Bombs and rhetoric

There was some nervous muttering in the halls of NATO’s Brussels headquarters last week about the stiffness of Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s spine. The stray NATO bombs over Yugoslavia that are causing unwanted civilian casualties had provoked Axworthy to admonish military commanders to get their targets right and stop hitting hospitals and embassies. The notion of politicians micro-managing the war raised eyebrows at NATO, where the corridor chatter touched on whether Axworthy was rediscovering his old longhaired, anti-war, anti-Pentagon instincts. Could a leading advocate of the humanitarians’ war be going wobbly?

The suggestion drew a rather mirthless chuckle from Axworthy in his Parliament Hill office last week. “We’re co-operating so well these days,” he said of his relations with the Pentagon generals. But Axworthy shows no sign of bailing from the fight in Yugoslavia. “All I was trying to say was that if you are conducting a war based on human security principles, then the means have to be in some accordance with the ends,” he says. You can’t, he noted, be killing the civilians you have come to save.

But too many chips have been placed on the outcome of the Kosovo war to head for the exists now. Most important, the promise of safe return made to the expelled Kosovars has yet to be kept. The future of the NATO alliance, frayed by the doubts of prosecuting a war in which no member country was directly threatened, is surely now in question. And the mission to bolster civil society around the world, which Axworthy has made the foundation of Canadian foreign policy, is also on the line. The Kosovo war, justified by NATO as a fight for Western values rather than selfish national interests, makes it “very much a war of influence and ideas,” says Axworthy.

The minister has been at the forefront of the West’s novel drive to make humanitarian intervention the guiding impulse of foreign policy (though British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with his higher profile and willingness to back up his moralizing with ground troops, has usurped leadership of the crusade). It was Axworthy who hit on the idea of collating a bunch of positive impulses — like banning land mines, creating an International Criminal Court and ending the use of child soldiers — into a foreign policy he called the human security agenda. And the foreign minister accepts that the cuddly rhetoric is only as good as the sharpness of the sword to back it up. “I’ve said from the beginning: there’s an enforcement dimension to this,” he says.

But enforcement is what NATO, with all its air might, has yet to deliver in Kosovo. Two weeks ago, Axworthy travelled to Norway to convene a meeting of 11 foreign ministers, all pledging to proselytize for his human security agenda. Meanwhile, the policy itself was imploding in Kosovo’s smouldering hills. NATO’s intervention was supposed to send a message to warlords and thugs around the world that the forces of good lurk behind every bush, ready to pounce to protect the innocent at the first sign of atrocities. Instead, by waging war from the air, they signaled their willingness to kill for high ideals, but not die for them.And the possibility of a slippery escape by negotiation from the unpleasant task of waging a full war hangs over it all.

Like other Western leaders, Axworthy insists all will turn out well when the war is won and Kosovo villages are rebuilt. He believes Kosovo will prove a precedent for future interventions. But getting there has been such an anguished ride it is hard to imagine NATO states going down this road again any time soon. At the next sign of a mistreated minority, they are more likely to remain in the tall grass. And unless that changes, unless those arguing for a civil society accept that it comes only at a price, the concept of a global human security agenda will remain one of those nice academic ideas to mull over at conferences.