Newsweek - Learning the Lessons of Kosovo

Globalism and sovereignty: The war last spring illuminates a tension that will long be with us.
By Michael Elliott and Michael Hirsh

December 6, 1999

When the bombers stopped flying over Kosovo last June, a most strange war came to an end. There have doubtless been battles—even small wars—when one side had an extraordinarily higher number of casualties than another. But can there ever have been an occasion when the victorious belligerent (in this case, the forces of NATO) had not a single battlefield casualty?

Now dwell, for a moment, on the aims of the contestants. The Yugoslav-Serb forces of Slobodan Milosevic were fighting for a traditional objective: to retain control over "their" territory. NATO, on the other hand, went to war ostensibly to establish a Kosovo that was not an independent state, but that had a "substantial degree of autonomy" within Yugoslavia (a goal supported by none of the local belligerents, Kosovar or Serb). Perhaps strangest of all, consider the philosophical basis on which NATO fought the most intense, expensive war seen in Europe since 1945. Of the principal NATO members, only one—Italy—can be said to have had a national interest, as conventionally defined, in what happened in Kosovo. (Italy has become a favored place of refuge for many Albanian and Kosovar refugees.) The United States, which provided the lion's share of the hardware and whose armed forces were more at risk than those of any other NATO nation, has no discernible national interest in the mountains of the southern Balkans. Nor do the three major West European powers. For good or bad, that corrugated peninsula remains a place apart from broader European developments. Whatever reasons the NATO states had for going to war over Kosovo, they were not ones of those states' territorial integrity or pressing national interests.

So why did NATO fight? The best explanation is that it did so for "humanitarian" reasons, to halt the murder and ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. And indeed, the sight of refugees crushed into trains, deprived of food and water, and dumped unwillingly across an international border did summon up ghosts of the century's worst European atrocities. Yet it makes little sense to wage a war against atrocities in villages and hamlets from 15,000 feet in the air, and that is what NATO did. It is because of this muddle of issues—an indecisive war of humanitarian intervention, fought by forces bereft of a traditional national interest, in support of something less than sovereignty for the Kosovars and against the claims of national sovereignty made by Milosevic—that Kosovo will loom large in the textbooks on our bloody century. Understand how new and odd a war Kosovo was, and you'll understand the difficult world our children will inherit.

It will be a world shaped by an ever more fierce tug of war between the forces of national sovereignty and globalism. As in Kosovo, this struggle will be marked by much ambivalence as national leaders play to both sides. On one hand, leaders believe they must cling to old notions of nationhood and the national interest that have persisted for centuries—at least since 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia, ending Europe's Thirty Years War, brought a degree of formal order to a system of nation-states. On the other hand, leaders find themselves irresistibly pulled into a world that is rapidly blurring the lines between states in many dimensions—moral, economic, political—and where those in the fast lane of globalization reap the biggest rewards.

In essence, Milosevic argued that Kosovo was part of his state, and what happened there was his business. To the contrary, argued the leaders of NATO, a nation can no longer expect to terrorize its own people and get away with it; what happens in Kosovo (or East Timor, or Chechnya) affects all of us; we all have an interest in peace and stability, anywhere. But in truth the NATO leaders were—and remain—less than certain they want to enforce this new principle. Consider: when NATO threatened in October 1998 to bomb Yugoslavia for the first time over Kosovo, every one of its then 16 members resisted the idea, as did the U.N. Security Council. As a U.S. administration official said back then, "The Chinese didn't like it because of Tibet. The Russians hated it because of Chechnya. France and Spain have Corsica and the Basques. No one liked it, but in the end we were able to rationalize it because [Kosovo] was not considered a precedent." Yet somehow it has become one.

The struggle between sovereignty and globalism can also be seen in the dual faces that national leaders present to the world. In China, President Jiang Zemin plays the Western-suited internationalist one week, bantering with Bill Clinton at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, agreeing to restart talks on joining the World Trade Organization. Two weeks later Jiang appears as a Mao-suited nationalist standing atop the Crimson Gate in Tiananmen Square, inveighing against U.S. hegemony. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin preaches peace and partnership with his "good friend" Clinton—then directs his newly chosen prime minister, Vladimir Putin, to brutally crush Chechen and Dagestani rebels in defiance of Washington. In Britain, the Conservative Party proclaims that it wants a European Union in which goods, services and people can move freely—so long as the rules of the Union do not limit Britain's ability to conduct its economic affairs as it sees fit. In the United States, politicians routinely proclaim the virtues of American "global leadership"—then turn on a dime and display an utter lack of regard for the rest of the globe. In late October, for example, a majority of senators warned of grave international consequences if the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty were voted down. But days later a majority of senators did just that, hence disavowing a policy to which the United States had been committed for more than 40 years.

It doesn't help that several major threats to sovereignty have cropped up within very short order. The 1990s began, remember, with a classic defense of the nation-state—the war against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. The decade is ending, by contrast, with a multilayered assault on the very idea of the nation-state. There is, first, the newly cyberpowered global financial system, which can shift currencies around at the click of a mouse, and the disruption to traditional markets posed by e-commerce. Next there is the worldwide reach of the electronic media, which bring atrocities from far away into comfortable living rooms in the developed world. Without television or the Internet, how many Americans or West Europeans would have known where East Timor is, much less been concerned about the fate of its people?

No less profound a change is epitomized by the European Monetary Union. By adopting the euro as their currency, the 11 members of Euroland (with more states certain to join) have willingly ceded a significant part of their power to make economic policy to a supranational institution. No other regional trading bloc has come close to that kind of arrangement, and none looks likely to any time soon; still, from Mercosur in the southern cone of Latin America to the nations of Southeast Asia, clusters of nations recognize that in the modern world, economic sovereignty is something of an anachronism.

To be sure, some nations—more accurately, some peoples—seem more willing to give up sovereignty than others. It is no accident that the most thoroughgoing challenge to the Westphalian model of states has been seen in the place where it was born: Western Europe. If other continents had lived through Europe's dark century, when nation-states twice fought themselves to a bloody standstill in the name of national interest, they, too, would wonder if sovereignty was all it was cracked up to be. Given their history, it is hardly surprising that most Germans should accept a diminished sense of nationhood. ("When I travel through Europe I don't say I'm from Germany, I say I'm from Cologne," one young Kolner explains.) And with small domestic markets, worldly companies like Finland's Nokia have always looked to global horizons. (As Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari once joked, his nation's firms don't find buyers on their doorstep, but "three feet of snow.")

Yet sovereignty still has its supporters. Count among them those republics that in the last 10 years have escaped the yoke of the Soviet Union. Include in their number those, like the Taiwanese, Palestinians, Kurds, indeed Kosovars, who may force yet another major crisis over their yearnings for nationhood. Even in Europe itself, some in the liberated east of the continent do not wish to cede an independence they have only won within recent memory. In Western Europe, the success of nationalist parties in Austria and Switzerland, and the continuing strength of Euroskepticism in Britain, all testify to a sense that there are limits to the extent that sovereignty can be ceded without political cost.

Nowhere is the struggle between sovereignty and globalism more fevered than in the United States. This is not surprising. Naturally, the U.S. has its own national interests. But its unique geographical position, protected as it is by two great oceans, and with only placid Canada and Mexico as its landward neighbors, has meant that classic threats to its national integrity have presented themselves only rarely. At the same time, however, America is a "universalist" nation, one not simply populated by the descendants of those who came from somewhere else, but founded on ideas that its leaders have long insisted have a global application.

The tensions between sovereignty and globalism manifest themselves continually for Americans. At the start of the new millennium, the United States is the sole superpower. Why should a country so utterly dominant economically and militarily give up even a slice of its freedom of action? To a growing number of Republicans, that is tantamount to unilateral disarmament—as the debate over the test-ban treaty showed. They reject being co-opted by any treaty, or even obligations to the United Nations or the World Trade Organization. The only solution that warms their hearts is a missile-defense system to erect a nuclear wall around America. Plainly, this new isolationism, or perhaps unilateralism, appeals to many Americans.

And yet at the same time, the United States is arguably the country with the most to lose by rejecting globalism. The U.S. is now at the apex of its influence; its relative power will inevitably decline in the next century. As a result, the international system of norms that America has been trying to lay down since Woodrow Wilson's day—of openness, peace and economic freedom—may one day become more a guarantor of U.S. prosperity than F-16s and stealth bombers. Such norms protect and nurture the global marketplace that American businesses so covet.

Hence it is in the American national interest to embrace globalism. But that still leaves many questions unanswered, and some of them go back to the experience in Kosovo. Will humanitarian intervention prove to be a disastrous overcommitment for the United States—a "strategic monstrosity," to use Walter Lippmann's term for Soviet containment? Or is such intervention the necessary final stage of globalization—which, after all, has been a U.S.-sponsored phenomenon? In the future, will the U.S. be prepared to put its weight behind what United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called "the developing international norm to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter"? Or, pleading that such slaughters on the other side of the world do not affect its national interests, will America stand aside? If the latter, who will pick up the baton?

These questions are not as new as they seem. The world has seen armed intervention in defense of humanitarian goals before; witness the international treaties of the early 19th century, which in effect gave the Royal Navy the right to stamp out the slave trade. More recently, organizations like Medecins sans Frontieres have explicitly based their work on a "right to intervene" to stop atrocities. In Washington the issue of humanitarian intervention has touched off the most serious foreign-policy debate since the end of the cold war, one that is bound to demand the attention of Bill Clinton's successor. As the strange zigzag motion of Clinton's policies has shown, the president is himself of two minds. On the one hand, Clinton believes that NATO was right to fight in Kosovo, and he remains, as one senior U.S. official put it, "semi-obsessed" by his failure to intervene in the 1994-95 genocide in Rwanda. Yet he is equally haunted by the deaths of Army Rangers in Somalia in 1993. The consequences of this muddle were seen in 1999. Shortly after Kosovo, Clinton and his senior advisers started to talk of a "Clinton Doctrine" that would spell out new terms for intervention. Yet so worried was the White House about committing the United States to intervention all over the globe that by autumn plans for a major presidential speech on the topic were dropped. A senior administration official baldly declared, "There is no Clinton Doctrine."

It is not just Americans who should be concerned with such questions. The U.S. is not the only rich country in the world. The Australian-led force in East Timor has shown that coalitions of non-American forces can bring peace and stability to ravaged lands. Yet the extent of America's high-tech military superiority is so great that an intervention in a hostile environment (which East Timor was not) is impossible to contemplate without Washington's support. The non-American members of NATO would not have been able to win the Kosovo war themselves; at least they would not have won quickly, nor without heavy casualties in a ground war. Or, as German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, asked in an interview about the idea of NATO as an expeditionary force, put it, "Well, we'll have to rethink that, won't we?"

The thinking had better start now. Politicians and their constituents are alike caught in an interregnum, as the socialist philosopher Antonio Gramsci once said, in which "the old is dying and the new cannot be born." Genuine globalism—the kind that sees atrocities far away as something that demands a response from us all—cannot take shape until nations willingly cede a degree of sovereignty and redefine their sense of the national interest. Yet powerful states will not sacrifice their freedom of action to still inchoate hopes of global governance. And those countries have not yet worked out the extent to which they are prepared to devote their own resources to "other" people's problems. Kosovo was but a meager beginning. It may take a generation to learn the lessons of that strange war.

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