Did the War Over Kosovo Change the World?

August 1999

By Tom Gjelten

Will future historians regard the 78-day air war that was fought in 1999 over the Serbian province of Kosovo as a turning point in international relations?

From March to June 1999, the United States and its military allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) fought a war over an area about the size of greater Los Angeles, California. Yet the political implications of that war could be huge. Many observers believe that NATO's air campaign in Kosovo, a province within Serbia, part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), could establish a precedent for how future conflicts will be resolved.

NATO had never gone to war on its own, so the Kosovo conflict tested the alliance militarily for the first time in its 50-year history. The Kosovo conflict was also one of the first wars inspired, at least in theory, by humanitarian motives as much as by strategic or geopolitical considerations. There were no oilfields to defend in Kosovo, as there were in Kuwait in 1991, when the Persian Gulf War was fought. NATO launched its bombing campaign in defense of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population, which was being brutalized by Serbian police, paramilitaries, and FRY army troops.

The conflict in Kosovo will be remembered by military analysts as the first war in which one side, NATO, fought entirely and safely from the air, never putting a soldier on the ground or incurring a single combat casualty. It will also be analyzed for its political importance: An alliance formed in 1949 for the purpose of defending the territory and interests of its member states from outside attack launched a bombing campaign against a sovereign country, intervening militarily in what appeared to be a civil war.

These facts have left many people wondering whether the Kosovo conflict will be a model of wars to come. The war over Kosovo will undoubtedly shape the way the NATO alliance sees itself and is seen by others, especially in comparison to the United Nations (UN), which was left on the sidelines during the conflict. The war also affected relations among the NATO states, and between NATO and Russia and China, both of which vigorously objected to NATO's military campaign in the FRY, labeling it interference in the internal affairs of another nation. After the war over Kosovo, diplomats, military commanders, politicians, human rights activists, and even ordinary citizens may think differently about war, peace, and world power relations.

NATO's First War

The first war waged by the NATO alliance involved, one way or another, all 19 member states and was officially named Operation Allied Force.

The operation was managed by U.S. Army general Wesley K. Clark, supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, but it was authorized and overseen by the North Atlantic Council (NAC). The NAC, which serves as NATO's decision-making body, is composed of ambassadors from each of the alliance's member countries. Because the NAC had to approve in advance almost every major aspect of the military campaign, Operation Allied Force became known as the first war directed by a committee.

NATO's air campaign began after the collapse of negotiations over Kosovo with FRY president Slobodan Miloševiç. For more than a decade tensions had been building in Kosovo, where the ethnic Albanian majority was subject to discrimination and mistreatment. Miloševiç ordered a fierce counteroffensive against an armed Kosovo Albanian resistance movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which was fighting for independence. Thousands of Kosovar Albanians were driven from their homes or killed.

Diplomats from the United States and Europe foresaw a massive humanitarian crisis that could destabilize all of southeastern Europe. With Russian assistance they drew up a compromise peace plan that called for the deployment of a large international peacekeeping force in Kosovo. When Miloševiç rejected the peace plan, NATO launched its attack.

Some NATO members were nervous about the campaign from the start. Greece, a longtime ally of Serbia, went along with the war only for the sake of alliance unity. The leaders of Italy and Germany supported the bombing but had to worry about domestic opposition, which swelled as predictions of a prompt NATO victory gave way to the reality of a prolonged conflict and growing civilian casualties. Other alliance members were uneasy about intervening militarily in the FRY without authorization from the UN Security Council. The UN charter prohibits the use of force except in self-defense, when a country is threatened with aggression, or when the Security Council specifically authorizes it.

NATO allies were also concerned that the war would harm relations with Russia. Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov condemned the bombing campaign as “barbaric,” and the Russian government cut all official contacts with NATO. As Russian politicians loudly called for the dispatch of military aid to the FRY, Russian president Boris Yeltsin warned that NATO's assault could provoke World War III.

China, another permanent member of the UN Security Council, objected just as vigorously. China and Russia have both resorted to force to keep wayward provinces under central control, and both governments feared the Kosovo operation could set a precedent for future outside intervention in their own countries. The Chinese objections turned to outrage on May 7 when a NATO airplane mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the FRY's capital city.

Miloševiç knew the NATO air strikes were generating growing opposition. Rather than hunker down and wait for the NATO campaign to crumble, however, Miloševiç made what turned out to be a strategic mistake. He ordered his security forces to sweep across Kosovo, uprooting the ethnic Albanian population in a furious effort to wipe out the rebels. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were driven from their homes at gunpoint, their villages burned or looted.

Television crews from the United States and Europe were on hand in neighboring Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as hordes of refugees arrived. Their horror stories were broadcast across the United States and Europe, provoking widespread revulsion over the atrocities committed and reinforcing public support for NATO's bombing campaign. General Clark got permission to bomb a wider variety of targets, including government buildings in downtown Belgrade, key bridges, and even power generating plants. In early June Miloševiç finally agreed to NATO's key demands and accepted most provisions of the peace plan he had earlier rejected.

Kosovo: A 21st Century War?

The Kosovo war is unparalleled in history. In some respects its features highlight global security trends at the close of the 20th century, where diplomacy and armed conflict are becoming hard to tell apart. Some analysts say NATO's Kosovo operation was less a war than an exercise in what they call coercive diplomacy.

From the start, the desired outcome of Operation Allied Force was not to defeat Miloševiç, but to coerce him into accepting a peace plan for Kosovo. The war began when he rejected a diplomatic settlement; it ended when he finally accepted one. This is why NATO unity was so important. The United States and the United Kingdom may have been able to defeat Miloševiç on their own, but they would not have had the diplomatic support needed to produce a peace agreement. This combination of force—or threatened force—and diplomacy also produced results in Haiti and in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, and many analysts believe it is likely to be used again.

NATO states also broke new ground by daring to intervene militarily in another country's internal conflict, without that country's permission or clear authorization from the UN. But this aspect of the Kosovo war, too, was not wholly unexpected. The idea of absolute sovereignty—that a state should be able to exercise authority inside its own territory without outside interference—has repeatedly been challenged in recent years. Some provisions of international humanitarian law, which set forth the rules by which wars are supposed to be fought, apply to internal as well as international conflicts. In the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, there is growing support for a population's right to life to take precedence over a state's right to do what it wants on its own territory. Had Russia and China not been prepared to use their vetoes to block military intervention in Kosovo, the UN Security Council might well have approved it.

Military analysts have pointed to two other issues highlighted by the Kosovo conflict that could be relevant to future wars. First, U.S. and European military forces in the coming years appear more likely to encounter an enemy similar to what they found in Kosovo, and less like the one they faced in World War II (1939-1945) or would have faced during the Cold War. A direct military confrontation with another powerful nation such as Nazi Germany, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or even China, is improbable, analysts say. Instead, the adversary is likely to be smaller, unable to match NATO's military might but more ready to fight “dirty.” This kind of enemy could be willing, for example, to use civilians as shields and to resort to terrorist tactics if need be.

The second issue is the heightened aversion to military casualties in the United States, where military commanders worry that public support for military action could disappear once U.S. troops start getting killed. Against this background, NATO's strategy of relying exclusively on air power made sense. NATO commanders did not want the kind of ground war that Miloševiç was ready to fight, and avoiding combat deaths helped them to secure political support at home.

A similar calculation could be made in future confrontations, although many analysts believe NATO's success in Kosovo may not be easily replicated. This is because air power alone did not force Miloševiç to yield. NATO bombing was accompanied by a KLA ground offensive that forced Serbian police and FRY troops into the open, where they became easy targets for NATO pilots.

Why Intervene in Kosovo?

The state-sanctioned brutality experienced by the Kosovar Albanians was not so different from what the people of Chechnya suffered when they tried to escape the grip of Russia, or what the East Timorese have experienced as they have tried to break free from Indonesia. In each case, state authorities have resorted to repression to keep an ethnic minority population from gaining the right to govern themselves in a territory where they predominate. There are many examples around the world where internal conflicts, interethnic violence, or civil wars have reached horrifying levels like those seen in Kosovo. This fact inevitably raises the question: Why did the United States and its allies choose to intervene in Kosovo?

In 1984 Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense for U.S. president Ronald Reagan, suggested a series of tests by which a situation would be judged to determine whether to commit U.S. combat forces somewhere. The first and most important test was whether a commitment could be deemed “vital to our national interest or that of our allies.” The NATO intervention in Kosovo has led to a reassessment of such guidelines.

President Bill Clinton emphasized moral issues as a factor in his decision to intervene. Speaking to U.S. troops who had just entered Kosovo as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping force, Clinton suggested there could be more such humanitarian missions for the U.S. military.

“Whether you live in Africa, or Central Europe, or any other place,” he said, “if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background, or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it.” The principle was promptly dubbed the Clinton Doctrine, and it raised alarms in Washington, D.C., among those who thought it sounded too sweeping, and around the world, among those who feared it could signal that the United States was acting as a global policeman.

The uproar, however, may have been premature. The key words, it turned out, were “if it's within our power.” Administration officials later explained that the United States would intervene only if the engagement served the national interest and if there was a capacity to act, such as there was with NATO in Kosovo.

NATO allies were willing to act in Kosovo in large part because the crisis was in Europe and affected peace and security on the continent. European governments feared a massive refugee crisis that could strain nearby countries economically and politically. Italy experienced a huge influx of Albanian refugees in 1992, and Germany and other countries have struggled for years to care for hundreds of thousands of refugees from the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. European leaders were determined to avoid a similar situation growing out of the Kosovo crisis. Many analysts believe this combination of factors is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere any time soon.

Global Power Relations After Kosovo

Small though it was, the Kosovo conflict rattled the global power structure in a way not seen since the end of the Cold War. Russia, for example, was a key partner in the diplomatic efforts to find a compromise solution in Kosovo, but once NATO launched its bombing campaign, it turned angrily away. Russian politicians who favored close ties with the United States and other NATO countries found themselves isolated and ridiculed.

The Kosovo crisis came in the aftermath of other events that had already undermined pro-Western sentiment within Russia. In August 1998 Yeltsin's efforts to promote free market economic reforms had collapsed with the sudden devaluation of the Russian currency. The Russian people were growing disenchanted with capitalism and the Western economic model, and Russian nationalists, Communists, and others who favored the restoration of the USSR were on the upswing. The NATO air strikes only reinforced these sentiments. Russian-based political analysts reported that the anti-NATO feeling was so deep and broadly felt that it could threaten relations with the West for years to come.

A similar change took place in China. As in Russia, the Western-leaning leadership in China had already come under pressure from hard-liners even before the eruption of the Kosovo crisis. President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji were pushing their country toward closer economic and political relations with the United States and other Western countries. They argued, for example, that China needed to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in order to get better trading rules and thus be more competitive economically. Conservatives in China, however, wanted to keep their country insulated from the rest of the world, which they regarded as unfriendly to Chinese interests. The Kosovo war worked to the advantage of the hard-liners, who argued that Jiang and Zhu had been foolish to advocate working with the West.

The resolution of the Kosovo conflict brought quick improvements in U.S.-Russian relations. Russian leaders were able to claim that their diplomatic envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin played a major role in persuading Miloševiç to accept the peace plan offered to him. Chernomyrdin's contribution to the diplomacy ensured that Russia would have a supporting role in the peace implementation in Kosovo, and this brought some restoration of Russian prestige. Many observers believe that not much more was possible. Yeltsin pressed for Russian troops to have a sector of their own to patrol in Kosovo, but it was not clear Russia could afford the expense. In the end, the Kosovo exercise again showed the limits of Russia's power.

Despite widespread Russian opposition to the Kosovo war, Yeltsin apparently decided it was not in his nation's interest to break with the West and side with the Serbs. He fired his pro-Serb, anti-Western prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, sent Chernomyrdin to Belgrade, and told the Russian people that Russia would not get “sucked into a big war” in the Balkans. Russia at the time was negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a specialized agency of the UN, for a key $4.5-billion loan and wanted to avoid a major break of relations with the United States and other Western countries. The loan eventually went through. In July 1999 Russia restored the NATO contacts it had severed four months earlier.

Relations between China and the United States were slower to improve, due in part to the damage done by the bombing of the Chinese Embassy. As in Russia, the pragmatists in China eventually concluded that their country had an important stake in maintaining good relations with the United States and other Western countries. Talks over the possibility of China's entry into the WTO resumed.

The UN and NATO After Kosovo

With the agreement that ended the war in Kosovo, the UN regained the authority it lost when the NATO alliance chose on its own to attack the FRY. The peace plan for Kosovo could not take full effect until it was endorsed and elaborated in a UN Security Council resolution. As one correspondent wrote, “Wars can be started without the organization, but they need the Security Council to end.”

The resolution that authorized the peace arrangement cited Chapter VII of the UN Charter, meaning the agreement could be imposed by force if necessary, with or without the consent of the FRY. The resolution effectively turned Kosovo into a UN protectorate. The province will depend on the UN, rather than on the FRY or Serbia, for all essential public services and authority. Garbage collection, water, mail, and provincial courts will all be overseen by UN-appointed and supervised personnel. An international police force under UN control will maintain law and order, while a new local police force is recruited and trained under UN auspices. Never before has the UN accepted such a large assignment.

The UN's operations in Kosovo will be widely watched to determine whether the organization is capable of undertaking major assignments more efficiently than in the past. Reforms instituted under pressure from the United States and other Western states should trim some of the excessive administrative and bureaucratic costs that have characterized large UN operations in Somalia and Bosnia. Much of the UN's work in Kosovo will be contracted out to a wide range of UN departments and non-UN agencies. The Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will oversee elections. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and private aid agencies will be responsible for helping refugees return to and rebuild their homes, and the European Union (EU) will be in charge of reconstructing Kosovo's infrastructure, such as highways and bridges.

Some analysts worry that the refusal of the United States and its NATO allies to work through the UN Security Council during the early stages of the Kosovo crisis seriously undermined UN authority. At the onset of the NATO bombing campaign, UN secretary general Kofi Annan reprimanded the alliance for acting without prior authorization from the Security Council, pointing out that under the UN charter, the Security Council “should be involved in any decision to resort to the use of force.”

Annan, of course, knew that any U.S. or allied effort to win Security Council authorization for military intervention in the FRY would have failed, given Russia's and China's veto powers. China, in fact, had already vetoed a resolution authorizing the continuation of a UN peacekeeping mission in the neighboring FYROM. NATO troops were participating in that mission, and NATO leaders saw China's veto as undercutting an alliance operation. They did not want that to happen again. Perhaps understanding this, Annan tempered his criticism of the NATO intervention. He accepted NATO's argument that Miloševiç was largely to blame for the Kosovo crisis and even suggested that the bombing was morally—if not legally—justified. “There are times,” Annan said, “when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.”

For the NATO alliance Kosovo was a triumph, even if it did not represent an overwhelming military victory. The achievement came in avoiding defeat; the alliance held together in spite of the forces pulling it in different directions. There was a time when it appeared the alliance might split: In mid-May German chancellor Gerhard Schröder rebuked leaders in the United Kingdom for pushing NATO toward the deployment of ground troops in Kosovo, and the Italian government suggested that NATO consider a bombing pause.

Had the alliance proved unable to sustain its campaign through to the end, Kosovo would have been a disaster for NATO. The alliance would have lost credibility, Western influence in international affairs would have been seriously diminished, and the countries bordering Kosovo would have been left with a massive refugee crisis far beyond their capacity to handle. It may well have been an awareness of these immense stakes that steeled the resolve of the NATO member states. Failure was unthinkable.

The meaning of the Kosovo war for NATO's European member states could be of enduring significance for Europe's evolving security framework. On one hand, European governments learned once again, more clearly than ever, how far they lagged behind the United States in their military capabilities. In no way could they have fought the war without U.S. aircraft, weapons, intelligence, or logistical support. On the other hand, the Kosovo war gave the European states new confidence, because it showed they could remain unified around a common set of goals in spite of widely varying domestic pressures. Both lessons have spurred Europe to move ahead with the creation of an independent military force through the Western European Union (WEU), its hitherto weak defense body. European troops will form the great bulk of the NATO peacekeeping operation in Kosovo, and European governments will take a lead role in Kosovo's reconstruction.

In the final analysis, the war over Kosovo did not fundamentally alter the world's basic power relations. Rather, it highlighted trends that had previously escaped notice, and it propelled them forward. Kosovo changed the world a bit, but more importantly it showed how the world was already changing.

About the author: Tom Gjelten is diplomatic correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR).

For more background, see Encarta's online feature “The War Over Kosovo.”

The official NATO Web site offers information about the NATO campaign against the FRY, including press releases, speeches, maps, video sequences, and other multimedia; the site also offers updates on current NATO activities in Kosovo.

The U.S. State Department provides information about Kosovo, including fact sheets, current press releases, and official remarks by U.S. diplomats.

Kosovo: News, Background and Resources, a site maintained by the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, contains a summary of the Kosovo war, maps, photographs, the text of relevant UN resolutions, and many other resources.

The Web site of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provides updates on the status of refugees from Kosovo.

Flashpoint Kosovo: Keeping the Peace, a site maintained by the MSNBC news service, offers several interactive guides, including a timeline of the Kosovo conflict and a summary of the peace deal, news and feature articles, and other resources; MSNBC also offers a photo essay depicting the plight of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Focus on Kosovo, a special feature from the CNN news service, features current news about Kosovo, biographies of key players in the conflict, interactive maps, and a list of related Web sites.

The Albanian Home Page and the Kosova Home Page offer news and information about Kosovo from a pro-Albanian perspective. The official Web sites of the FRY and Kosovo and Metohija, from Serbia's Ministry of Information, provide news and analysis of events in Kosovo from the FRY's perspective.

For further reading:

Campbell, Greg. The Road to Kosovo: A Balkan Diary. Westview Press, 1999.

Fromkin, David. Kosovo Crossing: American Ideals Meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields. Free Press, 1999.

Kissinger, Henry J. “Is This the End of NATO?” New York Post, August 17, 1999.

Malcom, Noel. Kosovo: A Short History. HarperCollins, 1999.

Mertus, Julie A. Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War. University of California Press, 1999.

Vickers, Miranda. Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo. Columbia University Press, 1998.[1]


[1]"News Analysis: Did the War Over Kosovo Change the World? ," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.