The Domino Theory Reborn: Clinton’s Bosnia Intervention and the “Wider War” Thesis

August 15, 1996 • Foreign Policy Briefing No. 42

President Clinton’s assertion that the U.S.-led NATO mission in Bosnia is essential to prevent a wider European war is erroneous. Two of the wider war scenarios–Serbia as a runaway expansionist power like Nazi Germany and the prospect that the Bosnian conflict could ignite a continental conflagration just as a Balkan incident sparked World War I–are so far‐​fetched that they should be dismissed out of hand.

The other two scenarios–that copycat aggressors elsewhere in Europe would be emboldened by a NATO failure in Bosnia and that a Bosnia‐​style war could erupt in the southern Balkans, especially in Kosovo and Macedonia–have greater validity. But the success or failure of the Bosnia mission will have little impact on such dangers. Conflicts in other parts of Europe arise from local conditions and historical factors, and the belligerents will continue to pursue their unique agendas. War in the southern Balkans would not be a matter of the Bosnian conflict’s “spreading.” The disputes over Kosovo and Macedonia involve different grievances and, largely, a different set of potential adversaries.

The wider war thesis is merely a refurbished domino theory. Not every armed conflict in Europe is destined to lead to a massive war that would affect important American security interests.

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