Yugoslavia was a failed attempt to create a federation of nation states. Even as an attempt, however, its intellectual foundations make it appear implausible. The idea of a multinational federationis contradictory in itself; it purports to build a centaur of a political body. Nevertheless, given the diverse history of federal states in the last few centuries, the possibility of forming such a body should not be excluded. It would therefore be more prudent to say that whether such a body can be created, and more importantly, whether it can exist in any stable form remains an open question.

Regardless of how it is expressed and reformulated, the classical type of federation is a form of nation state. It has a specific structure consisting of a federal center and relatively autonomous federal units: states, cantons, provinces, regions, etc. In all imaginable federal constructions one element is invariably present: the transfer of sovereignty to the federal center is irreversible. Investigating the empirical diversity of federal states, one could ask if there exist all kinds of variations and if there are federations with a weak version of federal sovereignty. On the one hand, there are the classical forms with strong federal unity, which cannot be seriously called into question. The federal contract of the Unites States, for example, can be interpreted as conceptually and historically irreversible. This has been made clear by certain decisions of the US Supreme Court, whose task it is, even if it happens rarely, to resolve questions of this order.[1] The irreversibility of federal unification is also a central element in Carl Schmitt’s theory of federation.[2]

On the other hand, there are at least three directions in which forms that depart from the classical strong federation can be searched for. One relates to the ideas for building the European Union as a federation and the numerous theories dedicated to this scenario. Particularly popular here are the position and the later works of Habermas and of a number of other political thinkers who have tried toadvance the idea of a European federation of nation states. The second direction has to do with the building of quasi-federal institutions within the European Union, such as the Central European Bank and many other European institutional regimes. This line of investigation reveals mostly weak versions of federalization, which raise doubtsas to whether they should be defined as federal constructionsin the first place. The third direction consists in pointing to empirical examples,in the wide variety of forms that have existed in the past or exist today, in which the transfer of sovereignty to the federal center is partial and ambiguous. Switzerland, Belgium, and Canada, among others, are such states. All of them unite different national communities within their federal framework. An indefinite number of shared types of government under the names of confederation, league, condominium and any other such form recorded in factual history, including the former Yugoslavia, may also be placed in this category. These, however, cannot be said to represent the classical form of federation. The use of the term itself here can be said to have become relative and metaphorical.

The argument regarding the latter refers to the following relation: when it is ambiguous whether sovereignty is placed at the federal level, it is difficult to speak of a unified state. The state as a whole remains a tentative construction still in the process of being formed, or is an ad hoc structure that essentially lacks the conditions for stability and continuity. Given the diversity of contemporary political bodies, the possibility of such a structure should not be ignored. But its stability is problematic and remains problematic, thus representing serious existential risks, even when the state itself, as inthe case of Yugoslavia, proves to be relatively long-lived in terms of calendar time. The long duration cannot provide the conditions for stability characteristic of the federation as a contemporary type of political body bound up with the idea of the nation state. The conditions for a formation’s empirical duration and the conditions for its stability are different. Although the conditions for a state’s existence depend on factors in the international environment, in the case of an authentic federation they are to a large degree immanent, inherent in the type of political body itself; or at least they tend to be interiorized within the form of state organization. When we have decentralized sovereigntywithout an irreversible federal center the conditions for a state’s duration are empirical and must be explained on a case by case basis.

If within the federation there are political bodies formed as classical nation states, the federal construction is weakened by these entities, which have no intention of giving up their sovereignty. What is more, they cannot develop a realistic project for the transfer of sovereignty even if they explicitly declare the intention of doing so and undertake actions in that direction. In some primitive, rough form their sovereignty remains with them, and cannot be removed even if in appearance it is transferred to the federal center. A state’s sovereignty is a hidden force, which may be sparked into action at any moment and detachthe federal unit from the common construction. The legal normative semblance of sovereignty transfer only conceals the temporary absence of real political unity. There are still many centers of sovereignty, as the federal unitsby necessity retain them. Even if some political organization that is in power wants to and tries to transfer sovereignty to the federal center, this can be achieved only temporarily and does not constitute an irreversible act.

Despite the conceptual incommensurability contained in the very idea of a multinational federation, whether such a form can be created in fact, in practice, remainsa valid question. One reason is that a state formation can also be the product of factors independent of the state itself. Above all, it may be created and sustained by the actions of forces in the international environment. The most famous example of this is Switzerland. Today there aremany dynamic state formations in which federal or quasi-federal units choose to remain within the federal framework or make attempts to leave it. In the last decade, the more visible such cases are those of Quebec, Scotland, Catalonia, Northern Italy, some of which do not even have federal status, butperceive themselves as finished unities. These examples, however, do not affect the condition of the federation according to which the transfer of sovereignty to the center must be irreversible, and not temporary. In practice this translation of sovereignty expressed mainly in the state’s foreign policy, the maintenance of an army, and federal taxes can occur in various ways. It can be achieved naturally, without dramatic events, as in Switzerland, Great Britain or Canada. The conflicts between the pro-federal forces and local nationalist movements can be reduced to an exchange of arguments for or against remaining within the federation. It is possible, however, to arrive the other extreme, where a conflict escalatesinto a civil war. In the modern-day situations listedabove, the idea of national sovereignty at the federal level is not as intense and powerful as to provoke a war for the preservation of federal unity.

The chances of a Yugoslav federation constructed in accordance with its imagined picture, which could thus disprove its conceptual impossibility, are slim. This can be made evident by a reference to the imperial.[3]The classical case of a modern political body presupposes the existence or the possibility of developing a national idea. By contrast,a secondary unification of various national unities under a common federal agreement is not a national, but an imperial project. What is more, in its conception theimperial framework does not contain a program for unification and reduction of differences. The imperial center engages in operations for the preservation of the whole, while disregarding internal differences. Thus, the imperial form, as a rule, ignores the national idea; it is not interested in national unities and their differences. Moreover, it also relies on establishing itself as quasi-cosmopolitan and as ensuring a level of communication above these differences. This level is the carrier of supreme power, among whose prerogatives are the arbitrage and resolution ofconflicts between the units on the basis of the broad federal framework defining their co-existence, rights and restrictions. But the imperial form does not have the character of a federal contract, although in its outer features it may often resemble one. The problem is not thatan empire can absorb a new unit within its borders and assert its authority over it by force. Modern federations can also do that, even if it is rarely the case in practice.

In the common case, theempire is indifferent to the national form the autonomous communities in it have or develop later. In this sense, it has the character of a pre-national political body, which fails to recognize and actually does not understand the nationalist impulse, even when it emerges within the field over which it exercises its power. In other words, the imperial remains separate from the societies that it governs, and, as a rule, refrains from creating social structures maintained by the center. An empire is interested mainly, and in a direct way, in power; or only partially in those aspects of the social world that directly relate toits power and can threaten its ability to exercise it. This interest, however, does not lead to characteristically nationalist expansions, in which the societies or the different communities within the empire’s limits find themselves pressured to become unified. To the degree that any unification is necessary, it must pertain tothe center’s power: regulations, a common legal framework, central administration, taxes, etc. This list, however,excludes elements such aslanguage, education, and so on that are meant to develop various levels of social homogeneity.

The difficulties faced by a multinational federation like Yugoslavia can be discerned more clearly in the context of the phenomenon of empire and the imperial form. In order to secure its stability, this type of political body must find the codes with which to transform the imperial form into a federal one. Although historically not entirely inconceivable, the probability of achieving this is quite minimal. Within the European space of integration or in its periphery, it may be expected that the national unities in the projected federation may lose interest in their sovereignty; that they may develop a more pragmatic perception of the benefits of sharing it, and so on. But these are largely unpredictable developments, which vary between cases. Even if taken into account as possible scenarios, their actual probability is an open question. The case of Yugoslavia shows that the classical view and scenario tend to be confirmed in the European space.

In the European international order, Yugoslavia represents the last epochal collapse of the fiction of a multinational quasi-imperial construction. Yugoslavia failed to achieve the transition from an imperial to a federal form, or did so only apparently and temporarily. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the process had begun years earlier, the federal frame tried to exercise the kind of power characteristic of an imperial center. It mobilized federal forces, namely the Yugoslav army, perhaps the most authentic federal institution[4]with a lasting loyalty to the federation, in order to influence the process. But even here, the federal policy was only partially supranational, i.e., federal. To a large extent, it remained in the grip of national communities and their leaders, in this casemainly the Serbian elites. Thus, parallel to the attempt to preserve the federation, there was another attempt by the separate countries to take over the federal institutions. The ambition to gain temporary control over the federal framework and subordinate the federal idea and its institutions to a given community once again confirmed the essential emptiness of the Yugoslav federal form. Even those forces in it that at first sight appeared to want to maintain it abandoned it relatively quickly. In fact, although covertly in the beginning, they used it for the purposes of their own nationalist movement and expansion.

The case of Yugoslavia has some distant implications for the construction of political bodies today. For example, in the analysis of the present state of the European Union and the risks of its disintegration, looking at Yugoslavia may throw some light on the original problem of the European Union itself. Above all, Yugoslavia is a case in point for the possible consequences of a forced federalization. It shows that the federal idea, if forcefully or prematurely imposed through essentially unjustified legal and technocratic means, may produce the opposite effect to the one intended.

Yugoslavia may be said to resemble the Soviet Union only in that both were multinational federal constructions. In this aspect, Yugoslavia can be seen as an empire; it contains an imperial element. Although it was a utopian project, unlike the USSR or the German Reich after 1933, however, Yugoslavia was not a fundamental utopia. In order to understand the Yugoslav case, it is necessary to describe this essential difference in greater detail. If a wider analogy must be found, Yugoslavia may be said to inherit the tradition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rather than the imperial projects of the 20th century, such as the Soviet Union.


In order to reveal the utopian dimensions of the Yugoslav project, it is necessary to distinguish the empirical-factual utopia from the substantialist one. Although the concept itself is only a typological construction, the substantialist utopias of the 20th century are the German Reich and the Soviet Union. Substantialist utopias start from nothing, they are ex nihilo projects that presuppose the moment of existential emptiness in which they must create a new form of life. In this kind of radical utopia, the entire sphere of life must originate from a picture, developed as a theory, an ideal, a manifesto, a little red book, and so on. In order for this to be possible, the life sphere must be assumed asnon-existentyet. It will be born out of the normative image postulating what it should be. This assumption is necessary because accepting the life sphere in its essential totality would obstruct the utopian project. The life sphere defines a horizon in which things are what they are; they are valid in their immediate being,and this does not allow for a radical utopian project, a substantialist utopia. This assumption, in turn, implies that the universalist utopia contains a moment in which life is absent, it is in a state of death. [5]

Such an assumption is correct. If a force or a position is capable of creatinga brand new life, it must have at its disposal a material that does not resist its creative power, that is entirely passive, i.e., lifeless. The great campaigns of the Sovietspresupposed, and in practice produced, this kind of deadened material. Thefirst step was usually to identify given objects, events, and processes as having the wrong form or being in the wrong place. The second step consisted in correcting everything perceived as wrong, while assuming that all kinds of imaginable transformations were possible.

This two-step action explains why substantialist projects– not only anti-utopias, but even the enlightened utopias after Thomas More – immediately create the impression of dealing with dead worlds. It also shows why in practice they produce mass terror and destruction.

From this point of view, Yugoslavia is a particularly ambiguous case. Certain of its features mark it as an imperial project, but it did not have the character of a fundamental utopia. Above all, it never aimed at creating a brand new form of life. It did not imagine the creation of a new world, had no ambitions to rebuild society, embarked on no expansive projects into the dark side of the universe, did not advance engineering schemes and plans to change nature and redefine genetics, etc. Yugoslavia tried to consolidate something like a Yugoslav identity. But it never engaged in the creation of a “new Yugoslav man,” as the Soviet utopia did, and as, characteristically, the Third Reich did by restoring the status of an imagined arch-German.

Although not a radical utopian project, Yugoslavia was built on the assumption that a nation state’s border was negligible and the Versailles norm of national self-determination could be safely ignored since it could be reduced to its international legal content. As a new norm of international order, launched by Wilson after World War I,[6] it did not appear deep-seated and essential enough to resist the federal construction. After World War II, it became evident that the condition of the nation state is not a normative abstraction, but something much more serious with the potential of powerful resistance. Thus,about this time, Tito and his circle embarked on policies to mediate and balance the relations between the six republics in the federation. One could even say, although it would be inaccurate from the point of view of factual history, the relations between “the six nation states.” The republics were formally unfinished nation states, which, nevertheless, were ready and had the capacity, while their nationalist passions were temporarily settled, to become ones. The possibility of an explosion of the Yugoslav project can be traced precisely to this stage, which also contains, or rather conceals, the apparently absent utopian aspect of the Yugoslav project.

Viewed from a distance, Yugoslavia resembled political formations like Switzerland. On the one hand, it was a relatively loose federation of heterogeneous political bodies. On the other hand, these bodies were inscribed within the common federal form by the force of movements, transformations and turbulent developments in the international environment. The similarity with Switzerland, however,is only apparent, since it could be made only by ignoring centuries of historical events defining the uniqueness of the Yugoslav project. Yugoslavia, like Switzerland, also just “happened,” but the analogy stopshere. Yugoslavia happened as a moment in the game of great powers; factually, there was nothing extraordinary about this. Even before it began to form as a separate political entity, this space had been squeezed between large imperial bodies, mainly the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. In fact, it comprised a border zone between even larger religious and civilizational regions. Before the 20th century, the latter were at many levels incommensurable; they had no means of communication, and were mutually exclusive. As it turned out, it was in their interest to have a relatively calm border zone. The phenomenon of Krajina is quite indicative in this respect (Ukraine, as well as Switzerland in its unique way, is a similar case). For centuries, the two empires maintained a large border area. In and around this neutral sanitary field were formed the elements of the future federation. Thus, the beginning of Yugoslavia was related to the pressure that the two empires exerted over each other. This pressure must be taken into account, as its significance can be felt even today.

At the same time, in contrast to Switzerland, where the neutral result of the mutual cancellation of such forces wasseen as valuable and worth preserving, in the case of Yugoslavia this neutralization was never repeated. Instead, there was the construction of Krajina, a border cutting through the center of the space delineated by the imperial forces. This frontier, however, constituted only a temporary convention for peace. Under the surface, the potential for conflict, aptly symbolized by a border passing through a middle, was still there. The conflicts could be ignited when other conditions, such the disintegration of the two empires at the beginning of the 20th century, were present. Overall, the tendency to build temporary peace agreements characteristic of the Allies’ policy of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century remained in force, albeit in a hidden manner, in the case of Yugoslavia.

Seen from inside, the space of the Yugoslav stateconstituted a temporary neutralization of points of views and their restless borders. These points of views were not originally Yugoslav; they belonged to foreign imperial appetites. But they were not utopian, either, as in the Soviet project. They were traditional andpertained to Realpolitik. Thus, historically defined as the borderland between empires, Yugoslavia, at least in its external characteristics, was built as an imperial project: a multinational formation of heterogeneous political bodies, a modern variation of empire inevitably federal in structure, and so on. In other words, it was a project for a quasi- or post-imperial body, which quite naturally took the form of a federation.

One of the fundamental differences between the Yugoslav federal construction and an imperial project, however,is the absence of a unique (quasi-)imperial point of view and horizon. After their disintegration, the external viewpoints and horizons constitutive of Yugoslavia did not become hers, in her external integrity as a federal political unity. And in fact, they could not be transferred and appropriated by Yugoslavia to form a unified point of view. In the same way,both in terms of constitutional law and also at a deeper political level, the Crown’s sovereignty was seen as transferred directly to the Union, rather than to the thirteen states that factually constituted the federation named the United States of America. Analogously to the Soviet Union, although its efforts in this direction were weaker, Yugoslavia tried to create and educate a special breed of “Yugoslav man.” But this institutional effort did not have the utopian power of the Soviet project. After decades of trying, the result was still insignificant. Also, it was not carried out in the social sphere, but at the level of artificial supranational institutions, mainly the army and the administration, and ultimately it had no decisive influence on the stability of the political body itself.

On the whole, viewed through an ideal-type imperial construction, Yugoslavia represents a stable eclectic form. But, as with anything eclectic, its stability was only apparent. The points of view and horizons that defined it were heterogeneous, and they remained so until its disintegration. As a federation, Yugoslavia did not have the character of a political unity in the sense defined by Carl Schmitt. The federal framework fulfilled this basic function only partially. And in it, we do not find the unique process of mediation, characteristic of Switzerland, for example,needed to alleviate differences and conflicts. Apart from being a synchronically eclectic formation, Yugoslavia carried inner conflicts that were constantly postponedtowards the unavoidable moment of its epochal explosion.

The political bodies comprising Yugoslavia remained too heterogeneous, reproducing their independent viewpoints and horizons within it. At the turn of the 1980s, Yugoslavia was an amalgamated multi-polar body. On the one hand, internally it had the character of a mini-empire. Just as a traditional empire, it included a variety of bodies, cultures, points of view, etc. On the other hand, its sovereign behavior on the international scene was the behavior of a modern nation state with a unified foreign policy and with an inner sense of limit, free of the tendency to expansion and ecstatics. Its foreign-policy sovereignty, however, did not correspond to an internal political dimension defined by a common political project, through which the federation’s population could experience itself as one people, as an imagined unity. There was no notion of a common origin in the Weberian sense.[7] The great challenge faced by the federal political elite was how to integrate this centaur of a political body and preserve it as such. Analogously to the conditions of origin and formation, the international environment imposed unity on Yugoslavia. The special place occupied by Yugoslavia in the context of the Cold War and the bipolar world provided the deep condition for the success of Tito’s policies to alleviate contradictions and maintain federal unity.[8]


The special action of forces in the chaotic international environment that produced Yugoslavia a century ago was subsequently interiorized by her. But it was neither neutralized, as in the case of Switzerland, nor subordinated to substantialist-utopian ecstatics, as in the Soviet Union. In Switzerland, the external forces that created and sustained its peculiar political construction, once interiorized, settled down. Occasionally, they produced controversies and conflicts between the cantons, but none of these had destructive consequences. In the USSR, the Soviet fundamental utopia served as a common form that united its internal forces and channeled them into one stable direction. The Soviet utopia led to a multidimensional expansion that absorbed the energy of these forces. This is why, for decades,its social energies flowed outward; theybecame destructive, reversing their course towards the center, only with the arrival of Gorbachev.

Nevertheless, in the case of Yugoslavia, the imperial appetite and point of view, as well as the ecstatic imperial border, did not disappear entirely.[9]  From today’s perspective, this appears almost inevitable. For the kind of heterogeneity characteristic of Yugoslavia could not be overcome by means of instruments of constitutional and administrative law. Yugoslavia’s internal diversity was constantly mediated and tranquilized by Tito’s masterful Machiavellian politics, which held the federal structure under its control. Yugoslavia also had its various “perestroikas,” which strengthened the imagined “Yugoslav identity”: through the army, the administration, the common market, the budgetary transfers and redistributions. But these reconstructive movementshad no steady foundations; they did not serve a big and powerful project and had no common source of energy. Ultimately, they lacked imagination, or if they had any, it was of an engineering, administrative kind.[10] Thus, Yugoslavia developed as a nation-less federation, an assembly of many nations, or, in other words, as a dangerous and unstable construction. Its federal unity was detached like a roof under which the raw political bodies of its members groaned. Under this federal administrative cover lay the restless points of view and border experiences of its constitutive units, which were not mediated through a common project. When the external conditions no longer made it necessary to secure the space through a federal framework, the elements held within it were revived into action and broke away, showing the extent to which the sovereignty perceived externally was tragically false and hollow on the inside. It was the effect of a belated imperial situation.

The disintegration logic of the Yugoslav wars can be described as following. The characteristic features of imperial ecstatics began to awaken in the subjects or federal units comprising the federation’s space. As is well-known, Serbia embarked on a Greater Serbia project, and for a while pursued it with an overly excited imagination of an imperial type, which belonged to another world and could bring nothing but destruction. With its profoundly archaic images and primitive fantasies of self-destruction, the collapse of Yugoslavia was more reminiscent of the Great War than of a modern situation. In theirrough outline, both givethe same picture: a (quasi-)imperial federation of nations,formed by means of administrative and bureaucratic manipulation,that waited for the moment to explode.


The tragic disintegration of Yugoslavia was a turning point in the development of the post-Cold War international environment. The Yugoslav case revealed crucial deficits in the institutional systems created after World War II to reduce and control the risks of large-scale conflicts. These systems had difficulty identifying the risks of such conflicts and they could not even recognize the nature of future confrontations. Due to the events in Kosovo, Yugoslavia was a source of worry long before 1990. But the character and the scope of the potential conflict were not assessed correctly, and the risk of a civil war was severely underestimated. In post-ColdWar Europe Yugoslavia represented the first significant case of a failure of risk reduction policies. It was also the first indication of the direction in which Europe and the international environment beyond the European space were heading.[11]

Although the disintegration of Yugoslavia was predictable, the international actors who later found themselves involved in negotiating the peace agreements failed to implement preventive policies. As late as 1992, Europe’s leaders maintained the unrealistic view that Yugoslavia’s integrity could be preserved. Slovenia and Croatia’s determined claim to independence, however, forced the European institutions and certain European countries to reconsider certain internationally valid positions, such as the principle of sovereignty and the right to self-determination.

From the very beginning, the two sides in the conflict – the federation of Yugoslavia under Milosevic’s government and the different republics – were at odds in their interpretation of the right to self-determination. The republics defended their right to self-determination as independent territorial units. Against them, the Serbs insisted thatit was peoples who had this right. As it transpired later, a people was understood by the Serbsto be an ethnic-national unity,regardless of territory. The republics in question,at this point mainly Slovenia and Croatia, claimed their right to self-determination as already defined states. This contradiction could not be resolved, since it involved two different assumptions about the status of the states within the federal framework. Slovenia and Croatia’s position led to their secession as sovereign states, while the Serbian position became the foundation for the ethnic cleansing that followed, and served as the conceptual framework for the Greater Serbia utopia.

The intervention of the European institutions was indecisive, since there were differences between the EU members on the question of diplomatic recognition. Germany and Italy argued for immediate recognition of the new states, as dictated by the spirit of the principle of national self-determination. The Netherlands, France and Great Britain opposed this view. They maintained that such an action would threaten the region’s stability, so they insisted on the preservation of Yugoslavia’s integrity. Germany took a firmer anti-Serbian position from the very beginning. This provoked accusations of sympathies with the “Croat fascists” on the part of the Serbs, but it also caused anxiety in France and Great Britain, which feared that Germany might renew its ambition to establish hegemony over the Balkans.

Regardless of the differences, very quickly, in 1991, the European Union recognized Slovenia and Croatia, mainly under the pressure of Germany. Germany made it clear that it was ready to proceed with a unilateral recognition. The other members of the European Union conceded.[12] As a compromise, an ineffective committee to evaluate the protection of human rights in theformer Yugoslav countries was established. Macedonia received a high mark without a closer inspection of what was happening in the country. The situation in Croatia was found unacceptable, but this did not delay its recognition.[13]

The behavior of the European institutions at the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis is an interesting testing case for the system’s ability to deal with non-traditional crises. The process of Yugoslavia’s disintegration had a pre-history. The most concrete element, visible as early as the 1980s, was the escalation of hostilities in Kosovo. Then there was the intensification of Serbian nationalism, joined massively, from the mid-1980s on, bythe Serbian academic community, which was very influential. But most importantly, the very construction of Yugoslavia had been extremely implausible from the point of view of the idea of stable federal statehood.

Immediately after the end of the Cold War, Yugoslavia was the most significant example of the inability of theextensive European institutional network to prevent a civil war on a relatively large scale. The European Union’s foreign policy was an entirely ad hoc inter-governmental activity within the circle of the member states’ foreign ministers. Called the “European Political Cooperation,” it was launched in the 1970s, but it rarely issued anything different from a declaration of approval or disapproval. The development of a common security and foreign policy depends on investing power with basic European institutions, which implies a higher level of federalization. This, however, is a utopian prospect. The federal project represents a high risk for the European Union itself, a subject that will be treated in another chapter of this book. In 1991, the member states of the EU were engaged in the negotiations of the Maastricht Treaty, which envisioned serious changes in the existing Union treaties. Busy with the internal problems of the European Union’s evolution, they clearly underestimated the risks posed by the situation in Yugoslavia.

Apart from European institutions, the organizations whose initiatives could have had an impact on the looming civil war in Yugoslavia were the United Nations (UN), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Western European Union (WEU), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In early 1991, the United States suggested that NATO should examine the case. France rejected the idea, both because of negligence and because of its traditional resistance to NATO’s influence on European security issues. At the time, France assumed that the European Union’s aspirations to build its own foreign policy and security institutions were realistic. The WEU did not have sufficient logistic autonomy, integrated command and control, or military force, with the exception of a Franco-German corps, whose deployment outside the territory of Germany was restricted by the German constitution. After the Paris Conference in 1990, the OSCE was in the initial stages of building its new institutions. The OSCE suffered the same deficits as other institutions: it had neither an efficient mechanism for decision making, nor sufficient resources or a clear mandate.

The common-sense guess that regional organizations would have better chances of preventing the crisis in Yugoslavia proved wrong. They had better knowledge of the context and the various agents involved, most importantly, the governments of the federation and the republics that played an essential role in the Yugoslav conflict. Nevertheless, regional proximity proved more of an obstacle than an advantage. The regional organizations had a mechanism for making decisions, but the latter did not lead to solutions. They opened discussions forums, which showed their inherent weakness. The organizations did not have the power of institutions; in other words, they disposed of no mechanisms for implementing the solutions agreed upon, but provided only narrower spaces within which the conflicts between the different viewpoints were synthesized. The confusion at the level of regional international organizations also meant that no communication and coordination could be achieved between them and global organizations like the UN.

The lack of common foreign policy, preventive diplomacy and European Union defense capabilities madenecessary the intervention of the UN. The UN was suitable for the task, both because it provided a way to circumvent contesting views within the EU and because it could legitimize the use of force. The UN, however, suffered from the same disadvantage as European institutions, and it became evident that, just as in the Persian Gulf War, without a consensus between the main actors, any collective effort was doomed to fail. Ultimately, the Security Council made use of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for the use of force, but only as an international sanction, and not as an engagementfor the deployment of military resources. The UN’s reservations about usingmilitary force led to a series of catastrophic events. The policy of interpreting conservatively the idea of peace as the status quo had an enormous cost and caused the peaceful civilian population much suffering.

Instead of military operations, the UN chose to use humanitarian actions, which replaced the strategy for putting a definitive end to the war. The cost in economic termswas high, certainly higher than expected. The UN deployed about 50 000 troops and 3000 civilian personnel. This cost about two billion US dollars per year and became the reason to call the interventionthe most expensive failure in the organization’s history. With their extremely limited mandate, the UN forces acted as if their task consisted in providing humanitarian aid, rather than the protection of human rights, the gathering of information on war crimes and the investigation of atrocities and abuses. An agreement to use military force was reached only after Serbian paramilitaries breached the safe areas of Srebrenica and Žepa and used mortar shells on the central market in Sarajevo, killing thousands of Muslims. NATO then decided to launch air strikes on their positions. On the whole, after the London Conference of 1992, the Serbs believed that the Western countries would not interfere in the conflict, that they would not allow the armament of the Bosnians and would not even use their full capacity to deliver humanitarian aid. As a result, the Serbs ignored the UN resolutions, took UN troops as hostages and even subjected them to humiliation. During the entire conflict in Bosnia, the Serbs deliberately carried out a policy of ethnic cleansing, despite the strong public outcry. The international institutions failed to create a mechanism to stop their aggression.

The almost ten-year-long war into which Yugoslavia plunged showed the deficits of the European institutions as they had been conceived and had functioned for decades. In their self-confidence, European leaders initially referred to the Yugoslav crisis as “the hour of Europe.”For the first time after the end of the Cold War they had the opportunity to act as a key supranational power in preserving the peace on the European continent, although outside the EU. The ensuing failure showed how difficult it was to overcome national viewpoints. It was evident that the European Union could not act as a multinational community. Faced with a high risk of disintegration as a political body, it conducted alliance policies. Its members reverted to their original roles of nation states that formed alliances around common solutions to specific questions.

Thus, the crisis in Yugoslavia showed that in the absence of strong leadership multilateral actions were doomed to fail, while abstention from the use of force madedeterrence irrelevant and reduced the chances for a diplomatic solution. The absence of strategic choices, the incoherent behavior, the inability to act decisively, these tragic factors that defined the character of the so-called international community in this crisis speak for themselves. They confirm that the international regimes, even when feasibly constructed, deal with risks in accordance with their original conception. Regardless of the complexity of their structure, the degree of their inner differentiation and their historical duration, they act on the basis of their inner inertia.


The events in Kosovo in 1999 marked the culmination of the Yugoslav wars. But Kosovo was much more than that. The paradigmatic changes in the understanding of security after the Cold War could be seen in the most immediate way in the case of Kosovo. With Kosovo, the basic presuppositions and intellectual foundations of international security policies were transformed.[14]

Most importantly, in the case of Kosovo,the Western states that deployed military forces for the resolution of the conflict faced no threats to their security. There was a domestic conflict, which intensified gradually over two decades and exploded in 1998-1999. Since no threat existed for another state, the conflict was irrelevant from the point of view of deterrence policies in the tradition of the Cold War.

Secondly, Kosovo was a local conflict and could have been contained both within its geographical and its social, political and militaryborders. In other words, the conflict could have beenlimited through policies of containment. But the Western powers that undertook military actions did not consider such policies relevant.

Thirdly, although the conflict spread beyond the borders of the province, the Kosovo crisis would not have produced a domino effect, another essential concept in the Cold War paradigm. Its expansion would have created a wave of refugees, which NATO’s intervention did create in any case.  The Yugoslav wars preceding the conflict in Kosovo had displaced enormous numbers of people; this, however, had not led to an intervention.

Finally, during the Cold War, the leading idea in the interventions of the United States had been their national interest, and more precisely, their vital national interest. It was unclear what vital interest the United States had in intervening in Yugoslavia. The conflict had no implications for the security of the coalition states involved in Kosovo within the framework of NATO.

Only ten years earlier,not to mention the more febrile period of the Cold War, the absence of external threat ora clear national interest would have led to a different development. Instead, the states siding with NATO decided on an action that was unprecedented in the history of the European Union. The action itself was unique in modern history and presupposed a new understanding of the question of security. Whether this new understanding was explicit or its clarification was left for later is an entirely different question. The answer to the Kosovo conflict provided by the actions of the Alliance implied a new concept of security, which after the fall of the Berlin wall had replaced the notions of the Cold War. The main difference consisted in the fact that there was no threat requiring an intervention. What appeared was the broader horizon of long-term risk factors for the entire European area. What these risk factors were also remained an open question. The essential element was that Kosovo was perceived as an unacceptable provocation and a risk that could not be tolerated in the periphery of the European Union. This idea of security was very different both in spirit and in its concrete positions from the Washington Treaty of 1949, although some of its aspects could already be discerned in the New Strategic Concept of 1991.


With the war in Kosovo,state sovereignty, which had been a basic principle in the post-1945 period, was relegated to the background, giving way to the protection of human rights as a major concern. Such an argument forthe war was, of course, often disputed by directly rejecting its basis in the protection of human rights, by pointing out its inefficiency or by referring to various contextual facts. Michael Mandelbaum, a serious critic of the war, claimed that it was a failure in terms of its short-term objectives – it had sped up the ethnic cleansing, untying the hands of Milosevic and allowing the paramilitaries to perpetrate unheard-of atrocities, and so on.[15]

Although justified, these criticisms do not change the fact that both the motivation for intervention and the broad public debate had been dominated by a moral element without precedent in recent history. The very context of perceiving and evaluating the intervention was structured in a new way. The reasons for launching the operationswere not oil, gas or any other natural resource. The crisis with the Albanian minority and Milosevic’s actions forced NATO to try to defend its reputation, and its international legitimacy in general, by refusing to turn a blind eye to the atrocities in Kosovo. Thus, what took place was a profound and unexpected change in the perception of what could be considered justifiable reasons for the Alliance to act. The question was not a military attack on an ally necessitating itsdefense, but the protection of human rights of a community that was not a member of the Alliance. This unprecedented motivation was the sign of a serious transformation in the perception and structuring of the justifications for a military intervention.

Among the consequences of this new kind of argumentation for extra-territorial operations was the collision between the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Semantically and legally, the two documents unfold alternative, and in some respects incommensurable, normative orders. In the practice of the Security Council during the Cold War, however, the Declaration was not a document that could legitimize military campaigns. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council can decide on a military operation on the basis of a threat to the peace, a breach of the peace or an act of aggression,[16] regardless of how such threats are interpreted in each particular case.[17]But the situation of human rights as unfolded in the Declaration is of a different order. Apparently, the question of human rights could not be discussed in the context of the three kinds of threats to the peace in Article 39 of the UN Charter. But the war in Kosovo opened this new possibility and rearranged the basic criteria according to which events and campaigns in the international environment, including military ones, could be considered legitimate.

In the case of Kosovo, state sovereignty, which from the point of view of international law, and in practice, had been the last stable instance, became an uncertain presumption. This broader implication has some symbolic meanings. State borders in the case of Kosovo did not have the unambiguous status and unconditional meaning guaranteed byvarious international actors previously. Before Kosovo, what processes were under way on the other side of a given state’s border was a question one could ask or not. The question could be seen either as valid or invalid. The main orientation of the systemof Westphalia had required the question to be bracketed and a firm distinction between domestic and foreign affairs to be maintained. Seen from the outside, a state was indivisible; consequently, the external gaze stopped at the border, without penetrating any further. States were articulated only when seen from the inside. From the domestic point of view, their separation of powers, the citizens and their rights could be observed – the state had divisions, whichwere invisible from the outside. Precisely this position was seriously undermined in the case of Kosovo. It is certainly important whether the reasons for the intervention were moral, but the more important question is that an argument for a military operation was made by reference to a state’s domestic situation and, more than that, it received legitimacy in the public sphere internationally.

Whether theseare two mutually exclusive paradigms is an open question, a matter of viewpoints. In liberal-democratic societies individual human rights can be claimed to have precedence over state sovereignty, since the authentic bearer of indivisibility, of sovereignty, is the human individual. From the point of view of the international process within the framework of the Westphalia order, however, sovereignty is a political category and characterizes a certain type of political body – the nation state. Therefore, it is important to take into account the context in which any such relations are observed: it should be clear whether we accept the paradigm of discourse ethics in which individual rights have priority, or whether we accept the perspective of an international process in which a given event may take precedence. The intervention in Kosovo answered this question by ignoring the sovereignty of the political body and locating sovereignty at the level of human rights.


The Yugoslav wars were marked by a certain ambiguity. On the one hand, the decisions taken by the various international coalitions in each case had little influence over the crisis as a whole; they remained isolated, or even contributed to the balkanization of the region. The peace-keeping missions, the Dayton agreement, the economic sanctions, the endless open or secret negotiations with Milosevic were not aspects of an overall approach, but separate and disconnected actions. In the deeper perspective of the ten years of civil conflict in Yugoslavia, these actions produced little result.

On the other hand, the disintegration of Yugoslavia itself did not allow for any totalizing approaches that could encompass the crisis in its entirety and devise a common solution. With the collapse of the federation, some republics declared their independence, thus showing that they were already formed as political bodies. Others, however, behaved like pre-state communities still in the process of forming as nation states. These two conditions by themselves made the situation extremely complicated. They positedincommensurable coordinate systems, which made the total approach, whatever it might have been, seem like a utopian idea.

From this point of view, the war in Kosovo was not only the culmination of Western coalition efforts to get the conflicts in Yugoslavia under control, but also a campaign in its own right. Its objective was not to offer a comprehensive formula for the whole region, which, quite contrary to reason, would have meant hoping for a magical solution. The war had specific objectives and its motivation was the Serbian attempt to cleanse Kosovo of its entire Albanian population. But regardless of the concrete reason for which it was launched, the military intervention in Kosovo was unprecedented in the post-war history of Western coalitions and in the history of NATO.

The Kosovo intervention aimed to solve a series of problems: stop the wave of refugees, prevent the ethnic cleansing, exert pressure on Milosevic to withdraw the 40 000 Serbian troops from the province, force him to accept the Rambouillet agreement, and bring military criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. So the campaign was engaged with a cluster of objectives.

Before the operation, a significant effort was made to rally not only all countries of the Euro-Atlantic community, but also those of Eastern Europe and Turkey. This attempt to popularize the campaign and, even more importantly, the dramatic effort to legitimize it were something new. Nothing like this was present in previous actions in the region. In establishing its legitimacy, however, the campaign was based on a principle of wide, open, and even universal inclusion that sidestepped the authority of the Security Council. The coalition ignored the Council, trying to replace it with an agreement between the states directly involved in the Balkan crisis. This ad hoc community of participants and supporters constituted another characteristic of the accepted approach.

What was special in the case of Kosovo was also the fact that the West perceived it as its own crisis. Western democracies treated the ethnic cleansing as something happening within their own space. This perception did not stem fromparticular geopolitical appetites or views. The Euro-Atlantic space is internally dynamic and its expansion is an important aspect of this dynamism. The Euro-Atlantic expansion has an inclusive character incompatible with the expansive appetite of a restless empire like the Soviet Union, and is restricted by liberal democratic standards. This definition of the Euro-Atlantic spatial dynamics, of its expansion and inclusiveness, is essentially different from the one revealed by the past geopolitical projects of the Congress of Berlin, as well as from the one in later versions of geopolitical thinking.

Yugoslavia was a political body whose construction was implausible in its very conception. Nevertheless,the tragedy of post-Cold War Yugoslavia could have been avoided. Civil wars of such magnitude were equally improbable in South-East Europe, in the periphery of the European Union. Just as the Yugoslav federation was created by the action of external forces and was stabilized thanks to specificconstellations in the international environment, so its disintegration could have occurred in a peaceful and bloodless manner. The reason that this did not happen was not the conceptual discovery that Yugoslavia was an immanently unstable construction, which would disintegrate given a specific context. The crisis was caused by certain conditions in the international environment, above all, the state of the European Union and its individual members. The latter showed extraordinary lack of discernment in managing the risk of a collapse into civil war.

Curiously, the entire movement of European integration after World War II had been conducted with the fundamental objective of preserving the peace and preventing any further large-scale conflict. Ultimately, if European integration had succeeded in anything,it was the preservation of the peace in Europe, which even its most persistent critics would not deny. Its peace policy was carried out through the very astute management of risks to the internal security of Europe. The institution building in the first two decades after the war had implications in this respect at every step. And yet, both the European institutions and the individual member states, including those that had driven the European integration process,showed great naivety in the face of the imminent war in Yugoslavia.

[1]United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., 299 US 304 1936.

[2] Schmitt, C. Verfassungslehre. Duncker & Humblot, 1993, S. 361 ff.

[3] The interest in the phenomenon of empire has increased in the last few decades and these relations have been sufficiently clarified. See, for example, Parsons, T. The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, And Why They Always Fall. Oxford University Press, 2012; Hardt, M., Negri, A. Empire. Harvard University Press, 2001; Burbank, J., Cooper, F. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton Unversity Press, 2011; Taylor, J. A. The Rise and Fall of the Great Empires. Quercus Books, 2008. The empire as a political body is also an important subject in the context of the questions concerning the character and the future of the European Union.

[4] The role played by the army in the building of the federation and later, in the attempts to preserve it, as well as in its disintegration as a federal institution along ethnic lines, remains an open question today. See, for example http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/role-of-jna-in-the-1990s-wars-still-remains-unclear ; Popov, S.“Some Thoughts on post-war Yugoslavia,” Kultura, 30 July, 1999; Niebuhr, R. “Death of the Yugoslav People`s Army and the War of Succession.”Polemos: Journal of Interdiscilinary Research on War and Peace, December, 2004.

[5] In these distinctions regarding the concept of utopia, I am following Karl-Otto Apel and his version of discourse ethics. See Apel, K.-O. “Is the Ethics of the Ideal Communication Community a Utopia? On the Relationship between Ethics, Utopia, and the Crutique of Utopia,” in Benhabib, S., Dallmayr, R., The Communicative Ethics Controversy. MIT Press, 1990.

[6]President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The Avalon Project. Yale, December 20, 2015.

[7]Weber, M. Economy and Society. Vol. II. Roth, G., Wittich, C., trans. University of California Press, 1978, pp. 385-399.

[8] For a summary of Tito’s federalist policies, see Popovic, D. Constitutional History of the F. R. Yugoslavia. Institute for European Studies, 2015.

[9] Today the phenomenon of empire has become the object of various interpretations and requires a typology. In this text, I have followed the classical view of Joseph Schumpeter. See Schumpeter, Joseph A. The Sociology of Imperialisms. Germany: Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1919.

[10] This may also explain the fact that Yugoslavia was a relatively prosperous country, which never experienced the excessive violence other Socialist states did.

[11] The literature on the disintegration of Yugoslavia is quite extensive. Here I have used works that comment on the overall development of the conflict. See, for example, Silber, L., Little, A. The Death of Yugoslavia. Penguin Books, 1997; Hall, B. The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia. Penguin Books, 1995; Maas, P. Love Thy Neighbor; A Story of War. Vintage, 1997; Glenny, M. The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War. Penguin Books, 1996.

[12] These actions on the part of Germany have often been criticized. See, for example, Hodge, C. “Botching the Balkans: Germany’s Recognition of Slovenia and Croatia”, in Ethics and International Affairs, December, 1998.

[13]Crawford, B. “Explaining Defection from International Cooperation: Germany’s Unilateral Recognition of Croatia,” in World Politics, July, 1996, pp. 482-521.

[14] See my commentary on this in Popov, S. NATO’s Global Mission in the 21st Century. Atlantic Council, 2001.

[15]Mandelbaum, M. “The Failure of Intervention”, in Foreign Affairs, September/October, 1999, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/print/1108390

[16] See https://treaties.åun.org/doc/publication/ctc/uncharter.pdf, Chapter VII, Article 39 ff.

[17] As the history of the additional protocols of the International Criminal Court show, the term “aggression,” for example, has proved difficult to define. It refers to actions that have been “planned” and “prepared”; i.e., the intention must be identified and reconstructed.