After nearly a decade as a UN protectorate and years of stubborn negotiations over its final status, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on February 17. The United States and numerous European nations quickly recognized Kosovo as a sovereign state while others- notably Russia and China-condemned the move, made without the support of the UN Security Council. While some continue to question the legitimacy of Kosovo's declaration, most talks now look toward the consequences of independence, not only for Serbia and its former province but also for key relationships in the international community. On Tuesday, February 26, Ambassador Frank Wisner, Special Representative of the Secretary of State to the Kosovo Status Talks, and Dimitri K. Simes, President of The Nixon Center, debated these issues at an event sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in collaboration with The National Interest. Daniel Serwer of USIP moderated the talk.
Wisner and Simes both viewed Kosovo's independence as ultimately inevitable. Where they disagreed was on the timing and the possibility of moving forward without backing Putin into a corner. Wisner, who participated in the negotiations over Kosovo's final status, stressed that the time had come to make a decision-Kosovo would never return to Serbian rule, Serbia refused to accept Kosovo as an independent state and the chance of reaching a mutually acceptable compromise was nonexistent. Russia's unwavering insistence on vetoing any UN Security Council resolution that would allow for Kosovo's independence precluded the possibility of resolving the issue within that body. Supporters of Kosovo therefore felt that the only way to proceed was to push for a conclusive settlement without further delay. Wisner noted that the United States in particular felt a responsibility to see the process through and do its part to "correct the terrible injustice" done to Kosovo Albanians by the Milosevic regime in the 1990s.
Simes, on the other hand, argued that by ignoring UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which calls for autonomy for Kosovo without violating Serbia's territorial integrity, the United States demonstrated a dangerous triumphalist mindset whereby international law can be followed selectively when a "higher objective" exists. He pointed to NATO's 1999 attack on Yugoslavia, later acknowledged to be a "technical violation" of international law, as another example of this mindset. In that instance, disregarding Russia's perspective led to a collapse in U.S.-Russia dialogue on security issues at a time when Russia was pressing the United States to cooperate in the fight against international terrorism-specifically, to defeat al-Qaeda. The situation in Yugoslavia may have presented a moral dilemma for the United States, but by bypassing international law to address the problem, the Clinton administration missed the opportunity to have Russia's crucial support for an issue potentially far more central to U.S. national interests.
According to Simes, the mistake of placing Kosovo-which has no strategic importance for the United States-ahead of key foreign-policy priorities was repeated with the recent recognition of its independence. If the negotiators had been willing to make Kosovo a precedent for other territories with separatist aspirations, Russia hinted that it was prepared to abstain at a Security Council vote. Instead, as a result of what it views as a violation of international law by the United States, Russia can now conclude that UN resolutions are "optional." With the Iranian nuclear program now looming, the United States may again find itself trading leverage on a central issue for getting their way on a second-order problem. As Russia's motivation to confront Iran on its nuclear enrichment program was based not on its own national interests but on UN security resolutions, now, as indicated by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the country feels that it has the same right as the United States to be selective in following these mandates. Once again, the United States faces losing Russian support for its principle foreign-policy priority- preventing a nuclear-armed Iran-over Kosovo.
Furthermore, though Russia does not intend to use military force in the Balkans or to recognize the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Kosovo's independence has opened up the chance for Russia to establish official ties with the two separatist enclaves, which could eventually lead to a military confrontation with Georgia. One of Simes's central concerns was the idea that Kosovo had now set a precedent that could be manipulated by any minority with separatist intentions.
Wisner warned against Russia's mindset, arguing that its linkage of Kosovo with other issues is "dangerous." And while he acknowledged Russian interests in the outcome, Wisner also argued that Resolution 1244 does not preclude independence. The problem in the Balkans demanded a solution, he said, and the United States could not make a policy decision on the narrow basis of U.S.-Russian relations, nor could it accommodate Russian interests at the expense of bringing a just solution to Kosovo-particularly when Russia's position in negotiations was deemed inflexible. Simes agreed that the United States should not defer to the interests of Russia or any other nation in dealing with situations vital to U.S. needs, but rather should consider how others may respond to its decisions in order to conduct deliberate and responsible foreign policy based on American national interests.
Both Wisner and Simes noted the need to now look forward to the future rather than continuing to focus on issues of the legality or illegality of Kosovo's independence. In moving ahead, Wisner emphasized the importance of the involvement of the United States, Europe, and NATO in ensuring the stabilization of Kosovo, protecting its minority populations and maintaining peace in the region. He noted that one of the greatest challenges in the aftermath of Kosovo's independence will be dealing with Serbia, and though it will fall principally upon European neighbors to address many of the issues such as future EU membership, the United States must also find a way to reestablish ties with Belgrade, which holds strategic importance in the Balkans.
Simes added that the United States must move forward in a manner not based on moralistic preferences or what we believe is right, but rather in a way that promotes America's foreign- policy priorities. He stressed the importance of being sensitive to the needs of Serbs, of not clashing with Russia over issues not vital to American interests and of taking into account the perspectives of countries outside the world of Western democracy. Wisner agreed that American foreign policy should be based on careful listening, but stressed the importance of not losing sight of what is right-and the outcome in Kosovo, he said, was the right one.
Brooke Leonard is a staff member at The Nixon Center.
Dimitri Simes and Ambassador Wisner previously debated the Kosovo issue on January 22 in Report and Retort: Kosovo's Future on National Interest online.