Conflict and Contradictions in Kosovo

David Tucker

September 1, 1999

Things are not going well in Kosovo. During their recent visits there our new Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, and Democratic Senators Joseph Biden of Delaware and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, saw this at first hand.

There were two things we did not want to happen in Kosovo: ethnic slaughter and the emergence of an Albanian dominated Kosovo independent of Serbia, the country in which Kosovo has been a province. The slaughter has already occurred and continues. Now it is Albanians killing and forcing Serbs to flee. The Albanians also look set on establishing an independent Kosovo. Once independent, the Albanians in Kosovo may form an alliance with Albania or become a magnet for the Albanians in neighboring Macedonia, encouraging them to separate from Macedonia and join their brethren in Kosovo. This would rip apart another Balkan country and risk more ethnic violence and slaughter.

This unhappy situation is the result of a long train of miscalculations on the part of the United States and its European allies. But for the United States, at least, there is a deeper explanation for the problems we continue to have in the Balkans. We are acting on two principles fundamental to our foreign policy—two principles which, unfortunately, contradict each other. If we achieve goals consistent with one, we cannot achieve goals consistent with the other. Worse, in Kosovo, the contradiction between these principles may keep us directly in the middle between the two warring sides.

The first principle is the right of national self-determination. Our constitution begins with the words “We the people.” This is an expression of our deeply held opinion that people have the right to choose their own government.

The second principle fundamental to our foreign policy is that the recognized borders of countries should not change. We believe that this principle helps keep international politics peaceful and orderly. This principle is especially important in areas like the Balkans, in which people of different ethnic groups are mixed together. If borders can change, there will be no end of conflict as countries are ripped apart by the desire of ethnic groups divided by borders to unite within one common border.

These two principles are fine in themselves. But what happens if a people exercises its right of national self-determination by trying to separate itself and the land it occupies from the country where it has previously resided to form its own country or join with another? Then our two principles are in conflict.

In Kosovo, this has meant that we have told the Serbs that the Albanians have a right to determine their own political life, while we have told the Albanians that they must remain part of Serbia. By giving each antagonist only part of what it wants, we are encouraging each to continue fighting. Worse, in the midst of this fight that our adherence to contradictory principles aggravates, we have now dropped our troops and those of our allies as peacekeepers. We are encouraging conflict and trying to make peace at the same time. We must hope that this contradictory policy does not lead to more than the few casualties among the peacekeepers that have already occurred.

In the future, how can we avoid such contradictions? We must recognize that foreign policy is not a means of doing good for others. It is a means of doing good for ourselves, while harming others as little as possible. We enjoy the right of choosing our own government, but this does not mean that we have to guarantee others’ right to do the same. In some cases, we may be able to help people enjoy this right without hurting ourselves or them. In other cases, probably the majority of cases, insisting that other peoples have the right to choose their political way of life will probably do more harm than good. Kosovo is such a case. We are bound to encounter others in the years to come.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.