Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kosovo and Serbia

A discussion in the comments of this post over at The Ghost of Patrick Henry involved me referencing a paper I wrote last month about Kosovo's independence from Serbia. I've decided to put it up, but I warn you, it's not my best work (although I did get a good grade on it). Also, it's more about realism vs. liberalism so don't expect too much on Kosovo itself.

The declaration of independence by Kosovo has again brought the Balkans into the headlines. However, one cannot look at the current situation as a snapshot in time. Instead, one must look at U.S. policy in the region at least as far back as the 1990s in order to get a true understanding of the politics of the region. The support of the independence of Kosovo by the United States is due to the fact that the U.S. has painted itself into a corner through its unflinchingly liberal foreign policy in the region in the 1990s and as such is now forced to continue to support the independence regardless of whether or not it wishes to conduct a liberal or realist oriented policy in the region.

The United States policy in the Balkans since the 1990s has largely been of a liberal nature. Starting in the beginning of the decade, we have consistently intervened in the interest of ending the immediate conflict, which usually requires us to intervene on the side of whoever was being repressed. From a liberal perspective, this intervention is good as it has ended immediate suffering, including some of an extreme nature such as genocide. Also falling on the positive side of the balance sheet for a liberal is the fact that U.S. intervention has resulted in self determination for a people seen as repressed, which a liberal would almost always hold to be a good thing. The longer term repercussions of this intervention are of little importance to the liberal because they will certainly be less in magnitude than the genocide and repression that the U.S. ended through its intervention. Looking at the issue in terms of the larger international community, a liberal would like the fact that the international community cooperated together to put an end to something it, as a community, found abhorrent. While a liberal is not concerned as much with interests, they are concerned with gains. However, unlike a realist who only values relative gains, the liberal views things through the concept of absolute gains. To the liberal, the international community as a whole underwent an absolute gain as a result of the ending of genocide, even if individual actors within the community suffered a relative loss.

The realist would criticize U.S. policy in the region in the 1990s as pursuing ends that were outside the interests of the United States using means that were counterproductive to those same interests. As stated above, as a result of the nature of the intervention the U.S. had been forced to take the side of a nation, disregarding whatever interests the U.S. had in the region. The realist would say that the U.S. should never take the side of a nation but instead always take the side of the overriding interest of the United States. The ends that were pursued were, as stated above, ending suffering, including genocide, and eventual self determination for the repressed parties. A realist would say that the U.S. has no interest in ending genocide or advocating an independence movement except in the rare cases where doing so will help the standing interests of the United States. The situation in the Balkans would not have met these criteria.

Indeed, a realist might say that it would have been in the United States’ best interest to make a point of not taking action, because in doing so the U.S. would have gained possible influence with Russia at a time when that sort of thing would have been possible, unlike now. Looking at the intervention from an interests standpoint, all the U.S. got in terms of influence from its intervention were positive responses from a Western Europe it was already close with and the gratitude of a relatively backwards and unimportant independent province of Serbia. Balanced against that was the hardening of relations with Russia that at the time was dismissed as Russia was perceived as weak and on the decline. From a realist standpoint of relative gains, the U.S. gained little from allying itself with Western Europe but lost much in turning its back on Russia.

Fast forward to now: a resurgent and hostile Russia is apparently girding for a proxy fight with the West between Serbia, a state it is historically close to, and the now independent country of Kosovo. It is not a large assumption to think that both realists and liberals might like some maneuvering room in regard to this crisis. However, due to the before described policy in the 1990s, this is not a possibility for either party. From a liberal perspective, the demonization of Serbia and concurrent blind eye that was turned to atrocities committed by our “allies” in the conflict mean that there is no way for a liberal to reverse course now and take an even slightly opposing viewpoint. The realist who would have wanted very much to refuse to intervene and instead have wanted to extend an olive branch to Russia in the 1990s no longer has that option. The resurgence and hostility of Russia means that the olive branch is no longer a possibility and instead that the United States’ compelling interest lies in closing ranks with Western Europe, and, in doing so, adopting a relatively insignificant and increasingly violent protectorate in the Balkans.

This lack of foresight in U.S. policy provides a good case study in unintended consequences in foreign policy. It might be instructive to look at how the neo-realists and neo-liberals would look at the situation.

The neo-realists especially would find much to be troubled about in the paradigm shift regarding sovereignty that has taken place as a result of the intervention and subsequent declaration of independence. A transnational organization went to war against a sovereign state and then proceeded to occupy territory in the sovereign state. The transnational organization finally helped the occupied territory become independent without the permission of the parent sovereign state. All this goes against the neo-realist beliefs of sovereignty and the status quo as being the most important concepts in international relations.

The neo-liberal would view the events listed above through a slightly different prism than a neo-realist. To the neo-liberal, NATO was not a transnational organization usurping sovereignty but rather a benevolent international organization that was acting in a situation where the U.N. was paralyzed. The neo-liberal would have viewed Serbia’s actions as a violation of the norms inherent to the system and as such no longer worthy of having their sovereignty protected by the system. To the neo-liberal, a state forfeits its right to sovereignty when, like Serbia, it begins committing gross violations, like genocide, of the norms within the system.

It would appear that a desire to do good through ending what it called genocide led the United States down a road that ended with it reshaping a long held international norm and getting pigeonholed into supporting an insignificant new country against its best interests. The road to hell is, indeed, paved with good intentions.