Kosovo’s Dangerous Statehood

When most Americans are introduced to the international media’s chosen narrative about Kosovo, that of ethnic Albanians overcoming oppression and securing their right to self-determination, they are likely to feel proud that America served as midwife to the birth of the newest country in the world. They are no doubt doubly proud to see all the American flags being waved by jubilant Kosovar Albanians . Wow, they must think, here are some Muslims who actually love us for a change. On top of this, some Serbs had to come along and burn the US Embassy in Belgrade in response to the Kosovar independence vote, thus cementing the perception that America has truly been on the side of the angels in the Balkans.

Kosovar Albanians

My suppositions may seem exaggerated, but they have some basis in fact. The backstory of Clinton’s war in Kosovo was that of America returning to the heart of Europe to defeat a new, would-be Hitler — Slobodan Milosevic. After Milosevic’s forces retreated from the province and the bombs stopped falling in Belgrade, the story of Kosovo quickly disappeared from public consciousness. The media subsequently downplayed such developments as ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Albanian side after the war, since that would have complicated the black and white politics of the Balkans. Still, Kosovo came roaring back to the front pages this week, and it seems many young Americans still subscribe to the storyline first drafted in the 1990s.

Just consider the results of this ABC News/Facebook poll on the subject. 54% of the respondents are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Facebook poll on Kosovo

While at first I was going to chalk this result up to the overexuberance of Obama supporters who flood Facebook polls, support for Kosovar independence in the poll is in fact broad across the ideological spectrum. (A caveat: the Facebook polls do not give statistics to separate American Facebook users from foreign Facebook users, so there’s a chance, however slight, that anti-Serb foreigners could be rigging the poll.) If accurate, this poll can only mean that the media has one again downplayed the risks of supporting the Kosovar Albanians in favor of a feel-good morality play. But those risks are real, and we have only begun to feel the effects.

The most immediate fallout from Kosovo’s vote on Feb. 17 is the mortal blow dealt to the project of Westernizing Serbia proper. Paradoxically, this means that American policy, insomuch as it encouraged Kosovar independence, has utterly undermined American policy, insomuch as it supported Serbian liberalization.  After all, the US and the European powers had several key goals at war’s end: first, removal of Milosevic and his nationalist clique, and second, the cultivation of liberal values in Serbia, leading perhaps to the ultimate goal of Serbian accession to the European Union. Unfortunately, after the Kosovar vote, the Serbian tilt towards the West has ended for the foreseeable future and Pan-Slavic ties between Serbia and Russia have strengthened considerably. As Serbia’s patron, Russia can be counted on to block Kosovo’s integration into the world community, contributing to the possibility that Kosovo will be a failed state in the years to come. Beyond these troubles, there remains a very real possibility of a new war in the region.

One would have hoped that the West had learned its lessons after statebuilding experiments in Iraq and Yugoslavia — two historical fictions held together by the centripetal force of dictatorship — but our present situation suggests otherwise. Kosovar statehood, like the British creation of Iraq and the Euro-American creation of Yugoslavia, is a perfection sought at the expense of the good. Our loss will come in the form of the dangerous precedent established by the West in Kosovo, which threatens to embolden a myriad of separatist factions around the world, all of which have clamored for a state of their own, yet who, until now, have lacked the legal and political standing to make their desires a reality. However, by recognizing Kosovo, the West has unwittingly aided these factions by rewriting the rules of statehood.

Let’s now look at how the West has decided in favor of statehood for Kosovo and what that means to the rest of the world. To begin with, Kosovo meets only a few of the traditional requirements for statehood. Points in favor of Kosovar statehood include the fact that province is territorially contiguous and internationally recognized by the United States and most — but not all — of the European Union. The Palestinians will tell you that the former is a necessary but not sufficient condition for statehood. The latter, while a classical rule of international politics, is a matter of relativity; Taiwan certainly functions like a state despite the fact that few countries dare recognize it as such.

Points against Kosovar statehood are numerous and include the fact that Kosovo, in a Weberian sense, does not have a monopoly on the use of force; the fact that the territory is not economically independent from Serbia, or, in the place of Serbian ties, Western aid; the fact that the present-day population of Kosovo is the product of a relatively recent demographic shift and not a “permanent” situation; and the fact that Kosovo qua state has no prior historical reality. Taking these points one by one,

  • the Weberian criticism is the weakest, since Kosovo has, since the declaration of UN Resolution 1244, continued to be administered by NATO and the UN, and the Kosovar government has had no chance to exercise its full powers. As such, Kosovo’s stability in the absence of foreign presence remains a giant question mark.
  • Next, the poor Kosovar economic situation will necessitate either long-term support from Western powers, thrusting Kosovo into a semi-colonial situation, or else invite economic union with Albania. Neither of these options is good for Kosovar sovereignty, and a federal arrangement with Serbia would have been more conducive to economic growth and regional stability
  • Moving on, rather than being Albanian all along, Kosovo has become Albanian thanks in part to internal migration within the former Yugoslavia and World War II era Nazi policies which saw Kosovar Serbs expelled en masse and replaced by Albanian allies of the Nazi regime. Admittedly, some in the United States may be bold enough to argue that recent demographic changes deserve to be honored by new political arrangements, but few Americans would support this logic being applied to the benefit of Mexicans living in the American Southwest.
  • Lastly, the biggest strike against Kosovar statehood is that it has never historically been its own country. For hundreds of years it was either controlled directly by the Serbs or by the Ottomans (who controlled the Serbs). Unlike East Timor, Kosovo wasn’t an independent territory violently annexed by its neighbor. Nor was Kosovo part of historical Albania seized by the Serbs the way Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula. Yet historians and the media have worked together to create the fiction of Kosovar nationhood since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, and like the story of demographic change noted above, the political history of Kosovo is rarely discussed in the Western media, much to the detriment of the public and decisionmakers alike.

Given that many of the strongest rationales for Kosovar statehood are nonexistent, Western foreign policy elites have had to invent new reasons to make Kosovo an independent country, and it’s these reasons that pose the greatest dangers to piece.

First, there is the idea — which is seemingly an outgrowth of identity politics — that ethnic homogeneity within a particular territory is enough to justify separatism. That is to say that if a country’s population is 85% group A and 15% group B, but 90% of group B is concentrated within a single enclave, then that enclave has the right to declare itself a state. Many people will accept this idea at face value without considering what it means. If, for example, group B is distributed throughout several small enclaves within a country, it may decide to engage in ethnic cleansing for the sake of unifying those enclaves and earning the “right to statehood.” In effect, this is what the Kosovar Albanians did by pushing out as many Serbians and Montenegrins as they could from 1999 to 2008. Although self-determination is a cherished right, many Westerners take for granted the fact that other cultures do not share our belief that our right to self-determination ends where another man’s face begins.

Second, it is suggested that the Kosovar Albanians be given a state thanks to their years of oppression at the hands of the Serb majority. This is of a piece with the Serb and Orthodox belief that Kosovar independence is another punishment visited upon Serbia for Milosevic’s misbehavior. (And that the US is furthermore an “enemy” of Orthodox peoples.) This idea is not objectionable outright — it is, after all, a basic tenet of Zionism and therefore a founding principle of the state of Israel — but it begs the question of just how long and how severe the oppression must be to warrant the creation of a new state as the remedy. (When the oppression happened is also an important factor to consider. Is there a statute of limitations on such grievances?) If applied equally, this principle would lead to a splintering of countless states in the international community, not to mention emerge as a grave threat to the very American concept of pluralism, which addresses the issue of oppression through the rule of law.

Lastly, many Western observers and diplomats argued that Kosovo deserved to become a state because it wanted to. (That any parties could object was inconceivable, inconceivable!) This makes sense after a fashion. If you were a diplomat tasked with bringing peace to the region, Kosovar independence would appear to be an appealingly simple solution to a complex problem, and so, like the doctor who encourages amputation instead of chemotherapy in every case of cancer, allowing Kosovar Albanians such an extraordinary degree of self-determination was the easy way for the West to get out of the Balkan morass. What they don’t take into account, though, is how exactly these three new rationales for Kosovar independence will resonate outside of the Balkans.

Starting with the ethnic Russian militants in Georgia’s Abkhazia and Ossetia regions and continuing with DPP rabble-rousers in Taipei, the recognition of Kosovo has emboldened separatists who will attempt to leverage these new standards of statehood to their own advantage. We close now with a brief survey of several internal conflicts worldwide and a look at how they will be affected by the Kosovo precedent.

regional conflicts

As the table suggests, the independence of Kosovo stands to have a strong impact on India should the Kashmiri Muslims coalesce into an effective separatist group. Likewise, the Tamil Tigers will have new strategies in their war for statehood and Tamil nationalists in India’s State of Tamil Nadu might follow suit. Overall, however, Kashmir is the most dangerous territory since, besides an internal conflict, it could lead to a regional conflagration between Pakistan, India, and China.

For its part, China will probably be minimally affected, though Xinjiang “terrorist/separatist” groups will remain a factor, and in general, China will stay “gravely concerned” about Kosovar independence. Taiwan could declare itself independent tomorrow but such a move would only further isolate Taiwan rather than invite the full embrace of the international community.

Like Taiwan, Chechen independence would likely go unrecognized owing to the resurgent strength of Russia within the international system. That doesn’t mean, however, that militants wouldn’t look to Kosovo for inspiration and begin another round of fighting.

As it stands, the Russian-dominated regions of Georgia, the Muslim regions of Mindanao in the Philippines, the Spanish Basque Country, and Kurdistan have the greatest potential to erupt into conflict. These conflicts might be civil wars and/or increased terrorism in the Philippines and Spain or they might be full-scale regional conflicts, such as a Russo-Georgian war on behalf of independence for Abkhazia and Ossetia. And if Iraq fails to make significant progress towards a stable government in the coming years, the Kurds will be extremely tempted to take the Kosovar route, and the West — specifically the US — will have to dangle a very large carrot to prevent Iraq from fragmenting.

In conclusion, as nationalist groups around the world begin to learn and apply the lessons of Kosovar independence to their own irredentist and separatist claims, they will not only renew their conflicts with increased vigor but also force the West into a corner. Will we take the hypocritical position of creating one set of rules for Kosovo while requiring other regions to play by the old rules? Will we encourage a thousand democratic flowers to bloom, or will we recognize the danger state fragmentation poses to world peace? Advisers to the next president should take a long, hard look at the Kosovo situation right now, because what they might be seeing is the next president’s war.

And Then There Were Three?

Along the lines of Prof. John Ikenberry calling for a American-European alliance that dictates the rules of the game during China’s rise comes a New York Times Magazine article (h/t Rebecca MacKinnon) that envisions a tripolar world divided between the US, Europe, and China in the coming decade.

The author, foreign policy scholar Parag Khanna, offers this slightly awkward sketch of what he calls the “Big Three”:

The Big Three are the ultimate “Frenemies.” Twenty-first-century geopolitics will resemble nothing more than Orwell’s 1984, but instead of three world powers (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia), we have three hemispheric pan-regions, longitudinal zones dominated by America, Europe and China. As the early 20th-century European scholars of geopolitics realized, because a vertically organized region contains all climatic zones year-round, each pan-region can be self-sufficient and build a power base from which to intrude in others’ terrain. But in a globalized and shrinking world, no geography is sacrosanct. So in various ways, both overtly and under the radar, China and Europe will meddle in America’s backyard, America and China will compete for African resources in Europe’s southern periphery and America and Europe will seek to profit from the rapid economic growth of countries within China’s growing sphere of influence. Globalization is the weapon of choice. The main battlefield is what I call “the second world.”

And what is the second world? Khanna explains:

Second-world countries are distinguished from the third world by their potential: the likelihood that they will capitalize on a valuable commodity, a charismatic leader or a generous patron. Each and every second-world country matters in its own right, for its economic, strategic or diplomatic weight, and its decision to tilt toward the United States, the E.U. or China has a strong influence on what others in its region decide to do. Will an American nuclear deal with India push Pakistan even deeper into military dependence on China? Will the next set of Arab monarchs lean East or West? The second world will shape the world’s balance of power as much as the superpowers themselves will.

The second world isn’t exactly new terminology, mind you. Recall that the “old” second world was the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, while “third world” was the term used for the minor powers manipulated by the first world West and second world Soviets. By eliminating the third world from the equation, the author suggests rough parity between the powers at the two tiers. This is problematic because his second world powers are a mix of developing and developed countries, resource-poor and resource-rich countries, and failed states and stable states

Moving on, Khanna seems to be asking the same question as Ikenberrry, can the US dictate the rules of the game in the future, and comes up with a very different answer:

The self-deluding universalism of the American imperium — that the world inherently needs a single leader and that American liberal ideology must be accepted as the basis of global order — has paradoxically resulted in America quickly becoming an ever-lonelier superpower. Just as there is a geopolitical marketplace, there is a marketplace of models of success for the second world to emulate, not least the Chinese model of economic growth without political liberalization (itself an affront to Western modernization theory). As the historian Arnold Toynbee observed half a century ago, Western imperialism united the globe, but it did not assure that the West would dominate forever — materially or morally. Despite the “mirage of immortality” that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.


I believe that a complex, multicultural landscape filled with transnational challenges from terrorism to global warming is completely unmanageable by a single authority, whether the United States or the United Nations. Globalization resists centralization of almost any kind. Instead, what we see gradually happening in climate-change negotiations (as in Bali in December) — and need to see more of in the areas of preventing nuclear proliferation and rebuilding failed states — is a far greater sense of a division of labor among the Big Three, a concrete burden-sharing among them by which they are judged not by their rhetoric but the responsibilities they fulfill. The arbitrarily composed Security Council is not the place to hash out such a division of labor. Neither are any of the other multilateral bodies bogged down with weighted voting and cacophonously irrelevant voices. The big issues are for the Big Three to sort out among themselves.

Note the essential difference between Khanna and Ikenberry: whereas Ikenberry stresses the importance of international institutions, Khanna takes a more traditionally realist approach, arguing that the three powers themselves will set the agenda and, in Bushisan terms, be the “deciders.” Not surprisingly, the piece downplays the importance of international institutions when Khanna turns to making recommendations for future US policy.

In fact, neither a Clinton, Obama, McCain, nor Romney administration would set policy based on all of Khanna’s ideas, but some hold promise He argues that America should revitalize her diplomatic corps, taking the Pentagon’s regional organization structure as a model to follow, and greatly increase the number of Foreign Service Officers and Peace Corps volunteers. So far so good. Next up he argues that American private philanthrophy should lead an expansion of American foreign aid, a laudable notion until one considers exactly how the government could bring this about. Khanna also, in true Westphalian style, asks America to shave the moralist edge off of her international politics, something which simply won’t happen. For instance, even though a President Obama would be loath to use military force to “bring democracy” ala Bush in Iraq, that doesn’t mean he will stop using the language of democratization or human rights when dealing with foreign countries.

And like Ikenberry, Khanna has an overly simplistic view of Chinese realpolitik. Consider this passage towards the end of the piece:

Fifth, convene a G-3 of the Big Three. But don’t set the agenda; suggest it. These are the key issues among which to make compromises and trade-offs: climate change, energy security, weapons proliferation and rogue states. Offer more Western clean technology to China in exchange for fewer weapons and lifelines for the Sudanese tyrants and the Burmese junta. And make a joint effort with the Europeans to offer massive, irresistible packages to the people of Iran, Uzbekistan and Venezuela — incentives for eventual regime change rather than fruitless sanctions. A Western change of tone could make China sweat. Superpowers have to learn to behave, too.

China, in his view, would happily take the quid of technology in exchange for the quo of altering its foreign policy. The problem with this concept is that technology exchanges aren’t useful until a country’s industrial and economic base reaches the point where it could actually utilize advanced technology. If we, say, gave China advanced smokestack scrubbing technology, it could be utilized in large-scale manufacturing enterprises in Shanghai and Shenzhen, but wouldn’t make its way into the countryside factories which are seeing the biggest growth in recent years. Similarly, cheap electric cars might make Beijingers thrilled but people in small cities and the countryside are going to stick with gas engines. At the same time, the raw materials China imports from the illiberal regimes it supports have the end effect of fueling the development of the overall industrial superstructure within the country, and China wouldn’t give up access to these resources without resource alternatives. “Clean technology” isn’t enough.

(The above having been said, I think the best way to put pressure on China wouldn’t be to criticize Beijing directly but to widely publicize — in English and in Chinese — the misdeeds of its client states, especially whenever China hosts the head of state of a country like Sudan. China has already shown itself sensitive to the public image of its foreign allies. Consider that a few years ago, when Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov came to visit Beijing, China temporarily blocked all Internet searches for Uzbekistan to keep curious Chinese in the dark about Karimov’s misdoings.)

Lastly, I’d like to note Khanna overstates, understates, or ignores a few key points during the article:

  • He ignores Western Europe’s demographic crunch, which will necessarily shrink European power and/or radically alter the character of Europe in the next two decades.
  • He understates Russia’s expansion of economic and military power and self-esteem under Putin, who seems likely to call the shots from afar in the decade ahead. It’s hard to imagine a situation where Russia, even a shrinking Russia, willingly subordinates itself to China or the EU.
  • He understates multilateral Europe’s love of multilateral institutions; even if the UN may not be the best way to solve a problem, the first instinct of Europeans will always be to turn to the UN or similar institution.
  • He overstates Chavez’s power in Venezuela; in fact, all mentions of Venezuela have a “pre-referendum” feel to them.
  • He ignores the biggest problem that Africa faces in the long run, namely, the wave of instability that follows as Islam moves south. The creation of two African Unions — one of them Islamic in character — or no workable African Union at all seems far more likely than establishing an EU-style African Union in the near future.

These criticisms aside, Khanna’s article is a strong companion piece to Ikenberry’s and a sobering preview of the challenges America faces in the decades to come.

Update: Khanna’s piece has not surprisingly elicited further reactions from the China blogosphere.

Professor Michael Pettis of the China Financial Markets blog posted a negative critique of Khanna’s article that is a bit snarky but definitely solid. Most importantly, he expands upon the critical issue of demography in Europe — and China:

… If we assume that the six great or potential powers of the world are China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia and the US, it seems that all of them with the exception of India and the US have very serious demographic problems that will seriously undermine their future growth. Take Europe for example. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but today Europe’s population is, I think, about 15% greater than the US. By the middle of the century it will be about 15% smaller, and its median age will have risen from a couple of years more than the US to about 12-16 years more. Projecting the differential per capita growth rates over the past few decades into the future (I know, I know, but what is a more plausible alternative?), Europe’s GDP, which is today larger than that of the US, is likely to be only two-thirds or less than that of the US – and when I ran these projections a few years ago I did them on a per-capita basis, not on a per-worker basis, which would have been much worse..

Khanna will argue (and nearly does) that Europe has an almost unlimited supply of countries eager to join and, by adding them to the European stew willy-nilly Europe can keep its population and economy growing for a long time. This would require that Europe keep adding North African and Asian states to the European Union without domestic opposition, fully integrating them immediately in the Europe political and economic system, and without in any way diluting the cohesiveness and decision-making ability of the European elite. Khanna may have spent several months of those two Starbucks years visiting European countries, but I was born in Spain of a French mother and grew up primarily in Europe, and I think this is, to put it politely, highly implausible.

Read the rest.

For his part, Richard at The Peking Duck recommends the article to readers, and saves most of his criticism not for Khanna but for Hu Jintao.

Daniel Drezner’s response includes this painfully funny line:

I will heap praise on Khanna’s agent for getting the excerpt placed into the Magazine. There’s less demand than there used to be for prose stylings that read like Benjamin Barber after a three-day coke bender in Macao.

Ouch. He goes on to make the point that Khanna’s article — and I think perhaps even Khanna’s book — noticeably lacks data to back up its assertions.

Meanwhile, Kevin Drum is channeling Khanna’s article when musing a new Democratic foreign policy approach. To wit:

[M]ake an appeal to national chauvinism. In the Parag Khanna piece I mentioned below, there’s a bit of discussion about how China interacts with the world, and none of it has to do with projecting military power. So what would happen if you played off that? China isn’t fighting foreign wars, they’re doing X, Y, and Z instead. And they’re winning. So we’d better get on the stick and start doing what they’re doing. [Italics in original.]

I really, really hope Mr. Drum only means we should copy China’s policy of military non-interventionism and not all of China’s foreign policy strategies.