Western powers usually legitimize military interventions in terms of a proclaimed commitment to some universalist norm or to some goal embodying such a norm. These declared goals can oscillate, but they are important because a central element of their foreign policy, particularly when it involves starting a war, is maintaining the support of their domestic population. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, people like to think of themselves as the guardians and promoters, through their states, of the most civilized, humane, liberal and democratic values in the world. It is true that they have short attention spans and are generally far more ignorant of the world outside their borders than the populations of many other countries, but at least the elected leaders of their states can run into domestic trouble if the declared norms and goals are not implemented or if implementation is carried through with such barbarity that they contradict other, more basic, norms and goals.

The attack on Yugoslavia is justified as aiming to end the oppression of the Kosovo Albanians and guaranteeing their human rights. The result may be a nato protectorate, it may be autonomy within Serbia, it may involve a partition of Kosovo, it may even lead to an independent Kosovo, it may be built under Rugova’s leadership or that of the kla. We simply do not know. These aims are only the latest of a whole series enunciated by the nato powers since the start of the Yugoslav crisis in the late 1980s. It would tire the reader’s patience if we were to list all the norms and goals proclaimed by these powers since 1989. A recitation, in any case, would tell us little of the real operational goals of the nato powers in Yugoslavia over the last decade. Their operations have not been governed by any universalist norms geared to improving the conditions of the peoples of the area, but by their own state political interests and state political goals. These real objectives of the Western states have usually had little to do with the human rights of the citizenry. Yugoslavia has, for a long time, been the cockpit of Europe. At the same time, the operations of the Western powers in the Yugoslav theatre have been a major—some would say, the major—cause of many of the barbarities that have confronted Yugoslav men and women in the past. A balanced judgement on the March 1999 nato assault on Yugoslavia necessitates a study of the whole tragedy.

The post-Second World War Yugoslav state was, in many respects, a model of how to build a multinational state, though, from the beginning, the incorporation of Kosovo into Serbia was an anomaly.footnote1 The Federation was constructed against a double background: an inter-war Yugoslavia which had been dominated by an oppressive Serbian ruling class; and a war-time slaughter in which the occupying Italian and German forces enlisted Croatian fascism for ferocious massacres and also exploited anti-Serb sentiments amongst the Kosovo Albanian—and some elements in the Bosnian Muslim—population, to bolster their rule.

The new Yugoslav state pursued economic redistribution and development in the constituent republics. It evolved a self-management model to show its defiance of Stalin. Anti-Stalinist, internationalist socialists from the whole of Western Europe rallied to Tito and special brigades helped to rebuild the railways. The new republican borders ensured that the previously dominant Serb nation—the largest nation in Yugoslavia—would never again dominate the other Yugoslav nations. Both constituent nations and republics were furnished with rights of equal constitutional status; and, finally, the state was anchored in a transnational League of Communists rooted in all the Yugoslav nations (though most weakly in Kosovo). The Communists exercised a monopoly of political power but, despite the oligarchic character of the new state, they enjoyed wide support within the population as the guarantors of all the positive elements in the system and as the people who had led a successful resistance against fascism.

Partly to ease Serb sensitivities over the fact that very large parts of the Serbian population were left outside the Serbian Republic, the Communist leadership allocated Kosovo to the Serb republic as an autonomous province. They viewed this as a temporary measure until their goal, shared by the Bulgarian and Albanian Communists, of a Balkan Federation in which the borders dividing Albanian communities could wither away. The Stalin-Tito split blocked this.

There was one further important structural element in the stability of the post-war Yugoslav state. Both the ussr and the usa were committed to maintaining the integrity and neutrality of Yugoslavia as a state on the borders of super-power confrontation in Europe.

The collapse of this state was a result of both internal and external factors. Assigning comparative weight to the external as against the internal in the generalized crisis that shook Yugoslavia in 1990–1991 is a complex matter. However, without understanding the role of the Western powers in helping to produce and channel the crisis, it is difficult to comprehend the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Yet this Western role has largely been overlooked in Western literature.footnote2