TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

Answer to Clinton's Recent Speech in Europe: the Ambiguities of the Use of Force



July 7, 1999

LONDON- "An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace". Thus writes Edward Luttwak in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. The end of the bombing of Yugoslavia is a case in point. It ended with both sides fairly claiming victory- the Western allies got the Yugoslav army removed from Kosovo and the Serbs won agreement from NATO that it would disarm the Kosovo Liberation Army and shelve its previous promise to the Kosovars to hold a referendum on Kosovo's political status.

This makes possible an honest negociation over the future of Kosovo, with both sides able to get what they most want. The Albanian Kosovars want the partition of Kosovo and the incorporation of their part into a Greater Albania; the Serbs want the incorporation of the Serbian part of Bosnia into Yugoslavia and title to the traditionally Serbian-dominated part of Kosovo in the north.

Whether this all happens will depend on a lot of new thinking in Western capitals. Yes, it is possible after this war, but whether the chance will be taken remains an open question.

The tragedy of war or violence is not that sometimes it doesn't have positive outcomes, it is that these same goals could have been met without war, if the protaganists had only been more far-sighted, wiser, more prepared to be patient and creative in their diplomacy and less bellicose in their confrontation. No other situation has dramatised this point as well as the recent war. The positives are yet to come- and at the moment the West seems too hidebound to go for them. And the negatives are all too apparent- the creation of a great army of refugees and the massive destruction of Kosovar property, far in excess of the damage that might have been caused by Milosevic's army if there had been no bombing.

Tossing such arguments back and forth should also make us think about another angle to the war conundrum. Why, if ,as many think, war can resolve problems, don't we allow the quarrelers sort the issues out themselves? Unlesss our own national interest is directly imperilled why don't we let the belligerents become exhausted or let one win decisively?

If outsiders intervene and impose an armistice does it not just put a conflict on hold? As in Bosnia it probably puts war on the freezer shelf to be taken out and thawed ready for another round at a later date.

During the Cold War years the geo-political temptation of the two superpowers was often to intervene and if they then got too involved with their respective proxies they would decide to effectively collaborate in using the UN Security Council to impose a cease-fire. Often enough, this was only in the late stages of a conflict, as with the many Middle East wars, but it happened because neither Washington nor Moscow could afford to be drawn in too deeply on opposing sides, as there was always the dangerous possibility they would end up confronting each other with nuclear weapons.

Today, post Cold War, the big powers, essentially the Western ones, get involved in trying to impose a peace not to placate Moscow but rather their own publics who have been disturbed and aroused by harrowing pictures and reportage from the latest ethnic cleansing.

And now President Bill Clinton, the Kosovo "success" under his belt, boldly announces on his recent European trip: "Whether you live in Africa or Central Europe or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it". Apparently, he judges it a mistake that the U.S. ran from Somalia and used its veto muscle to get the UN to withdraw its peacekeepers from Rwanda. Now it is all to"fight the good fight", albeit from the safety of 15,000 feet.

But what's the long term outcome? Does not outside intervention and subsequent pacification merely give time for would-be belligerents to reconstitute and rearm their forces? If the history of civil wars this century says anything it suggests that more often peace arrives when there is a clear cut victory by one side. If no party is threatened by defeat and loss what incentive do they have to negociate a lasting settlement?

Moreover, there is an ancillary problem of western intervention, whether the troops go in or not:war these days is characterised by a rush of good works. Every organisation from the Red Cross to the notorious Japanese agency that sent lactating mothers to Cambodia can appear almost overnight on the scene. It is the human impulse at its best but, again, the tragedy is that it can prolong war. William Shawcross' seminal study of the war in Cambodia, "The Quality of Mercy", showed beyond a shadow of a doubt how both voluntary organisations and UN agenices, by feeding refugees on the Thai border, restored to health and well-being the genocidal Khmer Rouge fighters from Cambodia. Again, the massive aid to the huge refugee camps of Hutus expelled from Rwanda has kept the pogrom leaders fed, clothed, healthy and ready to lead more Tutsi-killing raids across the border. The same point can be made about the UN camps set up immediately after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war. They turned the Palestinians into life-long refugees and ensured that Arab-Israeli emnity was well stoked.

The Kosovo experience should make us re-think our attitudes, as Mr Clinton suggests. But perhaps a better way to go is to return to some of the old style UN peacekeeping- only going in when both sides have decided they don't want to fight and they want a disinterested party to hold the ring. Similarly, the aid organisations must learn to discipline themselves to think through more carefully the consequences of their actions. And as for those well-trained NATO troops- they should limit themselves to forming high-powered posses to snatch those leaders who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court, and bring them to trial in The Hague. The truth is it is usually evil, peculiarly motivated, leaders who are responsible for whipping up the passions that end in ethnic cleansing, not ordinary people. Take these two or three out and the situation will often calm down. It is surely better than eleven weeks of aerial bombardment which brought disproportionate suffering to rank and file Yugoslavs. War may or may not solve problems, but it is a terribly blunt instrument. Can't we be a little cleverer?


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 385 351172 and e-mail:













The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512   E-mail:

Contact the Webmaster at:
Created by Maria Näslund      © 1997, 1998, 1999 TFF