The US and NATO in the Balkans

A version of this essay was published some twenty years ago in New Interventions 9 (2, 1999): 11-15. The journal is out of print, so I am sharing the essay here. Perhaps, in the light of history, I will revisit and interrogate the arguments presented here in a future essay. As with any analysis of on-going conflict, conclusions are based on what one can know at the time.

Bombs are falling on Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. NATO has turned up the heat on Slobodan Milosevic. In truth, NATO is attacking the people of Belgrade. The West is disregarding human lives by targeting a heavily populated area and degrading the infrastructure of a major city. The immediate effects are catastrophic for Yugoslavians. The long-term effect may be the destruction of their country.

The United States and NATO bomb Belgrade. The air strikes occurred March-June 1999

In belligerent tones, President Clinton is telling the world that the Yugoslav President Milosevic will pay “a very high price” for his actions in Kosovo, actions being characterized by the Western media as “genocide.” Propagandists have cast Milosevic as the third coming of Hitler (Saddam Hussein was the second coming). As in the Gulf War and with Saddam Hussein, the US has personalized the Balkan conflict and, as with the Iraqi people, receding into the background are the people of Yugoslavia. 

Well, that is not exactly true. The ethnic Albanians who live in the Kosovo region of Yugoslavia are receiving plenty of attention in the Western media.

And for good reason. Since NATO launched its air war over Yugoslavia, some 300 000 ethnic Albanians have fled the province of Kosovo, according to reports by Western authorities. Two hundred thousand are on their way to the border. Western and Albanian sources report that Serbian paramilitary units have been moving from town to town, forcing ethnic Albanians out of their homes, herding them onto trains and trucks, or forcing them to march to the borders of Albania and Macedonia. These sources report the killing of Kosovan men by Serbian death squads.

The images being shown on the television of trains and trucks bloated with women and children are striking. The scene is eerily reminiscent of a tragedy occurring some 50 years ago, when men and older boys, separated from wives and children, were marched off to concentration camps or to die over mass graves. Officials in the West are predicting that if the present rate of expulsion continues, the Kosovo region could be “cleansed” of ethnic Albanians within 10 to 20 days.

What happened? President Clinton told the people of the US and the world that NATO intervention in Yugoslavia was necessary to prevent the outflow of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo into countries to the south of Yugoslavia. The US and NATO had to act immediately, we were told, to prevent the conflict from bursting the seams of Yugoslavia. Clinton warned of an imminent chain reaction, of falling dominoes leading inexorably to World War III. After all, the US leader told us, this is where two world wars began.

Of course, we were not told that it would be the US and the West who would topple the first domino. NATO self-fulfilled the prophecy of a wider conflict. The air campaign has immediately spread the civil war beyond the Yugoslav borders. The enlargement of the conflict has occurred not only because the air strikes have triggered the migration of Kosovo Albanians, a consequence Western propagandists have tried to rationalize, but because the West is organizing violence in Yugoslavia. With the inevitable insertion of military forces on the ground, there will be a full-scale war. Although to a Serb in Belgrade, it is already full-scale war.

The West has successfully transformed a low-level civil war into an international military campaign, and caused an enormous refugee crisis. We are left to wonder whether this was their intention. To answer the question posed by this essay, the Kosovo crisis must ultimately be projected against the background of the history and structure of the capitalist world economy, and the network of geopolitical relations and interests operating the state and military machinery attendant to maintaining and expanding capitalism.

Capitalist globalization and the struggle against world socialism constitute the foundation for the present struggle and the ultimate rationale for NATO. While framed as a defensive posture against world socialism, the American presence in Europe has been as an aggressor in the struggle to advance world capitalism. NATO and the global political and military umbrella of which it is a component have been an integral component of the capitalist globalizing project, by containing world socialism, by putting down nationalist movements in the periphery, and by incorporating into the global economic system those territories formerly controlled by the Soviet Bloc. The alliance with fascists has been a key part of this project. Since the early twentieth century, fascism has been intrinsic to the logic of capitalist development in Europe. After the Second World War, the logic of fascism was globalized, although it has remained a logic subordinate to liberalism—the ugly face of capitalism.

I begin by discussing the policy foreground. There is much confusion here, especially in the way the Western media has cast the struggle. I then discuss three factors that have led to the US involvement in the Balkans: first, the need to justify NATO; second, the global capitalist imperative; and third, the nefarious alliance between Washington and Balkan fascists.

What this essay will show is that despite claims of atrocities being carried out by Serbian paramilitary units operating in Kosovo, the West has neither legitimate justification nor moral authority for organizing war in the Balkans. Indeed, what the US has been doing over in the Balkans has made matters worse for the people of Yugoslavia, Serbs, and Kosovans alike. What is more, NATO action in the Balkans represents a larger strategy to secure the Balkans for global capitalism, and this involves destroying Yugoslavia. NATO is building for itself the rationale—future NATO actions will be based on this precedent—for transgressing national boundaries and putting down any group which threatens the goals of the international bourgeoisie. 

* * *

The Policy Foreground: Saving Ethnic Albanians

In the foreground, we have to straighten out the account of the chain of events immediately leading to the NATO attack on Yugoslavia. Not surprisingly, the USA and NATO contrived the situation they used to justify the Kosovo intervention.

The event that ostensibly concerned the West was Yugoslav state repression of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in the Kosovo province of Yugoslavia. The KLA, operating internally to Yugoslavia, had been carrying out terrorist campaigns against the Yugoslav state. In response, Yugoslav police and the military cracked down on the KLA.

The professed long-range goal of the KLA is to unite ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania into a greater Albania. The struggle to regain the autonomy Kosovans lost with the fall of the larger state of Yugoslavia in the wake of the Cold War was viewed by Kosovan elites as a step towards Kosovan independence, which would then lay the foundation for the larger Albanian state. This position of relative autonomy within Yugoslavia was supported by the USA and Europeans powers. Serbia, threatened by the larger goal of succession by Kosovo Albanians, rejected this position, and took the KLA problem as an internal matter. 

Whether one agrees with the aims of the KLA, it is entirely rational given the logic of nation-states for the Yugoslav state to carry out measures to preserve its existence against insurgents and to stabilize territories under its control. Moreover, given the aims of the KLA, concessions to the Kosovan leadership threaten the long-term survival of Yugoslavia.

The conflict escalated until the US and chief European powers believed the struggle had reached a level justifying injecting themselves into the situation as mediators. They drafted a peace agreement, and demanded that both parties sign the treaty, which called for a truce. The demand was backed up by the threat of military force. To show their commitment to peace, NATO began massing troops in the region. 

This is what the West calls “diplomacy.” It appeared to some observers, however, that the West was setting up a “solution,” that whereupon its predictable failure, the West would be “forced” to intervene militarily.

When both sides—predictably—rejected the agreement, the United States approached the Kosovan leaders and asked them unilaterally to accept the agreement with the promise that NATO would begin bombing Yugoslavia. Under these conditions, the Kosovan leaders quickly accepted the truce. NATO promptly attacked Yugoslavia.

* * *

The Policy Background: Finding a Purpose for NATO

One of the primary goals of the United States has been to maintain its leadership in Europe. This is accomplished by strengthening NATO. Part of the strategy has been to include Central and Eastern European nations in the alliance.

More important is finding a purpose for the NATO alliance in the wake of the end of the Soviet threat. NATO was originally organised to protect the West and the capitalist world economy from the threat of world socialism. With the end of the Cold War, NATO lost its original rationale—at least its ideological one. It has now become a pressing concern of elites to find a new rationale to justify the existence of the military umbrella. It has been the long-standing position of the Clinton administration that NATO is a vital asset to the cause of peace in the Balkans. 

NATO bombing of Belgrade 1999

Their position emerged during the crisis in Bosnia. In testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee (US Senate) in 1995, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher stated that “there will be no peace accord in Bosnia unless NATO and the US head the implementation in a peace accord.” Judging from the actions of NATO, the position holds for Kosovo.

The Clinton administration and Western propagandists have advanced this position by preying on the widespread belief amongst Americans and Europeans that the people of Balkans are simply incapable of governing their affairs. It needs to be remembered that the belief itself has been accomplished through the ethnicization of class and nationalist struggles over resources and territories. This is a classic propaganda strategy.

Propagandists characterize the struggle in the Balkans as “tribal conflict.” The people of the Balkans are characterized as “primitives” held in thrall of “irrational” religious, racialist, and ultranationalist interests that have dispossessed them of the capacity for reason. Their “backward” aspirations must be subdued, and they must “for their own good” be brought into the “community of nations” (although, of course, each under their own ethnic state). In the case of the Balkans, the rhetoric has been reinforced by the  propagation of an apocalyptic vision where “racial hatred” lets loose a hell on Earth. 

In the past, Washington’s solution to the problems of “backwardness” has been to advocate “modernization,” that is, spreading “democracy” (capitalism) to the infected region. Following this logic, the peoples of the Balkans must be “civilized.” This is a solution that can only be carried out by the most civilized people in the world: the leading countries of NATO.

One of the usual ways Western Europeans and the United States civilize people is by killing them. Witness the bombing of Belgrade.

* * *

Deep Background: Entrenching Global Capitalism

Following the Second World War, it was the goal of the United States to achieve global leadership. Through the political and military hegemony the US accomplished, capitalist elites transnationalized the capitalist mode of production. The people of the world now stand upon the threshold of global society, and this society is a thoroughly capitalist one.

The backdrop of the struggle is therefore global capitalism and the fall of the socialist world system. The fall of socialism opened up vast regions formerly under the control and influence of the Soviet regime for reincorporation into peripheral zones subordinate to the capitalist world economic core. Since the break-up of the socialist world system, transnational corporations have taken an interest in Central and Eastern Europe, including even Russia. They have already injected into the region labor-intensive, low-wage industries. Regional elites have worked with the globalizers to make the region attractive to investors, for example, by privatizing industries formerly owned by the people.

The US has facilitated capitalist development by supporting and implementing a neoliberal project throughout the territories formerly controlled by socialist regimes. This has involved the introduction of World Bank and IMF promoted economic policies involving domestic reorganization of the entire regional economy. These policies have caused widespread misery amongst people who once enjoyed a relatively high standard of living under socialism. The region is being set up to become the European equivalent of the Maquiladora, with export processing zones proliferating the countryside of the once multiethnic socialist state. Once the region is politically stabilized, there is little doubt that capital will flood the region.

Capitalist globalization and the struggle against world socialism constitute the foundation for the present struggle and the ultimate rationale for NATO. The American presence in Europe has been as an aggressor in the struggle to entrench global capitalism. NATO and the global military umbrella of which it is a component have been an integral component of the capitalist globalizing project by forcibly incorporating into the global economic system those territories formerly controlled by the Soviet Union.

* * *

An Ideological Element: Washington and the Fascist Alliance

To a Serb, stealth bombers over Belgrade must look like yet one more chapter in the biography of her people. For hundreds of years, wave after wave of empire builders, from the East and from the West, have taken turns beating down Serbs. The land of Kosovo is holy ground for Serbs because it was there they were defeated by the Ottoman Empire. The Serbs celebrate defeat the way the US celebrates victory. This is because defeat is all the Serbs have ever known. 

If you are a Serb, it is quite likely that you will have an older relative who will tell you about the last time the empire-builders sought to annihilate the Serbian people. Back then, during the Second World War, some 750 000 people in Yugoslavia, mostly Serbs, but also Jews and Gypsies, were murdered by the Croatian Ustashi. It must seem to Serbs today, watching Belgrade burn, that the present intervention of the West is a continuation of the fascism that burned their grandparents.

Serbs who accuse the West of fascism are not imagining things. Fascist, racist, and ultranationalist forces have played and continue to playa central role in organizing the destruction of Yugoslavia. After all, the recent history of the Balkan conflict clear testifies to this fact.

What is the connection between Washington and fascism, racism, and ultranationalism in the Balkans?  The fascist alliance in the Republican Party is the various ethnic clubs who call themselves “heritage groups.” They constitute the National Republican Heritage Groups Council (NRHGC). They make up fascist wing of the Republican National Committee. There are no black or Jewish ethnic groups in the NRHGC. There are Bulgarian, Cossack, Romanian, Byelorussia, Slovak and Croatian clubs. The NRHGC had a direct line to power during the 1980s and early 1990s in the Reagan and Bush administrations, playing a key role in fashioning US policy in the Balkans. One of their principal goals was the destruction of Yugoslavia, especially the Serbs.

Playing the central role in the NRHGC concerning US policy in Yugoslavia have been, of course, the Croatian Republicans. Croats have been the enemy of the Serbs for a long time. The Croatian Ustashi allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In 1941, Germany conspired with the Croatians to declare Croat independence from Yugoslavia. There began immediately mass exterminations of Orthodox Serbs. 

Serbian family killed by Croat Ustashi militia 1941

During the 1980s, the COP openly observed and celebrated the “Croatian Day of Independence.” See, for example, the 1984 Guide to Nationality Observances published by the National Republican Heritage Groups Council of the Republican National Committee, signed by then chairman of the RNC, Frank J Fahrenkopf, Jr. Official Republican Party literature, their propagandists clearly aware of the untidiness of the Nazi-Croat alliance, notes the “unfortunate association” of the Croat Ustashi with the Nazi Party of Germany. What the RNC glosses over is how the German Nazis were horrified witnessing the cruelty of the Croat Ustashi The Ustashi liquidated whole Serbian villages with no mercy. Ovens at Jasenovac burned Serbs alive.

Clinton took over this foreign policy orientation. Indeed, when a renegade contingent of naive and freshman Republicans were set to pull the funding from the Yugoslav military operation several days ago, Clinton called the GOP leadership into the White House and reminded them of Washington’s commitments in the Balkans. Republicans emerged from their meeting, quickly shelved the Republican proposal, and turned immediately to voting for and approving air strikes in Yugoslavia. 

With the Serbs having just confronted the heirs of the Ustashi dream of independence in the recent Balkan civil war, history is not just a story of the past for Yugoslavia. History is now. And, year-by-year, day-by-day, history is dissolving Yugoslavia.

* * *

Yugoslavia’s Final Chapter?

The USA and Europe have been carrying out a program to create and strengthen zones of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. It is these efforts, based on economic and political objectives, that have produced conditions favorable to the rise of inter-ethnic struggles. These inter-ethnic struggles have been fostered and often even instigated by the West. The long-standing goal of European powers has meant that a peaceful resolution to the break-up of Yugoslavia was to be avoided, and, indeed, that differences and conflicts in that region are to be heightened and focused.

One of the principal strategies for transnationalizing the bourgeois order has been the process of Americanization, of enculturating the world with the tenets of Americanism, and entrenching the capitalist mode of production everywhere. NATO, a key player in the imperialist war on workers and peasants in that region, represents Americanism in Europe. For years, NATO stood on the fault line of world-historical systems, with capitalism on one side and socialism on the other—the West versus the East. NATO secured the holding pattern that world capitalism had to assume while state socialism exhausted itself in perpetual war readiness and economic isolation.

Any state organizing to stand apart or appearing to stand apart by demanding some autonomy from the global economic order, if that state represents a strategic asset to the globalizers, is a direct threat to Americanism, of capitalism in its global phase of development. Threats to Americanism threaten US interests. The United States has worked tirelessly to undermine any agreement that pushes it out of the Balkans or diminishes the its leadership position in Europe. The US has seen to it that conflict in the Balkans and interethnic atrocities continue. Warmongering is inherent in the strategy being pursued.

Since the establishment of American political-military hegemony, capitalism has globalized and world socialism has fallen. Western Europe remains the conduit through which American hegemony is channelled. Against this backdrop, the final chapter of Yugoslavia has all but been written. Today, we are seeing the final strokes being penned. Yugoslavia, her history in her present, may soon find herself part of a distant past.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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