Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
The Loose Grip of Repression
By David G. Young
WASHINGTON, DC, April 6, 1999 --
With hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the disasterous situation in Kosovo, the temptation to play armchair forign minister has rarely been so great. Everybody and his dog claims to have foreseen the failure of NATO bombing to stop Serbia's brutal ethnic cleansing. All of these people with their perfect hindsight know just exactly what could have been done to avoid the current disaster.
I make no such claims. This line of reasoning presumes that the U.S. Government's goal is to help the people of Kosovo. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While Secretary of State Madeline Albright makes pretty speeches about human rights and the lessons of the Holocaust, these statements mask the truth about U.S. policy. It is designed to benefit the U.S. Government, even if it comes at the expense of almost everyone involved.
When asked to describe the goal of the NATO bombing campaign, Albright chooses her words carefully. "The purpose of this is [for Yugoslavia's President Slobodon Milosovich] to loosen his grip over the people of Kosovo who want to live there in peace."1 Notice the usage of the word "loosen." What this means is that the United States fully supports Slobodon Milosovich's continued grip on the people of Kosovoa people who he has brutally repressed, forced out of the country, and probably executed in great numbersprovided that it is in a "loosened" form.
The Clinton administration is adamantly opposed to the independence of Kosovo, so much so that it would rather see a refugee crisis and mass executions than see a new state join the roster of United Nations. In this respect, the U.S. Government is allied with Milosovich against the Kosovo Liberation Army, and even the people of Kosovo, who widely support independence from Serbia.
To be fair to Clinton, this is exactly the same policy that the United States has held in almost every independence struggle of the 20th century. The United States supports keeping existing states intact and opposes people who seek to topple the existing world order. The State Department is against independence for the Chechens in Russia, the Acehnese in Indonesia, the Uighurs in China, the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, the Palestineans in the Israeli-occupied territories, and the Quebecois in Canada.
The reasoning offered for this position always includes the word "stability." If people succeed in carving out new states, it will inspire countless new struggles, leading to endless war. This argument sounds reasonable, but falls apart quickly if extended to its natural conclusion. If we had followed this advice since the establishment of the modern nation state, the Kosovars would still be subjects of the Ottoman Sultan, and their northern neighbors would be living inside the Hapsburg Empire.
The real reason that the United States Government and all other governments oppose independence movements is because they threaten their hold on power. The United Nations is but an exclusive club of men who wield power over other men. It is a club that sticks together in the common goal of preserving their power, using the misnamed tools of international law.
This self-serving policy is often a terrible detriment to repressed people. In the case of Serbia, U.S. law forbids well-intentioned citizens from materially assisting independence fighters in Kosovo. Though this may be in the interests of the U.S. government, it is difficult to see how it is in the interests of either the Kosovars or their American supporters.
If the State Department were less concerned about maintaining its precious men's club, and more concerned with the wellbeing of Americans and other world citizens, it would begin to look at independence movements on a case-by-case basis. Not all secessionists are rabid anti-American nationalists.
Instead, the U.S. should look at the relative merits of the current government versus the possible virtues of those in secessionist region. This should be done with an eye toward liberal ideals like freedom of speech and trade, as well as the establishment of clean and efficient institutions of society. If a credible case can be made that independence would advance these ideals, it is difficult to understand why everyone, the United States Government included, should not support a movement toward these ends.
This is especially true in the modern world, where the once impregnable fortress of the nation state has been blown apart by the powerful forces of global trade and the information economy. In an age where information, people, and goods can flow freely between nations, what difference does it make how many new states there are in the world?
The nationalist fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army clearly are not the virtuous liberal idealists that this argument espouses. To bad. If the United States had a long-standing policy of supporting liberal-minded independence movements, perhaps a different group of Kosovars would have led their people from the repressive rule of Nationalist Serbia.
Related Web Column:
The Waste of Intervening in Kososvo, February 23, 1999