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KOSOVO ALTERNATIVES? Letters from Readers
July 29, 1999

Jim Bullington did an excellent job summarizing all the standard arguments of why NATO should not have intervened militarily in Kosovo and Bosnia before it [American Interests, American Values, and War in the Balkans, SUMMER 1999]. I am surprised, however, that such an “old pro” did not provide American Diplomacy subscribers with suggestions for alternative courses of action to deal with ethnic strife in ex-Yugoslavia. I was left with the impression that he advocated doing nothing.

Richard Matheron,
US Ambassador (retired)
Escondido, CA

The writer completed a thirty year career in the US foreign service in 1986. He served as an election monitor in Bosnia in 1997 and recounted his experiences there for American Diplomacy readers in the Spring 1998 issue.

September 23, 1999

Since the debate is now open, I would like to respond to Mr. Bullington .

First of all, I do basically question his perception of American national interest involved in the issue. There is a clear American national interest in a Europe which is stable, free, and united. Letting Milosevic perpetrate his atrocities and continue with the ethnic cleansing would have destabilized the region and Europe as a whole by forcing them to deal with huge masses of refugees. Furthermore, intervention was needed to restore the balance of power between the two parties involved in the conflict (although balance of power arguments do not sound honourable in American ears, one cannot ignore the facts), which is a precondition for solving it. The preservation of this balance is now the duty of the KFOR. The international community is now in a better position to solve the Yugoslav conflict than it was before the war. In addition, there are clear strategic advantages to be drawn from a strong political, economic and military presence in South-Eastern Europe, which lie with geopolitical considerations. In particular, the containment of the differences existing between Greece and Turkey, the establishment of an effective political, military and economic framework aimed at providing effective support for the integration of Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro into the European structures as well as the establishment of friendly governments and of political systems sharing the US values in these countries are of crucial importance to vital American political and economic interests in the Middle East and in Central Asia.

As far as the relations with Russia and China are concerned, I completely agree with Ambassador Bullington ‘s views with regard to the necessity of cultivating a well-functioning strategic relationship with these nations. However, I think that giving in to their pressure with regard to Kosovo would have sent the wrong signals. It suffices to mention the Russian talk about World War III and the threats to freeze the relationships with NATO or the obstructionist policy of both countries in the Security Council to show that their approach to the issue was one of confrontation, not of cooperation. To show to these nations that threat pays off would have been a very dangerous step, capable of jeopardizing the US strategic position in the whole world. In addition, I think that Russia is applying double standards when it comes to her stressing of national sovereignty. Everybody remembers the massive Russian attempt to interfere in the policy making of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic when the accession of these countries to the NATO was at stake, let alone the general Russian approach to the former Soviet republics. The same is true about China which feels threatened by the concept of humanitarian intervention because of the human rights abuses carried out by its own government. I am not saying that the US should adopt a policy of confrontation towards these powers. I just want to say that these countries design and carry out their foreign policy as well as their views on international law matters on the basis of their national interest, as they perceive it. The United States does the same. Therefore, the optimal approach to the US relationship with these countries should address a precise balancing of national intersts. Somewhere in the world interests might coincide, somewhere not. In this case progress in the fields where interests coincide must be “linked” to progress in the fields they diverge. However, this must be done bearing in mind the significance of the interests at stake. This cool-headed approach is more appropriate than speculations about the psychological mood of certain leaders or the significance of opinion polls.

American values are crucial to American national interest. Common values promote peace, economic cooperation and social progress. The question is what kind of price is America prepared to pay for the spreading and protection of her values across the world. My answer is: A price which is compatible with the American interests at stake?

What is the American interest? The geopolitical definition seems to me the most appropriate one: The Euro-Asian land mass must not fall in the hands of a single power or a coalition of powers which the USA does not belong to. Should such a constellation become reality, the United States would suddenly find itself at the mercy of foreign leaders’ discretion. This is a situation no responsible American leader should allow to come about. The United States must therefore work for the preservation of the balance of power in Euro-Asia. In order to achieve this goal, the U.S. must engage itself in the world by promoting democracy and human rights as universal values. These values together with a basic consensus on matters of internal affairs and balance of power in the Euro-Asian land mass are the pillars of a peaceful world order carried by democratic principles. These aspects are interrelated. Common democratic institutions facilitate a common perception of national interests and international cooperation, promoting peace. On the other hand, peace is supportive to the emergence of democratic institutions and of economic prosperity. The United Nations, as a diplomatic and political forum, may provide a useful framework for promoting these goals through joint action and the establishment of common principles shared by all the nations for dealing with crises such as Kosovo and East Timor on a consistent basis.
I absolutely agree with Ambassador Bullington’s opinion with regard to the necessity of exhausting all political and economic means before going to war. In cases the USA does not directly perceive a geopolitical threat it should encourage and support its friends and/ or regional organizations which have an interest in the issue to pick up the job and provide political and economic support. If the US decides to go to war it must strike decisively and with overwhelming might making use of its arsenal as a superpower.

However moral considerations should always play a role in the definition of American interests involved in a crisis. America cannot abandon the values which have made her a source of progress and hope for all mankind.

Andrea Nasi
Vienna, Austria


September 25, 1999

I appreciate Professor Nasi’s thoughtful remarks. We agree on much, especially in the next-to-last paragraph of the letter regarding the need to exhaust political and economic means before going to war, the importance of supporting the action of friends and allies in cases that do not pose geopolitical threats to the U.S., and the principle of striking decisively and overwhelmingly when we do find it necessary to go to war. I also concede that moral considerations should play a role in decisions on intervention.

Where we part company is on defining U.S. interests and geopolitical threats to them in the case of Serbia/Kosovo. While the U.S. would certainly prefer that Serbia and its neighbors be peaceful, stable and integrated into the European and international communities, I do not perceive sufficient U.S. national interests in this area to justify going to war, nor do I see Serbia as a credible threat to any broader U.S. interest in the Middle East or elsewhere. A Balkan domino theory is no more tenable that was the original one for Southeast Asia. Moreover, arguments against intervention in Kosovo (lack of U.N. authorization, damage to relations with Russia and China, open-ended commitment of peacekeeping forces, provocation of accelerated ethnic cleansing without being in a position to stop it, etc.) remain strong. I also find much fault with the diplomacy leading up to the Kosovo war and the indecisive, non-overwhelming way in which the war was prosecuted.

The current U.S. role in East Timor, providing logistics and intelligence support to an operation organized by regional powers and authorized by the U.N., is a much more appropriate model than was Kosovo.

J. R. Bullington
Norfolk, VA

Ambassador Bullington offers readers a somewhat broader assessment of the intervention’s implications for the United States, entitled “The Coming American Retreat from Global Military Interventions,”  in the AUTUMN 1999 issue of this journal ~Ed.

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