My Foreign Relations Law professor, who is a Russian national, made an interesting point today. He was talking about the decision to bomb Kosovo, and referred to the humanitarian intervention as a pretext, which I don’t agree with. However, it’s good to remember that there are two sides to every story, and though I think in this case intervention was the right thing given Serbia’s history of ethnic cleansing, the credibility of the threat, and the lack of national interest beyond humanitarian concerns (very unlike Iraq), there is a Serbian side to the story. Of course, Russia is an ally of Serbia, and it was due to the promise that Russia and China (nervous about the idea of invading sovereign territory) would veto the move in the Security Council that NATO chose to strike out on its own without UN approval.
The professor was making a link to one of the Federalist Papers, wherein the author (I believe it was Hamilton) mentions the inability of a young United States to remonstrate with dignity. To illustrate the meaning of this phrase, he used the example of Russian Prime Minister Primakov flying from Moscow to Washington to meet with Vice President Al Gore. Before leaving, Primakov was informed by Russian intelligence of NATO’s plan to bomb Kosovo. He called Gore, who informed Primakov that his information was bad. Primakov got on the plane, and when he arrived at Shannon to refuel, he called once again, again receiving intelligence information that the bombing was imminent. Gore responded in the same way. Well, Primakov was over the Atlantic when he found that the bombing was taking place. Had he arrived in Washington and had his picture taken with the Vice President, the obvious message would have been that Russia supported the mission. So Primakov asked the pilot to take a U-turn, and he returned to Russia. In my professor’s words, “that was when the United States lost Russia.”
I find this story interesting in two respects. One is the perspective that many Americans have when it comes to Russia. I grew up thinking of Russia as a country that was strong throughout the Cold War, though it had trouble feeding its own people and was probably in some way inferior, and after the war ended, I didn’t really think of Russia as anything. It was this state out on the other side of world that we didn’t have to worry about any more, essentially. But I’ve come to realize that Russia is a country to watch for, and also to respect. I think Russian leaders have done some horrible things in terms of human rights, but I also think that to ignore or try to manipulate Russia is a bit foolish.
The other respect in which I find the account interesting deals directly with Kosovo. I’ve been reading Richard Falk’s recent book, in which he talks a lot about how Kosovo was illegal but legitimate. One side you don’t really get, however, is the Russian (or Serbian) side. Again, I think it’s fairly clear that the mission saved a lot of lives, and that imminent humanitarian attrocities justified the attack, but the nature of the attack is another question. Humanitarian intervention is still intervention, and respect for sovereignty is one of the key rules of diplomacy. I think we could do better. High-altitude bombing, for example, doesn’t seem like the solution. I think the global world order needs restructuring so that nations can show respect for each other and universal non-acceptance of human rights violations. If Russia, for example, had been able to retain the option of being Serbia’s ally but at the same time could have refused to use its veto due to the human rights violations going on, and at the same time NATO powers had agreed to use only targeted military force when absolutely necessary in a way that would avoid civilian casualties and ensure quick withdrawal, maybe we’d be in a different position today. I think that we should work to prevent human rights tragedy no matter what the geopolitical consequences, but I also think we should be careful about verifying the threat and using appropriate responses. Losing Russia, I think, is proving to be a relatively big deal.
So what is the goal? I think universal acceptance of at least the very most basic human rights is a good start. This is an extremely difficult goal to achieve, but it is in the self-interest of nations to adhere to the principle. If we could all carry out diplomatic relations as sovereign states, but at the same time understand that none of our allies will help us if we commit human rights atrocities, even within sovereign territory, that our international reputation will be irrevocably tarnished and our economic position threatened… who knows. Maybe the situation would improve. I’m not naive enough to think that the world will go pacifist anytime soon, but I have to believe that there is a better way of doing things.
As a human rights activist, my personal goal is to be more sensitive to geopolitical realities and cultural concerns. Though I do strongly believe that people deserve a minimal standard of living, the way to go about it isn’t to burst into a country and declare that I’m right. Situations are often complicated, and cultural understanding is essential to intelligent diplomacy. I do believe that diplomacy is the way to achieve human rights victories, not force. If international organizations can gain more respect on the world stage, they also may have a critical role to play in informing nations of their human rights violations in a way that appeals to national self interest and cultural context, not just the universal “civilizing mission” that nations are understandably hesitant to embrace. Even in the human rights field, there are two (or many) sides to the story. Hopefully we can reconcile them and still manage to save a few lives along the way.