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NATO’s Balkans Disaster and Wilsonian Warmongering, Part 1


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When ethnic Albanian guerrillas originally rejected the Rambouillet peace settlement for Kosovo fashioned by the Clinton administration, a Clinton official raged, “Here is the greatest nation on earth pleading with [them] to do something entirely in their own interest — which is to say yes to an interim agreement — and they defy us.” With such hubris infecting the administration, it should come as no surprise that it has so badly bungled policy towards Kosovo.

NATO, largely at the behest of Washington, intervened in a conflict not its own. It started bombing for the wrong reason. It ignored history and acted hastily. It failed to develop contingency plans to cope with unexpected results. It gave no thought to the ultimate consequences of its actions.

Analyzing NATO’s Balkans debacle is important to prevent the alliance from making a similar mistake in the future. Until March, NATO adopted the sensible policy of nonintervention in the region. All of the major powers erected firebreaks to war, limiting the Bosnian civil war to Bosnia. In contrast, the allied decision to intervene in Kosovo spread conflict to surrounding states and confronted Russia. Indeed, as in World War I, alliances have acted as transmission belts of war from the Balkans outward to the rest of Europe.

The Clinton administration’s aggressive policy towards Kosovo obviously turned out to be a practical disaster. But the principles established by NATO’s intervention are even more frightening.

First, the administration illegally embarked upon war, in contravention of the U.S. Constitution, NATO agreement, and UN Charter. The threat to use force against Yugoslavia if it did not agree to the Rambouillet diktat was dubious enough. There was no international principle that authorized the NATO states to bomb Belgrade if it did not see the wisdom in Washington’s preferred ethnic accord. To the contrary, the 1980 International Convention of Treaties invalidates agreements imposed through coercion.

Far worse, however, was carrying through on the threat and inaugurating war against another sovereign state. In doing so, the president acted unilaterally, without the approval of Congress, as required by the U.S. Constitution. He transformed a defensive alliance into a tool of offensive war, violating its basic purpose. And Washington initiated aggressive military action in violation of the UN Charter, which binds the members of NATO no less than other states.

Although the administration seems to believe that all of these requirements are outmoded in today’s world, the administration’s calamitous bungling in Kosovo illustrates why war should require congressional approval, NATO should remain a defensive alliance, and the UN Charter properly outlaws aggressive war, irrespective of the goodness of the expressed intentions. Sovereign states make no decisions more important; thus, those decisions should be widely debated and those who make them should be held widely accountable. An organization created to protect a polyglot coalition from hegemonic aggression is not easily turned into regional policemen. And the UN prohibition against promiscuous international intervention provides one barrier, however weak, to the spread of conflict.

Like his predecessors, Bill Clinton has resisted any attempt to restrict his war powers. But America’s Founders intended to take a different path. Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, to which the president swears allegiance, states that “Congress shall have the power … to declare war.” He is commander in chief, but he is to fulfill his responsibilities subject to the control of Congress.

Wrote James Madison in 1793, it is necessary to adhere to the “fundamental doctrine of the Constitution that the power to declare war is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature.” When Pierce Butler of South Carolina formally proposed giving the president the power to start war, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said that he “never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the executive to declare war.” Butler’s motion was quickly rejected.

Virginia’s George Mason favored “clogging rather than facilitating war.” James Wilson, though an advocate of a strong presidency, approvingly observed that the new constitutional system “will not hurry us into war.” Instead, “it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress.” Similarly, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We have already given … one effectual check to the dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose.”

The launching of an aggressive war against Yugoslavia is an unambiguous instance where congressional approval for war is required. At the constitutional convention, Roger Sherman of Connecticut observed that “the executive should be able to repel and not to commence war.” Yet President Clinton simply announced his plan to attack, without provocation, another nation. With nary a nod towards Congress.

Yet the illegality of the administration’s war reaches beyond U.S. law. By its own terms, NATO is a defensive alliance. It was, the allies explained, created for the purpose of deterring, not starting, war. The treaty preamble affirms the members’ “desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments” and support for the “purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,” which bars aggressive war. The NATO accord goes on to state that an “armed attack against one or more of them … shall be considered an attack against them all” and that they will exercise their right of self-defense under the UN Charter. When the Senate voted to expand NATO last year, it also added, with little debate, “other missions when there is a clear consensus among its members that there is a threat to the security and interests of NATO members.” Even here, however, it takes an enormous stretch to suggest that NATO is authorized to attack Yugoslavia. Of course, enthusiasts of aggressive war believe, with Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, that words mean whatever they say they mean. Obviously Belgrade posed no threat to any surrounding state, let alone any NATO member.

But, it has been argued, the conflict in Kosovo could expand, undermining Europe’s stability. The daisy chain linking a minor guerrilla war at the periphery of Europe to the safety of the world’s leading industrial powers is long, convoluted, and utterly implausible. In fact, the daisy chain works only when Western Europe chooses to directly intervene.

Accepting the argument that human rights violations outside NATO implicate NATO “interests” would yield a nonstandard justifying intervention anywhere for anything. Nor does it pass the embarrassment test, when NATO member Turkey engages in similarly brutal behavior in suppressing Kurdish rebels.

The war also violates the most basic tenets of international law as embodied in the UN Charter. As an association of sovereign states, the organization recognizes that borders are inviolable. According to Article 2 of the charter, military force may not be used against a country unless that nation itself has used force: “All members shall refrain … from … use of force against the territorial integrity … of any state.” Although NATO may act with the concurrence of the UN, Article 53 states, “No enforcement action shall be taken … by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security Council.”

The NATO states did not go to the UN, because they knew that they could not win its approval over the veto of China and Russia. Explained Dutch UN ambassador Peter van Walsum: “If, due to one or two permanent members’ rigid interpretation of the concept of domestic jurisdiction, such a resolution is not attainable, we cannot sit back.” Yet Article 25 of the UN Charter states that members “agree to accept … the decisions of the Security Council.” The fact that the NATO states do not like the UN’s decision in this case — in contrast to decisions made regarding Iraq, say — does not empower them to violate the charter.

Of course, some modern legal theorists argue that sovereignty is not absolute and that exceptions should be made for humanitarian purposes. This raises serious practical issues — particularly the likelihood of spreading conflict in unpredictable ways, as has NATO action in Kosovo. Intervention in otherwise limited disputes automatically internationalizes and often expands them.

Moreover, even if such an exception were adopted, it would not apply to Kosovo. Before NATO’s planned intervention in behalf of the Albanian Kosovar insurgents, Kosovo’s civil war didn’t even rise to the level of an atrocity compared with other international conflagrations. Death tolls in the millions (Angola, Sudan, Rwanda, Tibet), hundreds of thousands (Burundi, East Timor, Liberia, Mozambique), and tens of thousands (Chechnya, Congo, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Turkey) are common. The estimated 12-month death toll of 2,000 in Kosovo was exceeded even by the number of dead in Northern Ireland’s sectarian violence.

Part 1 | Part 2


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Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994)
The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994)
The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992)
The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990)
Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)