Accessibility links

Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- Nations, States, And The International System

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's willingness to intervene against Belgrade and in support of autonomy for Kosovo appears likely to fundamentally shift the balance of power between nations and states. And that, in turn, is certain to transform the international system -- even if none of the participants is actively seeking to do so.

The actions of the Western alliance over the past few weeks suggest that a significant part of the international community is now prepared to get involved on questions, such as the internal structure of the political system, that until now most of its members had recognized as the exclusive preserve of the governments of sovereign and recognized states.

And these steps, both diplomatic and military and both taken and threatened, suggest that ethnic minorities who may have nationalist agendas or states with significant irredentist populations may seek to exploit this new approach of the international community, counting on support in the one case or understanding on the other.

In some cases, this new willingness of the international community to get involved may contribute to the defense of human rights and existing national borders. That is certainly the hope for Kosovo. But in others, it is likely to have the opposite effect, increasing instability and presenting new and unexpected challenges to existing states, the nations submerged within many of them, and the international community.

Sovereign governments around the world are watching the Kosovo crisis with great care. Some are concluding that they should preemptively behave better toward their minorities lest they face a crisis in which the international community will intervene against them.

But other governments are drawing different conclusions. Some, like the one in Belgrade, are using the threat of international intervention on behalf of ethnic minorities to whip up the nationalism of the dominant ethnic community. And such developments in turn do not bode well for the rights of ethnic minorities living on the territory of these states. Indeed, these groups may find themselves at greater risk than before.

And still others are undoubtedly calculating whether they can exploit a Kosovo precedent to intervene on behalf of their co-ethnic communities abroad, many of which have significant grievances with the governments of the states on whose territories they reside.

Meanwhile, national minorities around the world are following the Kosovo events with even greater attention and are reaching conclusions about how they should act in the future. Some have clearly concluded that violence works, that developing a powerful military challenge to the central government is a useful way to internationalize their issues by attracting foreign support.

And they are likely to view the autonomy being pushed by the international community as a stepping stone to eventual independence rather than an end in itself, thus undercutting the expressed goals of the international community that has intervened on their behalf.

But others are drawing a very different, even opposite lesson. They are noting how much suffering the people in Kosovo had to undergo before the international community thought about intervening and how easy was for those opposed to such intervention to delay any action by outside powers. Those drawing this conclusion are probably less rather than more likely to use violence to advance their causes.

And all these reactions by states and nations are affecting the international system itself in three critical ways. First, the Kosovo crisis has further reduced the scope for independent action by the leaders of countries. As Christopher Hill, the American diplomat charged with dealing directly with this crisis, put it during the weekend, his task is to convince both sides that a fixation on national governments "is a bit antiquated."

While that may make becoming an independent state less important for a minority, it may also make existing states far more defensive of their prerogatives and powers, a shift that could reduce rather than increase the chances for cooperation and negotiation.

Second, in a world of only 210 countries but perhaps 500 major ethnic minorities with an interest in autonomy or even independence, the possibility exists that an international community or at least its most active parts could rapidly become overcommitted, forced to intervene in ever more places lest events spiral out of control or be confronted by charges of hypocrisy that will undermine that community's moral authority. ."

And third, because intervention of whatever kind always reflects calculations about more than sovereignty and minority rights, choices in particular cases are likely to divide rather than unite the major powers, thus exacerbating rather than moderating international tensions over other issues as well. ."

Having ruled out independence for Kosovo from the outset but being committed to the defense of the human rights of the Kosovars, the international community's backing for autonomy almost certainly is the best of a limited set of options. But as the deadline for action approaches, the broader consequences of even this best of the available options are becoming increasingly clear