The Kosovo war's long-term impact on the NATO alliance is already emerging. It began as a limited military action to stop the horrors of ethnic cleansing and to validate the allies' wider ambition of creating a Europe "whole and free." But it has produced a deep and potentially consuming engagement in the Balkans.
In the bargain, Kosovo has done less to open up new possibilities for NATO than to set limits on its future sphere of action.
Without conscious design, the Western allies now "own" the Balkans, in that overall success in building continental security for the 21st century requires somehow bringing this European backwater into the mainstream of post-communist development. At the same time, with the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to full NATO membership, Central Europe seems on the way to being stabilized.
The alliance's strategic focus has thus shifted to unstable Southeast Europe. Most U.S. air forces in Europe have been moved south of the Alps; the U.S. 6th Fleet has a role even more significant than during the Cold War; and the U.S. Army, while still staging from its northern European bases, is acting as a Balkan expeditionary force.
In its successful campaign, NATO did show for the first time that air power could be effective essentially on its own; but a casualty-free war--at least for the allies--is no promise of a casualty-free peace or near-term exit, in the presence of deepened hatreds and resentments between Albanians and Serbs, and in the absence of even an imperfect political agreement, such as the Dayton Accords for Bosnia.
Meanwhile, the task of rebuilding Kosovo has just begun, with a hefty price tag--mostly, the U.S. hopes, to be borne by Europeans; and the West has assumed a long-term protectorate of that province, complementing the seemingly open-ended commitment to hold together the three fractious elements of theoretically unified Bosnia. But there is as yet no agreement on Kosovo's long-term future. It can't be returned to Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, and perhaps not even to a hoped-for democratic successor; but none of the NATO allies is willing to see Kosovo become independent, potentially merging with Albania or encouraging other ethnic groups to demand their own sovereign states. And rivalries between allies in this corner of Europe--especially Greece and Turkey--threaten to complicate the crafting of long-term policy.
At the same time, most of the allies want to keep Serbia beyond the pale so long as Milosevic survives, and no one really expects Balkan stability so long as Yugoslavia is unreconciled to the outcome of the recent fighting. The West is struggling just to contend with Albanian-Serb hostility in Kosovo; it cannot even begin the harder task of causing the needed political reform of the Serbian regime.
The conduct of the war has also reintroduced Russia to the Balkans, beyond its fledging role in the Bosnia Stabilization Force. This has happened partly by Western design--to help offset the negative effects of NATO's bombing on Russian domestic politics and to engage Russia in building European security. But it is partly the price Russia exacted after it was called upon to play a central diplomatic role by a NATO unwilling to prosecute its political ends through its own military means, including ground troops.
Already, Moscow is again questioning NATO's ambition to be the principal agent of continental security and intensifying its opposition to further NATO enlargement. Unless Russia will see stability and democratic development in the Balkans as shared values, NATO's hopes to move Europe beyond its old sphere of influence politics may suffer; even a complaisant Russia introduces a new strategic factor into the equation.
Against this background of long-term requirements and new complexity, it is no wonder that most NATO allies are reluctant to see the alliance take on tasks farther afield. There is thus not much enthusiasm for what is being proclaimed as a new "Clinton doctrine," under which the West will be prepared to act for humanitarian purposes, even beyond Europe, where the U.S. and its allies can be militarily effective.
Kosovo has in fact made this less likely, in view of the heavy demands of trying to sort out the Balkan future and pursuing the rest of the European security agenda.
Allies also are recognizing that NATO was lucky that its Serb adversary was unable militarily to put at risk anything directly of value to the West. But they recognize further that pursuing a casualty-free war in order to sustain popular opinion still can produce a heavy butcher's bill, and that military intervention, even for humanitarian purposes, carries its own logic of long-term and expensive commitment.
This is not a recipe for discretionary action elsewhere in the world, but a counsel for staying close to home.