Earlier tonight I read the late Peter Gowan’s essay “The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy,” originally published in the New Left Review in 1999, just at the beginning of NATO’s campaign against Serbia, and now reappearing in a collection of essays titled A Calculus of Power: Grand Strategy in the Twenty-First Century (Verso, 2010).
The Balkans question has always troubled me, and I was never able to formulate a clear political opinion on it. Even while the bombing campaign was going on, I never bought into the rationale that geopolitics suddenly stopped mattering and that NATO was behaving altruistically on the behalf of a persecuted minority. If the well being of the people living in the Balkans was really on the mind of European and American leaders, the West would not have idly stood by just four years earlier when Serb paramilitary forces massacred 8,000 people in Srebrenica. At the same time, taking a critical stance on military intervention risked drawing a caricature of Milosevic, either as a beleaguered anti-imperialist waging a defensive struggle against a neoliberal empire, or as a noble defender of Slavic Christianity against a nearly-eternal Muslim threat. This Scylla and Charybdis of political judgment, alongside my admittedly superficial knowledge of Balkan history, left the entire conflict as a tentative question mark in my mind.
In the piece, Gowan reveals the duplicity of the United States and Germany, who as the main players in a game of European geopolitics (along with, to a lesser extent, Great Britain, Austria, Hungary, and France) used the volatile political situation in Yugoslavia to further their own national interests. The slow decay of the Yugoslavian state, largely under a debt crisis created when Western economies blocked Yugoslavian exports as a result of their own stagnation in the 1970s, later opened the way to the neoliberal policies promoted by the European powers that weakened the federal state (a process that Milosevic himself supported.) As by 1990 Austria, Hungary, and Germany began urging Slovenia and Croatia to declare their independence, the U.S. intervened to prevent the creation of a new German sphere of influence in South-Central Europe. It did so by pushing for Bosnian independence in 1992, knowing that this was opposed by the German government.
This jostling for regional influence destabilized a fragile federal system that existed within the Yugoslavian state, where postwar constitutional arrangements divided the country into republics meant to allay fears of Serb dominance, and even more crucially, where ethnic minorities within any given republic could count on certain national rights that could not be overridden by the will of the republic’s majority. By supporting Croatia’s bid for independence despite opposition from its Serbian community, Germany undermined one of the key cogs that allowed the Yugoslavian state to exist without destabilizing into ethnic conflict.
But while that conflict was eventually settled when the Western powers negotiated the piecemeal solution that was the Dayton Accords, the collapse of the Albanian regime under Sali Berisha in 1996-7 created the political space that the Kosovo Liberation Army needed to begin its own campaign. Fearing the destabilization that the KLA – as an insurrectionist group fighting for a Greater Albania – could have in the region, the U.S. backed Milosevic’s counter-insurgency for the greater part of 1998. In October of that year, though, Madeline Albright shifted gears, submitting a half-proposal/half-decree to Milosevic that Kosovo was to become a de facto NATO protectorate. This was rejected by the outraged Serbs and gave NATO the additional pretext needed for the campaign in spring 1999.
Gowan’s story ends there, but we already know the rest. Milosevic was overthrown in 2000 and placed on trial at The Hague, where he died six years later. That same year Montenegro left its union with Serbia, effectively ending the last remnant of Yugoslavia. Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, with former KLA leader Hashim Thaçi being elected prime minister. And the contemporary Left became split on the question of humanitarian intervention – a preview of the even bigger controversy over regime change in Iraq that soon followed.
The analysis offered by Gowan of this conflict is thoughtful, clear, and free of any semblance of idealism when it comes to evaluating the geopolitical motives of Western powers. There is little talk of the humanitarian and refugee crises caused by the decade-long conflict in the Balkans from a moralistic standpoint. Neither is there any recourse in Gowan to the overly-simplistic explanation of the conflict as grounded in hundreds of years of history, or that the fall of communist rule let loose the religious and ethnic tensions suppressed beneath the surface. I find that too often these kinds of explanations can serve as a window dressing, but miss the heart of the problem: that of geopolitics and the relationship between states on the international level.
Finally, Gowan’s analysis brings up another question – one perhaps only indirectly related to the subject at hand. Reading it, I was reminded of Jeffrey C. Isaac’s critiques of Noam Chomsky, especially in his essays “Thus Spake Noam” (see Chomsky’s response here) and “Hannah Arendt on Human Rights and the Limits of Exposure, or Why Noam Chomsky Is Wrong about the Meaning of Kosovo.” Both were written around the same time, 2001-2002, just as claims about liberal universalism and human rights were about to be put into practice by the U.S. in the post-9/11 context. In these essays, Isaac argues that Chomsky is little more than a Humean skeptic, someone who is satisfied with pointing out the discrepancies between the brutal facts and the lofty rhetoric, especially when the subject is U.S. foreign policy. As a result, there is no real engagement on Chomsky’s part with the contingency of politics; with having to ask oneself about the proper response to difficult questions, and about sometimes having to choose the lesser evil. It is one thing to show so that the entire world may see the hypocrisy of those in power; it is another to act politically from within that place of power itself, or at least to propose an alternative.
At heart, this is a more fundamental question about the role that Leftist critique has to play in its engagement with political reality. It is not enough to show that political rhetoric almost never coincides with the facts. One also has to act, in spite of that knowledge.