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"Humanitarian Wars," Realist Geopolitics, and Genocidal Practices: "Saving the Kosovars"


By Richard Falk



Geopolitics After the Cold War.

The Cold War was generally interpreted as an encounter between nuclear superpowers that led opposed alliances and sustained their respective identities by reference to antagonistic ideologies. Such an image of the global setting lent support to the argument that international politics could be best understood from a perspective of bipolarity. Since the end of the Cold War a decade ago, and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, it is more difficult to find an illuminating image to capture the essence of world order. The two main claimants have been "globalization" and "unipolarity." Neither image helps us grasp the changing role of the sovereign state nor the preoccupation during the 1990s with intrastate violence and conflict, a class of instances that Mary Kaldor has helpfully dubbed "new wars."

Partly these concerns reflect a perceived threat to world order that derives from unexpected sources in recent years. The main challenges are associated with the dynamics of "the weak state" unable to sustain order within its territorial boundaries rather than with the traditional focus of international relations on the expansionist machinations of "the strong state." These latter concerns seem increasingly anachronistic.

It is also necessary to take account of an array of normative issues (moral and legal) that have been foregrounded by the socialist collapse. The West, and the United States in particular, had relied on its supposed normative superiority to mobilize support at home and abroad during the Cold War, especially throughout the 1980s endgame. By associating the Soviet "other" with "the evil empire" it was inevitable that Americans would project themselves as "the virtuous empire." Not only was this surge of Manicheanism congenial with the preferred modality of the binary way that the Western mind works, but it lent itself to justifying recourse to violence in a variety of international situations, as well as to promoting capitalism as the wave of the future á la Fukuyama.. This sense of a Lockean self came to shape the identity of many Americans, providing the foundation for their persisting activism in a world that now lacked the geopolitical convenience of a strategic enemy. The most ardent warriors of the Cold War era are continuing to spend most of their waking hours searching for a new enemy worthy of geopolitcal stature. In sequence, first Japan, then Islam, international terrorism, and "the rogue states," and most recently, China have each been trotted out before the public as worthy adversaries. Fortunately, the casting has not been able to produce a credible enemy, at least not yet. In the absence of an enemy, the case on behalf of international force poses a political and conceptual challenge for liberals and realists alike.

At this point this central geopolitical puzzle remains unsolved: how to validate the projection of American military power in the aftermath of the Cold War. What is worth fighting for in such a world? The Gulf War provided a partial response: it is worth fighting for oil, nonproliferation, and the stability of the Middle East, and further, it is possible to translate military superiority into political outcomes (the reversal of the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, and the elimination of Iraq as a regional threat) at a minimal cost in casualties. But Saddam Hussein's aggression was an anomoly for the 1990s, an international war of expansion that seriously threatened major interests of regional and global actors. Such a luxury was unlikely to recur soon!

The emergent challenge associated with the breakdown of domestic public order of weak states could not often validate an international response by invoking traditional realist justifications. Something else was needed. Into such a strategic vacuum entered a range of humanitarian concerns, some genuine, others suspect. The process got started in the form of "humanitarian peacekeeping" under United Nations auspices, backed by a Security Council consensus. Somalia came first, then Bosnia. Both ended in failure, as did the 1994 non-response to large-scale genocide in Rwanda. What went wrong? Whatever the auspices, interventionary undertakings with political objectives are likely to be confronted by violent resistance if perceived by indigenous political factions to be helping their domestic adversary. In other words, in Somalia what started out in 1991 as a humanitarian operation to overcome famine, disease, and chaos became in its second phase an effort to establish political order in a partisan manner, and this immediately engendered indigenous violent resistance to the UN presence.

In Bosnia, the humanitarian mission was situated in the midst of an ethnic cleansing campaign of atrocity that could not simultaneously be both impartial as to the conflict and effective in protecting the civilian targets of abuse. The failure of the UN presence to protect Bosnian civilians even at the "safe haven" of Srebenica has now been acknowledged in a detailed UN report. It was not only the complicity of the UN with the agents of humanitarian catastrophe, but it was the unwillingness of the members of the Security Council to provide the UN with the resources required to carry out its assigned mission. There was both a failure of political will, and a consensus that was so thin as between the permanent members that it could be maintained only so long as it was kept ineffectual in relation to the play of forces at work.

In Rwanda, coming a year after the backlash in Somalia, the humanitarian urgency prompted only the most minimal response at a time when even a relatively minor effort might have saved hundred of thousands of lives. There was ample warning of the Hutu plan to commit mass genocide, and good reasons to believe that a timely UN augmented response could have made a difference. Again, the UN failure reflected the refusal of the major states, especially the United States in this instance, to take the risks of engagement in Rwanda. The memory of the breakdown of the Somalia undertaking was too fresh in Washinton to risk some sort of repetition in Rwanda where no strategic interests existed.

There are several factors present. The global media as actor, calling selective attention to humanitarian catastrophes in a manner that either highlighted or backgrounded a given situation, influenced the behavior of key governments. Further, the unipolar structure of world order, especially with respect to the logistics of long-distance diplomacy, has meant that the outlook of the US Government had a decisive influence on what was undertaken, and how. And finally, the espousal of international human rights and democracy as major global agenda items, meant that the idea of territorial sovereignty, so central to Westphalian notions of statecraft and written into the UN Charter, were being significantly eroded. Part of the social contract between the UN and its member states was that state/society relations were not subject to UN intervention unless the Security Council concluded that the situation posed a serious threat to international peace and security. Such a development made it conceptually more difficult for governments to defend the position that severe violations of the basic rights of their own citizenry were only of domestic concern. But it also raised understandable anxieties on the part of countries that were sensitive to the colonial legacy and were suspicious about the genunineness of humanitarian claims as being post-colonial pretexts for renewed Western intervention in their internal affairs. Such suspicions were accentuated by the manner in which the United States exerted an overbearing influence in the Security Council, as manifested especially in the Gulf War setting. The domestic jurisdiction limitation on the UN role in peace and security provided a major source of protection and reassurance for countries without a right of veto, an important reassurance given that most members could not expect consistent participation in, or even access to, Security Council proceedings.

There are some further structural reasons to be wary of an endorsement of humanitarian intervention well-depicted years ago in John Vincent's now classic study of the doctrine and practice of intervention as a dimension of Westphalian statecraft.(Vincent, Nonintervention in International Order, Princeton, 1974). In brief, Vincent emphasizes the absence of impartial sources of assessment in relation to the facts in issue that leads to self-serving interpretations. It might also be stressed that governments cannot be trusted with respect to their public justifications for recourse to international force, tending to stress moral motivations and to conceal their more selfish strategic goals. Such mistrust is reinforced by the extensive efforts of intervening governments to envelop their decisional processes in secrecy. This pertains particularly to hegemonic democracies that habitually disguise any self-seeking and imperialist motives for international action behind a veil of benevolence. Such a pattern of considerations is most relevant to an assessment of American-led humanitarian diplomacy, as the United States Government depends on strong public approval for its overseas military undertakings that are not clearly associated with conventional national interests. These considerations exert pressure on American leaders to base humanitarian initiatives on a convincing line of moral justification, especially when there is no longer a strategic adversary on the scene. At the same time, as we shall note in relation to Kosovo, the moralizing imperative in the absence of strategic threat does not seem sufficiently compelling to justify the sacrifice of young American lives.

In the leadup to Kosovo, then, there are a series of developments that culminated in recourse to the first "humanitarian war." To begin with, the perceived failure of UN humanitarian peacekeeping in relation to Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda encouraged a search for a more effective approach to humanitarian catastrophe. Further, the acknowledgement of moral guilt by leading governments in relation to these severe instances of ethnic strife in the early 1990s, especially in the setting of former Yugoslavia, made it politically unacceptable to wait on the sidelines while a new tragedy unfolded in Kosovo. This consideration was strengthened by the extremely dirty hands of the West resulting from its earlier willingness to strike a Faustian Bargain with Milosevic as a helpful means to find the diplomatic solution to the Bosnian War at Dayton in 1995. Such factors were given additional weight due to the American disillusionment with the United Nations that expressed itself as hostility toward the Organization by the conservative majority in the US Congress. And finally, there was present a widespread sense that European unity in the 1990s could not survive a second round of ethnic cleansing within its geographic domain, which overlapped with the complementary concerns that US involvement in Europe and the viability of NATO depended upon quickly finding a new raison d'etre.

The mention of such contextual factors is not tantamount to asserting the impossibility of humanitarian war in general, or even to discount the relevance of humanitarian concerns to shaping the international response to Serb atrocities and state terror in Kosovo during the months prior to the NATO campaign of 1999. What is being suggested, however, is the importance of not too readily accepting a humanitarian rationale for war. Paul Ricoeur's recommendation of "an ethic of suspicion" seems especially appropriate whenever the powerful proclaim that a major use of international force is "a humanitarian war."


Skepticism about Humanitarian Claims in Kosovo.

There are further reasons to be skeptical in relation to the actuality of the NATO response aside from the generic difficulties associated with accepting the authenticity of a humanitarian rationale for this particular war.

--the pre-war diplomacy: one of the most important efforts of international law is to restrict uses of force to defensive modes or under UN auspices. Here, there was neither, allegedly because the Security Council was blocked by the prospect of Russian and Chinese vetoes. Under such circumstances, the claim to prevent genocide or to stop the commission of crimes against humanity is the essential basis for the legitimacy of the operation. But recourse to war even under these exceptional circumstances can only be treated as an permissible departure from normal restraints on the use of force only if a maximal effort was made to achieve a diplomatic solution. The NATO countries contend that the combination of the efforts at Rambouillet and the shuttle diplomacy of Richard Holbrooke exhausted all reasonable efforts to reach an acceptable political settlement of the dispute. Critics, however, are not convinced. They wonder why the terms offered Belgrade at Rambouillet seemed so rigidly insistent on highlighting the NATO role, which could only be understood as a slap in the face of Yugoslav sovereignty. They wonder even more why the diplomacy to end the war brought to the fore more acceptable negotiators in the persons of Chernomyrdin and Ahtisaari. They wonder further why the Russians were allowed such a dominant role in the post-war peacekeeping, and why the role of NATO was virtually eclipsed by assigning the formal and fundamental post-conflict responsibility to the United Nations. It would seem that had the search for a peaceful settlement been undertaken in good faith this pattern of pre-war and post-war diplomacy would have been reversed! Without access to internal diplomatic communications and the real objectives of the main players it will be impossible to gain a conclusive view as to whether the pre-war diplomacy presupposed that a NATO bluff was enough to avert war, or that it was believed no concessions were necessary because even if the bluff did not work, Belgrade would give in after a few days of bombing. It seems likely that Milosevic, too, may have been bluffing, counting on the lack of political will and unity on the NATO side to persist, at worst, beyond a few days of bombing..

If appraised by Ricoeur's criterion, it seems impossible to conclude that NATO upheld its burden of persuasion. It is not plausible, given the available evidence, to conclude that recourse to war by NATO without a UN mandate was primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns for the Kosovars .

--Conduct of the NATO War. The exclusive reliance on air power to achieve "victory" in a war concerning arrangements internal to a sovereign state was a novelty in the long history of warfare. The justification for such an approach was premised almost exclusively on the basis that there was insufficient political support in NATO countries for any reliance on ground troops or on strategies that could result in extensive casualties. In deference to these considerations, NATO waged a high altitude air campaign consisting of some 13,000 sorties that produced considerable "collateral" civilian damage in Serbia and Kosovo. The civilian infrastructure in former Yugoslavia was targeted directly after the initial target list composed of military sites was exhausted after the first few days of bombing without achieving the expected response in Belgrade.

Such tactics raise further doubts about the claim of a humanitarian war. First of all, to shift the risks of casualties to the side that is being assisted, tarnishes at the very least the humanitarian dimension of the undertaking. Such an impression is strengthened by the total absence of battle casualties on the NATO side, and the estimated death of some 2000 Kosovars and Serb civilians. Secondly, the political pressures to avoid casualties does not exempt the tactics chosen from legal and moral scrutiny. At most, it suggests that liberal democracies, given their current political culture, are unwilling to accept the costs of conducting a humanitarian war in a humanitarian manner. Further, to the extent that the tactics relied upon were in violation of the laws of war, which claim to set minimum guidelines for warfare to avoid excessive damage and superfluous suffering, there is a further erosion of the humanitarian pretension. Thirdly, the targeting of the civilian infrastructure of former Yugoslavia raises additional humanitarian concerns.

It does seem correct to take note of an accelerating pattern of Serb atrocities prior to the war, and the recourse to a policy of ethnic cleansing almost immediately upon the onset of the bombing campaign. The pre-war atrocities are probably best regarded at this point as expressions of state terror led by Belgrade as part of its effort to defeat the KLA insurgency rather than as a distinct plan for ethnic cleansing. The fact that the NATO bombing appeared to trigger a systematic plan guided from Belgrade to expel and terrorize the Albanian population of Kosovo as a whole does not by itself establish that the war was justified on humanitarian grounds. It also does not support the view, that even if the war was initially justified, this justification was later nullified by the Serbian reaction that appeared to worsen, at least temporarily, the humanitarian catastrophe befalling the Albanians. The relevant test concerns the real motivations and the extent to which the Serb response was or should have been anticipated. If the massive Serb terror came as a surprise, then it does not bear on the evaluation of the interventionary decision, but if foretold, then it would add further doubts to those who question the humanitarian character of the war.

--Concerns after the War. In support of the humanitarian claim it is important to take note of the degree to which the Kosovars greeted the NATO-constituted peacekeeping forces as liberators, as well as the rapidity with which a large proportion of the refugees returned to Kosovo despite its devastated conditions.

But it is also necessary to admit the relevance of Albanian crimes of vengeance directed at the Serb and Roma minorities in Kosovo despite the KFOR occupying peacekeeping force and the United Nation UNMIK mission designed to administer the process of restoring normalcy to Kosovo. Since the international administration of Kosovo commenced, a large proportion of the Serb population has evidently felt obliged to flee from Kosovo altogether or to retreat from their homes to the northern part of the province in which there is more protection. In effect, the goals of a multiethnic Kosovo have been superseded by the post-war predominance of the KLA and the Albanian population, and their thinly disguised intention to turn this transitional period into a process that results in total political independence for an Albanian Kosovo. The KLA goal is to avoid either the emergence of a de facto UN protectorate in Kosovo or the reintegration of Kosovo into the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.



It would be premature at this point to reach definitive conclusions about the Kosovo experience. At the same time, certain preliminary assessments can be made on the basis of what is known. In this spirit, it does not seem responsible to regard the NATO campaign as "a humanitarian war." The intervention did appear to terminate one instance of humanitarian catastrophe, although it seems to have given rise to a second, lesser comparable catastrophe directed at the Serbs and Roma minorities in Kosovo. To be genuinely justifiable as a humanitarian exception to the UN system governing the use of force, there needed to be a more diligent effort on the NATO side to act in good faith within the limits of international law, as well as a more convincing effort to choose war only after all reasonable diplomatic possibilities had been exhausted. Beyond this, the conduct of the war by NATO and by maintaining sanctions against Yugoslavia, the postwar diplomacy seemed punitive toward the Serbian civilian population. It was also incapable of fulfilling the proclaimed NATO/UN goals of securing a multiethnic Kosovo that remains within Serbia, although with a renewal of its autonomous status.

At the same time, a drift toward growing Serb state terror and genocide was disrupted by the intervention. No territorial or resource ambitions could be attributed to the NATO side, thereby strengthening the humanitarian claims. The Kosovar refugees voted impressively in favor of the humanitarian interpretation when they returned massively and voluntarily, exhibiting fulsome gratitude to the international peacekeepers. The United Nations, while never endorsing the intervention, held back from censuring the intervention, and have even appeared to ratify the outcome by agreeing to play such a pivotal role in the postwar administration of Kosovo. Further, the willingness to respond in Kosovo definitely helped build political support for a UN humanitarian peacekeeping mission undertaken immediately thereafter for the sake of the people of East Timor.

Account should also be taken of the fact that the Kosovo intervention placed the Christian West on the side of the Albanian Muslim community and in opposition to the Christian Serbs. Such an alignment is an important refutation, at least in relation to this conflict, of Samuel Huntington's thesis that bloody conflicts in the contemporary world almost inevitably will exhibit "a clash of civilizations." From what has been argued above, such an alignment does not by itself establish humanitarian character of the NATO action, and is quite consistent with either a geopolitical explanation or with an analysis that suggests that the political and ideological realities in the leading NATO countries precluded a genuine humanitarian undertaking.

What seems to emerge is a complex mixed message. The prevailing ideas and the dominant actors on the global stage are not capable of humanitarian warfare if there is any perceived prospect that they might incur serious human costs in so doing. For these reasons, to the extent that genuine humanitarian consideration are involved, as they were in relation to Kosovo, any action taken is likely to be either underfunded and insufficient, or to rely on forms of interventionary violence that are themselves illegal, and anti-humanitarian. In contrast, interventions that are reinforced by sufficient political will and appropriate resources are likely to be only nominally "humanitarian," and are better understood by reference to the strategic interests that are at stake even if these are officially downplayed or denied as the basis of action.

The precedent of a NATO war without prior Security Council authorization has already had troublesome ramifications. The Russians in waging their brutal war against Chechnya have repeatedly invoked the NATO precedent, contending with a shred of plausibility that using force within one's own sovereign territory is less damaging to world order than the unilateralism of NATO's war against a foreign country. Of course, there is a crucial difference. NATO was reacting to widely reported crimes against humanity and state terror, if not ethnic cleansing. Moscow is engaged in a war of annihilation to frustrate the aspirations of the people of Chechnya to achieve political independence and self-determination in the face of a long reign of abusive rule, and only inauthentically basing its action on claims of counter-terror.

As of the year 2000, it seems structurally impossible to envision "humanitarian wars" in the future. What is ideologically likely, and structurally possible, are humanitarian initiatives pursued as a result of transnational social pressures, abetted by global media attention. It is also reasonable to anticipate "geopolitical interventionary wars" that are validated by reference to humanitarian concerns. Such is the prospect in a world where the normative agenda is receiving growing prominence, but the role of power is still predominantly determined by the self-help character of a state-centric world in which security policy is shaped by realist sensibilities. Such sensibilities remain ill at ease with humanitarian claims, despite recent rhetorical pretensions to the contrary, except possibly when searching for public policy justifications.


© Richard Falk 2000







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