Focus: And now it's all over?

Nato's first humanitarian war has worked, but the next time everything may not be so clear-cut

t was, in its way, an astounding feat of arms. No VCs will be awarded for the 77-day Kosovo air war, and no feats of heroism will linger in the memory, to fill history books and fire schoolboy imaginations. It was a grinding affair, in which the biggest headlines were made by dreadful errors such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Like all successful wars, it will influence military thinking for generations. For the first time the case has been made that air power - not nuclear bombs, but conventional air power - has won a war on its own. And while the Gulf war was the low-casualty conflict, Kosovo has introduced the seductive concept of war without casualties at all.

In fact, the first assertion is not watertight. Appearances to the contrary, Kosovo is less than perfect proof that air power alone can win a war. In the end, it was the notion of ground war, first as a creeping local reality, then as a distant but terrible threat, that made Slobodan Milosevic blink. In the last couple of weeks, the Kosovo Liberation Army was making inroads from its bases inside Albania, enough to force the Yugoslav army to leave cover and engage it - at last making the Yugoslav forces easy targets for allied planes, operating in the clear skies of early summer. For all its protestations to the contrary, by the end Nato was serving very much as the KLA's air force.

Simultaneously, President Bill Clinton, having previously ruled out an opposed entry into Kosovo, let it be known in Washington that "every option was on the table", as Pentagon planners mused aloud about how to get 200,000 allied troops into the area to invade by August. For the Yugoslav President, the possibility of holding out until winter, and a negotiated settlement with his war-weary opponents, had vanished. And there is one other important difference from normal wars. Nato's campaign was not intended to defeat the Serbs in their own country, merely to force them to stop mistreating a province of whose population Serbs constituted less than 10 per cent before the crisis began. Finally, Mr Milosevic calculated that holy but overwhelmingly Albanian Kosovo simply wasn't worth turning into another Masada.

Like all wars, this war was one of a kind, whose recipe will not work in every circumstance. But many a general and Western politician will be itching to try it. Even more than the Gulf, Kosovo has been a showcase for warfare's third industrial revolution: first spears and bows and arrows; then the guns, superseded in their turn by mechanised armour, now overtaken by smart weapons, drones and the rest, as the command centre moved from the battlefield to the computer screen. With almost unbelievable results.

Yes, the war would have been shorter had the ground threat been brandished early on. Yes, some of the tragic mistakes which killed hundreds of Serb and ethnic Albanian civilians would probably have been avoided had the Nato pilots taken greater risks and flown at lower altitudes. As it was, in the course of 11 weeks, in which 900 aircraft flew 36,000 sorties and 12,000 bombing raids, the alliance lost just two aircraft and not a single life in combat - a tinier proportion than the average Western air force loses in routine training (two Apache helicopter crewmen died this way in Albania). Nato destroyed a quarter of Belgrade's tanks and planes and a third of its artillery pieces. By Mr Milosevic's admission, 462 Yugoslav soldiers died, although Nato puts the figure far higher.

The prospect is of more of the same. Kosovo has shown that America and its main allies have a technological advantage which can only increase. "The bombs and missiles will get even smarter and deadlier," says Anatole Lieven of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, "while the electronic wizardry that goes into them can be countered only by equal wizardry, beyond the reach of all but a very few countries - and, with the exception of Japan, none of them outside Nato." And herein may lie the real "Kosovo effect": not so much on the conduct of wars, but on the decision to go to war in the first place.

More than any recent war, Kosovo was conceived as an extension of diplomacy, another notch in the escalation of pressure against Slobodan Milosevic. Now that negotiation by cruise missile has been proved to work, Nato itself could come under pressure from human rights groups and others to so the same thing elsewhere to prevent manifest injustices; not only in its European backyard, but in the Middle East, Africa - or even, potentially most perilous of all, in Russia's backyard of the Caucasus and TransCaucasia. The next tinpot dictator who terrorises a neighbouring country or a section of his own people - why not give him the Milosevic treatment? No matter that bombing might not be much use to prevent another Rwandan genocide (in Kosovo the air strikes undoubtedly brought about an increase in the atrocities they were meant to prevent): the risks are non-existent and the cause is just.

Which leads back to what may be the most profound diplomatic legacy left by Kosovo, obvious even before the first missiles struck on 24 March. For all the lofty language about the first war in modern times fought not for national interest but for humanitarian motives (which Kosovo undoubtedly was), it was, and remains, equally true that Nato took international law into its own hands. Only at the end of the day was the United Nations brought into proceedings.

The alliance acted in the name of "the international community", though the only organisation which can lay claim to represent that nebulous entity is by definition the UN. Nato has moved closer to becoming the policeman of globalisation, with a self-granted mandate to impose Western values as and when it sees fit.

In the case of Kosovo, few would dispute that the values brutally trampled by Mr Milosevic were not so much Western but universal. But another time it may be less clear-cut.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Glazier

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist historic buildi...

Recruitment Genius: Office and Customer Services Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small but very busy (and f...

Recruitment Genius: Portfolio Administrator

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has become known a...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer - Midlands

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot