In Kosovo, time for nation-building

November 19, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The United States now is engaged in nation-building in the Balkans, attempting to fulfill Woodrow Wilson's ambition to do away with the "jealousies and rivalries of the complicated politics of Europe" and teach backward nations "to elect good men."

In 1919, Wilson offered the principles of Balkan reform, but left the practice to others. Today in Kosovo, as earlier in Bosnia, the United States is imposing structures conceived in Washington, which assume that ethnic nationalism can, in time, be overcome, and people taught to be reasonable and "elect good men," and also taught to be content with being reasonable -- a formidable ambition.

The American draft plan for Kosovo, as reported by the Washington Post, would restore autonomy to the province and allow it to elect its own president and control its own police and courts. It postpones negotiations on the hardest problems, including who is going to control Kosovo's substantial mineral resources.

It would give a fifth of the Yugoslav Federal Republic's National Assembly seats to the Kosovo Albanians, put Albanian representatives on the Yugoslav supreme court and supreme defense council and provide human rights guarantees. Kosovo elections would take place next summer.

Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador in Macedonia and a leader in implementing U.S. Balkan policy, says that it's "indeed a hard job" to build up a new Kosovo government with a new relationship to Belgrade but that the latest U.S. draft plan goes "pretty far in getting Serbia out of the institutions of Kosovo."

Team of verifiers

Neither Albanians nor the government of Slobodan Milosevic are happy with this, but the momentum now is with the United States, which disposes of the threat of NATO bombing, and is putting into Kosovo an American-directed international team of "verifiers" from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. They in turn are to be protected by an American-directed but French-led NATO commando and helicopter force based in Macedonia.

The European allies are complaining that they hardly have been consulted, though the European Union is paying more for the Kosovo effort (and for Bosnia) than the United States, and committing more men and women.

But the Europeans dealt themselves out of leadership in the Balkan crisis in 1994-95, and have since confirmed that choice by making no effort to pre-empt the Kosovo crisis, which everyone has known was due to erupt.

A French commentator (Philippe Grasset) has drawn attention to the fact that in the summer of 1995, when France initiated a Franco-British-Dutch rapid reaction force for Bosnia (after U.N. troops were taken hostage by the Serbs), but it was nonetheless France itself that insisted that the United States and NATO take over leadership. There can be no complaints now.

Bosnian example

The Kosovo plan roughly resembles what has been done in Bosnia, where NATO occupies the country, and international civil servants and aid workers attempt to make the Bosnian- Croatian Federation a real government.

There as in Kosovo, outsiders are imposing what they think is best for the Bosnians, Croatians and Kosovars. They believe that their solutions, being reasonable ones by international liberal standards, are best for the Serbs as well, and that the Serbs will eventually realize this.

Nation-building is an ambitious, not to say rash, undertaking in a region where the existing nations or proto-nations are recent, weak and divided internally. Even their national movements are divided. There is a real risk in these countries of national disintegration rather than construction. The future prospect is perhaps less the creation of new liberal nations as an enlargement of the anarchical and violent space of disintegrated government that already exists in Albania.

Nation-building also demands a long-term human, institutional and monetary investment, which the United States is unlikely to sustain in a region as distant as the Balkans. U.S. national interests there are slight. It's Europe whose interests are primarily involved.

The logical thrust of this neo-Wilsonian policy would be creation of a greater Albania, with a greater Serbia and greater Croatia as well, and an independent Bosnia enjoying international guarantees. This upsets assumptions about international law and the inviolability of existing sovereignties.

The Dayton federation of Bosnia and Croatia, and a new semi-autonomous Kosovo, are artificial political entities almost certainly incapable of sustaining themselves once foreign troops and observers leave. The former served to halt a war, and the latter may do as much. But the serious question is what comes after them.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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