Meanings of Kosovo

Photo by Luca Bruno, AP/Wide World

I. For the East

For a war fought in and over an area not much bigger than L.A. County, the Kosovo conflict managed to have some fairly far-reaching effects. Some of the war’s most menacing tremors were registered in Moscow and Beijing. In both capitals, the internal balance of political power shifted — to what extent, we cannot yet tell — toward forces espousing a more nationalist and anti-Western (or at least, anti-U.S.) stance.

By several measures, though, a backlash to America’s ultrahegemony of the past decade is, if anything, overdue. The American commercial and popular culture that increasingly dominates the globe is under attack from right, left and center here at home for its hedonism, violence and shallowness; we should not assume that foreigners embrace it any less critically than we do. The American-made system of global finance has destabilized as many non-Western nations as it has helped.

At any given moment, some portion of the planet is quietly seething at the Americanization of everything, and the particulars of the war triggered popular outbursts that served the interests of particular elites. The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade certainly helped those party mandarins who fear an outbreak of the democratic distemper.

Russia’s winter of discontent has been longer and colder than China’s. The former superpower has yet to carve out more than a bit part in the new world order. Adding to its anger is a decade’s worth of American bum steers. The justly unlamented Bush administration encouraged Boris Yeltsin’s leap toward a market economy — really, a kleptocracy — while discreetly discouraging Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to piece together a multiethnic social democracy. Chaos followed. Not just Russia, but Russians, came unstuck: Work and compensation vanished, living standards plummeted, life spans declined, the population shrank.

To Russia’s largely self-inflicted injuries, the Clinton administration has added some distinctly American insults. Just this year, we expanded NATO eastward to Russia’s very borders. In the past two months, as the Russians see it, we’ve waged a war against one of the few nations with which they have friendly relations, and conscripted Moscow’s own emissary to convey our demands.

Now, at the Pristina Airport, the erstwhile empire has struck back. NATO may have thought that it had waged a low-cost war by avoiding casualties to its own forces, but the Russians have gone NATO one better. With just 200 troops, who have neither fired a shot nor come under fire, they may well be on the verge of carving out a zone of Kosovo at least partly, messily, murkily, under their control. Just as remarkably, the dash to Pristina seems to have been ordered by Our Man in Moscow — Boris Yeltsin.

Commentators have noted that the race to Kosovo’s capital is a bizarre minireplay of the 1945 race to Berlin. This time around, though, the forces from the East are less an expression of Russian power than a vehicle for tweaking American power. On behalf of a frustrated military and a humiliated populace, Yeltsin has, for one brief moment, become a national tribune — and has become a figure out of Russian myth as well. The Heroic Yeltsin, who climbed atop the tank to oppose the Communist coup of 1991, has long since descended into a figure of derision to his countrymen. Now, he has re-created himself as Crafty Peasant Boris, cackling at all those rich Westerners whose plans he has confounded with his mother wit. Impulsive, unreliable, scheming, calculating, decaying, infirm, and still grasping for more: Our candidate to bring Russia into democratic modernity turns out to have been Old Man Karamazov all along.

II. For the Peacekeepers

None of this is to suggest that we should not have intervened in Kosovo at all. U.S. relations with Beijing and Moscow may well grow rockier — in Moscow’s case, a lot rockier. (Given China’s position on human rights, they should grow rockier, but one would hope that would be the result of the Clinton administration’s prioritizing democracy over trade, rather than its inability to get its target list up to date.) But the principles for which NATO fought — to oppose the reintroduction into Europe of racially and religiously based mass deportation, enforced by a policy of terror; and to bring some stability back to the Balkans — are important enough to run the risk of some major ancillary consequences. Even if the increase in stability that comes from Milosevic’s defeat is offset by the increase of instability that comes from Russia’s growing estrangement, the precedent of intervention on behalf of human rights is an important advance over the narrow raisons d’état that characteristically govern international affairs.

The unusual basis of NATO’s war, however, places a special burden on NATO’s peacekeepers. Having intervened to stop (which quickly became, to reverse) the Serbs’ forced expulsion of Albanian Kosovars, the West cannot now sit quietly by while the Albanians expel the Serbs. Given the current levels of enmity, many if not most Serbs in Kosovo — there were 200,000 at the outset of the conflict — may want to leave. But it is incumbent on NATO to ensure that they at least do not leave at gunpoint. To have intervened for human rights is not at all the same thing as to have intervened for the KLA, an ultranationalist militia no more likely to benefit Kosovo than Milosevic’s forces have benefited Serbia, or Franjo Tudjman’s have benefited Croatia.


III. For Europe

Whatever the cracks that the war drove within the governing coalitions of Western Europe, it also had the effect of accelerating the broad drive toward European unification. Which, in time, one can only hope, will render NATO redundant.

For, while Western Europe has adopted a common currency, and while many of its laws and regulations are set not by national governments but by the European Union (EU), when it comes to matters military, Europe is stuck in 1949. Bi zarre ly, 50 years after NATO was formed and 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe still turns to the U.S. to rattle, or thrust, its saber. This is a dependency, moreover, that the U.S. has fostered at every turn.

But the Kosovo war broke out in a Europe in which national elites are discussing unification with every other breath. Companies, and even stock exchanges, are merging across borders; monetary policy has been trusted to one supranational bank; unions are beginning to engage in cross-border bargaining; the same "Third-Way" political consultants shuttle from London to Bonn. When war came, this growing unity found expression in a common military policy as well: Rejecting both long-standing national traditions of indifference to Balkan Muslims, and left traditions of pacifistic nonintervention, the governments of the Euro center-left all did their bit.

Which, militarily, wasn’t all that much. For high-tech intelligence, command-and-control capacity, and Star Wars aerial bombardment, Europe still had to look — with some embarrassment — across the Atlantic. Even as the war went on, however, Europe’s prime ministers convened to create their own EU security structure for the continent — in effect, a European defense ministry — and appointed Javier Solana, the outgoing head of NATO, to run it. They further committed Europe to developing a military capacity that would obviate much, if not all, of their dependence on the U.S.

Ironically, the only war NATO has ever fought may some day be seen as its undoing. That would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. Europe needs a cop on its own beat — a local guy, not a world cop on call for all emergencies. The U.S. needs to redirect resources from military to civilian purposes. Global capital can only be checked by the kind of transnational regulation that, for the foreseeable future, only a unified, center-left Europe could conceivably provide. It needs a transnational state, and a self-sufficient European defense is a step in the right direction.

In European history, wars have sometimes provided the occasion for national unification — Bismarck certainly used them to that effect. In that sense, Kosovo may be one early step in a continent’s journey beyond nationhood.

IV. For the Left

However much the war may have unified Europe, it also revealed gaping rifts within both the American left and right. Conservatives resurrected their historic division — last seen during the run-up to World War II — between isolationists and interventionists. Liberals split along a hitherto undetected fault line that divided human-rights advocates from anti-interventionists.

Actually, if the discussions I had with friends and acquaintances were at all representative, the split occurred as much within individual liberals as between them. This was surely the reason why the anti-war forces never amounted to much, and why Americacampuses were quiet over the past three months. (And the culprit here is not student apathy: The campus anti-sweatshop movement was busily mounting protests and even the occasional building occupation all throughout the spring.)

The anti-war movement did demonstrate that it’s not just generals who are always fighting the last war. Many critics on both left and right saw in Kosovo the shadow of Vietnam. (Indeed, one of the culture shocks of the past few months has been to hear Republican congressmen quoting anti-war songs of the ’60s.) But the parallels turned out to be imprecise at best. What the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam was at least partly a national revolt of a vast segment of the population against colonialism. In Kosovo, there was also a national revolt of nearly an entire population — but it was that of the Albanians against the Serbs. Vietnam in 1965 was the 17th largest nation in the world. Yugoslavia in the early ’90s — the last time there was a reliable count — was the 70th largest. Strategically, that is, the equation of the two wars was nonsensical.


Morally, at least for the left, that equation was equally dubious. Ho Chi Minh’s communists were nobody’s liberal democrats, but neither were they ethnic cleansers driving an entire population before them. For some left-wing critics of the war, the immutable evil of U.S. intervention rendered superfluous any consideration of the party against whom we were intervening. At times they conveyed the impression that if David Duke managed to get himself a country, and was attacked by NATO for implementing policies that appall the left when Duke advocates them here at home, they would find more malice in NATO and more virtue in Duke than anyone had thought possible.

This isn’t the first time that the American anti-war movement has viewed a conflict almost entirely through the prism of a previous war. From the mid-’30s right up to Pearl Harbor, much of the American left argued that the coming war in Europe would be a replay of World War I: a bloodbath that pitted one capitalist power against another, to the benefit of munitions manufacturers and the detriment of workers everywhere. This was not the position of the Communist Party, whose stance toward the war was based totally on the shifting position of the Soviet Union, but it was the position of some of America’s most luminous moral lights — pacifist and socialist leader Norman Thomas first and foremost. When Thomas foresaw World War II, he saw again the trenches of Verdun — just as today’s anti-war activists saw a new round of Khe Sans and My Lais in America’s future. Neither generation of critics altered their equation to allow for a different kind of enemy or war.

World War II, however, compelled Thomas to change his position. "Many Americans in the ’20s and ’30s learned to regret our entry [into World War I] and adopted a too-simple belief that any war would be caused by rival imperialisms and ‘merchants of death,’" Thomas recalled in the ’60s.

Whether today’s anti-war activists rethink their position remains to be seen. And it’s true that some doubts about the Kosovo war — a morally based conflict fought in a morally questionable way — are entirely well-founded.

V. For War

For the military historian, Kosovo will be notable for being the first conflict ever waged, and won, entirely by air. That is certainly how the Air Force would have us think of it, though in fact it wasn’t until the KLA infantry retook territory in the war’s final two weeks, forcing the Yugoslav army to come out of its bunkers, that the air war seriously decimated the Serbs’ army.

The high-tech and high-altitude nature of NATO’s war (the planes never flew lower than 15,000 feet) compelled a change in the war’s objective, however. On the day the war began, President Clinton stated that we fought to protect the Albanians against ethnic cleansing. In fact, the ethnic cleansing continued apace — indeed, greatly accelerated — while we took out strategic targets (bases, refineries, factories) in Serbia. Rather than subject NATO pilots, much less NATO ground forces, to a significant risk, we ended up defending the principle of defending a people, rather than defending the people themselves.

That is not in itself a morally negligible position. In the end, NATO did reverse the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo — after the fact. It is, however, a morally compromised position, one that intervenes on behalf of survivors, rather than running the risk of stopping the attacks they survived.

The brave new war that NATO fought not only perforce changed the war’s objective; it actually changed warfare itself. With the no-casualty war, the war without risk, we move onto new and shaky terrain. It certainly makes war politically easier to wage, most particularly a war that is tangential to the national interest, that has only limited popular support. It could facilitate another "human rights" war such as Kosovo. But it could facilitate a dirtier war, one fought for narrow economic interests that generate little public sympathy.

Finally, the very thing that made this war politically sustainable is precisely what made it morally offensive. In Kosovo, we eliminated the most fundamental deterrent to military action: the prospect of one’s own losses. Within the limits of a high-altitude war, which technology had made far more effective than ever before, the restraints on NATO were entirely self-imposed. War is always inhumane, but this kind of war is also inhuman. It is godlike — or diabolical.

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