“[Kosovo] is probably the first war that has not been waged in the name of ‘national interests,’ but rather in the name of principles and values. If one can say of any war that it is ethical, or that it is being waged for ethical reasons, then it is true of this war.”1

- Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic

During the 1990s, the concept of ‘humanitarian intervention’ rose to dominate much of the Western security discourse, and was used to legitimize the West’s decade-long series of interventions in the republics that once constituted Yugoslavia. The war in the Balkans typified the conflicts of the post-Cold War era, in that it occurred along ethnic divisions that had previously been suppressed by now-defunct socialist and colonialist political structures. The Balkan violence, which rose to genocidal proportions in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, captured the minds of Western civil society and politicians like no other post-Cold War conflict did, occurring as it did so close to the heart of Europe. However, the Western Powers’ response was disappointing at best, and often an abject failure. 250,000 people are estimated to have died in Bosnia and Croatia, with 2.5 million left homeless.2 In Kosovo, NATO’s air campaign did nothing to prevent, and in fact spurred, the displacement of 1.4 million Kosovar Albanians and the violent deaths of 10,000 people in the province.3 In both Bosnia and Kosovo, intervention was significantly limited and, in Bosnia’s case, disastrously delayed by the American government’s near-fanatical unwillingness, for domestic political reasons, to risk ‘friendly’ casualties. Once this paralysis was partially overcome, the Western powers acted in order to maintain or increase their international prestige, and not just to uphold moral principles as was claimed. At other times, the moral rhetoric was acknowledged in private as an outright scam, employed to conceal other strategic goals, the realignment of NATO being the most significant. Self-interest is inarguably an inherent part of the international system as it exists today, from which significant consequences result. This paper will argue that the political and military intervention undertaken by Western states in the Balkans during the 1990s, ostensibly to safeguard stability and human security in the region, consistently failed to meet these goals due to their incompatibility with other domestic and foreign policy goals of the states of Western Europe and the United States at the time.

The use of force for purportedly humanitarian purposes is not an exclusive product of the post-Cold War era. Indeed, many at the time chose to justify Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 on humanitarian grounds.4 In the 1990s, humanitarian intervention came to hold in the United States a definition known as the Clinton Doctrine, which Michael Mandelbaum describes as having two parts:

the use of force on behalf of universal values instead of the narrower national interests for which sovereign states have traditionally fought; and, in defense of these values, military intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states rather than mere opposition to cross-border aggression.5
Certainly the ideals of humanitarian intervention, in preventing a state engaged in widespread human rights abuses from hiding behind traditional conceptions of sovereignty, are hard to argue with. As Michael Walzer observes, “when a government turns savagely upon its own people, we must doubt the very existence of a political community to which the idea of self-determination might apply.”6 However, the legal basis for these engagements, and especially for NATO’s war against Serbia in 1999, is tenuous at best. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter compels all members to refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”7 It is commonly accepted that the UN Security Council can choose to override this article in order to maintain international peace and security; however, no such authorization was granted to NATO in the case of the Kosovo crisis.8 Also of concern is the legitimacy of the humanitarian basis used to justify intervention. There is good reason to be skeptical of Western political rhetoric describing intervention as a “moral imperative,”9 for from a realist standpoint, a moral imperative alone would not generally constitute rational self-interest. As Walzer asserts, “states don’t send their soldiers into other states only to save lives. The lives of foreigners don’t weigh that heavily in the scales of domestic decision-making.”10 Clearly then, in order to understand the recent interventions undertaken in the Balkans, and their humanitarian failures, it is useful to recognize that intervention is not undertaken in a vacuum, that other strategic concerns generally provoke ‘humanitarian’ intervention in a conflict that might otherwise be left to play out on its own, and that they can also come to shape the decisions made during the course of the intervention.

To characterize the Balkan interventions as failures admittedly contradicts the official visions presented by NATO member states. Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State during the Kosovo crisis, asserted afterwards that the Kosovo intervention was “simply the most important thing we have done in the world.”11 However, as previously noted, neither the Kosovo air campaign nor Western-led efforts in Bosnia were successful in preventing large-scale civilian casualties and massive internal and external displacements of people. The Dayton agreement that finally ended the violence in Bosnia did little more than “sanction the outcome”12 of the ethnic cleansing, partitioning the territory between the self-styled Republika Srpska and a brittle Muslim-Croat federation. In the case of Kosovo, intervention temporarily increased Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s domestic popularity13 and resulted in the occupation and administration of the province by NATO forces with no foreseeable exit strategy in the near-future. Once removed from the cloudy rhetoric spouted by Western politicians conveniently positioned astride the moral high ground, the facts tell a significantly different story regarding the outcomes of the West’s flirtation with humanitarian intervention.

Criticism has been directed at the Western powers’, and specifically the United States’, unwillingness to intervene in Bosnia when the crisis first arose in 1992-1993 and when much of the human suffering could potentially have been averted.14 U.S. President Bill Clinton had campaigned for office in part on a promise to take firm action to halt genocide,15 yet his administration dithered for two years until finally drawn into intervening by its NATO obligations.16 Warren Zimmermann, former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, estimates that the delay cost the lives of at least 100,000 people in Bosnia.17 Some measure of blame in this regard must be assigned to the states of Western Europe, who were resistant to any U.S. suggestion of employing air strikes in 1993.18 However, much of the blame centers on American paralysis in the face of the possibility that its own forces might take casualties, a factor in American foreign policy since the end of the Vietnam War and the primary impetus behind the premature withdrawal of American forces from Somalia in 1992.19 As John Chipman, the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes, “in this world … military force is threatened without any corresponding willingness to accept the casualties that inevitably come with a serious military effort.”20

In the United States, this unwillingness to risk casualties has been particularly acute, driven by a widespread belief among the American political elite that the public would not support even moderate casualties among U.S. troops engaged in military operations not perceived as urgently vital to the country’s national interests. In fact, independent polling has shown that a majority of the American public would support humanitarian interventions that resulted in U.S. losses numbering in the hundreds. 21 In Bosnia, the perceived inability of the public to accept U.S. combat casualties deterred NATO from employing air strikes except in a few limited cases, and made the deployment of ground troops unthinkable until after the Dayton Agreement was reached. In Kosovo, a similar situation played out. No ground troops were deployed until after the Serbian army withdrew from the territory, and the effectiveness of air strikes was severely limited by the political necessity of ‘zero-risk.’ NATO air crews were required to fly above 15,000 feet to avoid Serbian defenses, minimizing their ability to hit any target with precision. As a result, in over 30,000 sorties, NATO planes destroyed a mere 13 Serbian tanks22 during a war ostensibly undertaken to defend Kosovar Albanians from rampaging Serbian troops. The vast majority of Kosovars fleeing the conflict did so after the commencement of the air war, fleeing both the Serbian ground offensive and NATO’s aerial bombardment, and the 10,000 killed violently during the campaign dwarfed the toll of previous Serb police crackdowns in the province.23 Robert Fisk of the Independent speculates, “Had we been prepared to intervene on land at the beginning – at the cost, no doubt, of NATO soldiers’ lives – countless murdered Albanians would still be alive.”24 The belief that combat losses would erode political support at home caused Western leaders time and time again to avoid taking the decisive action necessary to quickly end the Balkan conflicts.

The politics of international prestige also played a role in the Balkans debacle. Morgenthau describes prestige as “the policy of demonstrating the power a nation has or thinks it has, or wants other nations to believe it has.”25 When the Clinton Administration proposed air strikes against Serbian forces in Bosnia in May 1993, European governments weren’t merely opposed to the offer because it might jeopardize the lives of European soldiers serving in a peacekeeping capacity at the time, but also in order to demonstrate Europe’s capacity for independent political action.26 Likewise, the American pursuit of the Dayton Agreement, and torpedoing of previous ‘made in Europe’ solutions such as the Vance-Owen Plan27, sought to assert America’s continued influence in European affairs. Justifying air strikes against Bosnian Serbs undertaken just prior to the Dayton conference, then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher “presented the strikes as a means of preserving American military credibility.”28 Finally, as will be explored in detail below, the Kosovo air campaign was a prestige endeavour on a massive scale, mounted to illustrate the continued power and relevance of NATO in the post-Cold War era, and especially in response to criticism that it had been to slow to act in Bosnia.

In 1995, with the Soviet Union gone and no other credible threat apparent to the nations of Western Europe and North America, NATO’s future was open to serious doubt. Observers such as Christoph Bertram viewed the organization as one “in terminal decline,” and questioned whether it “might not see the end of this century.”29 The continued existence of NATO, a vital tool through which the United States exerts power and influence in Europe, depended on the identification of a new mission. To fill this hole, NATO directed itself towards ‘out of area’ operations, that is, operations undertaken outside the territories of its nineteen member nations. Kosovo represented an opportunity to mount a definitive out of area operation, one that would set precedents important both to international law and to NATO’s future operations.30 NATO launched the Kosovo air campaign after the Serbian government rejected the terms outlined in the Rambouillet accords31, an agreement which was presented by NATO as an ultimatum and which contained various provisions that Serbia could never have accepted. Rambouillet would have granted NATO an unrestricted and indefinite right to move, station and operate troops throughout the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia32, and would have required that a final settlement regarding the independence of Kosovo be decided by an international conference within three years.33 Both provisions, among others, were dropped from the June settlement that ended NATO’s bombardment, casting doubt on Albright’s assertion that “before resorting to force, NATO went the extra mile to find a peaceful resolution.”34 In fact, NATO had designed the agreement to fail. A senior U.S. State Department official reportedly told journalists at the Rambouillet talks that the U.S. had “intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply,” and observed, “They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.”35 Had NATO not already decided to bomb Serbia prior to the Rambouillet conference, an agreement might have been reached and the massacres and displacements that resulted from the air bombardment likewise avoided. Instead, the United States went to war in order to demonstrate the continued relevance of NATO, the primary organization through which it projects power in Europe, and thus to refute calls urging its dissolution. The decision, taken primarily by the United States, to pursue a military intervention rather than negotiate a peaceful solution that minimized the loss of life on all sides represents a profound failure to uphold the humanitarian principles that Western leaders purported to be governed by.

Alternately driven and hamstrung by great power interests and domestic political concerns, the interventions in the Balkans consistently failed to meet the humanitarian objectives iterated by NATO leaders. Humanitarianism in the context of the Balkan wars proved to be incompatible with the desire among Western nations, and specifically the United States, to demonstrate power while simultaneously avoiding the risk of military losses. The result was a decade of missed opportunities, ineffectual operations and, most importantly, the effective sanctioning of mass murder and displacement. While Western leaders, and especially those of smaller NATO members such as Canada and the Czech Republic, may have believed themselves to be acting exclusively out of concern for the well-being of Balkan civilians, strategic agendas drove NATO’s military engagements, and governed its previous inaction. If a lesson can be drawn from the rubble of the Balkans, it is that decision-making authority during humanitarian crises is a power that must remain solely in the hands of the United Nations. NATO’s engagements in the Balkans have demonstrated that regional alliances cannot be trusted to act on humanitarian objectives independent of the power objectives of their member states. Allowing regional alliances to construct a legal foundation for unsanctioned acts of ‘humanitarian’ intervention against other sovereign states can only encourage an increasingly militarized and unstable world. As A.J. Coates argues, “It is precisely the ‘altruistic’ pursuit of warfare that generates militarism and that leads to the systematic undermining of every limit placed upon war.”36 While the current U.S.-led ‘War on Terrorism’ has had the effect of shifting the focus away from humanitarianism, this shift is unlikely to be permanent. Humanitarianism will undoubtedly come to be used again to justify calls for military intervention, whether by NATO or another regional alliance. Clearly, responsible world leaders will have to resist the desire to accept the precedent of Kosovo, and its marginalization of the United Nations, and instead embrace multilateralism as the only global route to long-term peace, stability and security.

1 Address to the Canadian Senate and House of Commons (29 April 1999), reprinted as Vaclav Havel, “Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State,” New York Review of Books, 10 June 1999.

2 Jack Donnelly, International Human Rights (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998), 139.

3 Michael Mandelbaum, “A Perfect Failure: NATO’s War Against Yugoslavia,” Foreign Affairs 78, 5 (September-October 1999), 3.

4 J.A. Spender, "Munich - Before and After," Contemporary Review, 154 (November 1938), 514. Spender relates the report of a correspondent who indicated that the Germans in the Sudetenland were living in fear of being killed by the Czechs.

5 Mandelbaum, 5.

6 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 101.

7 Charter of the United Nations. Online Available at http://www.un.org/Overview/Charter/contents.html. Accessed 3 March 2002.

8 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan describes the international community’s inability to reach consensus prior to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo as a “tragedy,” though he admits that the unilateral intervention may have been warranted. See Kofi Annan, “Two concepts of sovereignty,” The Economist, 18 September 1999, 82.

9 US President Bill Clinton, as quoted in Francis X. Clines, “NATO Opens Barrage against Serbs as Clinton Denounces Brutal Repression,” New York Times, 25 March 1999.

10 Walzer, 101.

11 Quoted in Mandelbaum, 8.

12 Andreas Behnke, “The Enemy Inside: The Western Involvement with Bosnia and the Problem of Security Identities,” Alternatives 23, 3 (July-September 1998), 386; Warren Bass, “The Triage of Dayton,” Foreign Affairs 77, 5 (September-October 1998), 106.

13 Mandelbaum, 4.

14 See for instance David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

15 Bass, 96.

16 The Clinton administration had previously agreed to a NATO commitment, Op-plan 40104, to provide 20,000 U.S. troops as part of a 60,000-person evacuation force should the situation on the ground become too chaotic for the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia to function. As the situation worsened, the administration found itself caught between overseeing a humiliating withdrawal and intervening. Thus, NATO air strikes, the Dayton Agreement, and the deployment of NATO’s Implementation Force (IFOR) all resulted from what Bass describes as an “aimless” decision. Had the Clinton administration not committed itself to the evacuation force, it is doubtful that NATO would have intervened in Bosnia at all. Bass, 99-101.

17 Ibid, 97.

18 Ibid, 99.

19 On 3 October 1993, 18 American soldiers were killed during a botched raid intended to capture two senior commanders implicated in the continuing Somali civil war. See the node Battle of Mogadishu; also Walter S. Clarke and Jeffrey L. Herbst (eds.), Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1997).

20 Quoted in “Think-tank criticizes NATO’s ‘air only’ strategy,” The Irish Times, 5 May 1999. Online Available at http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/1999/0505/wor5.htm. Accessed 3 March 2002.

21 Based on polling data summarized by Steven Kull and Clay Ramsay, “The Myth of the Reactive Public: American public attitudes on military casualties in the post-Cold War period,” in Public Opinion and the Use of Force, Philip Everts and Pierangelo Isernia (eds.) (New York: Routledge, 2001), 205-224.

22 Paul Robinson, “Ready to kill but not to die: NATO strategy in Kosovo,” International Journal 54, 4 (Autumn 1999), 678. See also Carl Cavanagh Hodge, “Casual War: NATO’s Intervention in Kosovo,” Ethics & International Affairs 14 (2000), 39-54.

23 Based on figures reported by the International Crisis Group in Kosovo Spring Report, 20 March 1998, 23.

24 Robert Fisk, “Was it rescue or revenge?” Independent (London), 21 June 1999, 5.

25 Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 5th Edition Revised (Toronto: Random House, 1978), 82.

26 Bass, 99.

27 Wayne Bert, The Reluctant Superpower (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 195; James Petras and Steve Vieux, “Bosnia and the Revival of US Hegemony,” New Left Review 218 (July-August 1996), 16-23.

28 Bert, 122.

29 Christoph Bertram, “NATO on Track for the 21st Century?” Security Dialogue 26, 1 (March 1995), 65-71. For a more thorough investigation of the quantity of material that was written on this question, see http://www.csis.org/ee/NatoMilitary.htm. Accessed 4 March 2002.

30 While the Bosnian intervention in 1995-1996 is considered the first such ‘out of area’ operation, it was, as has been previously shown, more of a damage control mission entered into almost by accident. The Kosovo operations, on the other hand, were the result of an intentional decision by American and British leaders to intervene militarily.

31 The proposed text of the accords is available at http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/dossiers/kosovo/rambouillet.html. Online Accessed 4 March 2002.

32 Ibid, Appendix B, Article 8.

33 Ibid, Chapter 8, Article 1 (3).

34 As quoted in Mandelbaum, 4.

35 According to multiple sources quoted in “What reporters knew about Kosovo talks – but didn’t tell: Was Rambouillet another Tonkin Gulf?” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) Media Advisory, 2 June 1999. Online Available at http://www.fair.org/press-releases/kosovo-talks.html. Accessed 4 March 2002.

36 A.J. Coates, The Ethics of War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 42.