s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 20 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 20   (Fall, 1999)

War in Yugoslavia—Background to a Green Decision

by Ludger Vollmer, Deputy Foreign Minister of Germany

We Greens are shaken as we face a situation which was always one of our topmost aims of our policy to prevent. Unexpectedly, and for many incomprehensibly, we have gotten ourselves into a war. As part of the national government and as a coalition parliamentary group, we were faced with a decision which touches our basic convictions and concerns the decisive issues which brought us to politics in the first place.

Many of us wonder what sense Green politics makes if we cannot only not prevent participation in a military attack—especially one which is controversial under international law-but even tolerate and actively bear responsibility for it. The first red-green coalition, of all things, decides in favor of participation of the Bundeswehr [the German armed forces] in combat missions by the much-criticized NATO, without any decision of the UN Security Council. All critical questions are justifiable and must be raised by everybody in the government and the parliamentary group and by party members each considering his/her specific role and function: questions of moral legitimacy, of legality under international law, of military and political efficiency, of precedence and long-term political effect, of a lack of will for early conflict diagnosis and civil conflict resolution. Perhaps an account of some background information will helps to make the answer easier.

Ruling or Opposing?

The Alliance 90/ The Greens were the only party which, since the beginning of the nineties has consistently pointed to the dangerous situation in Kosovo. Our reminders to take this conflict seriously were not heard. After the community of nations had, in our view, pursued completely misguided policies in the Yugoslavia conflict for 10 years, we were, as a ruling party, stuck with the results. Even if we bear no responsibility for this, we still cannot duck responsibility for this legacy. We are not living in the world of our programmatic visions, our alternative designs, but in a reality which cannot simply be reinterpreted according to our wishes. While as an opposition party we had to do nothing but state our opinion openly and bluntly, and theoretically develop half-way conclusive alternative strategies in order to gain a public presence, we must now, as a ruling party, try to implement our political positions in practice within the complex interchange of international relations.

Unlike in domestic policy, we are dealing here not only with a coalition partner and an opposition, but with the various conflicting interests of nation-states, alliances and international organizations. Where the programmatic work during the opposition period conveyed a feeling of sovereignty over the subject of our work, the real world of national foreign policy confronts us with the simple truth that the Greens are not a great power. There are many other protagonists who also represent legitimate interests, and who are stronger.

In addition, we have quickly experienced the fact that there is no such thing as an independent German foreign policy. The Federal Republic acts almost exclusively as a member of an alliance or an international organization. It tries to contribute to the formulation of policy. However, it can never determine it alone, and must largely subject itself to treaties or, in accordance with the solidarity principle, to the results of the common formulation of opinion. On the one hand, this corresponds to our own programmatic position of "self-attachment" and "self-restraint;" on the other hand, however, it blocks the way to a purely Green politics. This would be possible only at the price of complete unilateralism, of "going it alone," which would, moreover, be ineffective because of the self-isolation which would immediately follow. The sequence of decisions which led to the combat mission can only be understood in the context of this principle of multilateralism, to which there is no alternative for German foreign policy.

Even during the period of transition from the old to the new Government, we were already confronted with the most difficult question which politics can address, that of war and peace, of life and death. This question confronted us even more strongly than it had during the opposition period, where we had for years struggled with the conflict of basic values, between pacifism and human rights, antimilitarism and antifascism, for or against intervening. Now, the debate no longer had only a philosophical character; it was a question for practical German government policy.

The Kosovo Conflict, the "Act. Ord." Decision and International Law

The conflict in Kosovo got dramatically more critical after the beginning of 1998. In the fall, as fears rose that the Yugoslav leadership was planning a policy of expulsion and extermination of the Albanian Kosovar population, as it had with the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that because of the coming onset of winter an enormous catastrophe was in the offing, the international community of nations felt forced to intervene. The Security Council and General Assembly of the UN condemned the operations in Kosovo in strong terms. At the instigation of the USA, NATO planned to threaten the Serbian leadership of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with air strikes, in case the atrocities were not stopped. In a complicated constitutional situation, the German political structure had to decide during the transition from the old to the new Federal Government whether it wanted to support this policy of threats. On October 16, 1998, the German Bundestag decided with a large majority to support the threat of air strikes as a form of political pressure. With this threat looming in the background, Holbrooke was able to squeeze an armistice in Kosovo out of Miloševic. The threat of air strikes remained in effect as an "Act. Ord." (Activation Orders).

The justification under international law for the threat of force was extremely controversial. While Joschka Fischer, as the designated foreign minister, in his Bundestag speech took the view that it would be sufficient, if NATO acted on the basis of UN resolutions with the goal of enforcing these resolutions, I in my speech, as a representative of the critical side, stressed the international-legal concerns regarding an operation which was not explicitly approved by the Security Council. It should be noted that at that time, a combat mission even with a UN mandate went far beyond the parameters of the Green programmatic framework.

The Bundestag [the lower house of the German parliament] vote of October 16th, 1998 is to this day the valid basis for German participation in the air-raids now being carried out.

Particularly with respect to the Security Council (SC) the formal validity of international law and the political drive toward change are in a state of tension to one another which makes further development necessary. NATO policy faced the veto threats of Russia and China. In October, the Americans did not want to allow the SC to cause the failure of the air strike threat. Under these circumstances, the Russians preferred to see the SC circumvented than to see NATO act despite a veto. In this connection, for us Greens and likewise for numerous countries, the question arises in the context of the UN reform discussion of whether the veto should not be completely abolished. However, this regularly fails because of the veto of the veto powers.

The power of veto seems particularly problematic if one sees it in connection with the implementation of the economic embargo against Yugoslavia. Greens criticize the lack of will to carry the embargo through—and rightly so. But where do the Serbs actually buy the oil without which—as [former Foreign Minister] Genscher once emphasized, the war machinery would grind to a halt within a few weeks? It is unacceptable that the embargo is circumvented from the large areas to the east of Serbia and that at the same time, all other intervention is blocked by veto. And China's veto? A few weeks ago, China balked at the mandate prolongation for the UNO protection unit for Macedonia. The only reason was the fact that Macedonia was at that time in the process of building up diplomatic relations with Taiwan. When Security Council members use their veto powers for superficial national reasons, and not according to a globally oriented policy of peace, the dubiousness of the entire structure is demonstrated.

It must remain green policy to fortify UN structures and competence, all the way to a UN monopoly on the use of force. But Greens should not define the monopoly on the use of force in the sense of the status quo, with veto power for countries which they otherwise massively criticize because of lack of qualification in human rights questions. The Bundestag [the lower house of the German parliament] vote of October 16th, 1998 is to this day the valid basis for German participation in the air-raids now being carried out. At that time, everybody making the decision knew or had to know that the political threat would have to be followed by action if the Serbian side did not give way. Given the long-standing intensive party discussions about armed forces use, Bundeswehr participation, the security architecture in Europe and the confused constellation in the Balkans, everyone must have been aware of the ramifications of his/ her decision.

The supporters of the decision acted with the will and the idea of definitively putting an end to the bloodshed in the Balkans with the voicing of a threat. Nobody supported an aggressive intent against the Serbian people or acted with a motivation which we in the past would have described as imperialism. Nobody represents the interests of the armament industry, nobody wants an offensive NATO strategy. Those Green representatives who abstained from the vote did not, despite their major concerns in terms of international law, want to bring the structure of threats which had already been set up crumbling down as a result of their "no" vote, and thus play into Miloševic's hands. The chances of checking the Serbian aggression against the Kosovar population by non-military means was already too low at this time. Therefore, the position of those who voted "no" was stated very much in terms of principle—for lack of viable alternatives.

The Political Realities

Since then, some decisive things have happened which made the toleration or active support of air strikes unavoidable for the Green parliamentary group and for Green members of the government.

1. Throughout the winter, the KLA had violated the armistice, systematically provoking the Serbian regime, which did not abide by the armistice completely either, by means of selective murders. The Serbs reacted with inconceivable brutality. The aim of the KLA was to provoke TV pictures which would lead NATO to intervene on the Kosovar side due to the indignation of the population in the western world. In the CNN war, NATO was to become the KLA's air force. This bet did not pan out. The West distanced itself from the KLA. The OSCE observers took a neutral attitude. The massacre at Radçak then occurred anyway. The butchering of civilians by the Serbs required a clear reaction from the West. All analyses came to the same conclusion: were there no reaction, the Serbs would think they had free rein to pursue their policy of expulsion and extermination. The armistice was for all practical purposes dead. It was foreseeable that further massacres would follow. It was also foreseeable that in the face of the TV pictures, the call that the political leadership ultimately "do something," that it "must act" these terms are synonymous with military intervention would also became louder. It had to be expected, that the political leadership would not be able to resist the CNN pictures for long. The Red-Green Government would have been accused of failure, cowardice and immorality from all sides. Better an instant reaction and not only for this reason.

The Green ideal that even the most difficult conflicts can be solved through negotiations and in a peaceful way rebounded off the character of Miloševic.

2. Two options were available for the West. The Americans wanted to start bombing the People's Republic of Yugoslavia [sic] immediately on the basis of the still-valid "Act. Ord." In this, they expected the participation of the other NATO states, including Germany. No political aim was recognizable apart from that of punishment. The second option, which was the one in fact accepted, had arisen in the upper echelons of the German Foreign Office (AA): At a peace conference, under pressure of the international community, a truce was first to be achieved, then the final status of Kosovo as autonomous region within the Federal Republic Yugoslavia enforced, and, as a third step, a broadly inclusive Balkan conference was planned.

It was the Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and the officials of the AA, who, with great personal dedication, persuaded the other foreign ministers to organize the Rambouillet negotiating process instead of going for quick bombing! For practical and diplomatic reasons, this initiative was not, however, identified as a German and Green one. Rather, the leadership was passed to the hands of the French and British foreign ministers. The steering of the political negotiating process, which had, due to the dominance of military means in the discussion shifted to NATO, was returned to the Yugoslavia Contact Group, to no inconsiderable degree due to our initiative. This body includes Russia. We favored this path due to our firm conviction that only the participation of Russia could lead to a negotiated peace. As representatives of the EU in the negotiating troika and despite our EU presidency and Germany's membership in the Contact Group, we yielded to the Austrian Petritsch, who had not only done good work, but in addition came from a non-Nato country. This was Green peace policy in action, which, however, did not display itself in public for reasons of efficiency.

3. During the negotiation process, it became clear that the Serbian side absolutely was not interested in a peaceful solution. The Green ideal that even the most difficult conflicts can be solved through negotiations and in a peaceful way rebounded off the character of Miloševic. He emphasized to several conversation partners that he was the stronger in this conflict because he was willing to wade through blood, while the west had to take the sensibilities of the civilized world into consideration. He not only refused to sign that part of the treaty which provided for a military peacekeeping under NATO leadership (NATO plus others), without which the Albanians would never have accepted the text; he also, after he had indicated willingness to sign the political part of the treaty want, called important passages into question shortly before the conclusion of negotiations and later explained in writing that anyone who wanted to interfere from the outside was a "gangster," and that, moreover, there had actually been no negotiations and no draft treaty at all, because Serbs and Albanians had not met directly.

...the fact that the negotiations in Rambouillet occurred must be judged a major success of German Green foreign policy.

4. During the transition period from the Kohl to the Schröder government, Miloševic clearly "played the Green card." He calculated that because of government participation by the pacifist Greens, Germany would never approve of armed action. Through this, NATO would be so weakened that he would have a free hand for his policy of expulsion and destruction in Kosovo. This calculation was foiled by the decision of October 16, 1998. Nonetheless, shortly before end of the negotiations in Rambouillet a high Yugoslav official sought me out to split the western alliance by way of the Greens. On the basis of my pacifist positions, he tried to get me to terminate the coalitional consensus. With reference to the war crimes of the Nazis in Serbia, he demanded that Germany break out of the western alliance. At the same time, he emphasized the legitimacy and legality of Serb policy in Kosovo, using the rhetorical constructs also used by Miloševic.

5. After Rambouillet had failed, an arrangement came into effect which had been established between the western partners as a prerequisite for negotiations. Our goal had been to reestablish the contact group as the controlling authority, and to obtain a negotiated peace. Only on this basis could the Russians, who had been alienated by the "Act. Ord." as well as by the bombing of Iraq, be won over to cooperation. On the other hand, we could not do without the Americans. They, however, were ready to give up their approach toward direct air strikes in favor of the negotiating approach only under the condition that, first, the negotiating packet included a firm non-negotiable core, and that second, the other western partners confirm that the "Act. Ord." retain its validity, and enter into effect immediately if the negotiating process should fail. We had had to make this concession to get the Rambouillet process moving in the first place. The price now had to be paid.


Green government policy, unlike opposition policy, cannot confine itself to issuing public programmatic declarations and denouncing the mistakes of the past, but is rather forced to act responsibly in the here-and-now, in given situations which have come about independently of us and for which we have no responsibility. Of course our basic principles and programs guide our actions; however, the field of action is the complex international power structure, in which we are only one factor among many. ·Engagement in favor of a negotiated solution including Russia instead of quick bombing by NATO corresponds not only to Green principles. Merely the fact that the negotiations in Rambouillet occurred must be judged a major success of German Green foreign policy.

The air strikes had become inevitable, because the Bundestag had approved them as a possibility, because all other alternatives had in fact been exhausted, and because the Western camp had agreed upon the Act. Ord., which, after the failure of the negotiations, now had to be implemented. The justification under international law remains at least controversial. The Serbian terror regime in Kosovo definitely does not meet the standards of international law. We Greens have been forced to witness our pacifism being systematically factored into the calculations of a criminal and of state terrorists. They wanted to use us against our actual will, in fact, to turn us into collaborators by using our refusal to resort to force of arms as a strategic element of their policy of eradication. If, however, criminal forces consciously try to play our love of peace off against our humanity, the point will eventually be reached for us political pacifists when our love of peace will have exhausted itself.

The compulsions of reality which made our decision unavoidable in a specific, extreme situation do not mean that we have abandoned our peace-policy goals. The air strikes, whose conclusion and effect cannot be foreseen, prove that nothing in international policy is as important as the development of methods for conflict early warning, peaceful conflict management, non-military crisis intervention and democratic institution-building. The Red-Green Government is working with top priority on the development and implementation of appropriate strategies. The crisis of international law must be used for its further development and reinforcement. The only alternative to the UN is a better UN.

Note: This March 26, 1999 statement was translated by Phil Hill, a member of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and The Greens/Green Party USA living in Berlin, Germany.

[a shorter version of this statement ran in print edition]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page  | S/R 20 Contents