Oh, oh, oh it’s a lovely war, begins the old verse. Ever since the Kosovo intervention started, commentators have noted that this is a liberal war. Its methods, for instance, are those pioneered by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam-“graduated escalation” and all that. It also has a liberal aim-to protect the Kosovar Albanians from “ethnic cleansing“-that is quite untainted by any selfish U.S. or Western interest. And, finally and conclusively, its methods have completely undermined its aims, since graduated escalation has allowed Serbian forces ample time to empty Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. Q.E.D.
NATO’s intervention certainly did not have to follow this course. Since Milosevic had already sent forces against Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, the West might reasonably have decided that curbing his capacity to cause trouble at NATO’s backdoor was a legitimate strategic aim. Acting on that logic, it would then have recognized Kosovo as a state that had been entitled to claim its independence when the former Yugoslavia broke up but had been forcibly prevented from doing so by Serbia. That in turn would have provided a basis in international law to recruit, train, equip, and purge an effective Kosovo Liberation Army (as American mercenaries, with official U.S. backing, trained the Croatian Army) and, when the time came, to support these local ground troops with purposive NATO air support.
The likely outcome cannot be foretold with precision-as Hitler said, he who starts a war enters a dark room-but the policy would at least have had a desirable and achievable war aim: namely, a new and more stable Balkan balance of power in which a weaker and chastened Serbia is surrounded by militarily defensible states allied to NATO.
But this conservative strategic vision-though advocated by some, notably Lady Thatcher and Noel Malcolm, the historian of the Balkans- was never really considered, let alone followed. This is in part because, although the policy is moral in the traditional sense of seeking to achieve a legitimate aim by prudent and proportionate means, it nonetheless has the flavor of 19th-century realpolitik about it, rather than the windy, high-minded moralizing that liberals like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair mistake for an ethical foreign policy.
There was also, however, a specific reason of policy why the conservative strategy was rejected: Although it was opposed to Serbia’s aggressive nationalism, it was not opposed to ethnic nationalism in principle. Indeed, it would have enlisted the ethnic nationalism of Croatia and Kosovo (as well as the multiethnic patriotism of Bosnia) to check the Serbian variety.
As for the underlying theoretical question of whether ethnic nationalism is a legitimate basis for statehood, the conservative strategy (like conservative political theory in general) gives no single answer. Sometimes ethnic nationalism will ameliorate popular discontent with the least upheaval-for instance, granting the Slovaks independence peacefully; sometimes it will make matters worse, as in multiethnic Bosnia disrupted by the national claims of Bosnian Serbs; and sometimes it is an irresistible force even though its first effects will be to make matters worse, as is perhaps the case with Albanian nationalism in Kosovo. The conservative theory of statehood is that circumstances alter cases.
But Bill Clinton has a much grander theory of statehood than that platitude. His vision is opposed to ethnic nationalism as the basis for statehood in principle; it favors a new international order in which ethnic groups enjoy limited cultural autonomy in large, new, multiethnic, multicultural federations like, er, the good old U.S.A.; and it sees the Kosovo war as the first battle in the realization of this benign future. Here are two excerpts from a recent speech by the Hot Springs Metternich:
(1)”If we were to choose this course [either independence or partition for Kosovo], we would see the continuous fissioning of smaller and smaller ethnically based, inviable [sic] states, creating pressures for more war, more ethnic cleansing, more of the politics of repression and revenge.”
(2) “Finally, we must remember the principle we and our allies have been fighting for in the Balkans is the principle of multiethnic, tolerant, inclusive democracy. We have been fighting against the idea that statehood must be based entirely on ethnicity.”
This is a sort of upside-down Wilsonianism. Where Wilson pushed national self-determination, Clinton pushes a liberal, multicultural empire in which ethnic groups are limited to cultural self-expression.
But there are a number of narrow and unvisionary problems with this vision. In the first place, many-perhaps most-existing states are based on ethnic nationalist foundations, including such American allies as Japan, Germany, Spain, Israel, Ireland, France, and almost all of central and eastern Europe. Are they all illegitimate? All doomed to be subsumed into new multicultural entities? And if so, are they aware of the fact-or that America’s (and NATO’s) new policy is their national euthanasia?
Second, far from fading from the scene, ethnic nationalism is advancing. The collapse of Communism liberated a host of ancient nations in Europe and Eurasia from the prisonhouse of multiculturalism that was the Soviet empire. Now, the USSR really was a polity in which ethnic nationalism was limited to cultural expression, so that, in Anthony Daniels’s mordant description, “under Communism, all minorities dance.” But the peoples concerned found that unsatisfactory. And having so recently gained their political independence, they cherish it. Clinton’s new policy is thus a victim of spectacularly bad timing.
Third, the new multiethnic, multicultural democracies that the president sees as the hope of the future do not actually exist as yet. The European Union, which he cites, has the ambition to become a multicultural federation, but as yet it is still a colloquy of national governments. And the multiethnic federations that used to exist- principally the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia-have perished, leaving behind them nations in which ethnic nationalism is all the fiercer for having been suppressed for 50 years.
These states were not, of course, democracies-but the unfortunate fact from Clinton’s standpoint is that there are no examples of successful, long-running, multiethnic, multicultural democracies. (The apparent but misleading exceptions, India and Switzerland, raise questions larger than can be dealt with in a brief article.) Democracy seems to require the kind of fellow-feeling of which nationalism, whether of an ethnic or a cultural kind, is the main modern expression.