Reviving the idea of the ‘good war’

The French and British governments are cynically using and abusing the situation in Kosovo to try to resurrect support for liberal imperialism.

David Chandler

Topics World

The foreign secretaries of France and the UK, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband, went on the propaganda offensive last week over Kosovo, with a joint opinion piece published in Le Monde and on the Guardian website (1).

The new foreign secretaries, appointed under the incoming governments of Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, aim to restore the moral gloss of campaigning liberal interventionism. In August, they led the call for the creation of the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan (2). Now they are talking up the need for tough action over Kosovo.

The language is authoritative. Kouchner and Miliband state that Kosovo’s status must be resolved. The UN’s special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, has drawn up detailed plans for the province’s future, a sort of halfway house between the current protectorate and independence, breaking the formal ties with Belgrade and transferring oversight to the European Union. These plans have met with resistance by both Kosovo Albanians and from Belgrade. Nevertheless, Kouchner and Miliband state: ‘The parties must approach this new phase of negotiations in a constructive and bold manner. The parties must understand that it is in their common interests to work… to ensure progress.’

The Serbian government in Belgrade is told in no uncertain terms either to accept Kosovo’s independence or ‘to come up with alternatives that have some chance of acceptance in Kosovo’. The stern judgement of Kouchner and Miliband is that ‘Serbia can rapidly join the EU, as soon as the last obstacles have been lifted… it is difficult to envisage Serbia being able to enter the EU without the question of Kosovo having been resolved. This is not blackmail, but a statement of fact.’

Reading the opinion piece, written as the latest shot in the joint diplomatic offensive apparently being waged by the new French and UK governments, you might assume: Kosovo is in a state of crisis; that the international community is currently impotent in the face of Albanian and especially Serb resistance; and that Kouchner and Miliband are Kosovo’s budding saviours. None of these assumptions would be right.

Firstly, Kosovo is not in crisis but in stasis. The United Nations-run protectorate is going nowhere slowly, with the international bureaucracy overseeing a stagnant economy and divided society. The demand for change, the ‘crisis’ which drives successive deadlines behind negotiations, has little to do with the needs of Kosovo Albanians and Serbs, and a lot to do with external demands to regularise the status of Kosovo and to bring Kosovo under the direct administration of the European Union (mirroring similar changes in the administration of Bosnia) (3).

Secondly, the international community is not powerless to act over Kosovo. The handover of administrative responsibilities from the United Nations to the European Union has been planned down to the smallest detail, with the EU preparing to launch the largest mission in its history to take over law enforcement and supervisory duties in the province. Kosovo may be formally part of Serbia, but its dependency on external powers was a fact from the end of the 1999 war when it was granted ‘autonomy’ under the UN. The EU holds all the cards in the ‘negotiations’ with Belgrade despite Serbia’s rights of sovereignty. Serbia’s dependency on EU financial support and on the process of integration effectively means that Belgrade’s protests are more to assuage domestic opinion than any substantial opposition to acceptance of the EU terms.

Thirdly, the problem that Kouchner and Miliband face is not in Kosovo but much closer to home. They want to ensure that the ideals of liberal interventionism can survive the disaster of Iraq because the governments they represent want to use their clout on the world stage to enhance their reputation domestically. Both governments are keen to bathe in the moral glow from the Kosovo intervention, seen as a success (at least from the point of view of the intervening states): ‘No European can forget the atrocities that took place in the Balkans during the 1990s. No European can forget the scenes of brutality, murder and mass deportation… no European should forget the tragic events that motivated the international community to intervene.’

Despite Kouchner and Miliband’s desire to build their careers on global moral grandstanding, they demonstrate the weakness of the British and French governments, rather than their strength. It is difficult to recapture the confidence of liberal interventionism of the last decade. In 1999, Médecins Sans Frontières, the activist humanitarian NGO which Kouchner founded in 1971, won the Nobel Peace Prize and Kouchner was appointed as the first head of the UN Mission to Kosovo after a lifetime’s advocacy for international meddling in other countries (4). But the Kosovo war marked the high point for the overt ‘right of intervention’ and the extension of international protectorates claimed by Kouchner.

Even before the debacles of Iraq and Afghanistan, international attempts to directly run statelets like Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor were creating as many problems as they were solving. Today’s moral grandstanders have few causes they are willing to commit to. The British and French governments may have made much of their support for the UN resolution on Darfur in August, but they were committing other countries’ troops to Sudan rather than their own. Similarly, going to war over Kosovo, eight years after the event, and urging their readers not to forget the ‘good wars’ of the 1990s, is no substitute for finding a genuine cause of their own.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.

Previously on spiked

David Chandler described how Kosovo’s ‘independence’ means dependence on the UN. Philip Cunliffe reviewed David Chandler’s book Empire in Denial, and looked at the atrophy of foreign policy today. Frank Furedi said politics without sovereignty is not politics at all. Or read more at spiked issue Former Yugoslavia.

(1) Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband, Kosovo: Europe’s challenge: The international community must act responsibility and resolutely to settle the status of Kosovo, Guardian, 6 September 2007

(2) Darfur: colonised by ‘peacekeepers’, by Philip Cunliffe

(3) Kosovo gains independence – again?, by David Chandler

(4) Andre Glucksman, Bernard Kouchner, Time, 26 April 2004; Is THIS the most dangerous man in Europe?, by Philip Hammond

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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