The US/NATO war in Kosovo marks a dramatic shift in the contours of global politics and domestic foreign policy discussions that is likely to have ramifications for years to come. The failure of NATO airstrikes either to protect the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo or to weaken Slobodan Milosevic’s grip on power in Belgrade has prompted widespread demands for a more muscular (and largely unilateral) military strategy. One of the more egregious examples of this new interventionism was Robert Kaplan’s recent call for a revival of “Western imperialism” to save the Balkans and prevent a new East/West divide. But Kaplan is not alone. Many of the most vocal supporters of “finishing the job” by sending in NATO ground forces are progressives who support military action against Milosevic on humanitarian grounds, as the only way to stop his despicable campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
While the desire to do something–anything–to stop Milosevic is understandable, bombing Kosovo in order to save it is both immoral and ineffectual. Not only is bombing the wrong tactic for achieving humanitarian ends but NATO is the wrong institution for the task at hand.
The Clinton Administration never really gave diplomacy a chance in Kosovo. Last August US ambassador to NATO Alexander Vershbow was pressing a proposal that would have engaged Russia in the development of a plan for a settlement that would have been brought to the UN Security Council jointly by the United States and Russia, but the Clinton foreign policy team ignored his advice. Instead, according to Robert Hayden, a Balkans expert at the University of Pittsburgh, the Administration’s proposal at Rambouillet would have given NATO forces free rein to roam unmolested throughout the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia, a concession that no sovereign nation would ever accept.
The Administration’s tendency to go to war with narrow coalitions–from the US/British airstrikes in Iraq to the NATO-led attacks on Serbia and Kosovo, which are being pursued without a UN mandate–has undermined the basis for the kind of collective diplomacy that is urgently needed to resolve regional conflicts. And the treatment of Russia as a second-rate power–as evidenced by the decisions to proceed with NATO expansion, to revive Star Wars and to bomb Iraq and Kosovo–will short-circuit efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and spark a sort of postmodern cold war, in which Russia seeks ways to act against US interests to assert its independence on the world stage and to assuage nationalist resentments at home.
The United States doesn’t need a “tougher” policy but a smarter one that involves cooperating with key international and regional players to reduce threats to peace and investing in multilateral institutions that can shoulder part of the burden of heading off ethnic conflicts before they escalate into war. It would not be a pacifist policy, but it would attempt to create a range of tools that can be employed before resorting to force. And if the use of force becomes necessary to head off genocidal attacks on defenseless populations, it should not be employed unilaterally, but lawfully, in consultation with the UN and relevant regional bodies.