The United States has fixed upon a timetable and process to determine the final status of Kosovo. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns announced May 19 that negotiations to this end should take place this year, that they should be led by a senior European figure assisted by a senior American, and will include the elected representatives of the population of Kosovo and the government of Serbia. Burns also said the talks should be guided by certain principles, to include the preservation of Kosovo's present borders and multi-ethnic character.
This announcement represents an important step toward resolving this festering and potentially explosive issue. That the United States has been able to secure broad international acceptance of this necessity represents a significant diplomatic achievement. Kosovo's status was left undetermined in 1999 for good reasons, but those reasons have since largely faded, as most of the other states in that region have progressed toward integration in the EU and NATO.
Burns said that the United States would not, at this stage, advocate any particular outcome for these negotiations, to preserve its status as a facilitator. This should not be misinterpreted as neutrality or indifference to the outcome of the talks. While American attitudes may, at this point, best be conveyed through quiet diplomacy, the United States and its allies have already committed to an outcome that takes account of the wishes of a vast majority of Kosovo's population, which, as Burns noted, is for independence.
NATO's 1999 war was not fought simply to bring Kosovar and Serb representatives to the bargaining table. Serbia had an opportunity to settle Kosovo's status through negotiation at an internationally convened conference held in Ramboullet earlier in that year. The Kosovars signed the agreement on offer there; the Serbs refused to do so. NATO launched its air campaign not to bring Serbia back to Ramboullet, but to enforce application of the essential elements of that agreement. This purpose is reflected in the UN Security Council resolution that brought NATO's air campaign to an end, put Kosovo under international protection and promised that its final status would be determined through an international process drawing, among other things, upon the provisions of the Ramboullet agreement.
Ramboullet provides that among the considerations determining Kosovo's final status will be the desires of its population. The Kosovar representatives at Ramboullet were assured by NATO representatives, including both U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark, that if they signed this agreement, its basic provisions would be enforced whether or not Serbia did so. They did, Serbia did not, and NATO launched its bombing campaign.
Albright also assured the Kosovar representatives at Ramboullet that if they wished to hold a referendum to determine the wishes of their population when it came time to determine Kosovo's final status, such a ballot would be entirely compatible with the agreement she was urging them to sign. While other factors will also come into play in these coming negotiations, including the views of Serbia and other neighboring states, it has long been the U.S. position that Kosovo's final status must be acceptable to the majority of its inhabitants.
At this stage of the negotiating process it is appropriate that the United States use quiet diplomacy to build as broad an international consensus as possible in support of such an outcome. Hence Burns's appropriate refusal to advocate any particular outcome to the process about to unfold. It is also important, however, that the Kosovar people understand that America has not forgotten the promises made in 1999, and feel confident that the United States is going to use its considerable influence to produce a result fully consistent with those commitments.
What the United States expects in return is that Kosovo's leaders should collaborate with European and American negotiators to shape arrangements that will ensure the ability of Kosovo's Serbian and other minorities to live in peace and dignity.
James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corp., was a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton for the Balkans.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on June 11, 2005.