The remarks, by Peter Tarnoff, under-secretary for political affairs, in an off-the-record press briefing on Tuesday, sparked swift though not always convincing disavowals from the White House and from the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.
Mr Tarnoff, who suggested the US should concentrate on its own economic problems, is believed to be close to Mr Christopher. If his views reflect an emerging State Department doctrine, the implications for Europe, which would be asked to fill the vacuum, could be dramatic.
It would signal a radical departure from the Reagan-Bush era, when American might imposed, sometimes unilaterally, a US-led international order. The approach was exemplified by President Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada and the 1991 Gulf war.
The tradition of America taking the lead in international crises 'is going to be the case much less that it was before,' Mr Tarnoff argued. 'We simply don't have the leverage, we don't have the influence, the inclination to use military force.' Mr Tarnoff, who served in the State Department with Mr Christopher under Jimmy Carter, added that he could envisage the US taking unilateral military action only when its stragetic interests were directly affected: 'We're talking about new rules of engagement.'
It is a new reality, he added, that Europe will quickly have to get used to. 'The approach is a very difficult one for some of our European friends to understand, and many would have preferred it the other way. It is different . . . by design.' The issue of a more balanced burden-sharing between Europe and the US has been around for some time, particularly since the demise of the Warsaw Pact, but Washington has been ambivalent about Europe developing its own defence identity.
Trying to distance President Clinton from the remarks, the White House spokeswoman, Dee Dee Myers, said yesterday that Mr Tarnoff 'clearly does not speak for the administration on the US role in the post-Cold War world'. Since taking office, the President has advocated continuing US leadership worldwide, though he has emphasised reinforcing international economic ties.
Mr Christopher tried to soften the impact of Mr Tarnoff's comments by appearing on television news programmes and telephoning newspapers. 'Our responsibility of leadership is undiminished in this period,' he insisted. But in one interview he added: 'It will be, perhaps, a somewhat different leadership.' He also suggested that Bosnia could become a 'quagmire, a morass' for America if it were to sent in troops.
Mr Tarnoff is believed to have influenced Washington's acceptance of the European and Russian plan for providing 'safe areas' to Muslims in Bosnia and dropping proposals for exempting the Muslims from the arms embargo and launching air strikes. Many attacked the decision as an abdication of America's responsibilities.
'For those who would like this to have become a United States show there is distinct disappointment out there,' Mr Tarnoff said. 'We are determined not to go in there and take over Bosnia policy.' The allies were taken aback, he said, to discover that while touring Europe to promote the US proposals, Mr Christopher was receptive to allied ideas.Reuse content