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Triumph of the Periphery

Author: Robert A. Manning, Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council
June 28, 1999
Washington Times


Now that that bombs have fallen silent, let us step back and reflect on the larger consequences for U.S. foreign policy and, hence, the world writ large, of the war over Kosovo. Though the full tab—in both financial and political terms—will not be delivered for a while, it is not too soon to begin assessing the balance sheet. First, only Bill Clinton, could with a straight face, declare unabashed victory amidst the horrendous mess NATO wrought. Relief, maybe, costly achievement, perhaps.

But the prize of occupying Kosovo for the next decade and spending upward of $30 billion repairing the damage to Kosovo and the rest of the Balkans should give NATO pause before embarking on any future escapades—and underscore the oxymoronic quality of "humanitarian bombing." The necessity of dealing with the war’s aftermath will divert energy and resources from higher-priority issues for years to come. Consider, for example, that the entire U.S. annual budget for development aid is some $8 billion. The Balkans has become the proverbial elephant in the room when it should be but a mouse.

And winning the peace in the Balkans is a very different—and consuming—proposition. The real winners may be the Kosovo Liberation Army and the pathetic, failed post-communist state of Albania, which like "The Mouse That Roared" may have found salvation in supporting U.S./NATO intervention in the Balkans. The bonanza in aid and infrastructure that NATO is likely to furnish may be just the beginning. Judging from the Albanian national anthem being sung on the streets of Kosovo, don’t be surprised if a greater Albania emerges from the NATO protectorate in the not too distant future, further destabilizing the region.

On the plus side, it must be said the U.S. military technology itself was certainly something to behold. The improvements on precision-guided weapons since the Gulf War, and the efficacy of the B-2 bomber evidenced in the bombardment was so impressive that one may argue it changes the nature of air war. Yet there was something cowardly about a war that was important enough to kill for but not for us to die for. The death and destruction, not just to Kosovars, but to Serbian civilians whose crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time must be weighed against the savagery of Slobodan Milosevic and his regime.

Perhaps it was all necessary, however horribly conducted. Certainly the Kosovars have been given new hope, even if at tremendous cost. But I cannot help but think that like Mr. Clinton’s failed efforts at the social engineering in Somalia and Haiti, Kosovo was perhaps the ultimate testament to a foreign policy preoccupied with the hole instead of the doughnut.

As the Marines poured into Kosovo, North and South Korean navies were firing at each other as U.S. intelligence discovered Pyongyang preparing to test a long-range Taepo Dong 2 missile, while India and Pakistan—now fledgling nuclear powers—were trading blows over Kashmir and mobilizing their military forces for larger confrontation. Both these events could easily escalate into major conflicts with major impact on U.S. global interests. Yet they seem to have been reduced to background noise as the world fixates on the Balkans, perhaps a measure of how the fate of 2 million Kosovars has overshadowed the entirety of U.S. foreign policy.

One need look no further than the collateral damage to U.S. relations with major powers—Chin and Russia, and perhaps India—for evidence of U.S. priorities stood on their head. There may be long-term impact on relations with Russia, China and beyond reverberating well into the next administration. However just the cause may be, much of the world is wondering if being a Single Superpower means never having to say you’re sorry. The bombing of Russia’s fellow Slavs not to mention using bases in Hungary, a former Warsaw pact ally, now part of NATO—jarred Russian popular sensibilities. Where Russian hostility to NATO expansion was a debate largely among its elite, the Yugoslav war affected the man on the street.

The terrible symbolism of the bombing of Beijing’s Belgrade embassy has catalyzed fear and loathing in China that had been building for some time and plunged U.S.-China relations into free fall. This is reflected in Beijing’s recent rejection of Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering’s explanation of the episode. China has launched a far-reaching reassessment of its defense and foreign policies in the wake of the bombing, which followed an unsuccessful U.S. visit by Premier Zhu Rongji. The train of events has deepened Chinese suspicion of U.S. intentions, much as the Cox Commission report in the United States reflects similarly building American apprehension about China as a rising power.

Unintended consequences of the war reach well beyond the major powers. One ironic result may be a new impetus to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. After the Gulf war, when asked what the lesson was, an Indian chief of staff was said to have remarked, "Never fight the U.S. without nuclear weapons." Senior North Korean officials updated the lesson recently, responding to criticisms of their missile program by telling a prominent recent foreign visitor, "We are not Yugoslavia." This is the lesson smaller powers fearing U.S./NATO have learned: acquire missiles, chemical, biological and/or nuclear weapons to deter future U.S./NATO action.

Perhaps more ironic still is the reaction of grousing Europeans at being subjected to the whims of a dominant America during the Yugoslav affair. The German newsweekly Der Spiegel mused that after the war, "one thing has become clear across Europe: the hegemony of the U.S. and NATO is limited as a model for the future." In a similar vein, London’s Financial Times chided "The very weakness of U.S. leadership," arguing that the tentativeness of Mr. Clinton’s focus-group-friendly approach raises serious questions "about the relationships between the U.S. and Europe."

There is still no answer to Henry Kissinger’s question about the European community: When there is a crisis in Europe, whom do I call? Europe’s lack of political clarity is surpassed by its lack of military capability. Europe’s failure to modernize with high-tech weaponry is the reason some 80 percent of the air sorties over Yugoslavia were American. Europe’s military inadequacy not only limits its capacity to project force even in its own backyard, it threatens the ability of NATO to be interoperable militarily, and thus the capacity for collective defense that has been at the core of NATO.

While many remain skeptical, the Kosov intervention may yet propel Europe to a new level of political-military unity. That might be one of the richest ironies: U.S. incompetence on Kosovo catalyzing a new, more assertive Europe able to manage its own security leading to a diminished role for the United States if not demise of the alliance.