The legacy of Kosovo? International paternalism

The transformation of Kosovo into a colonial-style protectorate exposes the authoritarianism behind Western governments’ ‘ethical’ foreign policies.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics World

Ten years ago today, the powers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) launched an 11-week bombing campaign against the then-Yugoslavia, made up of today’s republics of Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

‘Operation Allied Force’ was waged to eject Yugoslav security forces from the breakaway province of Kosovo and thereby protect Kosovo’s Albanian population from a military crackdown. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia just over 13 months ago (17 February 2008), after being administered as a United Nations (UN) protectorate for nearly a decade. What is it that still makes this tiny, impoverished and isolated statelet of two million people important for international affairs today?

If Kosovo is talked about today, it is usually in terms of the problems posed by drug- and people-trafficking in the region, ethnic unrest and the international precedent that Kosovo’s secession may set for other volatile regions. But more important and more insidious than any of these problems is the political legacy of NATO’s 1999 crusade.

Liberals nostalgically hark back to NATO’s 1999 campaign as exemplifying a more innocent era of human rights, before the dastardly American neocons subverted cosmopolitan human rights with their schemes to dominate the Middle East. At the time, NATO’s violation of Yugoslav sovereignty was defended as a just war that transcended national defence and strategic necessity in favour of the moral goal of halting genocide against the Kosovo Albanians. Those who opposed the NATO campaign were tarred as apologists for Serbian nationalism more concerned with the legal niceties of states’ rights rather than the needs of suffering humanity.

As things turned out, the ‘genocide’ proved to be as bogus as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, a fabrication of NATO propaganda (see The rise of the laptop bombardier, by Philip Hammond). While Serbia was subjected to a devastating bombing campaign, and eventually dismembered as a country, the post-1999 history of Kosovo makes it apparent that the Western alliance is no ally of the Kosovo Albanians either. The Western alliance placed Kosovo under a UN protectorate, which has since metamorphosed into a European Union (EU) protectorate to ‘supervise’ Kosovo’s independence since last year. The conclusion of these developments can only be that dictatorship did not disappear from Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall: NATO, the UN and the EU have re-established autocracy as a legitimate form of government in Europe by imposing internationally appointed governor-generals to rule over protectorates in the Balkans.

As I have discussed previously on spiked, the EU-managed system of ‘supervised independence’ undermines the idea of self-determination more thoroughly than outright national oppression. The very premise of ‘supervised independence’ is to concede that true national independence is an unworkable and undesirable goal that must be renounced in favour of petty freedoms to be enjoyed under EU oversight. What is more, ‘supervised independence’ establishes Kosovo’s dependence on the international community in perpetuity.

Under the system of old-style colonialism and trusteeship, imperialist powers staved off criticism by holding independence aloft as a distant but desirable goal for the colonised peoples. The new type of trusteeship on display in Kosovo is more insidious: Kosovo’s declaration of independence and its simultaneous embrace of EU oversight effectively denies that trusteeship and independence are mutually exclusive conditions. The consignment of Kosovo to the political limbo of trusteeship is consistent with the NATO campaign 10 years ago. For it was ultimately not a campaign waged for freedom and justice, but to defend the most minimal and basic rights of Kosovo’s Albanian population as victims of oppression. Victims by their nature lack the capacity to control their fate; denying self-determination to them is entirely consistent with rescuing them from their victimisers.

This new strain of international paternalism has been consolidated since the Kosovo War. Two examples serve to illustrate some of the most worrying trends to emerge from the conflict. The first is the international redefinition of the legitimacy and authority of state power. It was in response to the Kosovo conflict that the Canadian government sponsored the acclaimed International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which promoted the doctrine of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (often known as ‘R2P’). This doctrine was offered as a way of reconciling the function of states with the human rights of individuals. The doctrine maintains that if a state is unable or unwilling to uphold its duty of protection to its people, then this duty falls upon the international community.

Having been unanimously endorsed by the UN World Summit of 2005, the embrace of this doctrine by states the world over shows that states are happy to put themselves forward as protectors of their peoples. By elevating the provision of security as the ultimate end of politics, the R2P doctrine provides states with a convenient means of diluting the idea that the will of the people is the supreme justification for state power. While claiming to scale back the excesses of humanitarian intervention, the R2P doctrine solidifies its basic premise: people are redefined as the passive recipients of security provided by external agencies over which they have little control. The people’s sovereignty is sacrificed in favour of boosting state power.

The legacy of Kosovo was also in display in the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. The Russian invasion of Georgia and its subsequent recognition of the breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was met with outrage in the West. But Russia only defended its war effort along the lines adopted by the Western alliance back in 1999. Russian protection of the two enclaves was justified as a humanitarian intervention against a Georgian campaign of ethnic cleansing. Russia’s subsequent recognition of the two breakaway enclaves has made them much like Kosovo – diplomatically isolated statelets dependent on foreign largesse for their political survival.

Given Russia’s opposition to the NATO campaign in 1999, its belated and opportunistic embrace of humanitarian intervention illustrates just how widespread the legacy of Kosovo is – in particular, the idea that great powers can legitimately pose as the protectors of small and weak nations. Russia’s claim to have a greater moral authority in these matters than the Western alliance has been exposed: it is not the principled defence of sovereignty that interests the Russian government, but only Russian sovereignty.

These two examples show that, through humanitarian intervention, the promotion of cosmopolitan human rights has come full circle. From a credo for the protection of oppressed minorities and suffering humanity against the depredations of states, human rights have become a justification for imperialism and the paternalistic exercise of states’ power over their own populations. The cynical response to this – that all idealism inevitably becomes a cover for the extension of state power – would miss the mark here. Such a cynical response would only let the liberal interventionists off the hook, allowing them to fall back on the position of being starry-eyed but impractical cosmopolitans. But to grant the liberal cosmopolitans even this is to grant them too much: the legacy of Kosovo shows us not that cosmopolitan human rights are unfeasible, but rather that they are undesirable.

The revival of protectorates can be logically deduced from the structure of cosmopolitan human rights themselves. Severed from a collective vision of politics and national rights, military humanitarianism inevitably reduces people to the status of victims: victims of both their oppressors and their benefactors.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations. (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about it here, and buy the book here.

The rise of the laptop bombardier, by Philip Hammond

When is a war crime not a war crime?, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: Former Yugoslavia.

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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