Unwinnable Wars: American Power and Ethnic Conflict

In This Review

Unwinnable Wars: American Power and Ethnic Conflict

By David Callahan
Hill and Wang, 1998
240 pp. $23.00
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A balanced and lucid overview of American policy toward ethnic conflicts. The author, a fellow at the Twentieth Century Fund, acknowledges the dangers associated with supporting secessionist movements for national self-determination. He also concedes the various obstacles associated with effective humanitarian intervention, including the intractability of the disputes giving rise to it and limited staying power in regions of secondary interest. Nevertheless, the thrust of the work is to argue for a much greater U.S. role in forestalling, mediating, and halting ethnic conflict, or at least in supporting the efforts of multilateral organizations to do so. While a fair-minded primer on the array of complex policy issues that ethnic conflicts raise, the argument is not without certain weaknesses. Humanitarian considerations may properly override the principle of nonintervention in certain cases, but it is misleading to characterize that principle as proceeding wholly from realpolitik, as the author continually does. He also underestimates the cumulative costs of "doing something" even when sanctions promise to be ineffective, as he accepts they often will be.