America relives an old debate - and the war grinds on

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The Senate vote to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia brought into sharp focus what Senator Bob Dole's supporters see as a conflict between American idealism and the old, discredited European balance-of-power politics - a concept of international relations that they think succours the strong and condemns the innocent to defeat.

But it also highlighted a fresh argument in the United States between politicians who argue that the US should commit itself to an absolute defence of principles around the world and those who think it must evolve a clear set of "national interests" - just like those bad old European nation states.

It would be tempting to think that these policy disputes are new, born of the end of the Cold War or, indeed, the "end of history".

But what of these words by an American statesman writing to the New York Times? -

"The embargo imposed by the United States on the sale of arms ... should now be lifted. Intended as a protection against conditions which would endanger the peace of the United States, the embargo is now shown by the events of the last two years to be a danger to that peace."

Or this appeal in an open letter to the President by leading public figures from business, the arts and politics? -

"While you read this letter a major human tragedy is taking place. A brave nation is fighting against terrible odds, not only for its own independence and freedom but for the very life of democracy everywhere."

The language sounds familiar. But all these words were penned in January 1939, and the beleaguered nation was republican Spain, not Bosnia. The statesman was Henry L Stimson, former Secretary of State. Like many, he feared the totalitarian tide after the fall of Barcelona to Franco that month had doomed the Republic. Tens of thousands fled across the Pyrenees to seek refuge from the victor's firing squads while defenders of Spanish democracy around the world marched and protested in vain against an arms embargo upheld by the US, Britain and France.

The signatories to the open letter called on Roosevelt to act. "The hard fact," they wrote, "is that by our arms embargo against Spain we are giving aid to Hitler and Mussolini and everything they stand for."

But Roosevelt was engaged in the same policy dilemma as Bill Clinton. Torn between a strategic understanding that aggression must be confronted and a wish not to estrange America's friends, in 1939 the US accepted the Anglo-French argument that this was a conflict best left to burn out.

In the post-war world the American crusade against Communism and a formal alliance with Western Europe through Nato made matters simpler. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the absence of an ideological foe has revived a debate last seriously waged in Washington in the Thirties.

Henry Kissinger calls it "American exceptionalism" - the notion that the US has a mission to export decency and reason even where ancient feuds burn away the social fabric. This ideal was epitomised by Woodrow Wilson, who helped father the League of Nations. But it was undercut by an isolationist Congress which refused to join the League, thus helping the dictators to expand.

Kissinger's argument is that the US must today seek to define a set of clear interests while retaining the essential characteristics of "American values."

Bill Clinton came to power accompanied by advisers who rejected the interest- based Republican foreign policy. They also disdained the cynical balance- of-power politics to which Europe seems to have reverted.

But the Clinton administration has failed to develop a response to the challenge identified by Kissinger. It is therefore ironic that a Republican Congress has presented Mr Clinton with a test over Bosnia which chimes with American idealism, while the President tries to reconcile the Europeans and the war grinds remorselessly on.