‘Kosovo and Russia’s Place in International Relations
Robert Skidelsky
Moscow Times | Saturday, July 24, 1999

The Nato action in Kosovo raises three questions for international relations. Was it legal? Was it just? And was it prudent? I will concentrate mainly on the third question, because this is most directly to do with Russia’s place in the international system. But first let me say something about the first two.
Was it legal?
The short answer is no. The Nato bombing of Yugoslavia was not authorised by the Security Council. It was an act of aggression against a sovereign state and was contrary to international law. For an authoritative statment of existing international law I quote O. Schachter,International Law in Theory and Practice, 1991, p.128:
‘International law does not, and should not, legitimise the use of force across national lines except for self-defence (including collective self-defence) and enforcement measures ordered by the Security Council. Neither human rights, democracy or self-determination are acceptable legal grounds for waging war, nor for that matter are traditional just war causes or righting wrongs. This conclusion is not only in accord with the UN Charter as it was originally understood; it is also in keeping with the interpretation adopted by the great majority of states at the present time’.
The UN was set up to preserve peace, ie to prevent war. This is its overriding aim. Antonio Cassese, one of the judges of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia at the Hague, writes of the UN Charter: ‘respect for human rights and self-determination of peoples, however important..is never allowed to put peace in jeopardy’.EJIL, 13/07/99.
This is not just a technical legal question. If powerful states feel free to ignore international law, the world becomes that much more anarchic. If the UN Charter cannot be relied on to protect states against aggression, they will redouble their efforts to protect themselves -by acquiring nuclear weapons, anti-missile defences and so on. The ‘peace dividend’ will evaporate.
Nato justified its action by appeal to exceptional circumstances. Preservation of peace may be overriden to prevent an ‘immediate and overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe’. This was the official defence of the British government. How good is it? There are at least four relevant considerations. Was an ‘immediate and overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe’ in fact about to happen in Kosovo? Had all measures short of military force been exhausted? Was the action taken appropriate to prevent an ‘immediate and overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe’? And, finally, was it calculated to improve the working of the international system? Everyone must make up his mind on these matters in the light of all the facts. My own answer would be no to all four questions. But I emphasise that this is a minority view in Britain, and also an unpopular one.
Was it Just?
This question concerns the place of ethics or morals in international relations. There is a growing body of opinion in the West that foreign policy should be based on ethical principles, that these principles are universal, that a violation of the moral law in one place damages all human beings, and that the suppression of these violations and punishment of their perpetrators is the proper task of the ‘international community’. To put it another way, positive peace, the realisation of justice, should prevail over negative peace, absence of armed conflict.
There are a number of authoritative expressions of this new doctrine. For example, Tony Blair’s speech in Chicago on 22 April 1999. ‘Globalisation’ said the British Prime Minister ‘is not just economic. It is also a political and security phenomenon...We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights in other countries if we want to be secure’. This new doctrine requires an ‘important qualification’ to the principle of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries’. Mr. Blair suggests that the UN Charter should be amended to make this possible, and also the quasi-permanent military occupation of countries or regions where humanitarian norms are systematically violated. The Prime Minister’s key assertion is that values and interests can’t be separated. ‘The spread of our values makes us safer’.
Let me, secondly, quote from a speech delivered on 26 June last year by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. He is referring to Article 2.7 of the Charter, preventing UN intervention in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of states. Annan goes on:
‘Yet, in other contexts the word ‘intervention’ has a more benign meaning...Medicine uses the word ‘intervention’ to describe the act of the surgeon, who saves life by ‘intervening’ to remove malignant growth, or to repair damaged organs’.
So here we have the concept of the UN as an organisation which exists not to keep the world peaceful but to keep it healthy. And who is to be its doctor? Well, as it happens the only available doctor is Nato. With the end of the Cold War, Nato’s strategic mission has shifted from deterring direct threats to the security of its members to the task of conflict prevention and crisis managment throughout the whole of the Euro-Atlantic area and even outside it. The ‘new strategic concept’ proclaimed by Nato’s Heads of Governments in Washimgton on 24 April calls for a redefinition of ‘defence’ to include threats to the security of Nato members posed by ‘ethnic and religious rivalries, territorial disputes, inadequate or failed efforts at reform, the abuse of human rights, and the the dissolution of states’ as well as the proliferation of nuclear weapons, terrorism, sabotage and organised crime.
The analogy between political and medical health, the re-definition of security as the absence of ‘malignant cancers’, the view of Nato as a doctor who intervenes to stop the spread of dangerous infections -all this is seductive, but very dangerous. International relations is not like medical science. There is no general agreement about what constitutes political health,no agreed methods of diagnosis, no consensus about what interventions might be effective to prevent the spread of political disease. That is to say, states disagree about values -or more precisely about their ranking of values, they disagree in their perceptions of the facts, and they disagree about what interventions are appropriate. These disagreements are bound up with their interests. That is why international relations has set itself the task of keeping the world peaceful rather than cleansing it of its evils. We need to remember that peace is itself a supremely valuable good. It promotes civilisation through the spread of commerce, the movement of peoples, the interchange of ideas, while a warlike state of the world is the shortest route to its destruction.
There’s a huge difference, then, between the view of the Kosovan war as an exception to a well established doctrine of non-intervention and the view of it as establishing or confirming a new general principle of intervention, military or otherwise, in the name of a just world order - a doctrine which to many looks like an updated version of imperialism, by which the ‘civilised’ nations claimed the right to impose their values by force on the barbarous nations.
Cristopher Coker has argued that a new imperialism is impossible because the ‘post-modern’ nations are too risk averse. But once general claims have been made, practice has a habit of catching up. The claim that the aim of foreign policy is to create a just world will, if accepted, create, in due course, a willingness to die for it -and then we will be back in the era of ‘wars to end wars’ from which we thought we had escaped.
Was it Prudent?
My last question directly concerns the place of states like Russia and China in the international system of the future.
The UN Charter may be regarded as a set of prudential rules to stop conflicts of values and interests from spilling over into inter-state wars. But it assumes a world of great powers with the capacity to inflict damage on each other. The UN system was thus an outgrowth of two European inventions: the doctrine of the balance of power and the Concert of Europe. After the second world war, the UN system was underpinned by the facts of bipolarity and nuclear deterrence.
But imagine a situation in which there is only one Great Power in the world. Then the reason for the prudential rules would largely disappear. World government or world empire becomes a possibility, or at least a temptation.
Some analysts argue that this situation exists today. There is only one super-power-the United States. The European Union is a mixture of a US protectorate and ‘junior partner’. No other state begins to match the US in capacity to project power. This fact was brutally brought home to Russia by the Kosovo war. In an area of traditional interest and sympathy Russia was reduced to the position of impotent and resentful bystander.
The temptation facing the United States is to use its position to create a single world in America’s image is great. American foreign policy has been shaped by the struggle between isolationism and universalism. They are two sides of the same coin, twin (though opposed) expressions of an American sense of superiority to the 'Old World'.In the 19th century, when the American continent was filling up with immigrants who developed its industrial power, isolationism was in the ascendant.
Drawn into international politics by the two world wars, the Americans brought to their involvement the urge to remake the world in the American image.What Americans have never been comfortable with is the philosophy of coexistence. What Americans want is a world of partners in an American project, not countries or states with projects of their own. And this is because they genuinely believe American values are best, and want to spread the blessings of the American way of life to others.
American faith in an American global future has been revived by the recent dynamic performance of the US economy.
Many policy makers and foreign relations strategists in the USA look forward to a Pax Americana, mightier and more universal than the Pax Romana or Pax Britannica ever were. Moreover, military technology offers for the first time a way of reconciling traditional isolationism with universalism. America's isolationist reluctance to risk the lives of its 'boys' in foreign wars can now be overcome by high tech. bombing. Kosovo offers an example of an emerging division of military labour: American bombing will do the serious damage, its partners can mop up.
Looking at the matter realistically, I have to reinforce what Richard Perle, Richard Pipes, and Christopher Coker have said. Right now, Russia is not a Great Power, an important factor in the world balance. Russians may feel resentful at the way their wishes are discounted, but they should not feel surprused.
The Military Balance
In theory Russia’s strategic and conventional forces equal those of the USA. This is the historic legacy of the old Soviet Union. In practice these forces have become non-operational.Whether or not Russia has functional delivery systems, the huge nuclear arsenals of both sides are redundant for all practical purposes. Its conventional forces could not operate outside Russia’s own space, and are a doubtful quantity even inside it. Russia could still deter outside intervention in the CIS, butcould not stop US or NATO intervening any where they want in the rest of the world.
Economic Balance
1995 figures. GDP (US $), USA $6000bn. RF $400bn. China $442bn. UK $1,024bn. France $1,280bn. In 1995, the US economy was five or six times larger than those of France and UK, and about 15 times as large as Russia and China. Since then, Russia has fallen further behind, China has advanced. Today Russia’s official economy is valued at under $400bn, compared with the US’s $8000 billion. It spends on defence about $20bn. (still one tenth of its national income) as against the US’s $200bn.
Russia's military decline is directly related to its economic decline. Its military capacity is set to decline much further absolutely and relatively.
Diplomatic Balance
Russia's military/economic decline directly affects its ability to project its foreign policy. Such ability as remains is undermined by the weakness of its government. The ability of states to project a foreign policy depends as much on their reputation as on their material resources. France (in the 19th century), Britain in the 20th, are examples of countries which have 'punched above their weight'. Russia's reputation as a 'Great Power' is in tatters, far lower than in Tsarist times, despite its nuclear weapons.This is largely the result of the incompetence with which post-Communist Russia has conducted its foreign policy. Its diplomacy over Kosovo, except for the Chernomyrdin mission, reached a new low. At no point did Russia clearly articulate an alternative to Nato's policy, and try to mobilise diplomatic support for it. As a result it was largely discounted. This failure is largely explained by (a) introversion, (b)lack of coherence in the governmental organs.
Russia’s diplomatic weakness will continue until the government starts to function more effectively and the economy begins to revive.
Russia in International Relations
The balance of military, economic, political and moral forces in the world today is heavily on the side of the US and its Western allies.Even East Asia as a model or counterweight has faded since 1997. This means that for the foreseeable future Russia will play a negligible part in shaping the international system. If Russia and China got together, they could exert a formidable influence, but, apart from traditional enmities, I would guess Russia in its present state, is too feeble economically and too erratic politically to be a reliable partner for China, and the USA will pick them off separately. Russia and China, separately or jointly, do not speak for any other part of the non-Western world.
This situation will continue (and even worsen) until Russia pulls itself together. Russia will not be respected in the world until it becomes a more effective state. From its own resources it must discover a much higher standard of political capacity and a system of government and economics which works. This is surely the task to which all Russian patriots should bend their energy and will.
Russia needs to go into temporary retirement as a Great Power, until it can once more play an effective part on the world stage. If it tries to keep up its pretensions, without the means to do so, it will suffer even more humiliation, which will breed terrible resentments.
This does not mean that it should renounce Western principles of government, law, and economics. These work better in the modern world than any others. Indeed, it is only by adopting the practices of the most successful countries that Russia can protect what is uniquely Russian. It should learn the lesson of 19th century Japan which imitated Western methods to protect Japanese culture. Russians should not strive to be imitation Americans, but modern, up to date Russians.
For its part, the United States should recognise that its hegemony is likely to be temporary, and should act with appropriate restraint. Where their own vital interests are not involved the US and EU should not deliberately affront Russia and the rest of the world as they did over Kosovo. They should remember that the 'international community' is not confined to Nato. Sooner or later the Americans will have to learn the arts of coexistence in a multipolar world. The Europeans, who have after all been practising these arts for centuries, could play a crucial part in their education.
I want to end with a story from the New Testament. Perhaps you know the parable of the Unjust Steward. He was dismissed by his master for stealing from him, but before he left he collected his debts. He forgave the first debtor fifty per cent of his debt, and the next debtor thirty per cent, and so on. And Christ approved of his conduct. ‘The children of this world’ he said ‘are wiser in their generation than the children of light’.
What he meant was that the steward knew he would need friends in his new life. Perfect solutions are for the next life. In this life we must aim not for the best possible result, but for the best result possible. The moral is that America should treat Russia with respect and understanding now in its moment of weakness, for it will have to live with it when it recovers its strength.