The Lesser Evil: The Best Way Out of the Balkans

The Lesser Evil: The Best Way Out of the Balkans

Mini Teaser: Unless the United States wants to occupy the Balkans for decades to come, it will have to contemplate withdrawal under imperfect and unappealing circumstances.

by Author(s): Richard K. Betts

Peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, such as it is, has rested these past several years on an uneasy conspiracy to prop up, but never openly discuss, a set of irreconcilable contradictions. Inhabitants and intervenors have conspired to live with political practices that contradict constitutional principles, and to prolong foreign occupation while genuflecting to the aims of democracy and self-determination. The American foreign policy elite on both sides of the political spectrum has been complicit. Clintonites promoted the conspiracy in order to do something like the right thing without overstepping the seeming bounds of domestic support. The new Bush team disapproves of entanglement in peacekeeping, but it wants to maintain American primacy on the world stage--a contradiction of its own that blocks a graceful exit. And now, Albanian guerrillas subverting southern Serbia and northern Macedonia, and Croat rioters in Bosnia, are disturbing the calm that had preserved inertial peacekeeping as the path of least resistance.

In 1995 President Clinton justified sending American troops to Bosnia with the assurance that they would be out within a year. He mistook an exit date for an exit strategy. As a result, for six years in Bosnia and two years in Kosovo, the United States has continued to collaborate with other occupying powers without an exit strategy, far beyond the passing of the exit date. Unlike the occupations of Germany and Japan after 1945, NATO and the UN have settled into operations in the Balkans that are best understood as institutionalized temporizing. There have been noteworthy efforts at economic reconstruction, but attempts at political reconstruction have been limited and confused.

In fact, the confused political status of these areas has been a vital necessity. It lets occupiers and inhabitants pursue separate agendas. The Western presence has been sustainable because it rests on unresolved contradictions between the de jure and de facto settlements of the two wars: Bosnia is in principle a single state but in practice a partitioned one, while Kosovo in principle remains a province of Yugoslavia but in practice is not. These contradictions allow the inhabitants of Bosnia and Kosovo to avoid organizing their societies in the ways that the occupiers want, while allowing the occupiers to pretend that they are supervising a transition to the type of social organization of which the West approves.

Resolving these contradictions has proved too daunting, so temporizing is the result. Rather than face an unpalatable choice between the much stronger efforts that cultivating political stability would require and a withdrawal that might re-ignite war, the United States, NATO and the UN drifted toward open-ended occupation. This has been the path of least resistance, however, only because the costs have been modest--little treasure and no blood. Without U.S. casualties, and with surpluses suppressing urges to wield sharp budgetary pencils, the American public has no reason yet to rue the occupations. The odds that these fortuitous, permissive conditions will continue indefinitely are low.

Around Kosovo, Albanian action to support their kin in Serbia and Macedonia has already undermined postwar stability. In Bosnia, Croats have already challenged the status quo. Economic decline could easily produce greater popular unrest and protests against the outside powers, thus catapulting the region back onto the front pages of American newspapers and highlighting the risk of further trouble. It would raise the dormant question of whether Americans wish to run that risk.

Despite such dangers, some believe that there is no need to rush to a resolution and that, indeed, getting out would be a bad thing. In this view, it is good that unchallenged global dominance enables the United States to contemplate an indefinite mission. Now, in the absence of any serious opposition, is the time to use American power to shape world order. Why not start in the Balkans?

During the Cold War, the United States was often accused of neo-imperialism. At the time, this was a bad rap. U.S. interventions often found the client's tail wagging the patron's dog, as Washington became mired in support of problematic Third World governments, while not having any direct or real governing authority over them. Today, however, we are engaged in real neo-imperialism, although a quite peculiar multilateral and humanitarian form of it. Under the aegis of international organizations, the United States is collaborating with other governments in the direct control of Bosnia and Kosovo, a return of the Western powers to the tutelary administration of backward nations--rather like a League of Nations mandate. There is certainly no economic benefit to the imperial metropoles. Rather, the Western presence represents a new mission civilisatrice for a new imperium. In effect, beneficent recolonization is the regional security strategy that the "international community" offers up at the turn of the twenty-first century. But is this a solution that we should embrace, or a wrong turn from which we should escape?

For its part, and despite rhetorical backing and filling, the Clinton administration embraced the idea. Indeed, it was the implicit rationale for maintaining American primacy that animated the belief shared by Holbrooke, Berger and Albright in the United States as "the indispensable nation." The new Bush administration rejects the enthusiasm for intervention in principle, yet it endorses the importance of American primacy just as forcefully as its predecessor. This makes it awkward to shed current responsibilities. (And although intervention in Bosnia was a Clinton project, the U.S. commitment to protect Kosovo goes back to the administration of Bush the Elder.) Beneficent recolonization can serve primacy if the United States and its rich allies are willing to invest heavily and sacrifice significantly to make it work; otherwise, half-hearted recolonization exposes a hollowness at the core of primacy. The dirty little secret of American foreign policy is that exercising primacy is popular across the domestic political spectrum, but only as long as it is cheap. When national assertion--whether for altruistic or narcissistic purposes--hits a costly snag, people notice that it is not all that much fun, and begin to see more merit in less meddling.

To get out of the Balkans, the United States should aim at achieving six main objectives:

Establish self-government to end the occupation. The United States should not be an imperial power and should not accept an indefinite responsibility to administer foreign countries.

Stabilize external security and peace for local states. The prime motive to intervene in the Balkans was to end the violence there. Withdrawal that allowed war to erupt again would therefore represent failure.

Minimize damage to relations with other great powers. The main reasons for intervention were humanitarian, but good deeds should not incur significant costs in those aspects of international politics that count most.

Withdraw U.S. forces. Aside from the moral interest in ending occupation, we have a material interest in reducing the strains on U.S. military forces--particularly on the personnel rotation system and training in the army--that are imposed by prolonged peacekeeping expeditions.

Honor moral obligations. As long as the cost is low, at least, there is no reason not to keep faith with those for whom we intervened.

Honor legal obligations. Other considerations being equal, it is in the interest of the United States to observe the terms of international agreements that it has signed if it wishes such agreements to be useful instruments in the future. But other considerations in the Balkans are not equal. To realist critics, "legalism and moralism" are often lumped together as impediments to the wise pursuit of material interests. In Kosovo, however, legal obligations to Belgrade conflict starkly with moral obligations to the Albanian population. This is a vexation for realists, a dilemma for idealists.

Some would add preservation of nato's "credibility" and America's "leadership" to this list of objectives. Indeed, some cite these as the most important ones. Mortgaging the mission to these buzzwords, however, is to put the cart before the horse. It reflects a penchant for self-entrapment that is not unique to involvement in the Balkans, but is a problem of U.S. foreign policy in general. We should, by now, recognize that credibility is not served by re-inforcing failure. Just because the costs were measured on an entirely different scale does not mean that Vietnam's lessons on this score are irrelevant. Credibility should serve the pursuit of substantive objectives, but it should not dictate what those objectives are. Leadership means convincing others to want what we want, not changing what we want in order to keep followers faithful. If we could succeed in meeting the six objectives listed above, leadership would be evident and credibility would follow.

The problems with this list of objectives, however, are, first, that each one is hard to achieve in itself, and, second, that it is impossible to achieve some of them without undercutting others. One or more of them will have to be sacrificed. How, then, to proceed?

Sovereignty and Stability

The hinge of a potential solution in the Balkans is forging a connection between sovereign self-government and interstate stability (meshing the first, second and fourth of the objectives listed above). Establishment of self-government has already occurred to a degree, but it is a sharply limited kind reminiscent of colonies in the more enlightened of the old European empires. Self-government in Bosnia and Kosovo so far remains subject to the higher authority of the occupying forces. NATO officials skew elections, disqualify candidates, close down radio and television stations, and so on. The benefit in this is that it prevents self-government from re-energizing local conflict; the cost is that it defers resolution of the essential issue. Genuine self-government requires decolonization--termination of the controlling role of the occupying powers.

Essay Types: Essay