War and peace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 1999, 12:00am

It can be easier to wage war than to make peace, particularly when hostilities are conducted from tens of thousands of feet up in the air. Nato has achieved its aim of bombing the Yugoslav Government into an agreement. Talks are under way on the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo. The leaders who were goaded into launching the bombing campaign 72 days ago can congratulate themselves, particularly because they managed to avoid sending in ground troops.

Despite the victory, there are many more questions than answers on everything from the future of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the readiness of the guerilla fighters in Kosovo to lay down their arms. The cost and logistics of rebuilding Kosovo as an international protectorate will be enormous, and, even now, there are fresh horror stories coming out of the province about Serb forces burning the bodies of those they killed before heading out.

Milosevic's capitulation appears to have disproved the thesis that air power alone cannot win wars. That is not the only new factor which springs from this conflict. However compelling the moral case for action, this was a war launched on a weak legal basis without the backing of the United Nations and against the wishes of two permanent members of the Security Council.

It has shifted the rules of the international game in favour of intervention and away from the kind of consensus which the fall of communism and the end of history were meant to have brought. In the case of Kosovo, the cause was undeniably right. But different nations, or groups of nations, may have varying ideas of when intervention is justified.

In Nato's case, the alliance's strength and technological prowess were allied with a genuine humanitarian mission, even if those it set out to protect have suffered grievously over the past couple of months. But it could be very different in another set of circumstances, particularly if air power now proves to be the only weapon which needs to be wielded.

So, as the immense job of reconstructing Kosovo starts, it would be as well if the victors considered the broader implications of what they have done, and ensured their victory does not signal the defeat of the machinery and international legal system built up over the past half-century to make the world safer.