Commentary

Kosovo Consequences

By Gary Dempsey
October 5, 1998

Once again, our television screens are filled with images of rolling tanks and massacred civilians. This time the scene is Kosovo, the independence-minded province in southern Serbia. As always, the sight of such horror stirs strong emotions. NATO intervention may be imminent. But several crucial questions remain unanswered. Indeed, the Clinton administration seems not even to have asked them.

What impact will military intervention in Kosovo have on NATO’s role outside its member countries? How will it affect the development of an independent European defense identity? And how will it weigh on U.S. military readiness?

First, intervening in Kosovo will expand NATO’s purview dramatically; it will complete the process of transforming NATO from a defensive alliance into an on-call police service.

The first step of that transformation was Bosnia, which set a precedent for NATO operations outside the geographic territory of member states. Before that, NATO’s purpose was to defend its members against external threats, particularly the Soviet Union. By the end of the Cold War, however, NATO was an alliance in search of a purpose, and peacekeeping presented it with an opportunity to justify its continued existence. In the case of Bosnia, though, the national government in Sarajevo approved of NATO intervention. In the case of Kosovo, the national government of Yugoslavia adamantly opposes intervention. If NATO goes ahead anyway, it will set an entirely new precedent: that NATO can conduct “out-of-area” operations even if the government of the country in question objects to it.


Defining Kosovo as a European problem would make those nations closest to the Balkans responsible for maintaining regional stability; strengthen the credibility of European security institutions; and improve the quality, consistency, impact and profile of their operations.


That dangerous enlargement of NATO’s purview exposes the United States to possible involvement in conflicts all around the world. Indeed, if NATO can intervene in Kosovo, it can theoretically intervene anywhere. That is an especially ominous prospect, given Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright’s statement earlier this year that NATO should extend its geographic reach beyond the European continent and evolve into “a force for peace from the Middle East to Central Africa.” Kosovo is just one of a number of places where a minority group within an established state has engaged in a violent effort to achieve national independence: Armenians in Azerbaijan, Christians in Sudan, Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Kashmiri Muslims in India, Karens in Burma, Tibetans and Uighurs in China, Chechens in Russia, Abkhazis in Georgia, and so on.

Second, if NATO intervenes in Kosovo, it will further set back Europe’s ability to build its own security and defense identity, one that does not depend psychologically and militarily on the transatlantic participation of the United States.

Defining Kosovo as a European problem would make those nations closest to the Balkans responsible for maintaining regional stability; strengthen the credibility of European security institutions; and improve the quality, consistency, impact and profile of their operations. To a great extent, it was precisely the lack of such a robust, European-level security architecture in 1992-95 that inhibited the Continent’s ability to handle a crisis in its own back yard in Bosnia.

Over the past few years, NATO has taken initial steps that would enable the Western European Union to undertake such a project. Indeed, by beginning to work out procedures for releasing NATO assets to the WEU, designating NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander as Europe’s prospective strategic commander, and identifying NATO officers who could be loaned to European operations, NATO has recognized that there are circumstances in which Europe should act militarily without bringing into play the full apparatus of the transatlantic alliance; that is, the United States. More American military involvement in the Balkans will only set back that goal and perpetuate Europe’s security dependence on the United States.

Third, if NATO intervention in Kosovo evolves into a peacekeeping operation — as happened in Bosnia — that could further reduce U.S. military readiness by keeping more American soldiers away from combat training. In fact, over the past 10 years, the U.S. Army has been used in 29 significant overseas operations, compared with 10 in the previous 40 years. According to the Pentagon, the strain of so many operations has manifested itself in downward trend lines across various readiness categories in all military services. Moreover, throughout the military, there is mounting evidence of erosion in America’s troop morale and combat strength. Troops complain that repeated deployments on peace operations and other noncombat missions have compromised their combat training. A Kosovo peacekeeping operation will simply add to the problem.

Once again the Clinton administration has set an interventionist course without addressing several key questions. As a result, the United States may soon find itself saddled with yet another strategically irrelevant military commitment overseas.

Gary Dempsey, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute, is author of “Washington’s Kosovo Policy: Consequences and Contradictions,” to be released soon.