A conversation with… Marc Grossman

A Conversation with former Under Secretary of State Marc Grossman.

Is another war brewing in Kosovo? AI editor Adam Garfinkle sat down with former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman on May 16 to discuss this question, and to assess the latest efforts to advance a lasting political settlement in the troubled region. Currently vice chairman of the Cohen Group, Grossman served as Under Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005, during which time he focused much of his energy on the Balkans. In his 29-year career in government, he has served, among other positions, as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey (1994–97), Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (1997-2000) and Director General of the Foreign Service (2000–01).

AI: Concern is rising among Western diplomats that Kosovo is a mess that could again turn violent. Some describe an irresistible force, namely the Kosovars demanding independence, about to collide with an immovable object, namely Serbian refusal to let go of the province. Why are these fears rising now?

Marc Grossman: All of this is coming to a head because it’s decision time. Since the war in Kosovo in 1999, the international community has been working with the Kosovars, the Serbs and other communities in Kosovo to come to a sustainable and fair resolution. For the last 15 months the former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, has been trying to negotiate a settlement under UN auspices. So I think everybody’s attention and anxiety about this is high because the time to decide has arrived.

AI: And President Ahtisaari has not been able to achieve consensus about that decision, right?

Marc Grossman: Right.

AI: Why was it determined that this should be the year for a decision?

Marc Grossman: We’ve been through a series of steps following the NATO action in Kosovo. First of all, NATO wanted to get the United Nations, the European Union and others to work on Kosovo, which they did. But then there was an explosion of violence a few years ago, back in March 2004, which had the effect of re-focusing attention on the problem. At that point we in the U.S. government sought to convince our European partners and others that something called “standards before status” might be a good interim position and the way to go forward. “Standards before status” essentially encouraged all parties in Kosovo to raise governance standards across the board before the UN came to discussions about the final status of the province. And we did that.

The parties then started to work through the issues. The Kosovars tried to meet the standards, and the Serbs tried to figure out what their future was going to be. Meanwhile, Montenegro left Serbia, and the Bush Administration came to the point last year of saying that we can’t go any further with the “standards before status” approach, because it had essentially succeeded. So the Administration decided to recognize the realities here: first, that Kosovo is going to be independent; and second, that Europe cannot be whole, free and at peace without a successful Serbia. The Ahtisaari mission, and what will now follow it, is an attempt to deal with both of those realities simultaneously.

AI: One criticism of the U.S. approach is that we’ve pushed a solution to the Kosovo problem before it’s ripe—that the U.S. government pledged support for Kosovar independence and now appears to be either unable or unwilling to make good on that promise. Trying to do so, the criticism goes, would provoke a crisis with Serbia, on the one hand, and trouble within the EU, on the other, because the EU seems divided over the wisdom of Kosovar independence. Does any of that criticism hold water?

Marc Grossman: While I have been outside the government for two years now, I believe that the Europeans are more united on this issue than your question implies. The European Union says it favors the Ahtisaari plan, and the big European countries seem to be in favor of it. More important, the “standards before status” policy was called that so that we did not make a promise at that time for Kosovo’s independence. I remember several joint press conferences with Ibrahim Rugova, in which he tried to get me to pledge U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence. But we said, deal with the standards first, and when the standards are met, then people can decide on independence.

But obviously, life moves on, and I think that Nick Burns, my successor as Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and others in the Administration recognize the reality that the Kosovars want independence, that that’s where all this is headed based on the “standards” policy, and that now is the time to do something about it.

AI: To head off an irreconcilable disagreement over sovereignty and possibly to avoid violence, some have suggested a partition agreement. Of course, a partition is problematic because, aside from sounding easier to do than it really would be, it could open several cans of worms. It might stimulate other calls for partition in the region, where ethnic lines and political borders often don’t align. Still, is anyone considering a partition as a solution in Kosovo should the present course not succeed?

Marc Grossman: Not that I know of. Part of the challenge here is that the international community is in a position to consider independence for Kosovo because there has been far more focus on Kosovo than on Serbia—and for me, at least, a successful Serbia is vital to Europe’s future. Serbia is the big possible success story in all this, so while I was in government, I thought to myself, what if we could create a condition in Kosovo of good standards leading to independence, in exchange for which the EU would put Serbia on a fast track for EU membership?

The hope was that the Serbs would come to recognize, in effect, that “yes, Kosovo is a part of our history, but our future is in the European Union.” Unfortunately, this plan collided with the collapse of the EU constitution process, whether from “enlargement fatigue” or for other reasons.

AI: But didn’t this design depend on an assumption that a post-Milosevic, democratic government in Serbia would be able to make that kind of historical trade? That doesn’t seem to be the case. The present Serbian government, even though it is democratically elected, appears to be as nationalist on Kosovo, if not more nationalist, than the opportunists around Milosevic. That suggests that the Serbian body politic may not be able to tolerate Kosovar independence, and that forcing the issue may lead Serbian politics to implode and move backwards, away from the democratic progress they’ve made. That would be exactly the opposite of what Western policymakers expected several years ago.

Marc Grossman: Yes, although I think things are less gloomy than that. There is a new Serbian government today, a government that has tried very hard to isolate the radicals, including the gentleman who was recently elected as speaker of the parliament, Tomislav Nikolic. I think the fact that President [Boris] Tadic and Prime Minister [Vojislav] Kostunica have come back together, at least for the short term—in the face of what was happening in their politics and in the face of the United Nations Security Council debate—may be a positive thing.

I think it was right for us to say that a democratic, Europe-inclined Serbia is better than one that is not. One of the things you learn in diplomacy is that not everything succeeds but you need to try. It was right to hold that out as the goal, and the general direction of Serbian politics continues to confirm that. The current challenge stems not just from possible misjudgments about what Serbian politics would be like, but maybe also a misjudgment about what European politics would be like. We’ve run into the time when the EU isn’t interested in further rapid expansion, so the incentives before the parties are not balanced.

AI: Well, in politics sometimes it’s better to be lucky than right, but here’s a case where perhaps we were right, as you say, but unlucky in some respects. If our luck isn’t what we’d hoped, what might the worst outcome in Kosovo be? Is it possible that the Kosovars would insist on pushing forward with independence by unilaterally declaring a provisional government in Pristina, giving rise to both a swell of support throughout the villages of Kosovo and a Serbian determination not to allow it? The Serbian army today probably is unable to invade and hold Kosovo, but the government could decide to seize a small part of the province or send irregulars to blow stuff up and make a lot of trouble. How likely is that scenario?

Marc Grossman: There are plenty of terrible scenarios, but many people overlook the fact that today, tomorrow and under the Ahtisaari plan, there are still 16,000 to 17,000 NATO troops there, 1,600 of whom are U.S. National Guard soldiers. There’s still considerable force, and it is better prepared than it was three or four years ago. One of the reasons there was so much trouble in Kosovo back then was that a lot of the countries in the multinational force had caveats and carve-outs. This was a surprise to me and to others who knew the situation well at the time. These countries said, “We’re here, but we’re not going there, and we’re not going to do any police activity. We’re not doing this, and we’re not doing that.” Most of those carve-outs are now gone, so the force is stronger and EU leaders have shown their commitment to it.

AI: Still, the utility of that force depends ultimately on its political staying power. You said that the Europeans are more united on this than I implied earlier, but it has been claimed that if the EU had to renew its mandate to operate in Kosovo under conditions in which EU forces were taking even modest casualties, the EU would be unable to do so. It’s not clear that Italy or Greece or a few other EU countries would be willing to place themselves in what would look like a de facto anti-Serbian position, and by implication an anti-Russian one. That worries me.

Marc Grossman: It should worry everybody. However, one of the things that’s useful about the United Nations still being involved in Kosovo is that to go forward there has to be a successor resolution to UN Security Council Resolution 1244.1 I would assume that any successor resolution to 1244 would be under Chapter Seven, which would legitimate the force and lead to the UN Secretary General actively calling on nations to participate in it. That would make a renewed mandate easier to obtain.

AI: Perhaps it would, but there is a prior obstacle to a successor resolution to 1244: the Russians. The Russians have been obstreperous lately for their own reasons, and we can guess at what those may be. As things stand, however, one cannot exclude the possibility of the Russians helping the Serbs in a renewed fight over Kosovo. Many agenda items in U.S.-Russia relations have lately become unpleasant. Is Kosovo bound to be another one?

Marc Grossman: I think it already is. The questions are: How does it get resolved? What will the Russians choose to do over the next few weeks as the United States and its allies push forward for a new UN Security Council resolution?

I read in the paper that this was a big agenda item between Secretary Rice and President Putin when she was in Moscow over the last couple of days. Both spoke about lowering the rhetoric and, as you say, there are lots of agenda items—there’s Estonia, there’s energy policy, and now there’s missile defense. So if there will be a lowering of rhetoric, and if the Russians are looking for a place to be positive again, Kosovo is an opportunity. And we have an advantage in that the American argument—which is to tell the Russians that it’s mostly Western (U.S. and NATO) troops, money and political effort that have been invested there, so that entitles us to a bigger say in all of this—makes sense. So the Russians are faced with a decision here, and I hope they’ll make it in a positive way.

AI: I hope so too, but I’m skeptical. Let me ask you now a process question. A moment ago you used the phrase “the Administration decided.” Let me ask you to be more specific as to who has really been running this policy in Kosovo and in the Balkans more generally. During my couple years in the Department, I do not recall there ever having been an NSC meeting on Kosovo, and I barely recall any Deputies meetings either. How much concentrated secretarial and presidential attention has been given to Kosovo since the end of the war, either toward the end of the Clinton Administration or since then?

Marc Grossman: I don’t recall whether there was ever any meeting with the principals on Kosovo, but there were many conversations about the Balkans. One of the first issues handled by the Bush Administration, even before 9/11, was whether to continue the U.S. military commitment in Bosnia. That was very high-level. So the Balkans, with Kosovo as a sub-set, was taken up at a high level before 9/11. Not so much after 9/11, but we did make a decision that EU forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina should substitute for NATO forces, and that was a decision I’m sure went to the President. Certainly during the five or six times I went out to the area during the first Bush term, with the “standards before status” brief to argue and implement, I never felt that I was out there on my own.

AI: Let’s get back to the region but talk beyond just Kosovo. A critical background factor in Balkan politics is that there are Albanians in lots of different places: They live not just in Kosovo and in Albania proper; they’re also in Macedonia, for example. Promises were made years ago that Albanian irredentism would not complicate the future. However, it’s not clear that the people who made these promises then could keep them now, if Kosovar independence were actually declared. How might ethnic Albanian nationalism affect the region? Could we face a source of instability for many years to come?

Marc Grossman: As you very rightly said, it’s sometimes better to be lucky than right. If we could get a little luck here, if the United States and Europe could craft a good arrangement in Kosovo and make it stick, it could well end the violence and instability that has been associated with the breakup of Yugoslavia. In other words, this will be, with any luck, the last piece of the puzzle.

If so, then the real question for the future isn’t about Albanian nationalism; it’s about whether NATO and the European Union are still open to new members. As people in the region sit around and discuss their options, they might say, “Well, I could be an Albanian nationalist, or I could be a citizen of a country that’s a NATO member or a European Union member.” Less are likely to choose the former if there’s a good prospect for the latter.

The record shows that already. I don’t say that everything is perfect, but I do think, for example, that Macedonia is a success story thanks to the work that Lord Robertson and Javier Solana did, along with so many others. We saw a potential problem there, but people have followed up and paid close attention to it. I happened to be in Macedonia on the day the European Union delivered its 80,000 pages of regulations that the Macedonians are now trying to work through.

AI: Did you say 80,000 pages?!

Marc Grossman: Well, they’ve got standards, and prospective EU members have to meet them. It was a galvanizing day for Macedonians. I would hope that some day Macedonia, a future independent Kosovo and Albania would all get together and say, “Yes, we’ve got decisions to make about our future, and one of our choices is to get onto this amazing Western set of institutions called NATO and the European Union. Why wouldn’t we do that?” That’s what I have to hope is the choice they make.

AI: Just one more question, Marc. As you know as well as anyone, we live at a time when expectations concerning international politics—for example, the relationship between force and its political efficacy—are shifting all around us. The Balkans are an interesting example: We and our European allies used force on a couple of occasions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo, and we managed, essentially, to freeze the situation—to stop a lot of bloodletting, but not to solve the underlying conflicts. We then essentially reinvented the idea of the post-World War I mandate. We devised a form of international custodianship to take care of these places until we could figure out what to do next. But we only did that because we faced a series of emergencies, and not a lot of study went into thinking through what these custodianships could accomplish, how difficult they would be to manage, how long they would last, how much they would cost, and more besides.

As I look back at all this, what the experience seems to show is that, if we try hard enough and have enough Western unity, we can do triage in conflict and post-conflict situations, but beyond that—even using Western institutions as incentive systems—it’s much more difficult to help people figure out how to build self-sustaining independent institutions, especially democratic ones, to create a viable state. Additionally, what have we learned about how the U.S. government should be organized to do these things better?

Marc Grossman: To go back to your first point, stopping bloodshed is not a bad place to start. We ought to recognize that that was an accomplishment. Second, I recognize that these histories, both within the Balkans and between the Balkans and other places, are different from each other, but success is made up of many elements in all of them. Obviously, you have to be prepared to use force. You have to be prepared to stay—prepared to recognize that it’s going to take a lot longer than you thought it would. And it will cost more, too. Maybe it’s just the times of instant gratification we live in, but I think to myself, if some apparition arrived in the room and said to us: “Would you be prepared to make the same physical, intellectual and resource commitment to the Balkans that you made in what we used to call Eastern Europe if you were assured it would bring the same result?” I’d take that deal in a heartbeat. But here we are, ten years into the Balkans, and we’re wondering how to get out of this. Everything is “hurry up, hurry up, hurry up”—even in Iraq the focus now is on what to do in September, as if that were a realistic deadline for anything.

I worry that we’ve lost the capacity to think long term. That’s why I return, as I did a few minutes ago, to the Bush 41 formulation of “a Europe whole, free and at peace.” That’s not easy to achieve, but to think that we’re down to the last conditions for meeting that goal is remarkable. This is not something we should imagine in terms of a decade. It’s about ten years from the Dayton agreement, but sixty-years-plus since 1945 when this project for a Europe whole, free and at peace really began. These are lessons here about patience, about commitment, and they also happen to be lessons about good outcomes for everyone.

Second, you’re exactly right that there are also lessons about institutions. When I used to wander around what was then the Warsaw Pact with John Whitehead, we would meet dissidents who would pull out of their wallets the Helsinki Final Act principles. They had the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their pockets, too. What did they want to do? They wanted to get into OSCE, the EU. They wanted to get into NATO. This shows that you have to structure as many Western and international institutions as you can to get people onto the flypaper, if you will. They then learn how to participate in these institutions, and liberal habits begin to grow in their own societies. So in the Balkans there should now be a huge effort on the part of the EU and NATO to finish the job. Even the Ahtisaari plan says it will be “supervised independence” for a long time, and that’s right—which is why we might reasonably talk about Serbia in the European Union in five years, Kosovo perhaps in ten, 15 or 25 years. I think these institutions have a huge role to play in getting people to think in a different way about how they’re going to live their lives.

Finally, in terms of our own government, this is a question of resources, and a question of our capacity to call on all parts of government to work as a team. We need to conceive of American statecraft as a unified endeavor. As Americans, we have to get over the idea that diplomacy is somehow about concessions and weakness, and that military power automatically produces positive political outcomes. Diplomacy, especially in the case of reconstruction efforts in post-conflict areas, is a national security tool for the United States that has to be adequately supplied and supported, no less than do military efforts.

AI: Thanks, Marc, and I hope you’re right about Kosovo.

MG: Me, too. It’s been my pleasure. ?

1. Editor’s note: UNSCR 1244 of June 10, 1999 is the legal foundation both for the postwar international administration of Kosovo and for efforts to resolve the province’s political status. UNSCR 1244 provides for “substantial self-government” for Kosovo but also affirms “the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, “to which Serbia is the recognized successor state.”

Appeared in: Volume 02, Number 6 | Published on: July 1, 2007
Marc Grossman was U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2001 to 2005, during which time he focused much of his energy on the Balkans.
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