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Creating a Pariah State in Pursuit of Serbian Ideology

April 04, 1999|Paul W. Schroeder | Paul W. Schroeder, professor of history and political science emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of "The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848."

URBANA, ILL. — History provides no simple answers to big questions, particularly those involving policy. One thing it can do, as historian Carl L. Becker remarked, is help free us from the tyranny of misleading historical analogies. Let me discuss certain ones as they apply to Kosovo.

One can be quickly dismissed: the analogy between the situation today and those of World Wars I and II, suggesting that the current crisis could lead to World War III. The Balkans were involved in major wars and crises for centuries before 1945 and, to a degree, during the Cold War, because the region had vital strategic importance for the great powers then that it simply does not have now. Today, the Balkans, generally, and Serbia and Kosovo, in particular, represent a political, economic and strategic backwater. This conflict could have dangerous ripple effects on neighboring countries and on great-power relations, especially with Russia, but they should be dealt with directly, not by treating a brush fire as if it threatened the entire forest.

More important is the widespread impression that humanitarian intervention to stop civil wars, ethnic cleansing and violence is fairly new in this region and in history generally, the product of Wilsonian or post-Cold War American idealism and interventionism, and that in earlier eras, European powers simply let these warring peoples fight it out, or intervened only for their own interests, something many recommend today. Historically, this is simply untrue. Throughout the 19th century, European powers intervened in Balkan and Near Eastern affairs, sometimes individually, often jointly, usually with force or the threat of force, for the purposes of curbing violence, controlling revolts, relieving suffering, separating combatants, imposing a truce or peace, mandating reforms, gaining autonomy for particular groups and regions and, in many instances, setting the terms for their final independence.

These interventions stretch, almost unbroken, from the first major Serbian revolt, in 1804-13, to the final, flawed attempts of the European Concert to control the two Balkan Wars in 1912-13. Ironically, Serbs, Greeks and Russians today lead in denouncing intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, but in the 19th century, Russia intervened more often than any other state against the Ottoman Empire, and Serbs and Greeks repeatedly called for it and gained from it.

Nor was this just great-power imperialism in disguise. Concrete interests were inevitably involved, but humanitarian motives were often important and sometimes decisive. In many instances, governments tried to avoid involvement but failed because of pressures stemming from religious and ethnic affinity, public opinion, humanitarian concern and fear of ripple effects, just as today.

It is also not true that such interventions regularly failed or produced worse violence. The results were naturally mixed, but, overall, they did more good than harm: limiting violence and atrocities, promoting useful change, helping manage crises and serving to end smaller wars and prevent wider ones. It is far easier to link great tragedies to nonintervention: the failure of the European Concert to curb the Armenian massacres in Turkey in 1895-96, or to control the Balkan states, especially Serbia, in 1912-13, which led directly to World War I. In short, contrary to much current opinion, the longer historical record, especially in the Balkans, strengthens the case for humanitarian intervention, though, of course, it cannot tell us when and how to do it.

My most important point concerns the focus on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his ruthless policies or the deep-seated antagonism between Albanians and Serbs as the principle cause of the Kosovo conflict. Without minimizing these, let me stress another factor: Serbia's national ideology and self-view. (The Albanian one is also involved, but less decisive.) The ideology of Serbian state-building since the mid-19th century has been a hegemonic integral nationalism that bases the national identity of Serbs on indissoluble ties of blood, language and history (considering Croats, for example, to be really Serbs who don't know it), and that depicts Serbia's history as a long story of united suffering, oppression, struggle against powerful enemies and final triumph.

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