How to Stop the Next Balkans War

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

September 1, 2000

During the past two years, the small Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro has been on a collision course with its sister Republic Serbia and the federal government headed by Slobodan Milosevic. There now is a growing fear that this conflict may come to a head this October, after Milosevic secures his re-election in late September and before U.S. presidential elections on November 7. Many now believe that Milosevic will use his victory—whether through fair play or foul—to move against the democratic regime of Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic in order to ensure that the small republic on the Adriatic remains firmly within the Yugoslav fold.

NATO’s 1999 war against Serbia over Kosovo was supposed to have been the death knell of the Milosevic regime. But contrary to expectations, the regime has lived on. It weathered a cold winter, then regained strength and moved on the offensive against both the Serb political opposition and democratic, Western-leaning Montenegro. A Milosevic success in next month’s elections, followed by a victory over Montenegro, would effectively signal the failure of the Western strategy to force him from power.

It would also prove to be a major blow to Western policy in Montenegro. Since Mr. Djukanovic’s election in December 1997, Washington and the European Union have made major investments in the regime’s success. They have provided well over $100 million in aid to a territory inhabited by 600,000 people, supported the use of the German mark as Montenegro’s currency, given the government full access to Western corridors of power, and extended a de facto security guarantee during the Kosovo war. All this would be nullified by a successful putsch.

And the reverberations would not end there. In Kosovo, the UN administration’s attempt to secure Serb participation in local affairs—already difficult—would ground to a halt. Serb political leaders in northern Kosovo, who have long taken their orders from Belgrade, would become even more defiant and agitate for fundamental political changes. In Bosnia, hard-line Serbs would similarly take heart from this turn of events, likely ending their grudging cooperation with the international community and again insisting on their right to coordinate (if not merge their section of the country) with Belgrade.

The United States and its NATO partners are well aware of these possible dangers, which is why the Montenegro issue now tops their agenda. But while the dangers are well recognized, a sense of resignation reigns because of the prevailing belief that NATO can do little to prevent the worst from happening. The dominant view in NATO is that Milosevic could move against Montenegro quickly and with little effort. That fait accompli would leave the allies with the unpalatable option of conducting a coercive bombing campaign designed to reinstate the Djukanovic government. Such an operation might be no more successful than the initial campaign against Serbia over Kosovo was. Even if the West went into action straight away, this would raise the possibility of an unpalatable ground invasion just as winter approached.

But NATO would face criticism. Because Montenegro is still formally part of the Yugoslav federation, the change of government (even if carried out by force) would constitute an internal matter of a sovereign state. NATO would therefore have no legal mandate to use force designed to reverse a coup. Again, it would have to muster enough global support to overcome the objection of major global players like Russia and China. But since a coup is unlikely to be accompanied by the kinds of human rights abuses that have characterized the three previous wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, NATO governments will find it difficult to muster the necessary political support (even domestically) for military action.

As a result of these considerations, NATO has not undertaken any formal contingency planning for using force (though its military leaders have done some informal planning). No one has been prepared to threaten forceful action against Milosevic as a way to deter any move against Montenegro.

This is a mistake. A careful consideration of the issues suggests that, whatever the difficulties of threatening or even using military force, NATO would do well to commit publicly now to the security of the current Montenegrin regime. A commitment to use whatever military force is necessary to defend the regime against threats from within or without would go a long way to give Milosevic pause. The Serb dictator once before underestimated NATO resolve—and as a result he faced 78 days of bombing and would likely have confronted a ground invasion had he not given in. Of course, Milosevic could decide to test NATO again. So before making a public commitment, NATO countries must really be prepared to act militarily.

At the very least, that would involve the willingness to engage in a prolonged bombing campaign against the Yugoslav military and security forces, aimed in the first instance at destroying Belgrade’s capacity for repression. Ultimately, it might require using force until Milosevic was removed from power.

NATO’s Montenegro dilemma is profound. It can try to prevent the worst, but only if it threatens severe military sanction which it would then also have to be willing to implement (possibly in the face of much popular resistance at home). Or it can avoid another major military entanglement in the region, but only at the risk that Milosevic will move against Montenegro in ways that would call much of the Alliance’s Balkan policy into question. The dilemma is real, but the time has come to make a choice.