Sunday, November 13, 2016

Conclusion to Conversations with Milosevich by Ivor Roberts

[Former British Ambassador to Yugoslavia Ivor Roberts reports his conversations with helpful,  non self-critical candor; that is, he does not retrospectively try to conceal the false pre-suppositions, incomprehension, malice, pompous over-estimation of his own capacity or innocence of his judgements (such as you’d expect from a British diplomat, or American for that matter) at the time. His introductory and concluding remarks tell a different story.]

In looking back on the disastrous course Yugoslavia and those who interacted with it took over the course of a decade, it is depressing to see how few lessons have been learned. Many Western politicians who favor robust intervention believe that Yugoslavia proves their point : bombing opponents to the negotiating table was a strategy that should have been executed earlier and more often. Any other approach smacks of appeasement, runs the argument. While Fredrick the Great may have talked about diplomacy without arms being like an orchestra without instruments, he wasn’t saying that diplomacy should not be tested to its limits. If we (should) have learned any lesson of the last decade or so of disastrous wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, it is that force should be the very last option; when the possible gains clearly outweigh the downsides; when there is full international legal backing  through UN Security Council resolutions; where there is a clear sense of proportionality and a likelihood of  a successful outcome. It goes without saying that there should be a clear plan for post-conflict scenarios.

To insist on one’s own position, however strongly felt, with no willingness to concede that others may have arguments of some merit and with no capacity for maneuver is to give up diplomacy usually with dire results. Diplomacy and its concomitant, negotiation are not to be dismissed lightly even if at times its progress can be painfully slow. A clue lies in the etymology of the word “negotiation”: nec otion = ‘not leisure or inactivity.’ In other words, it calls for persistence and iteration and is not to be denigrated for that.

Diplomacy is not, of course, guaranteed to get it right. We need to recognize that however extensively the problems of Yugoslavia were domestically generated and aggravated, the international community’s diplomatic actions on many occasions were culpable in making a bad situation worse. In particular, opportunities for an earlier conclusion to the Bosnia war, the various rejected peace plans, were missed  with consequences that were in many respects calamitous and led to much greater loss of life. Srebrenica*, that darkest page, would never have occurred, which carries with it a wider import. For today’s jihadi, Srebrenica and the prolonged agony of Bosnia are, together with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the early exemplars of how the Islamic nation or ummah have been attacked and oppressed by nonbelievers: thus is their hatred fueled.

Traditional allies in the Yugoslavia crisis were frequently at odds, a factor exploited by actors on the ground. Nor was it helpful to take a Manichean line and maintain that the Europeans made a hash of it and required the United States to intervene on the ground to sort out the mess the Europeans had left behind. It is the case, frequently forgotten, that the United States under Bush Sr. had abandoned the field to the Europeans in the early stages of the crisis. A less confrontational approach across the Atlantic would have yielded greater dividends.

We have to remind ourselves that the Dayton Agreement was not negotiated from a blank sheet of paper It owed much to the map-making begun by David Owen and carried on by Carl Bildt through the Contact Group of diplomates largely from the European Union but also, of course from the United States and Russia. And the decision to engage Milosevich as part of the solution, not just as the originator of the problem, was finally adopted by the United States nearly two years after the British and French had done so.

As for Kosovo, here again the accepted wisdom has to be challenged. The narrative that Kosovo is a Western success story, ignoring the country’s huge social and economic problems, may be convenient for the purposes of narration but doesn’t correspond to the reality of Kosovo as an at least partly dysfunctional state propped up by international aid and support. There are wider ramifications, of course. The recognition of Kosovo, in direct disregard of a UN Security Council Resolution guaranteeing Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity, set a damaging precedent for Crimea to be incorporated into Russia and for the latter’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Self determination in Kosovo justifies self-determination in Crimea if international borders are going to be flouted. And it s no argument to say that Kosovo is sui generis. All such cases sui generis. You cannot persuade would-be secessionists to give up their cause by saying that none of these cases prove a precedent. Once again the West’s thinking has proved muddled and incoherent and its approach to international law cavalier and selective. In an imperfect world, consistency is an invaluable virtue; however distasteful it may be to negotiate with those whose morals we abhor, we make our strategic goals far harder to secure if we fail to acknowledge the interdependence of principles (including self-determination), regime change, borders, and the inevitable tension between human rights and state security.

This brings to the fore the question of forcible regime change. Was the unspoken aim of Rambouillet  and the Kosovo bombing campaign to remove a bad man from power, to remove a thorn in the flesh and someone who failed to conform to Western liberal democratic reform [though there was a shortage of anything but thorns to replace him]? The press secretary  of foreign policy analysis  Strobe Talbot was quite explicit: “It was Yugoslavia’s resistance to broader trends of political and economic reform – not the plight of Kosovars Albanians- which best explains NATO’s war.”

In other words, Kosovo was not to be seen as “an operation with singularly humanitarian objectives, but as a regime operation with geopolitical purposes and implications.”

We need to be wary of going down the road of regime change for a variety of reasons. Doubtful legality is the prime one. And the caveat “be careful what you wish for “ is another. Western support for the so-called color revolutions and the awakenings, springs and uprisings has not always, indeed rarely if at all, ushered in a neo-Kantian world of Perpetual Peace, a world where democracy breaks out everywhere and war is relegated to history, so the neo-conservative theory goes, because democracies don’t fight each other. External actors in seeking to impose such regimes often find that not only is their presence inimical to their own interests but they also have a tendency to bring to the fore those who talk the right “Western” talk but are unsuited to running their own country. Iraq and Afghanistan are merely the most egregious examples of this.

It might be argued  that humanitarian intervention, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, needs to aim at regime change to achieve its objectives, but regime change does not occur in a vacuum. Unless the interveners plan to occupy and run the country for themselves, there has to be an alternative regime to put in place, elected or not. The dire lessons from Iraq demonstrate the folly of dismantling  the organizational vertebrae of a country without any viable alternative plan. In the case of Iraq, the consequences are particularly severe as the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) have at their core former (Sunni) members of Saddam Hussein’s army.

We also need to bear in mind the copycat effect of intervention whatever the motive, regime change or not, without proper sanction under international law. Where one state is seen to act with high-handed disregard for international law, others may be emboldened to follow a similar path. Changers of borders without mutual consent must be wrong whether undertaken in Kosovo, Crimea or Eastern Ukraine.

It was one of international community’s major failures, once the SFRY’s dissolution became inevitable, not to use the opportunity to revisit the whole question of borders. This was often ruled out, quoting one of the principles of the Helsinki agreement, the inviolability of borders. What the agreement actually provide for was the inviolability of borders without the mutual consent for change.

The international community, relying on the advice of the Badinter Commission that, since Yugoslavia was in the process of dissolution, the new international borders should be the old republican administrative borders- [extraordinarily independent under Tito’s last constitution, one cause of the dissolution itself and a reason that Milosevich could not dictate to the degree that the British and Americans wanted him to- one of many paradox’s in this story]. But these frontiers failed to correct the errors so palpably committed at the time of the Balkan Wars, the London Conference of 1913, and at Versailles in 1919 [long-standing wounds]. In particular, they took no account of the difficulties faced by minorities trapped within these new borders. Dutch political director Peter van Walsum (then holding the EC presidency) in July 1991 had argued in a telegram circulated to all EC capitals that as it was “difficult to imagine that Yugoslavia could peacefully dissolve into six independent republics within their present borders,” it would seem sensible to look “in the direction of a voluntary redrawing of internal borders.” Incredibly, this proposal received no support from any of the other eleven EC countries. It was a tragic missed opportunity. With sufficient political will and imagination and with Western military backing to enforce a cease-fire and provide a peace-keeping force [in a timely and effective fashion], it should have been possible to redraw the borders in ways that would have laid the basis for a comprehensive and stable settlement, avoiding the bloody conflict, the massacres and atrocities and the vast movements of hundreds of thousands of refugees. . . .

[But about the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the first place? Roberts covers this in the Introduction remarking first that the problem “cannot be simplified without distorting it beyond all recognition’, for example in Richard Holbrooke’s pronouncement that “Yugoslavia’s tragedy was not foreordained. It was the product of bad, even criminal, political leaders who encouraged ethnic confrontation for personal, political and financial gain.”  One factor to be sure but also:]

The macroeconomic stabilization program inspired by the International Monetary Fund was introduced in 1982. It brought in the familiar austerity measures, high unemployment, and declining living standards. The program accentuated social and republican  divides by a North-South policy which differentiated between investment programs for each.  Thus the North (Croatia and Slovenia) became more advanced and export orientated, while the South remained labor intensive and with a low wage economy. The 1974 constitution’s decentralization measures were key elements in preventing adequate reform of the central economy. With foreign borrowing, exchange and debt obligations removed to the republics, the federal government’s capacities to address the proposed transition to a market economy could hardly begin to function. Although the debt crisis was partially eased in the middle of the decade by a huge debt-refinancing program, the continuing East-West relations left little scope for reducing federal defense expenditures. However unjustified and perverse it seems now, this was a period when the perceived threat led to increased defense spending in new high-technology weaponry.

* this massacre was after U.S. supported Croat operations that initially drove 18,000- Serbs from Western Slovenia and ended up forcing more people- 180,000 -  from their ancestral homes since the  Germans’ departure from Czechoslovakia after WWI. The U.S. violated an arms embargo to support this operation. In the case of Kosovo Madeleine Albright ‘pushed and pushed for use of force against Serbia.  Time and again, sensible negotiating positions put forth by various parties through-out the decade were rejected by a Congress under the thrall of ex-patriot communities in the U.S., a true aberration of policy development that used to be cursed as ‘filibuster’ but is now standard practice: acting on the resentments of those who have fled their country for either economic or political reasons.

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