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Geert Lovink: George Soros on the Kosovo situation (27 May)

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Date: Wed, 16 Jun 1999 23:38:47 +0200 (CEST)
From: Geert Lovink <>
Subject: Syndicate: George Soros on the Kosovo situation (27 May) 

Subject: Syndicate: George Soros on the Kosovo situation (27 May)


* Commencement Speech delivered by George Soros on May 27, 1999, at Paul H.
Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University.

George Soros

I am honored to be your commencement speaker. A commencement speech is
meant to be an inspiration to the young people who are completing their
education and going out into the big world. I am not sure whether I can
deliver such a speech because as a citizen of that big world, I am stunned
and devastated by what is happening in Kosovo. I am deeply involved in that
part of the world and what is happening there has raised in my mind a lot
of questions to which, frankly speaking, I don't have the answers. The
results of the NATO intervention have shocked me and forced me to
reconsider some of my most cherished preconceptions.

I am a believer in what I call an open society which is basically a broader
and more universal concept of democracy. Open society is based on the
recognition that nobody has access to the ultimate truth; perfection is
unattainable and therefore we must be satisfied with the next best thing: a
society that holds itself open to improvement. An open society allows
people with different views, identities and interests to live together in
peace. An open society transcends boundaries; it allows intervention in the
internal affairs of sovereign states because people living in an oppressive
regime often cannot defend themselves against oppression without outside
intervention but the intervention must be confined to supporting the people
living in a country to attain their legitimate aspirations, not to impose a
particular ideology or to subjugate one state to the interests of another.
These are the principles I have put into practice through my network of
open society foundations.

Judging by these principles, I have no doubt that Milosevic infringed the
rights of the Albanian population in Kosovo. Nor do I have any doubts that
the situation required outside intervention. The case for intervention is
clearer in Kosovo than in most other situations of ethnic conflict because
Milosevic unilaterally deprived the inhabitants of Kosovo of the autonomy
that they had already enjoyed. He also broke an international agreement
into which he entered in October of last year. My doubts center on the ways
in which international pressure can be successfully applied.

I am more aware than most people that actions have unintended consequences.
Nevertheless I'm shocked by the consequences of our intervention. We have
accomplished exactly the opposite of what we intended. We have accelerated
the ethnic cleansing we sought to interdict. We have helped to consolidate
in power the Milosevic regime and we have helped to create instability in
the neighboring countries of Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania, not to
mention the broader international implications such as our relationship
with China.

It is obvious that something has gone woefully wrong and we find ourselves
in an awful quandary. I am not going to discuss how we got there and how we
can extricate ourselves. I want to discuss the principle of intervening in
the internal affairs of a sovereign state in order to protect its people.
Because that is what we are doing and it is not working. It is easy to find
fault with the way we have gone about it, but the problem that preoccupies
me goes deeper. In the case of Yugoslavia we have intervened in different
ways. In Bosnia we tried it with the United Nations and it didn't work.
That is why in Kosovo we tried it without the United Nations and that
didn't work either. We also tried it by applying economic sanctions but
that too had adverse consequences. The sanctions could be broken with the
help of the ruling regimes by shady businessmen who in turn became an
important source of support for the ruling regimes not only in Yugoslavia
but also in the neighboring countries. In short, nothing worked. And we
have a similar record in Africa.

The question I have to ask myself: is it possible, is it appropriate to
intervene in the internal affairs of a state in the name of some general
principle like human rights or open society? I did not want to consider
such a question and I certainly don't want to accept no for an answer. It
would be the end of the aspiration to an open society. In the absence of
outside intervention oppressive regimes could perpetrate untold atrocities.
Moreover, internal conflicts could easily broaden into international
hostilities. In our increasingly interdependent world, there are certain
kinds of behavior by sovereign states -- aggression, terrorism, ethnic
cleansing -- that cannot be tolerated by the international community. At
the same time we must recognize that the current approach does not work. We
must find some better way. This will require a profound rethinking and
reorganization of the way we conduct international relations.

As things are now, international relations involve relations between
states. How a state treats its own citizens involves relations within the
state. The two relations are largely independent of each other because the
states enjoy sovereignty over their territory and their inhabitants.
Sovereignty is an outdated concept but it prevails. It derives from the
time when kings wielded power over their subjects but in the French
Revolution when the people of France overthrew their king they assumed his
sovereignty. That was the birth of the modern state. Since then, there has
been a gradual recognition that states must also be subject to the rule of
law but international law has been slow to develop and it does not have any
teeth. We have the United Nations but the UN does not work well because it
is an association of states and states are guided by their interests not by
universal principles, and we have the Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

The principles which ought to govern the behavior of states towards their
own citizens have been reasonably well-established. What is missing is an
authority to enforce those principles -- an authority that transcends the
sovereign state. Since the sovereignty of the modern state is derived from
the people, the authority that transcends the sovereign state must be
derived from the people of the world. As long as we live in a world of
sovereign states, the people need to exercise their authority through the
states to which they belong, particularly where military action is
concerned. Democratic states are supposed to carry out the will of the
people. So in the ultimate analysis the development and enforcement of
international law depends on the will of the people who live in democratic

And that is where the problem lies. People who live in democratic countries
do not believe in democracy as a universal principle. They tend to be
guided by self-interest, not by universal principles. They may be willing
to defend democracy in their own country because they consider it to be in
their own self-interest but few people care sufficiently about democracy as
an abstract idea to defend it in other countries, especially when the idea
is so far removed from the reality. Yet people do have some concerns that
go beyond self-interest. They are aroused by pictures of atrocities. How
could these concerns be mobilized to prevent the atrocities? That is the
question that preoccupies me.

I have attended a number of discussions about Kosovo and I was shocked to
discover how vague and confused people, well-informed people, are about the
reasons for our involvement. They speak of humanitarian reasons and human
rights almost interchangeably. Yet the two are quite different. Human
rights are political rights. When they are violated, it may lead to a
humanitarian disaster, pictures on CNN that arouse peoples emotions but by
then it is too late. The damage is done and the intervention is often
counterproductive. The humanitarian disaster could have been prevented only
by protecting the political rights of the people. But to achieve this,
people must take an interest in the principles of open society. Prevention
cannot start early enough. To be successful it must be guided by a set of
clear objectives. That is what the concept of open society can provide.

For instance, if the people of the world had been sufficiently aroused by
the atrocities in Kosovo to impose a ban on Yugoslav basketball teams, the
eventual bombing of Yugoslavia might have been more effective. The Serbs
would have been aware that the people of the world are revolted by the
behavior of the Milosevic regime. As it is, the Serbs simply fail to
connect what is done to them with what they have done to others. It fits
their self-image as victims, and those who think of themselves as victims
are often the worst victimizers.

Unfortunately, the people of the world were not aroused by Kosovo. The
atrocities started more than a year ago, and the principles of open society
were violated ten years ago. But people did not even know where Kosovo was
until we started bombing Yugoslavia.

Suppose that the people subscribed to the principles of an open society;
how could those principles be translated into effective institutions? It
would require the cooperation of democratic states. We need an authority
that transcends the sovereignty of states. We have such an authority in the
form of the United Nations, but the UN is not guided by the principles of
open society. It is an association of states, some of which are democratic,
others not, each of which is guided by its national interests. We have an
association of democratic states, NATO, which did intervene in defense of
democratic values, but it is a military alliance incapable of preventive
action. By the time it intervenes it is too late and we have seen that its
intervention can be counterproductive. It needs to be complemented by a
political alliance dedicated to the promotion of open society and capable
of acting both within the UN and outside it.

Such an alliance would work more by providing rewards for good behavior
than punishment for bad behavior. Belonging to the alliance or meeting its
standards should be a rewarding experience. This would encourage voluntary
compliance and defer any problems connected with the infringement of
national sovereignty. The first degree of punishment would be exclusion;
only if it fails need other measures be considered. The greatest rewards
would be access to markets, access to finance, better treatment by the
international financial institutions and, where appropriate, association
with the European Union. There are a thousand little ways that diplomatic
pressure can be applied; the important thing is to be clear about the
objectives. I am sure that the abolition of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 could
have been reversed if the international community had been determined
enough about it. In Latvia, international pressure had led to a reform of
the naturalization law which could have caused conflict in Russia. In
Croatia, the international community did not do enough to assure the
existence of independent media. Nor is it sufficiently aroused by proposals
in various Central Asian republics to introduce lifetime presidencies. We
shall not be able to get rid of Milosevic by bombing but if, after the war,
there is a grand plan for the reconstruction of South East Europe involving
a customs union and virtual membership in the EU for those countries which
qualify, I am sure that the Serbs would soon get rid of Milosevic in order
to qualify.

A political alliance dedicated to the promotion of open society might even
be able to change the way the UN functions, especially if it had a much
broader membership than NATO. NATO could still serve as its military arm.

Ironically, it is the US that stands in the way of such a political
alliance. We are caught in a trap of our own making. We used to be one of
the two superpowers and the leaders of the free world. We are now the sole
remaining superpower and we would like to think of ourselves as the leaders
of the free world. But that is where we fail, because we fail to observe
one of the basic principles of the open society. Nobody has a monopoly of
the truth, yet we act as if we did. We are willing to violate the
sovereignty of other states in the name of universal principles but we are
unwilling to accept any infringement of our own sovereignty. We are willing
to drop bombs on others from high altitudes but we are reluctant to expose
our own men to risk. We refuse to submit ourselves to any kind of
international governance. We were one of seven countries which refused to
subscribe to the International Criminal Court; the others were China, Iraq,
Israel, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen. We do not even pay our dues to the United
Nations. This kind of behavior does not lend much legitimacy to our claim
to be the leaders of the free world.

To reclaim that role we must radically alter our attitude to international
cooperation. We cannot and should not be the policemen of the world; but
the world needs a policeman. Therefore we must cooperate with like-minded
countries and abide by the rules that we seek to impose on others. We
cannot bomb the world into submission but we cannot withdraw into isolation
either. If we cannot prevent atrocities like Kosovo we must also be willing
to accept body bags. I hate to end on such a note, but that is where we are
right now.

* Commencement Speech delivered by George Soros on May 27, 1999, at Paul H.
Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University.