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World: Analysis From Washington -- When Eyes Are Averted

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 14 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The attention that the international community gives to crises like the one in Kosovo inevitably means that governments and peoples around the world devote less attention to events elsewhere, a focus that sometimes allows for developments -- both positive and negative -- that might not otherwise take place.

Since NATO air strikes began in Yugoslavia, there have been several such events. Ethnic violence has continued to mount in Indonesia. By delivering two bombing suspects for trial in the Netherlands, Libya has re-entered in the international community far faster and more easily than most would have predicted. And India has tested and Pakistan has threatened to test new missiles that could further destabilize the subcontinent.

None of these events would have taken place in quite the same way if the world had not been focused on other things. The ethnic violence in Indonesia, something that could change the balance of power in Asia especially if it eventually involves the overseas Chinese, had attracted a great deal of attention from Western media and governments prior to the Kosovo crisis.

But now it has largely dropped off the radar screens of most people. And that may allow some of those involved to take steps they would otherwise feel constrained by publicity and high-level diplomacy not to take, steps that could make the situation a great deal worse in the future. Indeed, the crisis in Kosovo may simply have given the Indonesian situation time to grow into one.

Even more striking is what has happened with Libya. Having finally sent for trial two men accused in the 1988 bombing of a PanAm flight over Scotland, Libya and its leader Muamar Khadafi have made a rapid reentry onto the world scene. Not only have oil companies rushed to make new deals with a state that has been an international outcast, but so too have governments.

Western European countries have moved quickly to restore ties of all kinds, and even the United States, which once bombed Libya in retaliation for its support of terrorism, has asked the United Nations to organize a face to face meeting to explore possibilities for improving relations.

All of these things might have happened in any case, but they were made easier by the fact that the Kosovo crisis has meant that there has been little room for discussion of these steps in the media or parliaments of Western countries. Had there been such an opportunity, at least some countries might have moved less quickly to restore ties with a regime many still view as headed by an international outlaw.

And India's test of a medium range missile on Sunday and Pakistan's suggestion on Tuesday that it would follow suit almost certainly have taken place under the cover of Kosovo. That is, both New Delhi and Islamabad have concluded that they can create certain "facts" in this case in the air that the international community will have little choice but to accept once it focuses on them.

When India and then Pakistan tested nuclear devices a year ago, international outrage and international attention forced both governments to undertake the kind of commitments that at least gave the appearance of limiting the ability of either to destabilize the situation.

But now that both regimes appear to have taken a step that gives them an unprecedented ability to deliver or at least threaten to deliver such devices, the international community, focused as it is on Kosovo, has largely passed over in silence. And that silence may appear not only to India and Pakistan but to other states as well as an implicit acceptance of a development that could seriously destabilize the situation there.

As the Kosovo crisis continues, other governments may exploit this lack of attention to other developments and take actions they otherwise might feel constrained to avoid. That may or may not happen. But there are ample precedents for such concern, and as the fighting in Kosovo goes on, their number is likely to mount further.

To the extent that happens, the Kosovo conflict will have even more international ramifications than many now suspect, the almost inevitable consequence of what happens when the world's eyes are averted.