Peace in Our Time: The U.S., NATO, and Peace in Kosovo

David Tucker

February 1, 1999

What happens if they give a peace and nobody shows up? We just found out. The United States-led NATO told the Serbs and ethnic Albanians that they had to stop fighting each other in Kosovo. We dictated the terms of peace and told each side that they had to accept them. The ethnic Albanians have equivocated, even though the terms favor them,
while the Serbs have said no, even though we threatened to bomb them if they
did not accept.

So, what happens when you give a peace and nobody shows up? Several things. For one, the prestige and effectiveness of the U.S. and NATO have suffered a blow. Actually, another blow. NATO has threatened repeatedly to bomb Serbia over its actions in Kosovo but so far has not done so. There is limited support in NATO for bombing and opposition from France and Russia. All this huffing and puffing but not blowing anyone’s house down makes NATO look and think itself ineffectual. For an organization trying to find its way in the changed European security environment, this is a bad outcome.

As NATO appears weaker, Serbia appears stronger. Its leader, Slobodan Milosevic, whom the United States considers the principal cause of problems in the Balkans, can claim victory. All those seeking to use ethnic hatred to prosper will take comfort in that.

As Milosevic looks stronger, those ethnic Albanians who negotiated will look weaker, strengthening the extremists in their own movement. In the long run, this will make it harder to handle them. It may even add impetus to the idea of creating a &auot;greater Albania,” and thus risk spreading the conflict to neighboring Macedonia, which also has a large ethnic Albanian minority. Because fighting in Macedonia might bring NATO members Greece and Turkey into conflict with each other, such an outcome would be the exact opposite of what NATO and the United States wanted to accomplish in Kosovo.

All this harm has come about because the United States tried to force peace on Kosovo. This had no more chance of success than forcing democracy on Haiti, political reconciliation on Somalia, or ethnic harmony in Bosnia.

There is a pattern here. The Clinton administration has been prone to the grand idea in foreign policy but has tended to overlook the harsh realities upon which it has wished to impose those ideas. Those realities mean that imposing grand ideas has big costs. Troops, including U.S. soldiers, are in Bosnia, perhaps indefinitely. They are supposed to go into Kosovo, too, if an “agreement” is reached. Will they ever come out?

Secretary of State Albright has said more that once that she believes that the United States has an obligation to help anywhere in the world where there is a problem. A grand sentiment, but one no nation can afford.

Instead of grand ideas and futile–or worse–gestures in Kosovo and elsewhere, the Clinton administration would do better to articulate strategies that bring into balance the good we can do for ourselves and others with the costs that we can and should bear.

David Tucker is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.