East Timor and the “Slippery Slope” Problem

December 20, 1999 • Foreign Policy Briefing No. 55

Domestic and international pressure on Washington to use U.S. military power to resolve the recent crisis in East Timor points to the dangers involved in adopting the Clinton Doctrine as a guide for U.S. foreign policy. The Clinton Doctrine holds that the United States and the “international community” have an obligation to violate the principle of state sovereignty to protect the rights of a persecuted minority. Expectations that the United States would be ready to “do something,” including applying its military might, to help bring an end to ethnic strife in East Timor encouraged Australia to lobby for an international intervention. Canberra assumed that Washington would be willing to pay the costs of resolving the East Timor crisis, and thus produce a rerun of the U.S.-led interventions in the Balkans.

Fortunately, the United States resisted that pressure and, as a result, created incentives for Australia and other regional players to assume the main burden of restoring order on the island and maintaining stability in the Southeast Asian neighborhood. Yet even the limited support role the United States has undertaken in the peacekeeping operation in East Timor could gradually lead to wider and more dangerous American military and diplomatic commitments. Already, the number of U.S. military personnel involved is more than twice the original estimate. The United States could also find itself becoming the “stabilizer of last resort” on the Indonesian archipelago at a time when an unstable central government in Jakarta is trying to contain secessionist rebellions in other provinces.

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