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

If one takes the UN role in Cyprus seriously, that case presents the model of indefinite peacekeeping; UN forces have been in the country for nearly forty years. During that time the mission has been eased by its irrelevance to the main security issues on Cyprus--it has not had the powerful controlling role of the West in the Balkans, and did not stop either the Greek coup on the island or the Turkish invasion of 1974. More relevant is the unilateral Turkish partition imposed in 1974. Unacceptable as that partition may be on legal grounds (it remains unrecognized by virtually the entire world outside Turkey), it has ensured peace on the island for more than a quarter century. If justice is to take precedence over peace, what is the solution for Cyprus--to return to the unitary state that preceded the Greek coup? If so, what mechanism would protect the Turkish minority more satisfactorily than has Ankara's intervention? If peace is to take precedence over justice, there is a strong case for international recognition of the partition and the legitimacy of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. If justice and peace are to rank equally, a solution is nowhere in sight--after nearly four decades of impotent UN presence.

Perhaps the best illustration by analogy of choices for Kosovo comes from the untidy periphery of contemporary China. Is Kosovo's future best exemplified by Tibet, Hong Kong or Taiwan? Since 1950 Tibet has suffered the fate which NATO was concerned to save Kosovo from when it went to war in 1999. Hong Kong represents the hope of the temporizers in the Balkans--in that case an escape from the choice between betraying the Kosovar Albanians and violating the agreement that ended the war with Belgrade; in the Hong Kong case the promise of indefinite actual autonomy under nominal Chinese sovereignty. Taiwan represents de facto autonomy without de jure independence; but autonomy guarded by force rather than, as in Hong Kong, by Beijing's sufferance. The analogy would be a Kosovo recognized internationally as a province of Yugoslavia, but armed and able to prevent Belgrade from imposing its writ. Unlike Taiwan, however, Kosovo lacks the geographic conditions (a hundred miles of water) to make self-defense without foreign forces feasible.

With the choice cast in these terms, most outsiders would be drawn to the Hong Kong model. But would Belgrade remain as restrained as Beijing has with respect to Hong Kong? Hong Kong's special status is of great economic importance to China while Kosovo has no such importance for Serbia. Further, China has incentives for good behavior as long as it seeks a peaceful re-incorporation of Taiwan. Could we count on Serbia to abstain from encroachment unless the West extends a security guarantee to Kosovo--in effect negating Yugoslav sovereignty?

Legal issues aside, is formal partition the lesser evil? Clearly, the history of partitions in the twentieth century is mostly a sorry one. Several wars followed the 1947 partitions in Palestine and on the Indian subcontinent, Northern Ireland remains violently unsettled eighty years after its separation, and so forth. The relevant question, however, is the counterfactual: Would history in these sorry cases have been better or worse if the states had not been partitioned? The argument for partition is not that it is good or desirable. It is that it may be less horrendous than keeping the warring communities in the same state, or that it is preferable to the indefinite foreign occupation of an artificial and uneasy confederation.

U.S. National Security

Moral interests were the prime reason for NATO and UN intervention in the Balkans--the humanitarian imperative to suppress atrocities (although why this imperative should be irresistible in Europe, but not in Rwanda, Sudan or other places plagued by even worse atrocities, has never been made clear). Some observers believed that intervention in the Balkans was warranted as well by material interests, traditional security concerns about the international balance of power and the need to keep local chaos from expanding into conflict among major states. This argument, however, has it backwards. Intervention worsened conflict among great powers instead of dampening it. It would be nice if moral and material interests re-inforced each other, but in reality they have been in tension. Moral interests have prevailed in NATO capitals mainly because material interests have not been seriously threatened.

If the objective had been to prevent escalation of the local conflict to confrontation with a major adversary, there was never reason to assume that Western intervention would accomplish this, or would do so more effectively than diplomatic collusion to insulate the conflict by foreswearing intervention by any of the great powers. It is disingenuous to argue that intervention by the West need not aggravate already disagreeable strategic relations between NATO and Russia.

Luckily, worsened relations with Russia are not a crucial problem in today's world, and some may consider them a price worth paying for the moral benefit of keeping the locals from butchering each other. Russia is weak and has few plausible options for responding to its alienation in a way that can threaten NATO. The West does not have to worry about maintaining a balance of power, reassuring Russia about its security, or pandering to Moscow's wounded amour propre. In short, NATO may take advantage of its hegemonic position and leave the Russians to lump it if they don't like it. Indeed, as it was, Moscow had no choice but to accept the Dayton Accord and participate in both occupation missions. Although the Kosovo war infuriated the Russians, there was little they could do about it.

It is useful to recall, however, that the Russian coup de main in seizing the Pristina airport at the end of the war, and the short-circuiting by the British of General Clark's plan to have NATO forces challenge them, raised the specter of potential unintended military confrontation. Beyond that, the most important question is whether NATO should count on indefinite Russian weakness, or attempt to stabilize relations on a more equitable and cooperative basis before an aggrieved and resurgent Russia regains options of its own.

The Kosovo war brought a large and unanticipated cost to America's relations with another potential great power adversary: China. The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy (which the Chinese will never accept as accidental) had a gratuitously damaging impact not only on diplomatic relations, but on Chinese public opinion. Moreover, the entire rationale for Western intervention in Kosovo represents a threat in principle to Chinese sovereignty. The rationale could just as easily be applied to justify humanitarian intervention on behalf of the ethnically oppressed populations of Tibet and Xinjiang, or Taiwan's claim to autonomy (in the same way as it impugns Russia's sovereign right to pacify Chechnya).

The burden on Sino-American relations notwithstanding, the American public has supported U.S. operations in the Balkans so far because the costs have been low. But they would also have supported them if the apparent benefits were high--especially in shoring up genuine security interests--even if it had been a more costly enterprise. As John Mueller has argued in these pages, the notion that voters will not tolerate any venture that brings Americans home in body bags is a myth. What voters reject are military operations that appear inconclusive, unsuccessful and bloody, for purposes of dubious importance. Thus, if the perceived benefits of policing the Balkans are low, but the costs rise abruptly, public tolerance will wane. Throwaway rhetoric notwithstanding, no administration has seriously tried to convince the public that humanitarian intervention--if it happens to get messy--is an interest that is truly important to Americans. Leaving support for intervention hostage to endless good luck on the cost side of the equation is therefore a fragile basis for long-term involvement. That is why we need to think seriously about finding a way out.

Ways Out

Recognizing a reality that admits of no good strategy, two analysts of the situation are reduced to recommending that we avoid the question: "Kosovo may now have shattered the exit strategy concept. . . . Not only is it impossible to say when NATO troops will leave Kosovo, it is also impossible to specify under what circumstances they will do so. . . . One cannot say; it would be unwise at this point even to try." Such a plaintive note is a sign of false maturity. We do have to try, unless we want to occupy the region for decades.

There is no way out of the Balkans for the United States that does not entail high cost in either effort or honor. There is no evidence of support for a much stronger effort, so the price will probably have to be paid in honor. In that light, there are three general options: worst, bad and not quite so bad.

Inertia: open-ended occupation. This has seemed the path of least resistance, but it puts us at the mercy of events. It is foolish to assume that either the locals or American voters will want us in place forever, or that the costs on the ground will remain low. The Albanian insurgencies in southern Serbia and northern Macedonia suggest the dangers that can arise to complicate the peace that peacekeeping affords.

Essay Types: Essay