Kosovo: it IS a real geopolitical precedent.

AuthorYoung, David

At the time of the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the premise of Western governments was that confronting ethnic cleansing was more important than respecting the international borders. The message was that future would-be tyrants needed to know--and be deterred by--the cost that would be imposed on them by the international community if they sought to inflict such atrocities. The U.S. decision to throw its full political and military weight into Kosovo reflected a desire to make up for perceived moral failures in the 1990s (notably Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia). President Bill Clinton was eager to restore America's image as the global policeman backing up the recently proclaimed new world order. And he wanted to restore the strategic authority of the United States.

The Western view was that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, after being checked in Bosnia, was purging yet another population on behalf of "Greater Serbia" and had to be stopped. At the time, the main concern about a backlash focused on Russia: Clinton's advisors feared that Moscow might later use NATO's intervention in Kosovo to justify and legitimize Russian transnational exploits in parts of the former Soviet Union. (As had been the custom for the half-century-long cold war, Washington was worried about the big dogs manipulating the little dogs, not vice-versa.) Few were worried about the long-term impact of coming to the rescue of violent separatists. When some specialists did focus on this risk, it was simply an afterthought, not a realization that the Western actions might actually have the effect of fueling violence there and later perhaps elsewhere among groups that have studied the Kosovo experience.

In the years since the intervention, American and European policy in Kosovo has been running almost entirely on autopilot. Western offi cials seemed to take the view that factors apparently beyond their control had taken charge of momentum-building events in and around Kosovo. A sense of inevitability was coalescing: Kosovo was heading towards independence, and justification was needed for this policy. Despite significant reservations in European capitals, Washington was driving NATO's Kosovo policies. Some Europeans anticipated the contagion of separatism. Russian President Vladimir Putin pointedly noted that there are nearly fifty separatist conflicts throughout the world, many in Europe. Critics warned that Kosovo's self-determination, in the wrong circumstances, could invigorate other separatist efforts and put the entire nation-state system at risk of disintegration. But these reservations were overridden and most European capitals acquiesced in the argument that Kosovo would not set a precedent. The decisive reason for this was that Europeans had little influence over the policy to begin with: Washington was running the show. Given these diplomatic realities, the argument ran, acknowledging the possibility of precedent could prove counter-productive by serving to energize separatists and lead them to emulate radical Kosovar Albanians in other countries. Instead of deterring separatists, acknowledging vulnerability will frequently accentuate it. Better to appear shortsighted and powerful than prophetic and weak. Given this reasoning, it is not clear that Western policies would have been any different even if the agenda had been in European hands.

The wars in ex-Yugoslavia, which ended after NATO's campaign in Kosovo, played into this view: Western governments agreed on the need to rebuild a stable and functioning Kosovo; but with Milosevic still in power, no one felt that Belgrade could be entrusted with the safety of Kosovar Albanians. Governments had insisted on how dangerous this leader was. Everyone--even...

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