Is military intervention over Kosovo justified?

Robert Skidelsky and Michael Ignatieff debate whether military intervention over Kosovo is justified
June 19, 1999

3rd May 1999

Dear Michael,

I have been instinctively against Nato's bombing of Serbia from the day it started on 24th March. I was-I dare say like you and many others-incredulous that Nato seemed to have no military strategy except to bomb Serbia to smithereens. I could not believe that bombing a defenceless country was the right way to wage "holy war." But above all I was alarmed by the thought that a new doctrine of international relations was being forged which would make the world a much more dangerous place.

This is what I want to discuss. Given that Nato's values are superior to Milosevic's values, is it right or prudent to try to force our values on him? Until recently, most of us have signed up to quite a different doctrine of international relations. The UN was founded on the principle of national sovereignty. States could and should be sanctioned for acts of aggression against other states, but within their borders they were free (with one large caveat) to do what they liked. You might say that this was a pretty minimal basis for a world order. But the UN was founded on prudential, not ethical, rules, and it was a great advance to get states to sign up to them.

Now to the caveat. Chapter seven of the UN Charter says that states can be sanctioned for actions which are a "threat to peace." This allows the UN to take into account the spillover effects of domestic policies-if, for example, they produce floods of refugees or destabilise other states. But human rights abuse per se is not a ground for intervention (Pinochet's Chile was never sanctioned). This is for the good reason that there is no international agreement on the standards to be upheld and the means to uphold them.

The old imperialism had its own way of overcoming this problem. Advanced states conquered "barbarous" ones and imposed "civilised standards" on them. But as even Churchill conceded, this process had become "contrary to the ethics of the 20th century." Not, apparently, to the ethics of Tony Blair. In his Chicago speech on 22nd April he advanced what he called "The Doctrine of International Community." Globalisation, he said, means: "We cannot turn our backs on the violation of human rights in other countries if we want to be secure." This fact required an "important qualification" to the principle of non-interference. The UN Charter should be amended to make this possible. And Blair was insistent that having made a commitment to intervene, "we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over: better to stay with a moderate number of troops than return for repeat performances."

Blair takes direct issue with the prudential tradition of diplomacy. "Bismarck," he remarked, "famously said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier." He added smugly: "Bismarck was wrong." Who would you have preferred to be in charge in 1914: Bismarck or Blair?

Blair wants international cooperation on the basis of agreed values and rules. But Nato did not agree on the values or rules with Russia, China or anyone else before it started bombing Serbia. Nor did it seek UN authorisation. Thank goodness Russia is doing what it can to find a compromise, but its official line is that the bombing of Serbia was an "act of aggression" which flouts the UN Charter and international law. Moreover, Foreign Minister Ivanov says Nato's attempt to "tear Kosovo out of Yugoslavia" threatens Russia's own relations with its Islamic minorities.

We stand at a fork in international affairs. Does the west have carte blanche to make its values prevail whenever it has the temporary power to do so? Or will it confine its ethical ambitions to limits acceptable to other great powers with different values and interests?

Let me end with four assertions and one question. First, there is no international consensus on the standards expected of states in dealing with their own subjects or on the sanctions appropriate to breaches of agreed standards. Second, Nato failed to seek UN authorisation for its attack on Serbia because it knew it would not get it. Third, the by-passing of the UN by Nato sends a clear message to all countries that force, not law, governs international affairs. Fourth, if membership of the UN no longer protects states from invasion, all governments which can, will acquire weapons of mass destruction to deter or repel foreign invasion. Now the question: do you really think that the west has the guts to fight its way into other countries and occupy them for indefinite periods of time?


Robert Skidelsky

4th May 1999

Dear Robert

I couldn't disagree with you more, but we need to clear away the areas of common ground in order to figure out exactly where our disagreement lies. I agree with you that there should be a general presumption in favour of state sovereignty in international affairs. Such a presumption provides alibis for dictators, but it also protects weak but democratic states from more powerful neighbours. Where states are democratic, their sovereignty is also an expression of their people's right to self-determination. So there are reasons of principle not to interfere in states whose internal affairs we find disagreeable. I also accept that human rights abuses, by themselves, do not legitimise military intervention. Other kinds of "soft" intervention-formal protests, assistance to persecuted groups, boycotts and sanctions-are preferable. Military intervention should always be an instrument of absolute last resort. So the question is to define when human rights abuses in another country justify that last resort. I believe that armed intervention can only be justified in two instances: first, when human rights abuses rise to the level of a systematic attempt to expel or exterminate large numbers of people who have no means of defending themselves; second, where these abuses threaten the peace and security of neighbouring states. Two further conditions should be added: first, all diplomatic alternatives must have been exhausted; second, force can only be justified when it stands a real chance of working. Force can't be justified simply to punish, avenge or signify moral outrage. It must be a credible way to stop abuses and restore peace.

Before we consider whether the Kosovo situation meets these criteria, we must clear away another matter. You maintain that there is "no international consensus on the standards expected of states in dealing with their own subjects." This is not the case. Since Nuremberg, since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there has been a set of international norms on the internal conduct of states which those who sign these conventions-and Yugoslavia is a signatory-are supposed to abide by. So the problem about intervention does not lie, as you suppose, in the relativity of international norms. Serbia's violation of these norms in Kosovo is not a matter of serious dispute. These norms exist; the problem is whether an international right of intervention should trump state sovereignty in the case of the Serb abuses in Kosovo.

In my view Kosovo does meet the strict criteria for a justified intervention. A defenceless people have been driven from their homes and their arrival in Albania and Macedonia is destabilising a strategically important region. Your position-to stay out and do nothing-is sustainable only on the assumption that Milosevic is telling the truth, and that the deportees were driven out by Nato bombing. Having just spent a week in the camps in Macedonia, talking to families evicted from Pristina, I am in no doubt that the ethnic cleansing was systematically planned before the Nato bombing. Western intelligence confirms that Operation Horseshoe was already under way before the first Nato airstrikes.

You make a crucial concession: that Chapter seven of the UN Charter mandates interventions in cases where domestic policies "produce floods of refugees or destabilise other states." But this is precisely the case in Kosovo. Serbian policy has never been a strictly internal matter: in Kosovo, Milosevic decided to solve an "internal" human rights problem by exporting an entire nation to his impoverished neighbours. His actions have bequeathed chaos to a whole region and guaranteed that there will be armed conflict until the Kosovars can rule themselves free of Serb repression.

In understanding why we have a right to intervene militarily, we also need to understand Milosevic's consistent attempt to deny the right of self-determination to anyone except his own Serbian people. He chose war, rather than peace, in 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia exercised their rights of self-determination. In 1992, he armed an insurrection against a UN recognised state, Bosnia, and since 1989 he has systematically withdrawn the limited rights of self-government enjoyed by the Kosovars under the Tito constitution of 1974. At any point, he could have chosen another path-peacefully to negotiate minority rights guarantees for the Serbian minority within the new republics. Instead, he chose war, and the result has been the death of up to 250,000 people and the displacement of 2m people. It is difficult to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a state which has shown such disregard for the integrity and sovereignty of its neighbours. His regime has been a clear and present danger to the stability of an entire region of Europe for nine years.

The second area of disagreement between us is whether military intervention can be justified without explicit UN sanction and approval. In principle, member states should seek approval of the use of force from the Security Council. The veto system in the council can provide a useful break on imperialist misadventure. But the veto system has also prevented the UN from intervening when it should have done. Sticking only to the most recent and relevant instances, the UN Security Council's failure to prevent genocide in both Rwanda and Bosnia has made it essential that where a veto threatens to make the international community complicit in evil, coalitions of member states should be able to act on their own. I appreciate that this entails risks, but coalitions can exert restraints on their more excitable members. Nato is much condemned for waging war by committee, but it is precisely because 19 member states must be persuaded before military action can be undertaken, that such action has not become indiscriminate or disproportionate.

You say, finally, that Nato action will send a message that force, rather than law, governs international affairs. There are occasions, on the contrary, when if force is not used there is no future for law. Failure to reverse the most meticulous deportation of a civilian population since the second world war would have set a fatal precedent wherever authoritarian leaders believe that force should substitute for dialogue in their domestic affairs.


Michael Ignatieff

6th May 1999

Dear Michael,

You define several fruitful areas of disagreement between us. The first concerns the importance to be attached to the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of states. You admit that there is a "general presumption" in favour of non-interference, but you qualify this so heavily as almost to turn it into its opposite. That is, you seem to believe that intervention is justified whenever human rights are violated, but must be proportional to the offence. Military force is reserved for two cases: genocide or mass expulsion; and when human rights' abuses threaten the peace and security of neighbouring states. Since, as Tony Blair admits, there are "many regimes... engaged in barbarous acts," the scope for intervention is in principle huge. Moreover, since Nato (or rather the US) has overwhelming air superiority almost everywhere, your prudential qualification, "only when force has a real chance of working," is less than it seems.

You also weaken the presumption of non-interference unduly by omitting the most compelling argument in its favour, namely that it offers the only secure basis for good (and peaceful) interstate relations in a world where values differ. This has been the conclusion of three centuries of European statecraft, first enunciated at the Treaty of Westphalia. Perhaps you rate justice higher than peace. If so, this is a disagreement between us.

This brings me to your contention that all UN members accept the same norms of domestic behaviour. You cite Nuremberg verdicts and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I accept that Nuremberg gave legal force to two universally accepted norms: that genocide and the planning and waging of aggressive war are wicked and should always be prevented or punished. The fact that we have not acted on the first since the second world war is a dreadful blot.

I doubt if there is genuine consensus on much else. You seem to believe that when states sign up to lists of rights they all think that they mean the same thing. This is a familiar western (particularly American) delusion and I'm surprised you fall for it. I'm talking about substantive agreement, not legal decoration.

Even assuming more agreement than is the case, the practical problems nearly always arise when norms conflict. The classic case is when two ethnic or religious groups have claims on the same territory and cannot work out a modus vivendi. In such a case, separation (which always involves some ethnic cleansing) may be the best solution. Yet this was never on the table at Rambouillet, despite the fact that there have been many relatively successful postwar examples, such as the separation of Jews and Arabs in Palestine, or of Greeks and Turks in Cyprus. Our inability to accept that large parts of the world do not work according to western rules has brought enormous troubles on us and those we succour.

You say that force should only be used when it is a "credible way to stop abuses and restore peace." But do you seriously believe that Nato bombing is a credible method of achieving these goals? There is nothing more immoral than making promises to endangered people and then leaving them to their fate.

Finally, you rather airily wave aside the objection that Nato is making war on a member of the UN without UN authorisation. The veto is not an inconvenient obstacle to humanitarian designs. It is there to ensure international consensus for UN intervention. Such a consensus does not exist in the Security Council-and most members of the UN are opposed to the Nato bombing.

This does not mean that "stay out and do nothing" is the only option; nor do I believe Milosevic's propaganda. Had Nato accepted from 1998 that force was ruled out without clear evidence of genocide or mass expulsion, the diplomacy would have been different. A joint approach would have been hammered out between the US, the EU and Russia as the basis of any demands on Serbia. At this stage, Nato should not have been involved at all.

It was Nato's willingness to use force without achieving a Great Power consensus which is directly responsible for this tragic turn of events-from which we now rely on Russia to rescue us.



7th May 1999

Dear Robert

Our disagreement is wider than the issue of Kosovo. We have different views of the international system itself. This is a disagreement about facts as well as their implication. You are a Westphalian: for you the only relevant actors in the international system are states; their inviolability is all but absolute; and there are no agreed norms to regulate their conduct other than the obligation not to commit genocide or wage aggressive war. I am an internationalist: states have rights and immunities but so do individuals. When these rights are violated, individuals have recourse in law to human rights bodies in the UN system. When persecuted individuals or national groups have exhausted all remedies and stand defenceless before aggression in their home state, they have the right to appeal and to receive humanitarian and even military assistance. Contrary to what you say, I construe the grounds for military interventions narrowly: they should always be a last resort, when every other peaceful means of assisting a vulnerable population has been exhausted.

We also disagree about the cross-cultural validity of human rights norms. Unlike you, I believe there is a widening range of internationally agreed norms for the conduct of both international and domestic policy. We are not living in the culturally relative moral world that you describe. All nations formally accept that torture, rape, massacre and forcible expulsion are violations of international humanitarian law. There is no substantive intercultural dispute as to whether such abuses have occurred in Kosovo or whether they violate international norms of conduct.

You dismiss this structure of international human rights law as nothing more than the homage which vice pays to virtue. I do not deny that states honour these obligations more in the breach than in the observance, but it seems incontrovertible that international rights norms do operate as a real constraint on the domestic behaviour of a growing number of states. If the conduct of states were as you describe, Serbia's behaviour in Kosovo would not be the exception which it is. There is simply no other state in Europe which commits such violations of internationally agreed norms.

You construe attempts by outsiders to monitor human rights in other states as a meddlesome post-imperial moralism, attempting to apply "western rules where these do not apply." But the mandate to intervene comes not just from "our" side but from "theirs." Our military intervention in the Balkans is not imposing moral standards on a people who do not accept their validity. On the contrary: Kosovar Albanians have been begging for our assistance in the face of more than 12 years of increasing Serbian repression.

As to the specifics of what you propose in relation to Kosovo. You suggest that the west should have negotiated with Milosevic on the basis of a joint approach hammered out between the US, EU and Russia. You seem to forget that this is exactly what happened: such an approach was agreed by the Contact Group, which included the Russians. It respected the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, insisted that the KLA insurgents be disarmed and provided for explicit guarantees of Serb minority rights and protection of their holy places. Such a deal offered a credible solution to the Kosovo crisis because it respected the essential national interests of the Serbian people. Milosevic turned it down.

You maintain that the tragedy has occurred because the west resorted to force without first securing a Great Power consensus. On the contrary, the tragedy occurred because Milosevic thought that he could divide Russia and the west, and get away with a final solution of the Kosovo problem.

Your suggestion that the ethnic groups be separated logically implies partition-which in turn implies a substantial erosion of the sovereignty of Yugoslavia. If this is your position, it contradicts your support for non-interference. In any event, partition is impractical, because both communities are distributed throughout the province, as are their cultural and religious sites. This leaves either complete independence for Kosovo or a UN protectorate. If it is to be independence, the Serbs have to understand that it is entirely their conduct which has lost them the territory.

As for the UN, the secretary-general himself has said that the resort to force can be justified in Kosovo, because there is a threat to the peace and security of the region. You yourself concede that the deportation of an entire nation constitutes such a threat, yet you do not commit yourself to any practical action which would restore these people to their homes. Your objections are focused on the failure to secure UN approval. The western countries are not bypassing the UN: as the recent G7 negotiating position makes clear, the Russians are now prepared to approve a resolution in the Security Council mandating a deployment with Nato troops at its core. This would return the whole operation under a UN umbrella where it belongs. The real obstacle to a settlement remains Milosevic himself. It is disingenuous to claim that only one side in this dispute has failed to abide by the UN Charter: the list of UN resolutions which Milosevic has ignored or violated is exceedingly long.

As for the bombing, I framed my conditions for the use of military force in the belief that force can only be justified if it achieves precise military objectives. If Milosevic agrees to negotiate a settlement which allows for the refugees to return under international protection, then the bombing should cease at once. If he refuses to negotiate, the bombing should continue until Serb forces are sufficiently weakened to permit a ground invasion of Kosovo, whose aim would be to occupy the province, disarm Serb forces, return the refugees, rebuild the province, place it under UN administration and then exit as soon as a permanent ceasefire could be negotiated with the Serbs. A bombing campaign which is not geared to this objective, and which simply continues to destroy the infrastructure of Serbia and kill civilians, would have nobody's support in the long term. The bombing must be directed at military targets with the aim of introducing ground troops as soon as possible.



8th May 1999

Dear Michael

Evidently we disagree both about the nature of the international system and about the facts of the case. What you see as the actually existing international order, I see as a project to refashion it according to western norms. I believe strongly in these norms. But the attempt to conduct international relations as though all these states accepted them can only serve to make the world more war-prone. This is why I am, as you say, a Westphalian. One must always remember, though, that the system of "live and let live" did not exclude agreed action by the Great Powers if a domestic conflict threatened international peace.

This brings me to the facts. I am amazed that you continue to believe that Russia at any time supported the Nato solution. The bombing in particular has united all Russians, from liberals to communists, in opposition to Nato action. Yeltsin has ordered the development of new tactical nuclear missiles to counter a perceived increased threat from Nato. So much for Russia being "on side."

Historians will argue about when or whether Milosevic's savage reprisals against the KLA turned into a deliberate programme of ethnic cleansing. What is undeniable is that the mass exodus from Yugoslavia started after the bombing started. I would have expected more scepticism from you about Nato's claims. My main point, though, is that the Nato action has made the world a more dangerous place.



10th May 1999

Dear Robert,

You can only maintain your position by misrepresenting the facts. Ethnic cleansing was under way in Kosovo ten months before the bombing began. The departure of the Kosovar Albanians was not an "exodus," but systematic deportation, using military units. You argue as if these facts were still in dispute: but the facts are plain. They constitute the worst political crime in Europe since 1945.

You cling to the fiction that diplomacy might have averted war, and argue that we didn't do enough to line up the Russians behind diplomatic pressure. What do you suppose was going on between May 1998 and March 1999? You forget that the Russians were at Rambouillet, that they did everything they could to get the Serbs to sign on to the deal. Even now, after weeks of bombing, the Russians and the G7 countries still maintain a common set of demands that the Serbs must meet. The fact which you do not wish to face is that every peaceful diplomatic alternative to war was tried and failed. Why? Because Milosevic gambled that we would fold. And you seem to wish that we had. The word for this is appeasement.