Articles on the Kosovo Conflict




Martin Shaw

Political economy and political reaction: a reply to Kees van der Pijl

This paper was submitted to the Review of International Political Economy, but declined for publication

In 'From Gorbachev to Kosovo: Atlantic rivalries and the re-incorporation of Eastern Europe' (Review of International Political Economy 8:2, 2001, 275-310), my colleague Kees van der Pijl offers an ambitious reinterpretation of Western economics and politics in the aftermath of the Cold War. He attempts to link three trajectories often considered separately: structural changes in Western capitalism; strategic economic and geopolitical policies of the United States and Western European states; and events in Eastern Europe, especially the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. It is in the nature of such a grand design, set out in article rather than book form, that the connections made will often appear contentious as well as illuminating. I shall argue, however, that the flaws in the final element of his analysis are systematic, and raise questions about the author's underlying method and politics.

The politics of the Yugoslav wars

Van der Pijl's case is that 'the breakdown of Yugoslav federal unity up to NATO's war over Kosovo … can be reinterpreted as [a] moment in a triumph of a neoliberal strategy supported by a transnational, Atlantic capitalist class over a rival, corporate liberal one with its strongholds in continental European capital, European social democracies, and the southern European societies generally.' (275-6) We have here a striking starting-point: the crisis within Yugoslavia is to be understood primarily not in terms of the latter's own internal contradictions, or even in terms of the relationship between Yugoslav and larger international structures, but primarily in terms of the contradictions of Western power systems themselves. Given this starting point, not surprisingly van der Pijl has relatively little to say about the underlying situation in Yugoslavia, describing it in rather conventional civilisational terms and seeing foreign debt as the active agent, exacerbating 'centrifugal tendencies' after Tito's death. Post-1989 elite political trajectories are seen either as pro-independence and Euro-integrationist (Slovenia, Croatia) or as nationalist (Serbia).

The only analysis provided of 'the Serbian nationalism of Milosevic' is that this 'was the project of a state class obtaining joint political and economic power by a revolution from above, not unlike what happened in Russia but leaving state ownership formally intact.' (291) The inadequacy of this characterisation of Milosevic's political project is the first major problem. In socio-economic terms, there may be some similarity between his project and that of the Russian reformers around Gorbachev - and more parallels with the oligarchic capitalism that gathered pace under Yeltsin. In political terms, however, Milosevic's nationalism had distinctive effects that van der Pijl neglects: it was more of a counter-revolution than a revolution. It attacked simultaneously the established rights of national minorities (especially the Kosovo Albanians, whose political autonomy, social and language rights were summarily revoked) and the very basis of the Yugoslav federation. Seizure of Kosovo's and Vojvodina's votes, alongside those of Serbia and Montenegro, gave Milosevic control of the federal presidency for a Serbianisation of Yugoslavia. Thus while centrifugal tendencies were certainly there long before Milosevic, and foreign debt deepened them, it was Milosevic's coup which made Slovenia's and Croatia's positions untenable and broke up 'Yugoslav federal unity'.

This failure of understanding is deepened as van der Pijl offers an utterly distorted account of the Yugoslav wars. 'The federal army', he writes, 'continued to defend the country's unity.' (291) This statement is quite offensive in its concealment of the Serbianised army's destruction of the cities of Vukovar and Osijek, its bombardment of Dubrovnik, and the large losses of civilian life at its hands. In 1991, the army was in fact attempting to keep control of the areas of Croatia that Serbian nationalists had seized, and which Milosevic wanted for his Greater Serbia. By 1992 the pretence of federal impartiality was dropped, as the Yugoslav army handed over its men and weapons in Bosnia to the Serbian forces there. However the Bosnian war (1992-95) is almost invisible in van der Pijl's analysis. It makes a shadowy appearance when he writes that 'the Bosnian Muslim leadership around Izetbegovic was adopted as a militant new ally in what became the war's greatest human drama. … the US became the effective sponsor of the policy of ethnic cleansing of Croatia's Serb minority. In 1995 … NATO airpower was unleashed against the Bosnian Serbs.' (295)

It is certainly true that Croatian forces, breaking up Serbian control of the self-styled 'Krajina', killed a significant number of civilians and pushed out Serb civilians in very much the way that Serbian forces had done in Bosnia and were to do in Kosovo. (The US hardly promoted this aspect of the offensive but showed little concern over it either.) However to describe this as 'the war's greatest human drama' is absurd. Let us simply recall the sieges of Sarajevo and Gorazde as well as those in Croatia already referred to, and many others; the expulsion or killing of 90 per cent of the non-Serb population of Serbian-controlled Bosnia; the systematic torture, abuse, rape and killings in concentration camps; the Srebrenica massacre. All of these well-documented and generally known episodes - many of them now carefully investigated, like Croatian crimes, by the International Tribunal - rivalled or surpassed the Croatian campaign in their brutality and/or numbers of victims.

Van der Pijl writes that Madeleine Albright's perspective 'provided an authentic moral component to a completely one-sided interpretation of the Yugoslav collapse, in which Milosevic was cast as a latter-day Hitler and "genocide" became a term loosely applied to vigilante atrocities.' (296) However it his own account, mentioning Croatian crimes but none of the main facets of the larger Serbian violence, that is completely one-sided. And although van der Pijl glibly dismisses Albright's 'moral' perspective, a more careful analysis will only show the appropriateness of the position attributed to her, and the deeply misleading character of his own description.

No serious analyst of the Yugoslav wars believes that violence against civilians was limited to 'atrocities' (which implies that there could have been no more than a series of relatively isolated abuses) or was perpetrated mainly by 'vigilantes' (which implies ad hoc, localised and irregular forces). On the contrary it is well known that there were organised campaigns by the Serbian-Yugoslav 'federal' state, army and police (in Croatia and Kosovo), as well as by the forces of the Serbian Krajina (in Croatia) and the Republika Srpska army, police and local authorities (in Bosnia). Serbian forces were aided and abetted by paramilitaries (most notoriously on the Serbian side those of Arkan and of Vojislav Seselj, the fascist politician who was later a coalition ally of Milosevic) as well as sometimes by local forces that might deserve the 'vigilante' label. These forces were paralleled on the Croatian side by the newly formed Croatian army, as well as the forces of Herzeg-Bosna, the Croatian statelet, and fascistic party militia.

What was the character of the organised violence, and what was its relationship to genocide and Nazism? It is most commonly described (using the euphemistic term, originating in Serbian thought, which has now entered even academic parlance) as 'ethnic cleansing'. If this term must be used, it is should be qualified, given the systematic killing that accompanied it, as 'murderous ethnic cleansing' (Mann, 2001), but it is most appropriate to describe it as 'murderous expulsion'. What this meant was the forcible removal of non-Serb (and non-Croat) populations from Serbian- (and Croatian-) controlled areas. This was done by administrative measures and deportations, but also by the physical violence, killing and terror already described. The aim was to destroy the non-Serb (or non-Croat) population in territory that was controlled, either through political means before the war, or by seizure during the war.

This violence was not really so different in its aims and character to the first armed phase of the Nazi war campaign, in Poland in 1939-40. At this stage the Nazis did not aim to exterminate the Jews (as happened from 1941 onwards), although many Jews and other Poles were killed. Rather they aimed to clear western Poland, which was incorporated into the Greater German Reich, of Poles (except those who could be Germanised), Jews and others, and expel them into areas of rump Poland (the 'General Government'), and in the case of the Jews into ghettos. The newly incorporated areas were to be resettled by ethnic Germans from all over Nazi-conquered Europe. (Browning, 2002)

There is an essential similarity in the attempt by Serbian nationalists, of whom Milosevic was the undisputed leader, to carve out Greater Serbia, to expel Croats and Muslims from the annexed areas, and to force them into the overcrowded ghetto-like towns and villages of rump Bosnia. To be sure, some differences are clear. Serbian ethnic classifications were based on the existing national categories of Tito's Yugoslavia, rather than expressions of an elaborate racial ideology like that expressed in the Nuremberg laws. Above all, Serbia was a medium-sized state carving out a modest Greater Serbia, not a great power aiming at a 'thousand-year' world empire. Although Hitler, too, kept a watchful eye on US opinion, Milosevic was under more sustained and effective international scrutiny, which obliged him and his allies to put together Greater Serbia in constitutionally separate pieces.

Was this genocide? The Nuremberg Tribunal recognised the Nazis as having practised genocide against Poles (although clearly they never aimed to exterminate them as a people) as well as Jews in the period mentioned. Genocide is the destruction of a people through means that include killing, but not necessarily their complete extermination. (For the International Convention, see Roberts and Guelff, 2000; for the Nazi case, Browning 2002; also discussion in Shaw, 2003.) The attempted destruction of the Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces has been widely regarded as genocidal, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia has obtained a conviction against the Serbian general, Krstic, for genocide committed at Srebrenica. In the light of that massacre one would have thought that a Dutch scholar, especially, would have known better than to lightly dismiss the application of genocide to the Yugoslav wars.

Van der Pijl's neglect of the inner dynamics of the Yugoslav wars is sustained in his treatment of Kosovo. There is no hint of the history of largely peaceful Albanian civil resistance there throughout the 1990s (Clark, 1999). There is no mention of the war already going on in Kosovo from early 1998, with an estimated 2000 killed and 200,000 displaced by Serbian arms, before the NATO intervention of March 1999. The talks at Rambouillet are predictably framed as an American plot to present Serbia with an impossible ultimatum. There is no mention of the American agreement with Milosevic in late 1998, nor how this agreement was flouted by Serbian forces, which continued to escalate their campaign of burning out Albanian villages even under the eyes of international monitors.

In short the dynamics of the struggle within Kosovo and of the relationship of Serbia with the US are both missing from van der Pijl's account of the origins of NATO's Kosovo campaign. Instead, NATO's war comes straight out of a German 'challenge' to American hegemony, and how the SPD finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, together with other European social democrats, 'favoured an industrial employment policy and regulating international financial flows.' 'It was this challenge', van der Pijl writes, 'which kicked [the US-led offensive strategy towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans] into high gear.' (298) It is 'in this light', he says, that NATO's war over Kosovo can be analysed. If ever there was a non sequitur in social analysis, this is surely it. But it takes us to the heart of the flaws in van der Pijl's larger argument.

'Universalism' and Euro-American relations

If Kosovo is the culmination of van der Pijl's case, Euro-American relations are its core. There can be no doubt about the tensions in these relations, or that they encompass economic, political, military and ideological dimensions, or that they have been sharply expressed in relationships with Russia, east-central Europe and above all the Yugoslav wars. So far so good, and van der Pijl certainly captures some important features in a wide-ranging argument. However his misinterpretation of Yugoslavia reveals a central incoherence in his account of strategic tendencies in Euro-American relations.

Van der Pijl's thesis is that there was a shift from a first post-Cold War phase in which 'the impact of neo-liberalism was still contained within a conservative, balance-of-power conjuncture' to 'the second, coinciding with the Clinton presidency and amplified by the shift to the left in Europe, marked by a high-pitched ideological posture and actual war.' (276) 'It is this particular Atlantic configuration', he argues, 'that was mobilized in the Kosovo war.' (277) Reinserting the dynamics of the Yugoslav wars themselves into the picture suggests a rather different interpretation of Western divisions. In the early 1990s, European Community leaders attempted to manage the outbreak of war by peaceful means, but lamentably failed to prevent Serbian aggression in both Croatia and Bosnia. European states (France, Britain, Netherlands, etc.) then provided the backbone of the reactive UN intervention forces (UNPROFOR). These were so ineffectual that by 1995 Serbian forces were taking even British and French soldiers hostage, as well as committing the Srebrenica massacre under the eyes of Dutch troops, their French commander and the United Nations in New York (Norbert and Both, 1996). The 'appeasement' of Serbia by the British and other European governments (Simms, 2001) had created a general crisis of Western-UN intervention which Clinton (who faced a campaign for re-election in which Bosnia could backfire) could not afford to neglect. Only in these circumstances did the US move from covert backing of Croatian and Bosnian forces, which by now had grown to a substantial local threat to Serbian dominance, to fully fledged military and diplomatic intervention.

This was less 'a universalist offensive' than a recognition of the threat to Western, NATO, American and Clinton's own positions that unbridled Serbian power represented (similar to the belated recognition of an Iraqi threat after the invasion of Kuwait, and the tardy focus on al-Qaeda after 9/11). Still, the Dayton settlement (curiously neglected by van der Pijl) was basically a US deal with the arch-robbers Milosevic and Tudjman even if it also gave something to the Bosnians. Under a thin veneer of what van der Pijl might call 'universalism' (a unitary Bosnian state under international supervision), Dayton actually cemented the results of genocide in the Serbian 'entity'. Even after a new war broke out in Kosovo in 1998, Clinton still sought a deal with Milosevic to contain the violence; it was only when this failed that the US went into confrontational mode. Still, all the evidence is that the US didn't seek a serious war: the initial bombing was demonstrative in character and had to be radically stepped up because Milosevic failed to give in as scripted.

It was thus events in Yugoslavia - indeed the over-confidence of Serbian forces both in 1995 and 1999 - that pushed a reluctant Clinton (who after assuming office had quickly backtracked on his pro-Bosnian campaign speeches) towards more interventionist positions. Likewise it was the manifest failure of conservative European policies - as Simms (2001) suggests, the British axis of Major-Hurd-Owen was their most dismal component - that left European governments with no alternative but to support new US policies. Recognising the earlier failures led leaders like Tony Blair, Gerhardt Schroder and Joschka Fischer in the new wave of centre-left (for van der Pijl, 'nominally left') governments to recognise the need for action in 1999. Western interventionism since 1990 has thus been as much reactive, in relation to challenges by local power actors in zones of war, as the product of specific strategic or ideological tendencies. The most striking demonstration of this general proposition is the most recent phase: George W. Bush came into office intending to roll back even his predecessor's limited policies of international engagement, in the Balkans and elsewhere. It was the September 11, 2001, massacre in New York and Washington that pushed him, against his initial commitments, towards massive new interventions. And it is in this context that the more arrogant Anglo-American apologists have begun to expound a conscious 'new imperialism'.

For van der Pijl, the Clinton era exacerbated an underlying conflict between an American-led 'universalist offensive' and the more cautious continental European position (in relation to which Blair, Fischer etc. appear as departures). He traces this back to earlier conflicts around NATO's introduction of cruise and Pershing II missiles into Europe after 1979. Citing the alliance of Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand, he suggests that then 'France and Germany already grew closer out of concern over the risks involved in the aggressive international posture adopted by the Reagan administration.' (285) They pushed towards 'a "Euro-global" relative autonomy from the Atlantic mainstream.' (286) However van der Pijl misinterprets Euro-American relations in this case too. He ignores the active pressure of the social-democratic governments of Helmut Schmidt, in Germany, and James Callaghan, in Britain, to tie the US further into European defence, which was partially responsible for NATO's cruise/Pershing II decision. He also ignores the extent to which pressure towards European 'autonomy' reflected the 'universalism' of the European peace movements' own resistance in the 1980s. This contributed, in turn, to the new Euro-global social democratic attitudes that have matured since 1989 and have been manifest in the support of many of the left for intervention to halt genocide in Yugoslavia.

Political economy and political reaction

Underpinning van der Pijl's account of Yugoslavia is the argument that Euro-American strategic divergences reflected different structural forms of capitalist organisation. In so far as I have brought into question his account of strategic orientations, I have already indirectly weakened this further chain of the argument. If Western policies towards Yugoslavia and other crises respond to the dynamics of political-military struggle, rather than flowing from underlying strategic options that are themselves outgrowths of structural tendencies, then the type of political economy argument that van der Pijl attempted is brought into question. Despite the appearance of building from structural basis to strategy and then to specific policy, in reality the method of interpretation is reductive. The nuances of policy that are detected are those that fit with the underlying case: as we have seen, most of the specific dynamics are omitted or distorted.

If more attention must be paid to politics, especially military politics, as self-sustaining processes, then the relevance of political economy is different from that proposed by van der Pijl. For him, generally, it is economic interests that take on political form. In a more convincing account of conflicts like Yugoslavia, attention would be paid to how political interests become self-sustaining as they are embedded in economic relations. Van der Pijl himself hints at this alternative political economy when he notes that 'Milosevic's promise of social protection was cruelly contradicted by a manipulative hyperinflation and bank fraud which transferred an estimated DM 26bn of hard currency earnings into the pockets of the new state class.' (291) However van der Pijl, like many Serbian critics of Milosevic, fails to recognise how his regime - like many others - used war as a prime means of pursuing systematic self-enrichment. Writers like Kaldor (1999) and Duffield (2001) have shown that there is a new 'political economy of war' in which violence enforces a parasitic appropriation of wealth. This is the modus operandi of many organised actors in episodes like Yugoslavia; it is not restricted to state elites but is pursued also by paramilitary warlords and even individual soldiers, policemen and civilians. Violence with specific political and ideological roots is reproduced within new economic circuits which include theft of farms, houses, money and goods, taxation of deportees and humanitarian agencies, as well as privatisation of state enterprises. In turn, of course, these politics then come to represent these new interests.

Van der Pijl's article is heavily political but its specifically political arguments are not explicit. Despite his manifest debts to the emancipatory tradition of social theory, in its Marxist form, his argument is denuded of open emancipatory purpose. Morality and universal values are implicitly suspect; the 'universalism' of the US Democrats and the 'nominal left' in Europe is invariably linked to the idea of an 'offensive' chipping away at 'protection' from the market, as though the latter was the greatest evil from which people suffer. It is difficult to believe that the victims of war in Yugoslavia or other zones of conflict would agree. They would doubtless have gladly traded their history, with its ersatz markets of murderous theft and other forms of primitive accumulation, for a more or less functioning market society along the lines of central (let alone western) Europe. 'The definition of grand objectives, phrased preferably in terms of transcendent universalist goals such as freedom, democracy or human rights', which van der Pijl ascribes to Wilsonian liberalism (277), thus appears as the supreme political evil. By implication, at least, the 'conservative, balance-of-power politics' of the first post-Cold War phase was preferable. And yet, as we have seen, it was this kind of politics, with its toleration of genocide, that had failed by the mid-1990s; leading precisely to the greater interventionism van der Pijl attacks.

Van der Pijl's implicit preference for conservative realism over liberal and social-democratic universalism echoes fellow-Marxist, Perry Anderson's, explicit call for an alliance of the Left with the anti-interventionist Right (Anderson, 2000: 1) and his quixotic early judgement on George W. Bush, that his 'lack of knowledge or interest in the world outside the US is a positive sign.' (Anderson, 2001: 20) This perspective seems a poor guide to the world after September 11, 2001. We now know that behind the renewed 'conservative, balance-of-power politics' of Bush lurked a far starker and more nationalistic aggressive momentum. While in Europe, the 'mainstream' Right has forged alliances with the extreme Right in Austria, Italy and even the Netherlands; in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen successfully harnessed the anti-globalisation rhetoric of the 'anti-capitalist' protestors to a racist anti-immigrant politics. As the full logic of the unholy alliance of Left and Right is revealed, we should surely abandon the theoretical and political prejudices that have cast liberal and social-democratic 'universalism' as the villain of the piece.


Anderson, P. (2000), Editorial, New Left Review 1.

Anderson, P. (2001) New Left Review 7.

Browning, C. (2002) Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Clark, H. (1999) Civil Resistance in Kosovo. London: Pluto

Duffield (2001) Global Governance and the New Wars. London: Pluto

Kaldor (1999) Old and New Wars. Cambridge: Polity

Roberts, A. and Guelff, C. (2000) Documents on the Laws of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shaw, M. (2003) War and Genocide. Cambridge: Polity

Simms, B. (2001) Unfinest Hour: Britain's Role in the Destruction of Bosnia. London: Allen Lane


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