Another Perspective

Kosovo Syndrome

Why is there no consensus on independence for Pristina?

By 2.16.06

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Recently, a shadowy armed group called the Army for the Independence of Kosovo ordered Kosovo politicians to declare independence or face a "difficult situation," which people here took to mean death.
-- Washington Post, November 22, 2005

Destination unknown, but the train rolls on: the 20th of this month will see face-to-face talks between Serb and Kosovar negotiators in Vienna, point of discussion being the fate of the historic province that we the West preserved by historically bombing Orthodox Serbs on Easter 1999.

The posture of the United States regarding full independence for Kosovo -- what is called, in the parlance of our diplomats, "final status" -- should be clear, according to the extraordinary lengths to which America went on the behalf of Kosovars in the first place. From May 2 to May 4, 1999, the International Communist Seminar in Brussels made a number of statements of fact which are indicative: (1) the NATO attack on Yugoslavia was carried out without Security Council approval; (2) the allied bombing runs demolished not just military but "economic" targets, causing deliberate civilian casualties; and (3) the undeclared war against Milosevic and his country was, according to international law, entirely unprovoked.

Sound familiar? The far left knew itself well enough to oppose the action in Kosovo in the same style as it later challenged the action in Iraq. But the middle left, which honored and valued the drubbing of Yugoslavia, has reserved for Iraq nothing but cringes. This most double of standards, alas, has recalibrated itself in the official position of the U.S. government on Kosovo: no partition, without which independence appears highly unlikely. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, without ruling out independence for Kosovo, has declared zero support for partition.

THIS OF COURSE is entirely in the interest of the Serbs, whose idea of final status takes the form of a slight delay. Kosovar autonomy "would be internationally guaranteed and, after an agreed period of time, say 20 years, might be subject to renegotiation," Bloomberg quotes Serbian President Boris Tadic before the Security Council. This of course is absurd. Kosovo has been in limbo since the fall of Milosevic. It took March riots among the native inhabitants, unable to function as normal citizens, to rouse the beast of Western diplomacy, and, sure enough, the time is long overdue to determine final status.

So why the hand-wringing and nail-biting? Although the presence of centuries-old Serb enclaves in Kosovo is touted as an obstacle to progress, peacefully supervised ethnic cleansing would be conducted in a heartbeat were it not for the much larger bugaboo looming over final status -- the prospect of setting off an international epidemic of Kosovo Syndrome.

Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of the National Interest, gives voice to the fear most recently in the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Affairs:

Governments from Baku to Beijing and separatist regimes from Trans-Dniestria to the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus are taking a keen interest in how questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity are handled in the determination of Kosovo's final status. And there are very real concerns that the Kosovo question, if mishandled, will prove to be destabilizing not only for the region, but for the international system as a whole.

Gvosdev and his fellow realists know that international law is a precarious balance of often half-contradictory precedents, and tipping the balance can cause a ripple of instability hard for already burdened policymakers to adequately control. "The United States insists that the Kosovo case is unique," he writes, "but others are by no means obliged to see things Washington's way." True enough -- but Gvosdev's parade of horribles faces three strong rebuttals.

1. OBLIGATION. Kosovo should not be forced into a Procrustean bed of bad policy because of a series of mights and maybes. For the West to string along Kosovo after such early and truly extraordinary enthusiasm is as chintzy and unfair an arrangement as not breaking up with a person you've fallen out of love with so as not to let them down. The hypocrisy is already the letdown.

2. INDIVIDUATION. Given the West's prior pattern of conduct, which would truly look destabilizingly precedential if not followed up forcefully with Kosovar sovereignty, our obligation of fair dealing with the Kosovars creates a situational uniqueness unmatched elsewhere in the world. The United States in particular has intervened on Kosovo's behalf singularly, in a way it hasn't for Taiwan, Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, or anyplace else Gvosdev suggests is standing in line to take a cue from an independent Kosovo. Serb President Tadic opposes independence based on the logic that Kosovars "suffered so much under the Milosevic regime"; that, he says, "is to ignore not only international law, but also the political consequences of such a unilateral decision being imposed upon Serbia and Montenegro." But the whole Kosovo question was formed by skirting international law. The problem exists outside of the framework of institutional possibility, and must be solved as creatively as it was created.

It is not at all clear that other limbo-states fit within the unique pattern set by Kosovo, or that, even if they do, their claims to independence will be even lightly entertained. Taiwan, for example, shares little history of circumstance with Kosovo. And microstates like Transnistria or Abkhazia have not enjoyed the overt, sustained military support of major powers in order to protect resident ethnic minorities. Coming closest to the Kosovars, as Gvosdev intuits, are the Kurds -- but Iraq's own unique situation, including strong American pressure, makes a Kurdish claim for independence unlikely.

3. ACCELERATION. If independence for Kosovo would cause others to assert similar, even if not identical, claims, why would the resulting adjustments create unmanageable instability? The status quo is already unfavorable in places like Cyprus, where the United Nations has made an absolute hash of things over a period of decades. Working to settle Cyprus once and for all would be a positive development -- not easy going, but not dangerous to global or even regional stability either. Final status on Cyprus, once the slow wheels of negotiations start to turn, is a long way off regardless. Why, to take another example, would independence for Transnistria (occupied by the Russian army, unlike, say, Abkhazia) be any worse than limbo, within which the rule of law is automatically at a disadvantage? To the extent that a firm Kosovo decision can force the issue for other international inconsistencies, the West should seize the opportunity to eliminate areas inviting to corruption, smuggling, the sex trade, and terror, by enfolding them into either a neighboring nation or into the legitimate community of independent nations.

MANY ALREADY ARGUE that Kosovo ought to be granted independence, even if this means partition. Georgetown professors and Europe experts Charles King and Charles Kupchan have advanced detailed perspectives on Kosovo for months. King has put forth the concept of an independent "Kosova" in the Times Literary Supplement, and Kupchan has argued for independence and partition along ethnic lines in Foreign Affairs. Kosovo, like Iraq, is an illustration of policy being conducted -- and internationally tolerated -- on a case-by-case basis. At the seams of custom and rules, irregularities created by the failure of the international system to produce right outcomes cannot easily be forced back under the rubric of traditional sovereignty and international law. This does not mean, however, that the pursuit of legitimacy and structural clarity should not be undertaken with all deliberate speed. One of the more important lessons of 9/11 is that mere nationalism is one of the less dangerous ideologies of our time. An international system of states, we all can surely agree, is to be preferred over a hybrid system where some groups are left outside the community of nations and choose to take matters, asymmetrically, into their own hands.

James G. Poulos is a writer and attorney living in Washington, D.C. His commentaries are found at Postmodern Conservative.

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About the Author

James Poulos is a doctoral student at Georgetown and the former Political Editor of Culture11. His writing has been published by The American Conservative, The National Interest, The New Atlantis, Partnership for a Secure America, and The Weekly Standard. In addition to AmSpecBlog, he has blogged at The American Scene, Doublethink, and Postmodern Conservative, which he founded. With degrees in political science and law from Duke and USC, he is currently at work on a dissertation about life after Napoleon.