Serbia’s lesson to neocons

The neoconservatives who have played so significant a role in shaping U.S. foreign policy in recent years tend to operate on the assumption that the peoples of various nations share our basic values and desires and will therefore react favorably to our magnanimous willingness to share or even impose those values on the world in which they live.

Indeed, they have managed at both the philosophical and policy levels to convince themselves that if we could just remake the world in our own image, people everywhere would be better off and we would see an end to the wars that have plagued us for as long as history has been written.

Indeed, they argue that the goal of creating a “democratic” world will lead to peace (because democracies don’t make war on one another) and have in the process married an overreaching internationalism with our own nation’s national interests. Thus, policies aren’t analyzed with an eye to our own interests, but instead give priority to an abstract view of what might be “good” for all the peoples of the world.

The problem is that when a nation begins pursuing foreign policy goals based on interests other than its own, it is likely to begin meddling in the affairs of other nations in ways that stir animosity and lead to unforeseen consequences. That is precisely what’s happening today not only in Iraq, but in the Balkans, where we’ve fought one war and may be providing the kindling that could lead to another.

During the course of the Balkan wars of the ’90s, we decided that the Albanian majority in the Serbian province of Kosovo, having been mistreated by the Serbs who controlled the government in Belgrade, deserved not just protection, but independence. We have managed to convince ourselves not only that this would be good for them, but that the Serbs and others in the region will either come to share our support for independence or at least learn to live with it.

Kosovo is, of course, locationally disadvantaged in that it is surrounded by Serbia and has been a part of that nation since its formation. What’s worse is the fact that the Serbs see Kosovo as the cradle of their civilization and religion. A Serbian Orthodox priest once tried to convey the importance of the troubled chunk of land to me by describing it as “Jerusalem cubed” and assuring me that any self-respecting Serb would die before allowing it to be taken from Serbia.

That sounds pretty unreasonable from an enlightened Western perspective, and it turns out that our policymakers have been pursuing a policy in the region based on the assumption that while the Serbs might not like to lose Kosovo, they’ll eventually learn to live with whatever settlement is imposed on them because they’ll want the economic gains the West can promise them.

That assumption, however, was proven wrong over the weekend as more than 60 percent of Serbia’s citizens went to the polls to defeat a “moderate” leadership friendly to Washington and turn their government over to a super-nationalist party that pledged to do whatever it has to to protect the Serbian claim to Kosovo.

The Serbs may not have many friends in the West, but Time magazine’s Person of the Year is in their corner. Indeed, the controversy over Kosovo is seen by most observers here and abroad as one of the major reasons for the growing hostility between Washington and Moscow.

Kosovo, in the meantime, is today led by elected leaders of the paramilitary groups that have spent years fighting the Serbs and is prepared to declare independence within the next few months — which will precipitate a crisis in the region as great or greater than the one that led to so much bloodshed less than 20 years ago.

This might all have been avoided save for the tendency of United States policymakers to see the world as they would like it to be and to assume that other nations will act as we would like them to act.

Thus, less than a year ago, Time analyzed the situation in the Balkans for the benefit of interested Americans and concluded that while “Serbia’s ultimate threat is that the secession of Kosovo would topple moderate nationalists in the government and replace them with ultra-nationalists from the Serbian Radical Party, thus ending democracy in Serbia and turning it, again, into a rogue state,” that simply wouldn’t happen.


Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at