In Kosovo today the Serbian army and paramilitary police are committing atrocities on the most terrible scale. Nothing comparable has been seen in Europe since the heyday of Hitler’s Wehrmacht and the SS. The victims are ethnic Albanians, almost all of them Muslim. They are being persecuted and killed for what they are, not for anything they have done. Their towns and villages are burning. Teachers are shot in front of their pupils. A mother had to watch while her husband, a well-known civil-rights lawyer, and her two sons were taken from the house to be murdered. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians have fled for their lives. And we do not yet know anything like the full extent of the horror.
Equally depressing, Serbs are demonstrating in many cities of the world, from Paris and Moscow all the way to Melbourne, to express approval of what is being done in their name. The man almost solely responsible is Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, and Serbs now seem to support him unanimously, without reservation. They do not notice their victims. Inverting and even insulting reality, they transfer the guilt for these Serbian genocidal deeds to the very NATO alliance that is trying to prevent them. They are daubing swastikas on portraits of President Clinton and on the walls of American embassies. Nationalistic fantasies have overcome their reason, just as similar fantasies once swayed German crowds to applaud Hitler during a career that could only end in destroying them too.
The former Yugoslavia, now a lost country, was a hodgepodge of peoples living somewhat claustrophobically side by side. Received opinion has it that they had loved to hate one another down the centuries. In fact, the usual modern ideologies had broken up what used to be a settled existence, converting individuals into masses. After the war, Marshal Tito had imposed Communism on Yugoslavia. According to its doctrine, the ideological identity of Communism was so supreme that nationality and ethnicity were secondary, at the level of folklore. Holding all the constituent peoples down, the secret police could not hold them together. Communism was a fantasy too, and there was a price to be paid when the country was at last rid of it.
Big Brother, the Soviet Union, offers a comparison. Its constituent peoples are far more numerous, and they are also seeking a path to their various identities. Civil war is open or latent in many areas of the old Soviet Union. The Chechens put the post-Soviet Russian Federation on the spot with the demand for a nation- state of their own. President Yeltsin had the response of the career Communist that he is and sent in the tanks. Sixty thousand people were killed, hundreds of thousands fled; Chechnya is now wrecked and its political status uncertain, still up for grabs.
Things did not have to turn out so cruelly. In the former Czechoslovakia, President Vaclav Havel set the opposite example. A dissident and a democrat by conviction, he did not want the union between Czechs and Slovaks to be dissolved. The Slovaks insisted, though, and he ceded with sorrow, not anger. It is possible, then, to throw off the Communist fantasy peacefully. If Czechs and Slovaks see fit, they can reunite one day.
Yugoslavia began the meltdown into its constituent peoples in 1989. Milosevic could have chosen to follow the example either of Yeltsin or of Havel. Tito’s heir, and ultimately Lenin’s too, he was another career Communist, with a temperament that considers compromise and power-sharing to be evidence of weakness. Aiming for supremacy and central control, to be exercised exclusively by Serbs, he therefore attacked the neighboring peoples at all points of the compass. Slovenes and Croats were able to defend themselves and gain independence. Gypsies and the Hungarian minority have fled. The future of Macedonia and Montenegro is in the balance. After suffering a specially vicious onslaught, Bosnia is now a sort of U.N. protectorate. Kosovo may become another sort of NATO protectorate.
The one certain achievement of Milosevic’s continuous violence is the extinction of all possibility of putting together a federation to replace Communist Yugoslavia. “Ethnically cleansed,” the Serbia that he has created will not be worth having. As with Hitler’s racially pure state of Germany, the hatred and fear that it has aroused contain the elements of its eventual destruction.
The West also faced a choice. It would have been possible, even easy, to assert that whatever goes on in another country is nobody else’s business. Benighted foreigners, it can be maintained, go in for such things as ethnic cleansing, and fellow feeling for the victims is mere sentimentality. Besides, intervention was always likely to be ineffective, a moral gesture at best, counterproductive at worst. Ground troops alone could protect the Kosovar Albanians, and they are not available. Long-range bombing would (and did) give Milosevic the opportunity first to throw out the Western monitors already in place and then to fall on the Kosovar Albanians with full savagery while nobody was watching.
Over the past two years or so, Western leaders proved unable to make up their minds. Was this an issue for the U.N. or for NATO? Could Ambassador Holbrooke whisper something enticing in Milosevic’s ear? Surely the man was unwilling to go to the extreme lengths of defying them all, and so if the first ultimatum did not work, then the second would, or perhaps the third. This delay called into question the principle of intervention and has contributed to the messy improvisations of current strategy.
At the core of this issue is globalization, which has already internationalized what had been national or regional disputes. To what extent is government across the world to be based on consent or on force? Are the values of democracy universal or not? And if so, are they to be imposed or is that too extreme a paradox?
Russia and China are the two main countries criticizing NATO at present. Both face the prospect of Kosovo-type breakaways in their own populations, and they have made clear that in that event they will resort to force. Intervention by NATO against Milosevic offers a precedent that to Russia and China looks like a challenge to switch to government by consent.
The Arab world might have been expected to applaud the rescue of fellow Muslims. Its silence is particularly eloquent. Force rules there. And at the moment when Milosevic was embarking on his long campaign of murder, so was Saddam Hussein. The parallels are close.
The outcome of the NATO campaign may well be unsatisfactory. The material damage is large. Kosovo may be partitioned, the refugees may become embittered exiles. But whether through the United Nations or NATO, the West is slowly, and somewhat incoherently, evolving supranational instruments to oppose the Saddams and Milosevics who would rule by force. If the human race has unusual good fortune, government by consent may be its general lot one day. But when words cannot argue for the rule of law, then bombs must.