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NATO’s Balkans Disaster and Wilsonian Warmongering, Part 2


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The Founders vested the power to declare war in Congress because they feared presidents would do precisely what they are doing today — regularly taking the nation into overseas conflicts. It is all too easy to loose the dogs of war; it is impossible to control where they go afterwards.

The administration launched an unprovoked assault against a nation that had not threatened the United States or any U.S. ally, lowering the bar against aggressive war worldwide. What is the proper standard for making war? That is, what justifies the United States’s taking the extreme step of unleashing death and destruction on another people?

Traditionally it has been a military threat against it. Yet Yugoslavia did nothing against America or any of its allies. Grant that Serbian treatment of Kosovars has been atrocious. So has the Turkish handling of the Kurds. And the conduct of Indonesia in East Timor. As well as the behavior of two score other governments in a variety of conflicts around the globe. Is war the right remedy in those cases?

Indeed, the administration did not threaten war to stop human-rights abuses. Rather, it wanted to force compliance with an international diktat to establish an unstable, jerryrigged autonomous government to be backed by a permanent foreign occupation of what is considered internationally to be indisputably Yugoslavian land.

Were any other nation to make such a demand, Washington would consider it high hubris. The fact that NATO justifies its action on humanitarian grounds changes nothing. Ever since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, military intervention across borders has been defined as aggression. “This may not sound like a very lofty principle, but for 350 years it has been the basis of what order first Europe and then the rest of the world has known,” observes columnist David Frum. This principle offered an important, however limited, standard to maintain the peace.

But the administration and its allies have swept away even this minimal barrier. In principle, any aggression anywhere can be justified as righting some wrong. Russia could invade the Baltic states or Ukraine in the name of protecting ethnic Russians, or Turkey to safeguard the Kurds. China and Pakistan could invade India to defend the Kashmiris. India could invade Sri Lanka to protect the minority Tamils from the Sinhalese-dominated government.

In these and innumerable other cases the West could offer no principled objection. The president has trivialized war, the most monstrous of human practices.

The administration implemented cynicism in the name of humanitarianism. It has oft been said that the world is a dangerous place, and it certainly is. But not particularly to the United States. Most members of the industrialized West, and especially America, are at peace.

Unfortunately, conflict wracks many other countries around the world. There have been mass murders in Burundi, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda; brutal insurgencies in Angola, Congo (formerly Zaire), Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka; bloody wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, India and Pakistan; endless civil war in Afghanistan; violent separatist campaigns in Indonesia (East Timorese), Iraq (Kurds), Mexico (Chiapans), Northern Ireland (Irish Catholics), Russia (Chechens), Spain (Basques), and Turkey (Kurds); and varying strife in Algeria, Burma, Georgia, India, Tajikistan, Tibet, and elsewhere.

Then there is Kosovo. The situation is tragic, yet the one constant of guerrilla insurgencies and civil wars is their brutality. On both sides. The Serbian government has caused untoward civilian casualties in Kosovo, but its conduct does not exist in a vacuum. In June 1998, a U.S. diplomat in Belgrade told me: “If you’re a Serb, hell yes the KLA is a terrorist organization.” Each cycle of violence has spawned another.

The resulting suffering of Kosovars is obvious. Yet at least until NATO intervened the fighting in Kosovo barely rose to the status of atrocity. It certainly did not constitute genocide, a term now routinely used with wild abandon. At least three times as many people died in January alone in Sierra Leone than in Kosovo last year. Nearly as many people died in one three-day battle between Tamil guerrillas and the Sri Lankan government last fall as in Kosovo in all of 1998. By any normal standard, events in Kosovo were less important than those in many other nations around the world.

Indeed, it is impossible to take the Clinton administration’s and NATO’s moralizing seriously. Contrast U.S. policy towards Turkey. Slobodan Milosevic is a demagogic thug, but, in fact, the behavior of his government towards Albanians looks not unlike that of Turkey — a NATO member and U.S. ally participating in the assault on Yugoslavia — towards the Kurds. There, however, the administration has voiced no outrage, demanded no occupation, initiated no bombing.

Although America does not need to act everywhere if it desires to implement a policy of humanitarian intervention, surely some objective standards to determine when to act are necessary. The administration has articulated none. In practice, Washington seems prepared to use military force under three conditions:

  • those being killed are white Europeans;
  • the perceived aggressor is not a U.S. ally;
  • there is saturation media coverage of the conflict.

Moreover, intervention tends to intensify local conflict. NATO intervention in Kosovo immeasurably worsened the humanitarian situation, turning a limited tragedy into a widespread disaster. Early in the war, Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon was forced to acknowledge that it was “difficult … to say that we have prevented one act of brutality.”

Nor is there anything compassionate about sending others off to fight. It’s one thing to ask young men (and now young women) to risk their lives for their own political community. It is quite another thing for armchair warriors to have them die righting international wrongs for other nations.

The administration has deepened European dependence on America to defend European interests with little relevance to America. NATO is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Having successfully deterred Soviet aggression, members are asking, what next for the alliance?

There is no longer a hegemonic threat against Europe. Even a hawk such as theWeekly Standard ‘s William Kristol admits that no comparable threat to the Soviet Union “is likely to emerge for many years, if not decades.” Moreover, the Western Europeans are fully capable of dealing with Moscow now and in the future. The European Union has a combined population in excess of 400 million, a GDP over $8 trillion, and a military of more than one million. Add the polyglot nations of central and eastern Europe and the task that would face even a revived Russia becomes insurmountable.

So NATO advocates are using Kosovo to devise new duties for the alliance. At the ridiculous level, some analysts argued for war to preclude the strife in Kosovo from intruding on NATO’s anniversary celebration. For example, early in 1999 Robert Hunter of the Rand Corporation complained, “If fighting in Kosovo goes on unabated at the time of NATO’s 50th anniversary summit in Washington this April, the focus will not be on its new strategic concept or grand visions. Kosovo will overshadow both celebration of the past and plans for the future.” It is hard to imagine a poorer rationale for military action.

Others, with only slightly less embarrassment, advocated intervention in Kosovo as a means to provide the alliance with a new raison d’être to replace its role as an anti-Soviet deterrent. “If NATO cannot meet this challenge and defeat it,” asked William Kristol, “why does the alliance still exist?” Without victory in Kosovo, he claimed, “NATO will cease to be a serious alliance.” Columnist Jim Hoagland argued that “to back out [of Kosovo] would wreck the alliance.”

But there is no reason to suppose that NATO could not preserve its central defensive role irrespective of the outcome in Kosovo. Where NATO’s credibility has diminished is in the perception of its willingness to join interminable and marginal conflicts “out of area.” But the organization shouldn’t be trying to do that.

Indeed, NATO was originally conceived of as an organization to deter and win wars. It turns the purpose of the alliance on its head to advocate going to war to preserve NATO. The alliance has become the end and war the means. Even more important for the United States, however, is America’s military role in Europe. NATO was created a half century ago to provide a defense shield behind which the Europeans could rebuild. The alliance was never intended to provide a permanent subsidy, especially one to populous and prosperous states after the opposing hegemonic threat had disappeared. It makes no sense for the United States to take the lead in Kosovo, since events there are obviously more relevant to Europe than America.

Of course, the Europeans might not act, and in the eyes of some that reluctance to act demonstrates the necessity of American leadership. However, acting when the Europeans choose not to guarantees continued European passivity. So long as they can induce Washington to subsidize their defense and moderate their conflicts, they have no incentive to organize independently.

Instead of constantly bailing Europe out of its troubles, America should set the Europeans free to make their own decisions and bear the resulting consequences. Let the Western Europeans sort out the problems of the Balkans, and anywhere else, for that matter, if they believe doing so to be worth the cost.

To paraphrase German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the Balkans are not worth the bones of a single healthy American rifleman. Yugoslavia obviously posed no direct threat to the United States. Some argue that there are indirect dangers: Failing to act risks another continental, if not global, conflict. Contended the former German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, “Everything must be done to ensure that another awful conflagration does not explode in Europe.” It is a paranoid fantasy to imagine Serbia alone inaugurating such a conflict, however. Only if other states joined in could the war become serious. Fear of a broader conflict was, of course, the same argument used to justify Western intervention in Bosnia. Yet the Yugoslavian civil war, running from Slovenia through Bosnia, lasted longer than World War I without expanding beyond Yugoslavia. Even if the conflict in Kosovo had spilled over into Albania and Macedonia, no major power would have joined in, in stark contrast to World War I.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo is that it mimics World War I, when alliances spread war from an assassination in Sarajevo to every major power in Europe, Japan, and the United States. During the Bosnian civil war, in contrast, every one of those countries stayed out. In Kosovo, however, NATO jumped in, confronting Russia.

In any case, Balkan instability is a European, not an American, problem. Washington does not have even a minor interest in preventing Europe from having to deal with the detritus in the Balkans left over from the Cold War. Instability on the periphery of Europe has other consequences — economic and cultural, for instance — but they are minimal.

Indeed, intervention in the Balkans risks losing the far more important game involving Russia. Moscow’s future development remains uncertain and worrisome. Yet NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia, which shares long-standing Slavic ties with Russia, has greatly exacerbated tensions already inflamed by the expansion of NATO. Of even greater concern, America’s willingness to meddle in areas of serious, if not vital, interest to Russia (including the Transcaucasus) risks inflaming domestic nationalism, thereby encouraging development of a less cooperative regime in Moscow. Anti-Americanism is already on the rise in Russia.

Although Washington’s dominance remains undiminished, continuing U.S. arrogance — a belief that every other nation can be treated as if it is of no account and told what to do — is likely to create a loose but ever-growing coalition of states determined to resist U.S. hegemony. China, France, India, and Russia are all obvious candidates; the prospect of Washington’s seeking to impose its will militarily on numerous small countries is likely to create even more converts.

It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which U.S. military intervention was less appropriate than in Kosovo. Not surprisingly, NATO officials bungled every step of the way.

The result should provide a sobering lesson. Wilsonian warmongering is neither desirable nor feasible. As Secretary of State John Quincy Adams observed last century, the United States should be the well-wisher of the liberty and independence of all, but does not need to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” To do so, he warned, would destroy the essential values that set her apart: “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. She might become dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Part 1 | Part 2


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)

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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)