BY JAMES A. PALMER
The United States' decision to recognize the independence of Kosovo is the most recent in a series of mistakes regarding the breakaway Serbian province. America has been making ill-fated decisions in the Balkans for at least a decade and a half. What separates this bungling of Kosovo from its prior decisions is that the recognition of Kosovo's independence will have deleterious effects on international law and cause consequences in the region and beyond.
The main problem is that Kosovo's independence undermines a system of international law that America helped create and from which it benefits greatly. The United Nations Charter enshrines the inviolability of state sovereignty. In recognizing Kosovo without a UN Security Council resolution, the United States and its European allies have weakened two of the fundamental principles of international law: that states are free to determine their internal composition and that their territorial integrity must be respected.
To make matters worse, the United States and the European Union have adopted a wildly expansive interpretation of Security Council Resolution 1244, which placed Kosovo under UN administration and provided for Kosovo's autonomy within Serbia. Under this interpretation, administrative authority is being transferred from the UN-sanctioned mission in Kosovo to an EU mission that has no legal mandate in the province and whose prospects for success rely on Serb participation, which is far from guaranteed. Already, ethnic divisions are hardening into a de facto partition of the territory between Albanian and Serb-controlled areas.
Another problem caused by Kosovo's independence is the precedent it sets for ethnic enclaves within other sovereign states. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's claim that "Kosovo cannot be seen as a precedent for any other situation in the world today" misses the point. It is doubtful that separatists from Xingjian to Catalonia will accept the niceties of Rice's argument that Kosovo is exceptional due to its political and legal history. It is much more likely that these separatists will view the conflict for the precedent that it is: the carving off of a sovereign state's territory in favor of an ethnic and religious minority threatening violence -- a model to be replicated elsewhere.
Russia has been particularly outspoken against Kosovo's independence because of its concern that its restive Caucasian provinces will follow the Kosovo precedent. The United States currently requires Russian cooperation on two issues of great strategic importance to America: counterproliferation efforts against Iran and the implementation of new missile defense systems in Central Europe. Irritating Russia and spending useful political capital on a tiny, economically stagnant, breakaway region will only make Russian cooperation less likely -- even on issues that concern its security.
Finally, Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence has only reinflamed the divisions and enmities of the 1990s -- not a time that any of us should want to revisit in the Balkans. The declaration of Kosovo's independence has emboldened Albanians in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia in their calls for the creation of "greater Albania."
There is also the possibility that the largely Serbian north of Kosovo will decide to secede and ask its Serbian kinsmen to protect it. Will America defend Kosovo's sovereignty after having destroyed Serbia's?
The decision to recognize Kosovo's independence was foolish. In doing so, the United States and its European allies have undermined international law and opened the door to separatist movements worldwide to follow suit. Relations with Russia are being strained at a time when America needs Russia's cooperation. Most disturbing of all, the Balkan tinderbox could be reignited at any point. No amount of wishful thinking by our foreign policy leadership will fix the damage that's been done.