Unconstructive Ambiguity
Monday Notes
Unconstructive Ambiguity
Since the end of the Cold War, the West has lost sight of the fact that the stakes in some conflicts are too high to be diplomatically finessed away.
Published on: Aug 22, 2022  |  

Greetings from the Balkans, dear readers—yet again. Here, one of the big news items is what looks like the collapse of the decade-long “Brussels Dialogue” between Serbia and Kosovo. Why does this matter? I’m tempted to say that there’s a risk of things spiraling out of control, that there could be violence, and that this is a most unwelcome development at a time of severe crisis in Europe. I won’t do that, however. Instead, let me just offer some broader observations about foreign policy—about how we Western moderns go about it, and how our approach is starting to run into some hard limits.

I wrote about this topic tangentially late last year, in an essay titled “The Unserious Generation,” where I made the case that we, Western liberals, no longer understood or appreciated just how tragic the world was. The glimmer of the idea I was putting forth was that we took things like rights and values as self-evident truths—self-evident in the sense that all humanity would come to appreciate them in due course, especially if given the opportunity to exercise their faculties of reason. My starting premise, in that essay and many others, is that this is simply not the way the world works. Politics, and especially relations between states, will not readily be tamed if only rational actors would sit at a table and talk it out.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation as to what is actually happening between Serbia and Kosovo today, I’d direct you to a piece I wrote with my colleague Luka Ignac over at the Atlantic Council last week. But for the purpose of my argument, allow me to outline the issue in broad brushstrokes—perhaps dangerously oversimplifying things in the process. Indulge me.

In 1999, NATO intervened to end a war that had started the year before, in what was at the time still called Yugoslavia. NATO quickly prevailed, and in doing so ensured that Kosovo—previously a territory within Yugoslavia with the status of an “autonomous province”—was no longer governed from Belgrade. Serbia, the major successor state to what remained of Yugoslavia in 1999, has never recognized the legitimacy of losing Kosovo. Kosovo’s Albanians, however, immediately started working on achieving full statehood for themselves. They had been discriminated against for decades in Yugoslavia, well before the killing started.  In 2008, Kosovo declared formal independence. The United States, most (but not all) of Europe, and a good chunk (about 50 percent) of the rest of the world have since recognized Kosovo’s statehood—117 nations at last count.

Some 50,000 Serbs still live in Kosovo, and, like Serbia itself, do not formally recognize it, though they participate in some of Kosovo’s institutions. This embedded, sizable minority presents a thorny ethical problem for the West. Committed as it is to pluralistic, multiethnic democracy as a baseline for state-building, the West rolled up its sleeves and got to work on reconciliation.

Like in Bosnia (where these efforts are also about to collapse, maybe fodder for another future essay), I would argue that two interlocking assumptions guided these efforts.

  1. Stop the war and over time things will get better. Nationalism is an ugly, retrograde phenomenon, the thinking went, but as the success of the EU teaches us, it can be overcome. Certain political guarantees, cemented through years of peaceful coexistence will over time give birth to economic and then social cooperation, on the back of which a stable pluralistic society can arise and even thrive.
  2. Membership in the EU, and all the benefits that it promises, is the ultimate carrot to get recalcitrant nationalist elites to cut it out, reform, and ultimately put the bitterness of inter-communal war behind them.

The dialogue process between Serbia and Kosovo—started in 2011 but formally launched in 2013 when both sides signed a framework agreement for normalization—clearly reflected these two assumptions. Cooperation on technical matters and growing economic interdependence would heal wounds. For Serbia in particular, the promise of full EU membership would make the loss of Kosovo easier to swallow. (After all, what concrete meaning do borders have in the supranational EU?)

The problem, of course, is that the dialogue did not lead to rapprochement. Large parts of the framework agreement are still not fully implemented, and relations have not really improved even if tensions have ebbed at times. The constructive ambiguity at the core of the whole dialogue—putting off final status agreements to some indeterminate endpoint—is no longer holding up.

I’m deliberately sidestepping most of the detailed history here—and there are plenty of fascinating rabbit-holes and arguments about justice, good and bad faith, corruption, and international intrigue that I could take you down—to make a bigger claim, which I think a fair-minded reader would (at least grudgingly) assent to. And that’s that the mental map that Europeans and many American liberal internationalists have of the world is faulty. The stakes of certain conflicts are too high to be diplomatically finessed away.

At the forefront of my mind as I write this are both Ukraine and Taiwan.

I’m not going to pretend that I somehow saw Russia’s invasion coming—I didn’t. I simply didn’t think Putin would go all-in. Nevertheless, the tensions around Ukraine always had me on edge. I felt like our policies toward Ukraine (and Russia) were guided by a kind of irrepressible optimism about a positive-sum future that was just within reach. I’m not writing this to suggest that we should have done this or that in order not to provoke Russia into doing what it did. But now that the war is here, I’m not at all surprised by its ferocity. Nor do I expect a “normal” Russia, “after” Putin, to emerge on the other side of this bloodletting—ready to start sewing up the sucking wound that it has opened up in the international system. Putin’s longwinded chauvinistic essay on Ukraine, published a few months before the invasion, should not be taken as good history. But it should be taken seriously—not just as the delusions of a mad leader, but as an authentic Russian worldview.

War hasn’t come to Taiwan yet. But I’m fairly certain it eventually will. Ever since Kissinger’s time and the birth of constructive ambiguity in the Pacific, it has been in the cards. You can see it in Kissinger’s own accounts of his encounters with Mao and Zhou, who both kept coming back to the question of Taiwan even as Nixon kept trying to talk about the Soviet Union. Of course war didn’t come right away, in large part due to the fact that China was too weak to pull it off back then. Kissinger might say that we were buying time in hopes that better and new opportunities would arise for future diplomats to exploit, in the endless dance with the devil that is statesmanship on the international stage.

Except we don’t think that way any more. With the end of the Cold War, I’d argue that we in the West have lost that sense of the tragic, and have instead started to talk about irreconcilable issues like Taiwan in far too optimistic tones. The rising tide of globalization would lift all ships, we’d say, and a prosperous China would come to recognize that it was not in its interest to “do” Taiwan. Many have in recent years been disabused of the idea that China is still pursuing a peaceful rise. But far too many still cling to some kind of optimism. Surely Beijing understands that we’d all be worse off if they went for it, right?

...right?