The NATO intervention in the Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999, the UN protectorate that followed, and the symbiotic push for Kosovo's development and independence have left many analysts and politicians scrambling either to bemoan or trivialize the impact that Kosovo's final status could have on the global order.
With the looming Dec. 10 deadline for the latest round of negotiations, it seems exceedingly unlikely that Washington will be able to persuade Moscow to endorse Kosovo's independence at the UN Security Council. Yet Kosovo's frustrated Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of the province's population, have hinted that they are on the brink of declaring independence unilaterally, even if it means renewed conflict with Belgrade.
Ultimately, in our international system, a nation's "independence" is little more than the rest of the world's willingness to recognize it as independent. So, even if Moscow vetoes Kosovo's bid for independence, Kosovo can still enjoy some of the benefits of being an independent country. These benefits become more substantial with every state that recognizes Kosovo. Similarly, the likelihood of renewed violence would decrease if other countries viewed Kosovo's self-defense as legitimate.
This means, however, that because negotiations are likely to fail, Washington has been encouraging, and will continue to encourage, foreign governments to support a technically illegal, self-declared, independent Kosovo in the event that negotiations collapse. Yet this kind of persuasion does not come easily.
There are more than 50 separatist conflicts across the globe, and few of the governments that have endured the bane of irredentism will be eager to recognize Kosovo if such a precedent could come back to haunt them.
Echoing countless other US and European officials, Daniel Fried, the US assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, responded to such concerns in February with the following logic: "Kosovo is a unique situation because NATO was forced to intervene to stop and then reverse ethnic cleansing. The Security Council authorized Kosovo to be ruled effectively by the United Nations, not by Serbia. UN Council Resolution 1244 also stated that Kosovo's final status would be the subject of negotiation. Those conditions do not pertain to any of the conflicts that are usually brought up in this context."
Unfortunately, Washington's "unique" talking points are actually engraving a separatist playbook in stone, blazing a glorious trail that separatists will follow with greater determination, recruits, and (in all likelihood) success.
Separatist regions like the Basque Country or Abkhazia might not resemble Kosovo right now – as Washington is quick to note – but by so explicitly stating the merits of Kosovar self-determination and independence, Washington is essentially creating an innovative code, only to make the cipher publicly available. Current and future separatists merely have to manufacture the same conditions and sequencing that have compelled the West to embrace an independent Kosovo: terrorize locals, invite government crackdowns, incite a rebellion, and lure in foreign intervention and commitment to rebuild.
Once militants get this far, Kosovo will no longer be unique – even by Washington's peculiar standards – and areas that share Kosovo's characteristics will be equally deserving of independence. The horrid irony, of course, is that declaring Kosovo's uniqueness has been Washington's deliberate attempt to prevent future separatism, but it is inadvertently teaching militants how to navigate the complex inconsistencies of geopolitics. In fact, the more thorough and persuasive Western governments are about Kosovo's "uniqueness," the more legitimate separatists' ambitions become, if only they follow the Kosovo model.
Not only, then, has Washington had a hard time selling Kosovo's independence to all but its closest allies, but the very basis for that appeal is even more threatening to governments that would face invigorated separatism in the wake of an independent Kosovo – even if that independence is informal and technically illegal.
With the "unique" endorsement, Washington and a few European capitals close even more rhetorical doors that they will need to slip through when the time comes to reject separatist analogies in the future, and our failure to anticipate these complicated roadblocks will cost our allies more than anyone else.