A New Empire is Born
by Matthew Parris

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Posterity will come to see war in Kosovo as the germ of Pax Atlantica


Let's face it: if Thursday's tentative accord in Belgrade had involved Nato in a humiliating climbdown, we peaceniks who opposed this Balkan war would now be shouting "I told you so" from the rooftops. Bridle as we may, the triumphalism in store from Downing Street only returns what Downing Street could have expected from some of us if Nato had foundered. Never knowingly out-crowed, Tony Blair may rightly crow that none of our worst-case scenarios has come to pass.

Recall these. Some of us were very sure that you could never bomb a nation into submission. But Nato just has. It is all very well to object that Nato was cowardly to do no more than throw down explosives from a great height, but our Government came privately to think so too. Where we parted company with them was over their determination, in default of any Nato consensus for invasion, to carry on bombing. It was a gamble. We peaceniks should grit our teeth and admit: it paid off.

To the doubt that bombing could succeed, I never did subscribe, but to the objectors' more important doubt I always have. I agreed with Simon Jenkins: even if Nato could make a desert in Kosovo and call it peace, the result would be a huge liability: Russian trust in the West poisoned; relations with China spoilt; Nato's posture as a defensive alliance wrecked.

And these, we said, were the secondary problems, outside the Balkans. Within we could expect worse. Smashing up Yugoslavia might have been expensive - but not half as expensive as rebuilding. Governing Kosovo as a protectorate will be appallingly difficult. Dealing with the Kosovo Liberation Army will be a nightmare, policing an angry Serb minority a dangerous business, we said. Shoring up the neighbouring countries which this war has brought to the verge of collapse will be tricky, lengthy and expensive. The begging bowls will be numberless. Next in line for more would be our own military.

We gave warning, in short, that what would accompany "victory" would be an open-ended, ill-natured and costly European commitment to an array of crippled and mendicant client states: a commitment from which the Nato European powers might never escape.

Finally, we said, "victory" would signal a dangerous shift in modern doctrines of international relations. The "Blair Doctrine" seemed to sanction interference on moral grounds in the internal affairs of countries situated within "our" region. Under the old United Nations Charter, states had been bound to respect each other's sovereignty; international law was just an adjunct to domestic autonomy. But now, it seemed, international and natural law ("quite simply, the right thing to do," in Mr Blair's words) became a higher order to be interpreted by those with the might to impose it: "military action with a moral purpose" - Blair's words again. Such thinking, we feared, could lead to great instability.

I have tried to summarise both the peaceniks' obvious anxieties about defeat, and our more subtle anxieties about victory. Doubts about defeat can be laid aside, victory being near. How then do our anxieties about victory stand?

The short answer is that they stand. We shall be proved right on every count. But the long answer is that, though correct, we are missing the point. Something much, much bigger than Kosovo - something bigger than Milosevic, bigger than Clinton and bigger than Blair - is going on. Down here at ground level, lightning flashes, thunder rolls and the stormclouds race about in every direction. But up in the stratosphere an immense, slower and permanent shift is under way.

A century ago this October, at the onset of the second Boer War, it would have been correct to protest that Britain's declared excuse for attack was outrageous. It would have been right to add that all the gold in the Witwatersrand was not worth the squandering of human life and Exchequer treasure for which that war would finally call. Though correct, such arguments missed the point, for they were about the wrong thing. A bigger force was at work: imperial Britain was asserting her hegemony and rubbing the lesson in. The lesson mattered beyond South Africa. In a way it was silly in such circumstances to dispute the casus belli or to argue about the cost.

We who decry this Balkan victory are probably being silly in a similar sense. We were right that it would be harder to win than the warmongers thought; wrong that it was not winnable. But as we shift our ground and decry the future cost of present victory, we lose the plot. This loss we share with Tony Blair and his Nato warriors, all equally unconscious of what is really going on. Cost-benefit analysis is not the point. All Blair's talk of the prize and all our talk of the bill, all this fiddling with pocket calculators - eyes down at the ground before our feet - misses the horizon.

A new empire is being born. A new order, Pax Atlantica, is coming in. History may celebrate or lament this turn in our destiny, but history is unlikely to base its reckoning upon the Balkan cost. History will find Kosovo significant not for the nasty intricacies of the case itself, but only as the first time, the first place, in which Pax Atlantica felt her still-inchoate identity stir. This Balkan mess is to be the first colony of our new European identity.

What sucks this latest empire into being? Vacuum, of course. Trite to repeat it, I know - we have repeated it endlessly without asking where it led - but the old order is gone, and nothing had replaced it. The former European empires are over, and what for nearly half a century became a stopgap - a stand-off between two nuclear superpowers - is over too. In the east, China is an unalterable fact. In the west, America, too, stays strong. But what is to happen in between? We all but assumed, without thinking it through, that with the collapse of Russian power there could persist between Galway and the Urals and reaching down from the Arctic to the northern shores of Africa a sort of glorious profusion of big and little states: some rich and powerful, others poor and weak; some aggressive, some passive; some malignant, some benign; some of them in alliances with each other or with the United States, others just drifting around. I am no geopolitical guru but even to me it seems unlikely that this could be a stable state in nature. Things must start to move.

Our Prime Minister is moving. He has little idea what moves him. He may think it is God. Those who built Britain's Empire - or Spain's Empire, or the Holy Roman Empire - thought that God moved them too. But if Mr Blair had been Prime Minister when the Soviet Union crushed Hungary or Czechoslovakia, or invaded Afghanistan, he would have felt no divine tap on the shoulder to do what was "simply the right thing". Divinity is not the father of the moral impulse: opportunity is. When Hutu murders Tutsi or tyranny walks abroad in the Congo, there is, as yet, no British impulse to undertake military action with a moral purpose. Last time in Chechnya, when something far more cruel than Milosevic was at work, the impulse to intervene did not form.

Next time - on what Blair calls "our doorstep" - who knows? If the job is small enough, I reckon there will be appetites big enough to contemplate it. So much is still hazy. Will Pax Atlantica continue to draw in the United States, or will we divide? If America is wise, she will act as paymaster to our new Balkan possessions as she acted as ringmaster to the fight for them. For make no mistake, this empire is white: this sense of doorstep is Caucasian.

And where next? We shall need to consolidate at home and cultivate client and buffer states abroad. We have Bosnia now, Cyprus (effectively), Kuwait (almost) and Kosovo soon. Albania? Macedonia? Montenegro? Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, supplicants to an enlarged EU, are at our bidding. A new Kurdistan? In Morocco, when Hassan goes, could we help? Might Tunisia need more than diplomatic support to stay in the light, if Libya or Algeria plunge into the outer darkness? Help for Egypt, even - Eden's revenge?

Who can say? For myself, a child of the first Empire, I'll take a rain check on the second. For the past 70 days I have tasted the unfamiliar: emotionally on the outside of an imperial adventure, I have discovered how different is the view from beyond the stockade. I have listened to my country's lies, evasions and propaganda; cringed at the sly pieties; detested the plays with words; shuddered at the jingoism; recoiled at the militarism; spotted the process of demonisation by which warmongering leaders motivate the led; seen how morality, self-serving, follows chance; noted the ease with which a militant politico-cultural force finds a moral right to push forward its frontiers. Scales have fallen from my eyes.

I was a conservative youth. I despised the philosophy of rejection which temporarily infused my Sixties undergraduate contemporaries at Cambridge, before they married and became civil servants and sports commentators. Now, 40 years later and all at once, I want to grow my hair, smoke dope and chant "Nato Out" at the gates of Downing Street.

Published June 6, 1999
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