Pivotal Deterrence and the Kosovo War: Why the Holbrooke Agreement Failed

A man walking past a bank.

Debate rages over whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) air war against Serbia was a success or failure. But one thing is certain: that war resulted from a prior failure of NATO policy. The goal was to prevent the escalation of conflict and to achieve a political settlement that got “Serbia out of Kosovo, not Kosovo out of Serbia,” without having to use force. As intended, the Kosovo Liberation Army’s (KLA) insurgency in Kosovo had provoked Belgrade’s ham-fisted repression tactics. The Serb military police (MUP) and the Yugoslav National Army (VJ) killed innocent civilians and loosed a flood of refugees wherever they went: 42,000 by June 1998, 100,000 by August, and over 200,000 by October. The Racak massacre in January 1999 captured public attention and triggered a vigorous international response. At the Rambouillet (6-23 February) and Paris (15-19 March) conferences, NATO threatened to bomb Serbia if it did not accept the Contact Group’s (composed of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States) interim political settlement and NATO’s plan to enforce it with armed peacekeepers. These threats did not compel Serbia to sign the agreements, and they did not deter it from launching Operation Horseshoe, a brutal offensive that displaced hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians (Kosovars).

Belgrade’s decisions were the most visible failures of NATO’s coercive diplomacy, but they were not the only ones. What made enforced negotiations at Rambouillet necessary was a breakdown of the cease-fire NATO imposed in October 1998. Under the threat of air strikes, Serbia agreed to withdraw or stand down most of its forces in Kosovo. Then, deterring the KLA from provocations became crucial to NATO’s policy, a necessary condition for real progress in negotiations between Belgrade and Kosovar moderates. NATO failed to do this. That failure must be addressed if we are to understand why NATO did not prevent the war.

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Reproduced with permission from Political Science Quarterly, 116 (Winter 2001-2002): 499-523