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Humanitarianism and Military Intervention: NATO in Kosovo

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NATO's intervention into the Yugoslavia province of Kosovo in 1999 ignited furious debate in the United States and Europe. Once the allied bombing of Yugoslavia ended, public discussion quieted. Yet for those who teach history at the secondary and post-secondary levels, the NATO intervention offers a powerful teaching opportunity. As the first Internet war, a wide range of sources--from government briefings and independent news accounts to post-war assessments--are readily available on the World Wide Web. Drawing on these sources, history students at the secondary and post-secondary level have a chance to build the skills characteristic of history as a discipline: the ability to conduct research, read documents closely and critically, weigh evidence, and develop logical, well-documented conclusions. Further, because opinion about the NATO intervention cuts across conventional partisan and ideological lines, students have the opportunity to form their own opinions about the conflict's causes, conduct, and consequences. They must decide for themselves whether the conflict could have been peacefully resolved through diplomacy; whether the intervention averted or exacerbated a humanitarian crisis; and whether the NATO bombing brought stability to the Balkans or made the region less stable.

The conflict raises a host of broader ethical questions that are sure to spark student interest: Under what conditions do the United States and its allies have the right to intervene in countries that brutally mistreat their citizens? What tactics are morally appropriate during a humanitarian intervention? And what are the ultimate consequences of the intervention? Did the NATO bombing campaign set a precedent for future interventions by the international community to stop atrocities and prevent countries from mistreating their own citizens? Or was this a highly exceptional event?

The Kosovo intervention is especially useful in teaching students to place contemporary events in historical perspective. NATO cast its actions as a watershed in foreign affairs: for the first time, enlightened states waged war to prevent a sovereign country from abusing its own citizens. Instead of fighting to assert their narrow self-interest, the Western powers intervened to defend human rights. One question that students might explore is whether the Kosovo intervention represented a significant leap forward in American foreign policy. Should the United States be prepared to use force to protect the rights of people who are being abused by their own government? Or would it be a mistake for the United States to take sides in civil wars, and would it be better for Americans simply to strive to defuse violence through diplomacy?

Ethnic Conflict

The end of the Cold War has been followed by violent ethnic conflicts, particularly in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Africa. In recent years, ethnic conflicts have erupted in Angola, the Balkans, Burundi, Chechnya, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. Ethnic wars have tended to be especially brutal and intractable. In many instances, ethnic conflicts have followed the breakdown of preexisting nation states.

Americans find it difficult to understand ethnic conflict. Blinded by our society's relative success in fashioning a multi-ethnic society, many Americans do not see why other countries cannot learn to appreciate ethnic pluralism and multiculturalism. One question that history instructors might want to pose is why the American experience is so different than that of most other societies.

For more than a century, the prevailing American attitude toward diversity was that outsider groups needed to assimilate to the customs of the dominant majority. In reality, American ethnic groups maintained distinctive religious traditions, foodways, and cultural practices, and used politics to defend their interests. Far from simply assimilating, immigrants helped fashion a hybrid culture, shaped by the mutual influence of cultural groups. Languages were blended into an apparently uni-ethnic English. Our music, diet, fashion, and sports all reflect a process of borrowing and intermixture. Of course, cultural pluralism coexisted with prejudice, discrimination, and inequality, and a belief that certain groups could never be integrated into American society. But however much violated in practice, the ideal of "e pluribus unum" has become a crucial component of the United States' national ideals.

Truly multi-ethnic societies like the United States are rare. Despite an increase in immigration, 85 percent or more of the population in most European countries comes from a single linguistic, ethnic, and religious group. Across the world, ethnic conflict has contributed to a rapid proliferation of new nations. Where there were just 58 members of the United Nations in 1950, today there are 185. Ethnic minorities in Scotland, Wales, Quebec, and the Spain's Basque region aspire to nationhood. In Canada, Northern Ireland, and Rwanda, as well as the Balkans, ethnic animosities are rooted in the inequitable distribution of economic and political power. It is a pointed irony that the rise of globalism has also contributed to the growth of ethnic politics. Many ethnic groups believe that they need their own state to effectively compete for resources, investment, and foreign aid.

The Balkans

The Balkans, it is said, produce more history than can be consumed locally. Between 1912 and 1999, eight wars were fought in the region. Located in the mountainous borderlands of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, the Balkans have been historically divided by geography, language, religion, and ethnicity.

There are several opposing explanations for the ethnic conflicts raging in the Balkans. One view attributes present-day conflicts to longstanding ethnic enmities that were temporarily suppressed by Communist, authoritarian, and Cold War pressures. This was President Bill Clinton's opinion at the beginning of his presidency. He urged the United States to avoid involvement in the Balkans because "the enmities go back 500 years, some would say almost a thousand years." The problem with this explanation is that it fails to explain the periods in which the Balkans' inhabitants lived together in peace.

Some scholars blame the region's ethnic strife on economic stress, competition for scare resources, and declining living standards. Following Marshall Tito's death in 1980, real personal income in Yugoslavia fell by a third, unemployment climbed to over thirty percent, and inflation soared as high as 2,686 percent. Many state industries went bankrupt, and many Yugoslavs subsisted on less than 100 marks a month. Another economic explanation focuses on the differing economic prospects of the former Yugoslavia's provinces in the post-Communist world. Bosnia produced agricultural crops for exports and had strong trading ties with Islamic nations; Slovenia was integrated with the Austrian and Italian economies; and Croatia had high potential as a tourist destination. In contrast, the Serbian economy was burdened by archaic state industries from the Communist era and was dependent on coal, lead, and zinc produced by mines located Kosovo.

Still others argue that ethnic strife is a product of cynical manipulation by political elites. In 1986, Slobodan Milosevic accused ethnic Albanians of waging a reign of terror against the Serbs who lived in Kosovo, their historic homeland. Milosevic shamelessly exploited Serbian resentment to in order to develop a base of political support. He justified abusive policies in the name of defending Kosovo's Serbian minority from persecution and eliminating a "terrorist" organization, the Kosovo Liberation Army.

The NATO Intervention

Otto von Bismarck once remarked: "The Balkans are not worth the healthy bones of a Pomeranian grenadier." During the early and mid-1990s, the United States and its European allies shared Bismarck's reluctance to intervene militarily in the former Yugoslavia. Why, then, did NATO decide to intervene in Kosovo in 1999? Several factors prompted NATO's decision. Repression of Kosovar Albanians was certainly an important factor. This repression began with Kosovo's loss of political autonomy in 1989, and included prohibitions on the use of the Albanian language in public schools, and human rights abuses by the Serb-dominated police force, culminating in the displacement of up to 60,000 ethnic Albanians in mid- and late 1998, in retaliation for guerrilla activities by the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Strategic concerns reinforced humanitarianism. NATO acted to protect the region's stability of the region and to prevent a flood of refugees. NATO was also seeking to define a new role in the post-Cold War era and to preserve its credibility after Yugoslavia refused to accept a Kosovo peace plan known as the Ramboillet Agreement.

The intervention's critics insist that NATO actions worsened a bad situation. They argue that most war crimes and ethnic cleansing occurred in Kosovo occurred after the NATO bombing began. The intervention's detractors argue that had NATO addressed Kosovo during the 1995 Dayton peace talks over Bosnia, or had it threatened to invade the province by land, the bombing campaign might have been avoided, and mass population displacement might not have occurred.

One question that students might wish to debate is whether NATO went to war over Kosovo for humanitarian reasons or for reasons of national interest. It might then be helpful for students to compare and contrast the Kosovo intervention with the American decision to go to war with Spain in 1898. In 1898, the pressure from newspapers to liberate Cubans from Spanish oppression was intense as were concerns about the stability of the Caribbean. Another useful comparison was with the United States' decision in 1965 to launch bombing raids and to commit ground troops to Vietnam. One major motive for escalation in Vietnam was to preserve U.S. credibility. Was the same motive at work in the Balkans?

The Kosovo Intervention and American and International Law

Under international law, countries can intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation under two conditions: first, the nation must be brutally abusing human rights and second, the intervention must be authorized by legitimate international authorities. Some critics of intervention question whether Serbian abuses were sufficiently severe to warranted intervention and argue that NATO needed to receive authorization from the United Nations Security Council. Others criticize the selectivity of the West's moral outrage, citing even worse abuses in Southeastern Turkey (against the Kurds), the Sudan, Rwanda, and Chechnya.

Some critics of U.S. involvement in Kosovo contended that the intervention lacked proper authorization, even under American law. Under Article I of the U.S. Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war. In fact, American presidents have sent forces abroad more than a hundred times, while Congress has declared war only five times. The 1973 War Powers Act, passed over a presidential veto, requires a president to win specific authorization from Congress to engage U.S. forces in foreign combat for more than 90 days.

Teachers might raise two key questions. One is whether presidents should need explicit Congressional or U.N. Security Council approval before taking part in multilateral humanitarian operations abroad. The other is how extreme must the human rights abuses be to justify intervention? If a country violates the rights enshrined in the Geneva Convention, the UN Charter; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, is intervention justified, even without UN Security Council approval, which would have been impossible to attain?

The First Casualty

Truth, it is said, is the first casualty in wartime. The NATO intervention raised a number of factual disputes that students may wish to investigate. One is whether a peaceful resolution to the crisis was possible prior to the bombing campaign. Some observers speculate that the Western powers intentionally provoked the conflict by making unacceptable demands on the Yugoslav government. The Rambouillet Agreement, proposed prior to the outbreak of hostilities, called for deployment of a NATO military force in Kosovo, withdrawal of the Yugoslav army into Serbia, and a referendum after three years on Kosovo independence.

Another dispute is whether ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians was imminent before the start of NATO's bombing. The Western allies justified the intervention partly on the grounds that it was necessary to prevent the forcible displacement of the Kosovar Albanians. During the course of the air war, some 1.4 million Kosovars were displaced from their homes. Some observers argue that large-scale ethnic cleansing would not have taken place with such brutality in the absence of the NATO bombing.

The most heated factual dispute involves the number of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbian paramilitary units during the NATO intervention. On April 19, 1999, the U.S. State Department announced that 500,000 Kosovar Albanians were missing and feared dead. Following the conflict, American and allied intelligence officials estimated that 11,334 ethnic Albanians were killed by the Serbs. An early count of 195 grave sites (out of a total of 529) by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 2,108 bodies.

The issue of numbers is not simply of academic interest. As the historian Michael Ignatieff has argued, it goes to the question of how severe human rights violations must be to justify armed intervention. Students might want to compare the radically contrasting discussions of the number of wartime deaths in an editorial by Ignatieff ("Counting Bodies in Kosovo," New York Times, November 11, 1999, Sec. 4, p. 15) and a book review by George Kenney, a former State Department official (The Nation, December 27, 1999, esp. pp. 27-28). Both articles are available on-line at and

"Morality at 15,000 Feet"

During the 72-day air war, not a single American soldier or pilot died. One American pilot was shot down, and three soldiers were taken prisoner. But NATO's bombing did result in the death of three Chinese journalists and an unknown number of Yugoslav civilians and ethnic Albanian refugees. The conflict also left tens of thousands of homes, businesses, and schools burned, and resulted in attacks on power stations, oil refineries, factories, roads, bridges television stations, and water supplies, and sewage treatment plants. Accidents resulted in serious damage to twenty hospitals, 190 schools, a refugee camp, a refugee convoy, public housing projects in Nis, Surdelica, and Cuprija, and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

During the NATO bombing campaign, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked whether it was appropriate for U.S. aircraft to attack civilian infrastructure. "Pounding away on a civilian population day by day is, in effect, saying our moral principles stop at 15,000 feet. I find this very difficult to accept." The columnist Nat Hentoff (Washington Post, June 19, 1999, A 19) raised an issue that should provoke intense classroom discussion: Is it proper to inflict suffering on the civilian population in order to prevent American and allied combatants from being put in harm's way? During the Kosovo conflict, the United States sought to minimize American casualties by relying on cruise missiles and high altitude bombing. But aerial bombardments and the use of cluster bombs inevitably exposed civilians to risk.

Two basic principles of the U.S. Code of Military Conduct are discrimination-observance of a distinction between combatants and non-combatants-and proportionality-that military force should be limited to that needed to end a conflict. An issue that teachers might raise in class is whether the NATO intervention conformed to these principles, and, equally important, whether attacks on civilian infrastructure such as oil refineries, bridges and electrical grids are justified when the alternative involves prolonging a military conflict. Given internal divisions within NATO, failure to win a swift victory likely would have resulted in splits within the alliance. The bombing of civic targets within Yugoslavia undermined civilian morale and led Yugoslavia to sue for peace.

Another issue that teachers might pose involves the responsibility of Serbian civilians for the atrocities committed in their name. During the preceding decade, Serbian nationalists had destroyed the Croatian port of Dubrovnik, shelled the city of Sarajevo, massacred thousands of prisoners of war in Srebrenica, and engaged in acts of ethnic cleansing. As the historian Sethuraman Srinivasan, Jr., has noted:

By all accounts, not only did the Serb public know about all of this, it actively supported this campaign. Serb political life has been dominated by a national ideology that emphasized the Serbs' own victimization and justified destruction of all its enemies, leading to support for these wars. Although Yugoslavia is not a democratic society, public support for these wars of aggression was a necessity for their prosecution, and indeed the wars and the regime's ability to tap into this ideology of victimization allowed it to survive despite its rather suspect performance in other areas. The Serb public also strongly supported the war in Kosovo with its concurrent destruction of the Albanian population. Protests after the war complained about losing, not about crimes committed in the name of Serbia. In this environment, the moral division between attacking civilians and soldiers seems archaic. After all, who bore greater moral responsibility for the war, the nineteen-year-old conscript in Kosovo or the Serb public goading him on? …I think it is undeniable that the Serb public itself was a prime mover for the events that followed. It had to realize that it was beaten before it would allow the atrocities to stop….

Continuity and Discontinuity in American Foreign Policy

One question that the Kosovo crisis raises is whether this intervention represents a radical shift in American foreign policy--in a more altruistic and multilateral direction--or whether it is in fact a continuation of early tendencies. Is humanitarian intervention something new, or does the Kosovo intervention represent a return to Wilsonian self-determination or to the less idealistic interventions of the early twentieth century designed to impose order and teach foreigners to "elect good men"?

A variety of perspectives have been offered on the issue of whether the Kosovo intervention illustrates continuity or discontinuity in American foreign policy. One view suggests that American foreign policy makers have consistently justified foreign intervention on idealistic grounds. Thus President George Bush justified American involvement in the Gulf War on the grounds that it was necessary to protect Kuwaiti democracy and President Lyndon Johnson justified expanded American intervention in Vietnam on the grounds that it was necessary to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam.

A contrary view argues that shifts in American foreign policy have been driven by popular pressure from national minorities, such as those in Kosovo and East Timor, who have become increasingly assertive in demanding their independence. By making effective use of Western media and sympathizers to popularize their demands, these groups have succeeded in pressuring the Western powers to intervene on their behalf.

Was Intervention Worthwhile?

How can we determine whether the Kosovo intervention was worthwhile? Certainly, the bombing campaign achieved several of its aims, including the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo and the return of Albanian refugees. By December 1999, 810,000 Kosovar Albanians had returned from hastily-built refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia. The Kosovo Liberation Army had been disbanded and had turned over more than 10,000 weapons. Meanwhile, however, over 150,000 Serbs and 90,000 Romany (or Gypsies) had fled Kosovo. And in the months after NATO peacekeepers entered the province, rampant ethnic violence in Kosovo had resulted in 348 murders, 116 kidnappings, 1,070 lootings, and 1,106 cases of arson.

Two reports released by the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe document the systematic Serbian expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo after the NATO air war began as well as the failure of NATO-led peacekeepers to protect Serbs and Romany after the conflict was over.

In a speech to American troops in Macedonia preparing to enter Kosovo as peacekeepers, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: "This is what America is good at, helping people." Her statement raises certain questions that instructors might ask their students to pursue. What has been the record of U.S. interventions in improving life in foreign countries? Should past failures discourage interventions in the present and future?

Debating the Kosovo Intervention

In the following extract, Sethuraman Srinivasan, Jr., who teaches history at the University of Houston, discusses the origins and significance of Serbian nationalism and argues that NATO intervention was necessary to dissuade other nation's from seeking to ethnically cleanse their lands by force. Ask students to read this statement and say whether they agree or disagree with its point of view and why.

Serb nationalism had been particularly strong throughout the twentieth century. However, the combination of unresolved issues from the Second World War and the disintegration of the Yugoslavian state produced a particularly virulent form of nationalism. Serbs believed that they had been cheated out of what was rightfully theirs by the enemies and parasites that surrounded them. To regain their rightful place, Serbs concluded that they had to fight to regain their nation. In practice, this meant using their military superiority to conquer lands they claimed for Serbia and then using terror to expel any non-Serbs from those lands. In Croatia, they expelled the non-Serb population from twenty percent of the country before the Serbs were finally driven out themselves in 1995. In Bosnia, the Serbs conquered seventy percent of the country and brutally drove out non-Serb populations.

Even after their defeat, they maintained ethnic purity in the forty percent of Bosnia they retained. In Kosovo, the Serbs carried out a ten-year program of repression of the Albanian majority before the Albanians created the KLA to carry out violent resistance. In the winter of 1998, the Serbs drove out 60,000 civilians before international pressure forced them to relent on their campaign. When the West issued an ultimatum to the Serbs to negotiate an autonomy agreement with the Kosovars (effectively returning to the status quo of 1989 prior to the beginning of the Serb repression), the Serbs chose instead to drive out additional civilians.... The Serb pattern of conduct in Croatia and Bosnia suggests that they planned on doing this regardless of what the Americans did.

Not only was the Serb program of ethnic cleansing an evil in and of itself, but its potential effectiveness truly necessitated its defeat. The ability of a subject population to resist a foreign occupation was one of the most important deterrents to aggression during the twentieth century. As Vietnam's war against America showed, if a large portion of the population of an area denied the legitimacy of a government, the cost of maintaining an occupation often outweighed its benefits. European imperialism in Africa and Asia ended (or at least changed forms, depending on your definition of imperialism) largely because of this, as subject peoples around the world made imperialism too difficult to maintain. The Serbian program of ethnic cleansing, however, provided an easy solution to this problem: if the subject population might give you trouble, get rid of them. The Serbs essentially looked back in time to Oliver Cromwell and Andrew Jackson to solve their ethnic problems. Much like Cromwell and Jackson, the Serbs stood a very good chance of succeeding. If they had been able to ethnically cleanse their enemies from Croatia or Bosnia or Kosovo, the Serbs thus would have provided an example for the rest of the world to follow. I know in India, Hindu bigots would have trumpeted a Serb success as a model for what to do in Kashmir. The Chinese, similarly, would find ethnic cleansing a very useful tool in Tibet. In the nebulous borders of Central Asia and Africa, ethnic cleansing similarly would have found a lot of folks who would have considered it useful. The crisis in Kosovo, therefore, had broader implications beyond the situation on the ground in the province. Had the West not acted, who can tell where others would have taken the lessons of Kosovo.

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