20 years after the fact, with the destruction and carnage that having consumed Iraq in the meantime, Kosovo has been looked back at as a success story. Nostalgically, it is seen as a shining example of humanitarian intervention done right and that it ought to serve as a model for the future. Sadly, this has been the product of obfuscation with the whole affair having been viewed with rose-tinted glasses that not only misremembers the actual facts of the matter but also produces overconfidence for future British military involvement abroad. Similarly, the brevity of the campaign against Libya created a milieu of unintended consequences dangerously coupled with an optimistic approach for the future.
The 1999 strategic bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, to a great extent at the urging of the United Kingdom (UK), was problematic not exclusively in its own conduct but primarily for its impact since then. In early 2014, when Russia mobilised forces and carried out a referendum in Crimea, critics of the Kremlin were quick to call it out as a flagrant violation of international law. Repeatedly, allusions were made to the Second World War, whether it was Hillary Clinton comparing Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, to Adolf Hitler or the description of the events on the peninsula as the first annexation since 1945. However, Moscow has itself cited the unilateral intervention in Kosovo and the violation of Yugoslav sovereignty and territorial integrity, as affirmed in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244. The precedent of the penetrability of eastern frontiers was set by British forces in the Balkans and once it was done, the model became irreversible and no longer confined to the decision making process of Whitehall.
The invocation of Britain’s involvement in the former Yugoslavia is seen as particularly successful in light of the lack of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) casualties along with the contrast of the less triumphant endeavours in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, by narrowly reminiscing on the 78 days of the campaign itself, it is easy to forget that Kosovo remains, arguably, a failed state. Whether it is parliamentarians bringing smoke grenades to voting sessions, a massive illegal arms trade, mass emigration (including the prime minister’s own brother), or most worringly the establishment of a de facto apartheid state with the sustained oppression of the Serb minority, the true issues that had plagued the entirety of the Balkans have not been resolved in Kosovo. Just because a British soldier did not die does not mean the campaign was victorious.
The then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s ability to overpower his opponents in Belgrade, and quickly followed up by his adventure in Sierra Leone, resulted in inflated sense of British military prowess.
The then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s ability to overpower his opponents in Belgrade, and quickly followed up by his adventure in Sierra Leone, resulted in inflated sense of British military prowess. Rather than understanding the two campaigns as the result of a massive imbalance in terms of materiel and overall strength, it was instead comprehended as purely the success of the UK (and in the case of Kosovo, NATO as well). It is out of this context that one can first see why the British Army was limited in its ability to act in larger engagements, whether in Basra or Helmand Province. Ultimately, Britain was a victim of its own (limited) success, which caused its ailment from victory disease.
In his recent intervention in The British Interest, Dr Thomas Peak stated that ‘the rhetoric and track record of Muammar Gaddafi, an atrocious massacre in Benghazi and protracted civil war characterised by systematic targeting of civilians seems to be at least a plausible outcome.’ However, this ignores the overstatement that describes British involvement in the bombing of Libya. In September 2016, the Foreign Affairs Committee released a report on the intervention, with Crispin Blunt MP, the Chair of the Committee, finding that ‘UK policy in Libya before and since the intervention of March 2011 was founded on erroneous assumptions and an incomplete understanding of the country and the situation’ and that ‘[t]he UK’s actions in Libya were part of an ill-conceived intervention, the results of which are still playing out today.’ Contrary to Dr Peak’s assertion, the UK government ‘selectively took elements of Muammar Gaddafi’s rhetoric at face value; and it failed to identify the militant Islamist extremist element in the rebellion.’
While Libya has degenerated into inter-militia warfare intensified by Islamist militants as well as arms trafficking and human smuggling, the true consequence of the affair is to be found on the other side of the planet. Arguably the most under-examined element is the issue around nuclear disarmament. In 2017-2018, with relations between the United States (US) and North Korea at an absolute nadir not seen since the Korean War itself, it is worth remembering that Pyongyang’s approach is fundamentally based around an assessment of Libya in 2011. Though the toppling of Col Gaddafi was justified on the basis of human rights, it had the disastrous effect of reinforcing the logic of possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
In 2003, Col Gaddafi willingly gave up his WMD programmes on the condition that sanctions would be lifted (including those related to the Lockerbie bombing) and that relations be normalised, thereby implicitly guaranteeing the security of his government. His ousting in 2011 was seen by those in North Korea as a reneging on that promise. With Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, having no interest in having the same fate as Col Gaddafi – namely a brutal lynching – the goal of nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula has become that far more elusive. It is not surprising, therefore, why the North Korean leadership shudders at the thought of John Bolton suggesting ‘the Libyan model’, which would very likely feature British involvement as well. This fear is not limited to Korea itself but also held by its larger neighbour, China. Concerns about the collapse of a state along its land border resulting in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees in addition to a mass proliferation of military grade weaponry in a manner that could be eerily similar to Libya continues to inform the conduct of Beijing.
The biggest risk that the UK faces when seeking to learn from its own experience is that it often only remembers the most positive ones and divorces them entirely from their later effects.
British interventions, by their very nature, are a subsidiary act. That is to say that they function mostly in a supporting, and often legitimising, role to the US. While occasional rhetoric, such as around Kosovo, presents the UK as the leading actor, operationally this is not true. Between March and October 2011, Britain officially spent £240 million on military operations and munitions in Libya. By contrast, the US is estimated to have spent more than US$1 billion, including in funding rebels that have gone on to contribute to the current conflict in North Africa. While participation in a joint UK-US campaign is seen as a way to preserve British influence in future decision making, this has simply not been the case. As pointed out in the Chilcot Report, following the appointment of Paul Bremer as Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, the UK had virtually no say over consequential actions that came to take place, such as on disbanding the Iraqi army.
While little has been effectively gained in the transatlantic relationship, more has been lost in relation to Britain’s ties to Europe. Though information sharing and counter-terrorism is unlikely to be negatively affected, the UK’s more martial approach has alienated some of its friends in the continent. Anti-interventionism in Europe has partially evolved out of growing disillusionment of failed Anglo-American endeavours. This disenchantment is itself a by-product of large scale migration as caused by the fall of governments in places such as Iraq and Libya. It is therefore not surprising that there has been growing support for anti-migration parties in Europe, which are often anti-interventionist, with figures like Marine Le Pen being particularly notable. This opposition to European military involvement abroad acts as a proxy for its dislike of British foreign policy.
At the same time, the Anglo-American alliance has spurred increasing continental efforts for a European defence that is not mutually exclusive with NATO but independent of it. Britain’s expected withdrawal from the European Union will naturally result in its exclusion from French President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitions for a ‘true, European army.’ While there may not be the political will for such a project in the short term, the added support for such a goal by Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, has only reinforced Britain’s loosening ties with the continent, a consequence of its American-centric approach to intervention. This trend is only likely to continue with growing divergences between Britain and Europe over Russia as well as the recent nomination of Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s pro-EU Defence Minister, to the position of President of the European Commission.
The biggest risk that the UK faces when seeking to learn from its own experience is that it often only remembers the most positive ones and divorces them entirely from their later effects. Just like the Treaty of Versailles is defined by 1945, the interventions of the past 20 years should not be understood in the context of weeks or months but in terms of decades.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.