stake that justified the deployment of American troops. And just a few weeks ago, Dick Cheney suggested withdrawing our forces from the Balkans. But it is now irrefutable that American intervention in Kosovo, as well as our earlier intervention in Bosnia, and the continued presence of U.S. peacekeeping forces were essential factors in the defeat of Milosevic.
Although we have frequently been critical of President Clinton for his handling of this and many other foreign and defense issues, the Clinton administration deserves credit for the triumph in Serbia. And so do a handful of Republicans, led by Bob Dole and John McCain. In last week's vice presidential debate, Joseph Lieberman said he was "very proud of the leadership role the United States played" in stopping Milosevic's aggression in Kosovo and Bosnia. We wish that spirit were also conspicuous among conservatives and Republicans, including the GOP standard bearers.
What to do now? The same people who told us we should withdraw from the Balkans before on the grounds that we could do no good may well argue for withdrawal now on the grounds that nothing more needs to be done. They are wrong. It is more possible than it was two weeks ago to envision an eventual drawdown of American forces in the Balkans. But a hasty exit could be a disaster. The U.S. presence was necessary to win the war. It remains necessary to build a stable peace and secure what just over a decade ago seemed a far-fetched hope: a Europe whole and free. It looks like we've won the war. Now let's win the peace.
Robert Kagan and William Kristol