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Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- When Warnings Are Ignored

  • Paul Goble

Tallinn, 29 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The willingness and ability of Serbian and Kosovo forces to ignore continued NATO warnings to stop the fighting or face military action by the Western alliance are already having far greater consequences than many of those involved in the conflict appear to recognize.

First, by ignoring these warnings, the two sides have raised the stakes for themselves. With every new attack and counterattack, each side has ever more reasons to continue rather than stop the conflict and to insist that its goals be realized -- regardless of what that means for the people of the area of peace in the Balkans.

On the one hand, apparently convinced that they can ignore NATO with impunity, the Serbs are likely to be ever less willing to grant the level of autonomy to the Kosovars that the international community has said they must do. And consequently, they are likely to be ever more willing to use force rather than seek a settlement of any kind.

And on the other, the Kosovars are virtually certain to continue to press their demands for independence because, given combined Serbian and international opposition to their demands for independence, they are likely to feel they have no other option.

Second, the flouting of its warnings has put NATO in an increasingly difficult position with respect to the situation in Kosovo. Many members of the alliance are reluctant to use force without knowing whether the application of force would achieve the goal of the alliance -- autonomous Kosovo within Serbia in which human rights are respected.

And some within NATO appear to be increasingly unsure as to whether that goal, one that would square the circle of Serbian demands that the Kosovars give up their aspirations for self determination and of Kosovo demands for independence, could be achieved by any application of force.

But precisely because the alliance has made repeated threats to use force and then found one or another reason for not doing so, NATO now finds itself in a position where its credibility is in doubt. And that may force the alliance either to consider a complete reshaping of its political agenda or to use even more force than it might have had to use earlier in order to restore its standing.

Changing its political agenda on this question might prove even more wrenching. Were the alliance to decide to ignore what the Serbs are doing in Kosovo as some analysts have urged, it would lose face everywhere. Were it to yield now to Kosovo demands for independence, it would be issuing a virtual invitation to other ethnic communities to press their demands with violence.

As a result, the alliance could soon find itself in a position where it may have to do even more than it had intended in Kosovo, a step that will deepen the commitment of NATO in the Balkans and, effectively transform its historical mission by injecting itself into a conflict it has defined as a domestic one with some foreign consequences.

But it is the third consequence of the actions and interactions of Serbs, Kosovars, and NATO that is likely to prove the most fateful of all. Many across Europe are watching whether NATO will enforce its will or whether groups can ignore the threats of the alliance with impunity or even gain.

Some of those who will be watching how the events in Kosovo play out look to the alliance for protection either directly because they are its members or indirectly because they enjoy the penumbra of security that NATO has extended toward the east over the last few years.

If NATO members conclude that the alliance will not make good on its threats or promises, the alliance itself will be at risk of decay if not dissolution. If those countries to the east conclude that the alliance will do everything it can to avoid enforcing its will they may conclude that they have little choice but to look elsewhere for their security needs.

Some of them may retreat into the hypernationalism that dominated Europe in the 1930s. Others may seek to form new regional arrangements. And still a third group may decide on a kind of neutrality that could put them at risk to the actions of regional powers.

But there is another group of states that will be watching to see whether NATO carries through on its threats. These are the states that have been contained or constrained by the Western alliance. If they decide that NATO is no longer credible, they might act toward their own populations or toward their neighbors in ways that would destabilize the continent, if not the world as a whole.

And that in turn would almost certainly challenge the Western alliance to a much greater extent than anything the Serbians or Kosovars have done up to now.

Fortunately, international politics is not arithmetic. There are always multiple values that can be plugged into its algebra of power. But when some of its players decide that they know the real values of what has been undefined or unknown, that creates a situation likely to be filled with both new uncertainties and new dangers.