The violence in Kosovo this past week has dealt a serious blow to the credibility of the Western Alliance. After promising for five years that NATO could provide security so that the United Nations could lay the foundations for the construction of a multiethnic, democratic Kosovo, a well-organized campaign exposed the hollowness of Western guarantees. It also tests the long-term commitment of the Alliance to engage in successful peacekeeping.
Only a few weeks ago, Kosovo was continuing to be promoted as a successful exercise in nation-building. Indeed, the United States was even preparing to withdraw more forces from the international protectorate, on the grounds that reconstruction efforts were proceeding apace.
Of course, the violence that rocked Kosovo this past week is a grim reminder that ignoring a problem does not make it go away.
The West has been so desperate, however, to paint Kosovo as a "success" for humanitarian intervention and nation-building - even to the point of citing it as a precedent for how things should go in Iraq - that warnings of problems bubbling below the surface were discounted.
Indeed, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest had noted that after NATO forces entered the province in 1999, "a more enduring, invisible battlefield emerged quickly. The peacekeepers of the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) didn't even pretend to mobilize on it. It was a battlefield on which the struggle for ultimate power and control was waged by underground political structures and outlawed security apparatuses."
But NATO countries placed such a high value on "no-casualty" missions that aggressive and effective peacekeeping - including disarming militias, hunting down war criminals and combating organized crime and terrorist groups - took a back seat to "not stirring things up." And so the province has simmered.
In February, Serbian intelligence alerted their Western counterparts that there might be an upsurge in violence in Kosovo and in other areas of the Balkans. On the eve of the violence, Marek Nowicki, the United Nations ombudsman for Kosovo, complained to the Council of Europe at a hearing in Paris that the human rights situation in the province was "unacceptable." But Nowicki went on to criticize international authorities in the province for failing to support his work, accusing UN officials of downplaying his concerns (and declining to pressure local authorities to act on his recommendations).
The violence directed against the Serbs of Kosovo - "an outbreak of violence of this scale, of this speed, of this intensity," according to spokesman Derek Chappell - occurred under the watchful eyes of more than 18,000 international peacekeepers. So this raises a very serious question: what was NATO and the UN doing? How could these attacks be planned and coordinated across the province with no advance warning, no signs, no leaks? And what does this say for the effectiveness of NATO peacekeepers?
Jonathan Eyal of London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) maintains that NATO "has simply grown too complacent. It has ignored repeated intelligence warnings about a rising level of tension between Kosovo's communities" and so was unprepared to act. The destruction of the 130-home Serbian village of Svinjare - located less than a mile away from a base housing French NATO peacekeepers - was just one in a series of incidents which one Western diplomat said were attempts by local Albanians "to cleanse the Serbs and create a fait accompli before any talks." So the result has been startled inaction in the face of what Admiral Gregory Johnson, commander of NATO forces in southeastern Europe, characterized as "almost amount[ing] to ethnic cleansing."
Certainly, "multiethnicity" as a value defended in the new Kosovo has also gone up in flames. Agence France Press quoted an Orthodox monk whose monastery was destroyed as saying "I would maybe have been able to live one day in an independent and truly democratic Kosovo, but after all that's happened over these last few days, that's no longer possible."
And NATO's performance in Kosovo does not inspire those locked in other ethnic conflicts in the region - such as the Cypriots, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh or the secessionists regions of Georgia, or even the Israelis and the Palestinians - assume that any settlement backed by NATO guarantees would provide real and genuine security.
Outward calm has returned to the province. But the damage to NATO's credibility may be much longer-lasting.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is executive editor of The National Interest and a senior fellow for strategic studies at The Nixon Center.