• SHARE

I previously argued that to supporters, NATO cured Europe of the Milosevic-borne disease of ethnic cleansing. To critics, however, the NATO cure worsened the disease (“NATO in the Balkans: Between disaster and failure,” April 1).

Most of the debate has centered around the impact of the war in Europe. There are two major extra-European ramifications regarding the use of force and the prospects of nuclear proliferation that may be even more significant for world affairs.

The paradox of war and peace is a constant refrain in human history. The incidence of war is as pervasive as the wish for peace is universal. Over the course of the 20th century, from the Pact of Paris in 1928, through the League of Nations to the United Nations and the Geneva Protocols, the international community has progressively circumscribed the use of force. This was done first by narrowing the range of circumstances under which recourse to force is permitted; second, by subjecting the actions of states to the consent of the legitimate international authorities; and third, by bringing more and more of warring behavior under the scope of the laws of war and international humanitarian law.

The Kosovo war was a major setback to this cause of progressively constricting the resort to force other than in self-defense. Would-be secessionists learned the lesson that terrorism can succeed in internationalizing a local conflict and provoking outside intervention against the state authorities. But governments concluded that if the most enlightened can use force outside their borders without U.N. authorization, then their own latitude for using force internally must be even greater.

The NATO campaign united Russians of all political persuasions in deep anger against the West. While the ailing and erratic Boris Yeltsin played Russian roulette with his prime ministers, wide swathes of people and politicians lost faith in the “good faith” of liberal democracies in conducting foreign relations on the basis of justice, equality and non-use of force. Western criticisms of the Russian use of massive force against Chechnya later in 1999 drew angry reminders of NATO action in Kosovo: an international war of aggression against a country that had not attacked any NATO member, as opposed to Russia’s actions within its borders against a group whose terrorist acts had reached all the way to Moscow, noted Russian commentators.

The prospects of a world order based on the rule of law are no brighter therefore as a result of Kosovo’s “liberation.” The overriding message was not that force was put to the service of law, but that might is right. This is especially so with the clear demonstration that the U.N. proscriptions on the use of force, and the authority of the U.N. Security Council as the sole legitimate custodian of international peace and security, can be so easily circumvented.

The national security calculations of many countries are likely to be affected in profound ways. It will surely have hardened the determination of security planners in Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad, New Delhi, Jerusalem and Pyongyang — not to mention Baghdad and Tehran — to put their faith in survivable nuclear forces rather than risk becoming the victims of the use of force by some future self-appointed guardians of world morality. At the Third Preparatory Committee meeting of the NPT 2000 Review Conference in New York last May, the Chinese publicly wondered if NATO would have bombed Belgrade had Yugoslavia been nuclear armed. Many other governments, alarmed at NATO triumphalism, made the same obvious connection in corridor conversations. They, too, might become interested in nuclear weapons to leverage future NATO or U.S. military action.

Critics of the Kosovo war must concede the many positive accomplishments. Almost a million of Kosovo’s displaced inhabitants returned to their homeland. Milosevic was thrown out of Kosovo and has been confined to his lair in Serbia. The credibility of NATO was preserved, its new role of peace-enforcement throughout Europe was validated, and Washington remains firmly anchored to Europe.

Supporters of NATO action may well argue that the price paid was acceptable in the circumstances. What they may not do is to deny that the price has been and is still being paid in and outside Europe, and that it is quite high.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW