Twenty years ago the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, led by the United States, waged a relentless 78-day bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, consisting of Serbia and Montenegro (March 24-June 10, 1999). This act of naked illegal aggression marked a significant turning point, not only for America and NATO but also for everyone else. The rules-based international order—and its two keystones, the principle of state sovereignty and of the rule of law itself—had been subverted in the name of an allegedly humanitarian ideology. Facts had been converted into fiction, and even the fictions invoked to justify the aggression had given up all pretense to credibility. Old systems for the protection of national liberties, political, legal and economic, over the ensuing two decades have been turned into vehicles for their destruction.
Far from demonstrating the vigor of Western ruling elites in their ruthless pursuit of an ideology of multiethnic democracy and international human rights, NATO’s 1999 war against the Serbs—and more generally America’s Balkan entanglements since 1991—provide a disturbing revelation of those ruling elites’ moral corruption and cultural decay. The consequences for the international system, and for the security and stability of the world as a whole, are grave in the extreme.
Almost a decade separated George H.W. Bush’s Desert Storm from Bill Clinton’s “Humanitarian Bombing.” In 1991 the Maastricht Treaty was signed, and the rest of the decade has brought the gradual usurpation of traditional European sovereignty by a corporate-controlled Brussels regime of unelected bureaucrats. North America had the passage of NAFTA agreed among the three countries’ oligarchs, and in 1995 the Uruguay round of GATT gave us the WTO. The nineties were thus a decade of gradual foundation laying for the new, post-national international order.
The denigration of sovereign nationhood hypnotized the public into applauding the dismantling of the very institutions that offered the only hope of representative empowerment. The process was sufficiently far advanced for then-President Clinton to claim (“A Just and Necessary War,” The New York Times, May 23, 1999) that, had it not bombed Serbia, “NATO itself would have been discredited for failing to defend the very values that give it meaning.” The war was in fact both unjust and unnecessary, but the significance of this statement is in that he had openly declared null and void the international system founded with the Peace of Westphalia (1648).
It was an imperfect and often violated system, but nevertheless it provided the basis for international discourse from which only the assorted rogues (Louis XIV, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm), and more recently various red and black totalitarians, have openly deviated. Since 24 March 1999 this was replaced by the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, a carbon copy of the Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty that supposedly justified the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Like his Soviet predecessor, today’s upholders of Washington’s full-specter dominance use an abstract and ideologically loaded notion—that of universal “human rights”—as the pretext to routinely violate the law and tradition.
This pathology is rooted in the bipartisan hubris of Washington’s “foreign policy decision-making community,” drunk on its own heady brew of the indispensible nation. For them legal formalities are long passé, while moral imperatives have been turned into a cynical exercise in situational morality. It is strictly dependent on an actor’s position within the hegemon’s value system. After 1999 imperial high-mindedness made a comeback, but in a new form. The yearning for excitement and importance, that took the British to Kabul and Khartoum, the French to Fashoda and Saigon, and the Americans to Manila, re-emerged in March 1999 with a vengeance.
As a result, a war was waged on a small independent nation, essentially because it refused foreign troops on its soil—the infamous Annex B from Rambouillet. All other justifications were post facto rationalizations. The powers that waged that war have aided and abetted secession by an ethnic minority ever since. That secession, if finalized, will render many European borders tentative. In the context of any other European nation the story would sound surreal. The Serbs, however, had been demonized to the point where they must not presume to be treated like others. But the fact that the West could do anything it chose to the Serbs does not explain why it should.
It is hardly worth refuting, yet again, the feeble excuses for intervention. “Humanitarian” argument has been invoked. But what about Yemen, Kashmir, Myanmar, Sinkyang? Properly videotaped and Amanpourized, each would be good for a dozen “Kosovos.” For starters, there was no “genocide.” Compared to the killing fields of the Third World, Kosovo was an unremarkable, low-intensity conflict. A total of 2,108 fatalities on all sides in Kosovo until June 1999, in a province of over two million, favorably compares to the annual homicide tally in Washington DC, or Detroit, or Atlanta. Counting corpses is poor form, but bearing in mind the brutalities and “ethnic cleansings” ignored by NATO—or even condoned, notably in Croatia in 1995—it is clear that NATO’s war was not about universal principles.
What was it about, then? “Regional stability,” we were told next: if we didn’t stop the conflict it would engulf Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, the whole of the Balkans in fact, with much of Europe to follow. The cure was to bomb Serbia into the creation of an ethnically pure Albanian Kosovo ruled by the KLA narcomafia, under NATO’s benevolent eye. Even if forced into submission and capitulation under their current regime, the Serbs shall have no stake in the ensuing order of things. Sooner or later they will fight to recover Kosovo.
For the time being NATO has won, but “the West” has lost. The war has undermined the very principles that supposedly constitute it. The notion of human rights can never provide a basis for either the rule of law or morality. Universal human rights, detached from any rootedness in time or place, are open to the latest whim of outrage or the latest fad for victimhood.
The misguided effort to transform NATO from a defensive alliance into a mini-U.N. with out-of-area self-appointed responsibilities has resulted in new and even more dangerous adventures elsewhere. After the 1999 bombing of Serbia the Russians in particular saw the state of global affairs more clearly, and refused to buy any more the slogans about free markets and democratic human rights. They realized that the defensive alliance of 1949 had morphed into a blatant aggressor tainted with criminality. Better than any other post-Soviet event, the Kosovo war created a new security equation. A decade later the National Security Strategy, approved in May 2008 and reiterated several times since, rightly identified NATO as a threat to Russian national security.
The war NATO was fighting in the spring of 1999 was not intended, or willed, by anything which can be called “the Alliance.” The use of force was plotted in Washington in 1998. The ensuing submission by America’s NATO satellites had created a media-led political process that leaves national decision-making meaningless, beyond a formal cheer-leading, submissive function. It was subsequently admitted that the chief war aim was ‘keeping the Alliance together’, but we were not told at the time what disciplines it implied, and how easily, and bloodily, it could be repeated.
The answer came already in 2003. Arrogant moral absolutism was invoked by the proponents of intervention as a substitute for rational argument, as we have seen, after Serbia, first in Iraq, then in Libya, Syria, and as we may yet see in Venezuela or Iran, or both. This spiel can no longer be sustained. Genuine dilemmas about our human responsibility for one another has been misused to reactivate the viral imperialism of the re-extended West. The more arrogant the new doctrine, the greater the willingness to lie for the truth. To be capable of “doing something” for the alleged victims of human rights violations sustains moral self-respect, but only for those who accept that they are not moral actors but consumers of predigested choices.
Last but not least, the aggressors of 1999 and proponents of Kosovo’s independence in subsequent years have scoffed at the Serbs’ claim that Kosovo, with its many ancient monasteries and the site of the famous battle, represents not just any part of their country but its very heart and soul—“Serbia’s Jerusalem.” Such attitude betrays a cynical contempt for the essence of any true nation’s identity, which necessarily rests on its historical, moral and spiritual roots. Without such foundation, a people ceases to be a people and becomes but a random mob. That is precisely what both America and Western Europe are becoming, now, thanks to the very principles which were used to justify the Kosovo war.
At the end of the second decade of the Millennium we are living in a virtual Coliseum where exotic and nasty troublemakers in the Balkans, in the Middle East and elsewhere can be killed, not by lions but by the flying machines of the Imperium. As the candidates for punishment or martyrdom are pushed into the arena, many denizens of “the West” react to the show as imperial consumers, not as citizens with a parliamentary right and a democratic duty to question the proceedings. That is, perhaps, the most significant legacy of NATO’s war against the Serbs twenty years ago.