Kosovo’s proclamation of independence has sparked a storm of
debate. The main topic of discussion is how Kosovo’s decision will
influence other regional conflicts. More interesting, though, is
what role the events in the Balkans will play in the overall
weakening of international institutions.
All of the participants in the Kosovo conflict appealed to
international law to support their positions. But since the United
Nations Security Council has had little impact on resolving the
Kosovo issue, the legitimacy of the new state will remain a matter
Moscow and Belgrade blame the countries that argued for
«independence at any price» — the United States and Western
Europe. For their part, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and other
Pristina supporters feel that Russia’s obstructionist position has
further weakened the UN Security Council’s effectiveness.
In reality, though, this is nothing new. International
institutions have been steadily losing influence for the last 15
years. One country after another has contributed to the problem
whenever it was expedient to do so.
As a rule, a country’s reliance on international law and
organizations is inversely proportional to its power. The weaker
and more vulnerable a country is, the more it argues for the rights
and obligations of all nations. And the reverse is also true: When
a country has superpower status, it is tempted to circumvent or
outright ignore international law.
In this sense, the Cold War was a unique period. Two major
international players were roughly equal in terms of power and
influence. This situation had mixed consequences for the
functioning of global institutions.
For example, the UN Security Council’s work was often paralyzed
by the bipolar confrontation between the United States and the
Soviet Union, and this greatly diminished its effectiveness.
Nevertheless, the standoff forced both sides to agree upon rules
and standards governing mutual behavior. Since neither side was
free to behave exactly as it wanted, both saw the need for common
But the end of the Cold War changed everything.
The victorious side found itself burdened by restrictions that
had been imposed during the previous period. But the losing side
had no opportunity to insist on a full application of these rules.
As a result, the legal approach to international policy gradually
began turning into mere ritual, rather than a substantial process
NATO justified its military action against Yugoslavia in 1999 by
citing the need to defend the rule of law and human rights. But a
different interpretation of earlier UN Security Council resolutions
was required to legitimize the military campaign on legal grounds.
And the U.S. invasion of Iraq was initiated without any supporting
UN resolution whatsoever. According to the opinion of
neoconservative ideologues who dominated U.S. foreign policy during
the first years of this century, the UN had lost its moral and
legal standing and should therefore be abolished.
The situation appeared in a new light when that approach led to
unfortunate consequences — primarily for the United States. With
the start of his second term, President George W. Bush attempted to
position U.S. foreign policy back within the framework of
international agreements. The inability of the old system to
regulate international conflicts is becoming more obvious with
every new conflict. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s
concept of a «coalition of the willing,» which has proved a handy
substitute for stable alliances and international organizations,
Of course, the UN is not the only organization that is suffering
from decay. Nearly every international organization has become less
effective at solving global problems. Talks of reforming various
institutions — from the UN and the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe to the World Monetary Fund and the World
Trade Organization — have not amounted to much.
For example, last spring Russia requested that the OSCE convene
to discuss the proposed changes to the Treaty on Conventional Armed
Forces in Europe. Nothing was achieved. The efforts to shift talks
on missile-defense issues to include a greater number of EU and
NATO member countries were equally unsuccessful. But the members of
these organizations are interested in seeing the question resolved
at a bilateral level and do not want to incur any of the
responsibility for strategic questions.
NATO itself is going through a crisis. After September 2001,
Washington’s refusal to fully rely on the organization in its war
against terrorism brought NATO’s founding principle into question.
It is not surprising, therefore, that current U.S. efforts to
involve NATO in resolving military problems and to shift its focus
toward global conflicts have failed.
In the post-Cold War multipolar world, new nations have emerged
as international leaders, and they are declaring their right to
participate in defining the rules of the global game. The current
international institutions, however, were designed to meet the
needs of the old bipolar world. They could somehow function as long
as they were only required to formally ratify decisions made
outside the framework of those organizations.
Which forms of international cooperation are effective in
today’s world? Those that were set up by a range of different
powers to resolve concrete problems. The Group of Six, for example,
convened to settle the problem of the North Korean nuclear threat.
Or the Group of Five to sort out the situation with Iran. Of
course, they operate in coordination with the UN Security Council,
but at their core is a combination of different policies and
interests from individual countries. But it is difficult to achieve
a consensus because of the deep mutual suspicions among the
Is there a chance that this destructive process will give way to
something more constructive in the foreseeable future?
It appears that this is unlikely. The end of the Cold War was
not the finale, but the start of a painful process of global
transformation — from stable, long-term confrontation governed by
well-defined rules to something entirely new. Just where this
process is leading remains unclear. The only certainty is that it
hasn’t stopped yet. It is impossible to establish a status quo or
create a new system of standards and institutions while the world
is still in constant flux.
The circumstances surrounding the emergence of a new Balkan
state suggest a gloomy conclusion. The hope that arose in the 1990s
for a world governed by law and human rights did not bear out. It
was the combination of the use of military force and the domination
of ethnic interests over legal ones that led the citizens of Kosovo
to declare their independence.
This indicates that the world has changed less over the last 100
years than was previously thought. And the lessons we thought we
had mastered might have to be repeated.