Review of King and Mason, Peace at any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo, for International History Review, 2007

Posted: December 12, 2009 in Kosovo, war reviews

Martin Shaw

Iain King and Whit Mason, Peace at any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xx, 303. $27.95.

It is a sign of the times that Kosovo can be seen as a partial success of international intervention and rule. Against the backdrop of Iraq, the fact that this corner of the Balkans has known no ongoing, large-scale armed conflict and only sporadic sectarian rioting over the eight years since NATO ousted Serbian power may seem like an achievement of sorts. Yet writing as proposals for settling the territory’s status are finally being presented to the United Nations Security Council, with little certainty that even if they are approved they will secure a peaceful society in Kosovo, the picture does not look so good. Iain King and Whit Mason are quite clear that on any but the most reductive post-Iraq criteria, the ‘international community’s’ record is one of failure, and they provide a careful examination that supports this case.

King and Mason both worked for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) over several years in the early 2000s, as planner and analyst respectively, and they know their subject from the inside while offering a perspective from their present vantage points outside the intervention. The authors present an extremely detailed, chronological account of how the international mission developed from its hasty improvisation following the negotiated departure of the Serbian authorities, through its consolidation and ultimate exhaustion by the middle of the decade. This is a scupulously balanced, carefully referenced study that will undoubtedly be very useful to historians as well as providing much food for thought for policy-makers and students of international affairs. King and Mason sympathise with the objectives of international action and administration, but believe that their implementation has been thoroughly flawed.

Most of this book consists of a chronological analysis of the successive initiatives, challenges and failures of international policy-making and implementation. In the final section, the authors seek overall explanations. Their main argument is that UNMIK (and those in the UN and the Contact Group states who set its terms of operation) saw the Albanians only as victims of Slobodan Milosevic’s misrule, not as participants in a longer power struggle for ethnic dominance in Kosovo. Thus they were unprepared for the majority Albanians taking over the role of ‘bully’ previously exercised by the minority Serbs; they early allowed elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army (de facto allies of NATO in the 1999 war) to take over local power in most areas; and they failed to genuinely challenge the intimidation and often murder used by many Albanian nationalists to force out most of the remaining Serbs, Roma and other minorities. International administration was marked by lack of clear policies to deal with local realities, or united and determined implementation of the policies that were formulated. Really establishing a stable state in Kosovo would have required, the authors suggest, not only an earlier solution to the problem of Kosovo’s status, but a more forceful stance against exclusive nationalism and a longer-term commitment to the territory.

This account of international rule is depressingly plausible and echoes a growing literature of international failure in responding to genocide and armed violence across many recent crises from Bosnia to Rwanda and Darfur. And yet although King and Mason present a historical case, they are not historians. Despite their advocacy of a longer-term perspective, they do not seriously integrate the recent past into their argument. For example, while recognising the dependence of Kosovo’s small Serb minority on Belgrade, they do not investigate the extent to which it was implicated in Serbian rule and the murderous expulsions of 1999, and how this conditioned Albanian expulsions of Serbs in the years of UNMIK rule. They don’t ask the comparative questions about how other societies – Rwanda, for example – have responded after genocide. This is a very useful book but it remains for others to put this episode, which has still to be concluded, more fully into historical perspective.

Martin Shaw

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