Washington, 5 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Discussions about Kosovo's future status, one likely to be more than autonomy but less than independence, call attention to an increasing willingness on the part of the international community to consider political arrangements that the existing state system had seemed to preclude.
Most proposals currently on the table about that war-torn land call for some kind of international military presence -- disagreements remain about its size, composition and armaments -- that would allow the Kosovars to return to their homes in security. But none of these scenarios calls for the recognition of Kosovo as a full-fledged independent state. Indeed, most seem designed to prevent that very outcome.
On the one hand, these various proposals to give Kosovo a special status reflect an effort by the international community to solve the immediate problem. And most of the governments making them have gone out of their way to insist that arrangements designed for Kosovo will not become a precedent either for other ethnic communities seeking greater rights or for an international community interested in defending those rights.
But on the other hand, the debate about how to deal with Kosovo appears to reflect the convergence of three major shifts in the international system over the last few decades, shifts that a Kosovo settlement of virtually any kind seems certain to increase in size regardless of what any participant in this debate now says.
First, sovereignty no longer means what it did in the past. The rise of the United Nations and even more with the end of the Cold War has led ever more states to accept restrictions on activities which they had earlier viewed as their sovereign right to engage in. Government leaders no longer insist that they have unlimited rights with respect either to the treatment of their own populations or in their relations with other states.
That has not meant the end of the international system of states. Indeed, far from all countries have accepted these new arrangements. But it has meant that the component parts of that system have changed, even though few of them are prepared to recognize the full magnitude of consequences that these changes entail.
Second, the international system, or at least major parts of it, are apparently now prepared to intervene in the affairs of other countries in ways that most of its members earlier had felt were prohibited.
Until very recently, neither individual governments nor groups of states were prepared to argue that they had the right to intervene on the territory of another state in the name of protecting human rights or combating crimes against humanity. Now in Kosovo, NATO has done just that, intervening to protect the Kosovars but insisting that the Western countries will not, at least not yet, recognize an independent Kosovo.
Such intervention further limits the meaning of sovereignty not only of Yugoslavia but potentially of other countries as well. That is the foundation of some objections to what NATO is doing, but the crimes against which NATO is acting have overwhelmed these objections in the minds of most people and governments in the West.
And third, these two shifts have combined to power a third one: a willingness to accept the possibility that particular territories might enjoy something more than autonomy but less than independence.
Most analysts trace the history of the current international system of states to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. That agreement created the system of nation states by recognizing the power of any given state to be absolute and unquestioned on its territory. That system allowed other states to compete with it externally, but it did not allow any of them to make demands that would lead to shared sovereignty.
In fact, that idealized picture never existed, and it has become ever less true in the twentieth century. Perhaps the clearest example of the way in which the international system has accepted a kind of shared or restricted sovereignty concerns Taiwan, an island most countries around the world consider to be part of China but which they treat for all practical purposes as an independent country.
Yet another concerns the efforts to promote shared Irish and British rule over Northern Ireland, an arrangement that has yet to bear fruit but which many see as the only way out of the tragic conflict that has torn that region for much of the past generation.
And Kosovo represents yet another step in the refashioning of the international state system, a step that is likely to have ever broader consequences in the future. And that is even more likely to be the case if, as now, those taking that step seek to deny that outcome.