In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence; on July 22nd, the International Court of justice ruled that its declaration was legal. In many parts of the West, especially in Washington, this news was greeted with applause. Reading the Kosovo Declaration of Independence, however, one is amazed at the ability of politicians and pundits to compare it to the American Declaration. Joe Biden even goes so far as to compare the Kosovo Prime Minister to George Washington.
In many ways, the situation of the colonies is analogous to the one in Kosovo. The colonies were stuck between the influence of France and Britain, just as Kosovo is caught between Russia—Serbia’s protector—and the United States. And, the colonies were aware that dissolving their ties to Britain risked igniting separations throughout the world, just as the Kosovo declaration might be a precedent for such declarations elsewhere.
Yet, the way in which America declared independence is drastically different from Kosovo. The Kosovo declaration is short, addresses specific United Nations plans for the composition of government, and thanks NATO for its past help. What’s notable is what’s missing: unlike the American Declaration of Independence, it does not justify its secession.
The signers of the American declaration, aware of the danger that secession would cause, explained that”Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” But, given the specific abuses of the King, it is the colonies’ “right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Instead of justifying secession through an appeal to right, the Kosovo declaration narrowly and legalistically justifies its special status. When the American declaration lists twenty-six specific and irrefutable grievances with England; the Kosovo declaration provides no grievance whatsoever. The American declaration is couched in a sophisticated moral and political theory in order to show that any individual can endorse its conclusions; the Kosovo declaration is couched in narrow legalisms designed to provide political cover for the western powers that recognize it.
These are no minor differences. Jefferson thought it right that a declaration of independence makes claims on the conscience of the world, outlining the case for independence, enshrining it in a single compelling statement: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The Kosovo declaration skirts debate, does not make a case for powers to recognize or support it, and represents an international system in which power, not conscience, rules. The American declaration sparked a global debate over the rights of peoples; the Kosovo declaration is sparking a trivial debate over the right interpretation of a UN Security Council Resolution.
In light of the NATO involvement in the Balkans during the late 1990s, the U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence is not surprising. Historically, the U.S. has traditionally backed self-determination movements and independence through de facto recognition. The U.S. supported the French declaration of Independence in 1793, the Greek in the early 19th century—and many more—under the Monroe Doctrine. But this principled position of the U.S. did not last. In the last century, the U.S. has refused to recognize de facto states in Central and Latin America in order to discourage potential rebels and delegitimize Communist regimes. For different reasons, the U.S. did not recognize conquests made by the Fascist Italy and Germany as well as by Stalin before and during WWII. Today, the U.S. refuses to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia but intensely supports Kosovo’s independence. In other words, over time principled foreign policy soon enough gave way to Realpolitik and pragmatism.
In 1953, President Eisenhower declared that “Any nation’s right to a form of government and an economic system of its choosing is inalienable. Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.” Unfortunately, today’s rhetoric does not match reality. Russia and the United States accuse each other of manufacturing independence movements and then guaranteeing their security until de facto independence is secured. Russia accuses of the U.S. of doing this in Kosovo and the U.S. returns the “favor” in the cases of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Our point is not that Albanians in Kosovo have no case to make; but that they have not made their case. The misplaced and even dangerous triumphalism with which western media greeted the ICJ ruling sends the wrong message to aspiring secessionists. The Kosovo declaration addresses narrow international rules and wide channels of power; it does not address the universal conscience of the world. No one can endorse the document because there is nothing to endorse: no cause, no claim, and no challenge to the Serbian government. If the American declaration of independence was the beginning of the growth of an international community that supports self-determination and democratization, the Kosovo declaration represents the failure of the international community to move beyond power politics, disguising Realpolitik with international law. Is this the international system we aspire to?