NATO in Kosovo: imperialism in humanitarian clothing?


When Tony Blair proclaimed, “a New Internationalism,” many interpreted it to be the unveiling of a great new foreign policy focused on preventing genocide and mass-atrocity crimes around the world (Chomsky, 2001: 15). Many in the west saw it as evidence that, free from the cold war constraints, the US and its allies were now adopting a purely altruistic foreign policy with preserving human rights at its core. However, while this is the story so often told in the west, in the developing nations at whom the doctrine is aimed the view is profoundly different (Chomsky, 1999: 140). Throughout this essay I will explain why the narrative presented by the western states (intervention to prevent genocide) is contradictory both to the facts on the ground and also to the NATO states support for, or at least silence regarding, genocide in other nations.

Failures of the Intervention

To understand the contradictions, we must first look at the situation in Kosovo before May 1999. The Kosovo Liberation Army(KLA) had been around for years before 1999, however for the most part It had been a weak force with relatively little influence. It did however represent the biggest threat to people’s human rights in Kosovo (Gespass and Johnson, 1999: 75). Throughout much of 1998 and 1999, The Serbs conducted “anti-terrorist” operations against to KLA and the KLA fought back. It should be noted that both sides committed immense atrocities throughout this period, however UN observers reported that there “was no systemic ethnic cleansing.” In contrast, following the intervention, the KLA committed “widespread ethnic cleansing” which would suggest that the intervention actually escalated the ongoing atrocities (Erlinder, 2000: 77). The worst atrocities committed by the Serbs began only after the intervention (Chomsky, 1999: 20-3). This would suggest that NATO attempts to prevent “genocide” actually exacerbated the problem and, once again, this had been predicted beforehand by those in the military (Commons select committee on foreign affairs, 2000).

This contradiction between stated aims and effects is seen even more clearly if one looks at the refugee generation from the conflict. Before the NATO bombardment, 4000 people had fled Kosovo as a result of the violence; within weeks of the commencement of bombing, that number had risen to 350000 (Chomsky, 1999: 16). Furthermore, this was predicted by many including general Wesley Clark, the man responsible for organising the offensive (Chomsky, 1999: 20).

The Wider World

Given the sheer ferocity with which Milosevic was attacked by the western governments and press, one would assume that the crimes occurring in Kosovo must have been way beyond the scope of anything else occurring in the world. Yet at the same time, atrocities were unfolding around the world that dwarfed the violence in Kosovo. Just a few years before, the Rwandan genocide had killed over 800000 people within a few months (Melvern, 2008: 3-4). As the conflict in Kosovo escalated, violence on a far larger scale was unfolding in Chechnya, East-Timor and Turkey (Johnson, 2004: 72).

The violence in Turkey is of significant interest here and further undermines the idea that “humanitarian intervention” is remotely related to preventing actual crimes against humanity. The level of violence was comparable to Kosovo and yet virtually nothing was said about the violence in the press (Chomsky, 2000: 10-4). This conflict had dragged on for over 15 years by the beginning of the intervention in Kosovo. It had resulted in over 5000 civilian deaths and the complete or partial destruction of approximately 8000 villages and settlements (Bozarslan, 2001: 45). This is a comparable level of casualties and yet the other NATO allies voiced few concerns and many like the US were willing to sell weapons to the Turkish government (Gabelnick et al, 1999).

The 25 yearlong occupation of East Timor by Indonesia received almost no attention from western powers and even received support in the form of weapon sales and training for Indonesian troops (Chomsky, 2000: 48-56). Whereas in Kosovo there was an intense NATO-led effort to discover and document and evidence of war crimes, in East-Timor there was no such effort. What little aid was given was delayed until after the rainy season had erased any evidence of the crimes of in Indonesian government (Chomsky, 2018: 137). In particular, the British government committed to strengthening commercial relations between the UK and Indonesia whilst the Indonesian government used British fighters and trucks to execute its genocide in East Timor (The Guardian, 1999).

Lack of humanitarianism

Following the bombing, the UN launched a mission to relieve the refugee crisis. Despite the express purpose of “humanitarian intervention,” when the time came to provide the required humanitarian aid the US and UK refused to provide anything like the requested sums to cover the crisis. This lead the UN to cut over 15% of its staff in the area to save money (Chomsky, 2000: 116). It should be noted that the costs of the humanitarian aid required was markedly less than the costs involved in conducting air strikes. A 1999 BBC report stated that the bombing cost over $30 billion while the aid required would cost only $2.6 billion.

The same report notes that there were significant effects of the loss of Yugoslav infrastructure-mainly bridges-which apparently cost Romania the Romanian economy $580 million in the six months following the conflict. It estimates the cost of reconstruction at over $25 billion and states that Yugoslavia became the poorest country in Europe as a result. The IMF identifies six countries (Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, FYROM (RNM) and Romania as the countries that suffered serious economic consequences of the intervention. What is interesting is that most of these countries also had to deal with a significant number of refugees with relatively little help from those same NATO states which participated in the bombing and ultimately abandoned the people they had supposedly intervened to help.

The charges of Genocide become more interesting when one considers that the crimes mostly involved the murder of men of fighting age. Whilst many atrocities were committed against women and children, adult men were considered by the Yugoslav authorities as possible KLA terrorists and therefore subject to the brunt of the retaliation for the NATO strikes. Interestingly this is a similar policy pursued by the US, particularly in Afghanistan where all men killed by drones are assumed to be terrorists (Friedersdorf, 2012).

So why did NATO Intervene?

As the evidence above demonstrates, it is unlikely that humanitarian intervention cannot be the actual reason for NATO intervention in Kosovo as its stated aims directly contradict its actions and their effects. In addition, Humanitarian intervention is not a legitimate or legal grounds to take military action against a state consequently, under international law, the war was illegal and it was widely criticized by nations non-NATO nations including Russia and India.

So why did NATO intervene? Some have argued it was to weaken the last holdout against neo-liberalism in Europe (Chomsky, 2006: 191) with the added bonus of securing US access to Kosovo for NATO forces (Mearsheimer, 2014: 105-6) and possibly for oil transport at some future date (Fouskas, 2003: 15-8).

Of these three suggestions, it appears that concerns over Yugoslavia’s opposition to neo-liberalism- meaning the failure of the Yugoslav government to carry out economic reforms and shift to free market (western dominated) capitalism-likely plays the most significant role. This does, in a way, adhere to Mearsheimer (2014) style offensive realism as the US (leading NATO) could be said to have increased its power and therefore security. Yet this explanation is in direct contradiction to the clear rejection of realism by US policymakers both admitted (Bacevich, 2013: 87). It also clashes with other long-term policy commitments such as the US alliance with Israel, an alliance with no strategic value (Mearsheimer and Walt, 2007: 49-76) which would suggest that realist thought wasn’t guiding the US actions in Kosovo.

While energy security has long played a role in US foreign policy (Bacevich, 2016: 22), it likely had only a secondary role in the conflict. Yugoslavia itself possessed no oil supplies and would probably have only limited value in controlling the flow of Russian oil to Europe. That is not to say that oil wasn’t a consideration but rather that it wasn’t the primary reason for action (Gokay, 2002: 5).

A more compelling explanation can be offered if one analyses long-term US policy aims since 1989; these being to expand and hold onto the US empire (Johnson, 2004: 4). This empire is nominally the result of cooperation between states but in practice, the US and its close allies dominate. This brand of policy, known as neoconservatism, is infused with a belief that it is a personal attack on the US if another nation refuses to comply with US wishes even if these would be detrimental to the nation itself. (Bacevich, 2013: 69-96). Since the fall of the USSR, the US has focused on expanding its empire into the post-soviet spaces and punishing any divergence from the norms it has established.

This thinly veiled imperialism often makes nations less secure as they tend to be targets of terrorist attacks and can fall victim to the security dilemma as their aggressive posture inspires fear in other states. In Kosovo, the intervention drew the ire of many states and worsened relations between the US/ NATO and the so-called developing world. India in particular hardened its resolve and continued to pursue nuclear weapons in spite of US opposition because of the NATO intervention in Kosovo (Chomsky, 2000: 7). Many in the Balkans and further afield saw the NATO intervention as just another empire laying claim to the Balkans which has been a persistent theme throughout history (Glenny, 2012: 662). Nevertheless, the US ruled that the punishing of Yugoslavia worth the consequences.

Further evidence in the imperialist nature of the conflict can be seen in the creation of camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. Supposedly built to deter the Yugoslav threat, the immense facility served more to control the surrounding regions and to assert American rule. In this age of Neo-imperialism, it is often suggested that bases have replaced colonies as the markers of an empire (Fouskas and Gokay, 2005: 74). The US, with over 800, is far ahead of anyone else (Vine, 2015: 5) and had an even bigger presence in Europe in 1999 than today. This imperialism is ingrained in American society-although often called by another name-and is occasionally referred to as “inversed Trotskyism” (Bacevich, 2013). This implies an American “World revolution to spread “democracy,” by which we mean to dominate weaker states and force neoliberalism upon these nations Over time the Pentagon has displaced the state department and this reduced the diplomatic tools at the US’s disposal (Johnson, 2004: 122-3). Overall this has the effect of restricting congresses control over foreign policy and this has meant that (with the exception of a few major issues), the executive is free to act as they please and can disregard the Legislative branch.

Imperialism has never been an acceptable Casus Belli by itself. Instead it must be accompanied by a moral justification such as the “white man’s burden” (Evans, 2008: 289). This new form of humanitarian intervention just provides a replacement justification for imperialism to replace the outdated communist threat (Mearsheimer, 2014: 23-5). The conflict in Kosovo was, ultimately, an attempt to expand the US empire further into Europe via power projection and ensure that neoliberalism prevailed on the continent. It was just one in a series of wars that have been fought, and continue to be fought, by the US with the intention of holding together its slowly fragmenting empire (Johnson, 2004).


Concerned with preserving and expanding its empire, the US and NATO intervened in Kosovo to crush the last holdout against neoliberalism in Europe and to establish a position from which to project power throughout the region and deter deviation by other states. The accusations of genocide and the way they were reported exaggerated the true nature of the violence, whilst western media outlets failed to report on the genocide taking place in East Timor and other regions around the world. Painting the intervention as a noble cause is common throughout history, first with white man’s burden and then later to combat communism. Humanitarian intervention is just the latest attempt to legitimise imperialism in the public eye.





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