Fragilecologies

Environment and War: What's Kosovo Got To Do With It?

April 6, 1999
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzWell, in this column ... my concerns about Kosovo have nothing to do with the environment. This column is not about environmental security in the Balkans. Nor is it about how refugees trample the environment to which they are forced to flee in order to hide from the enemy (and the bombs). It is about a book that I once read that I think might help people to understand how situations like that in Kosovo can happen.

War is not healthy for children and other living things On the edge of Europe and at the end of the 20th century, following on the heels of so much progress in the technical and social areas, war still happens. Why? Is it because two forms of government compete for dominance (democracy versus dictatorship)? Is it because the international system is in disarray? Is it genocide? Is it what has come to be known as 'ethnic cleansing'? Is it a case of the 'crowd mentality' with a whole country getting behind a leader with a personal agenda?

As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, I was introduced to a Columbia University Press book written in 1959 by Kenneth Waltz. His book, entitled Man, the State and War, was an inquiry into the origins of war. Waltz approached this topic by looking at what he called three images, or three levels of social organization — individuals, groups and the state, and the international community.

The first image (individuals) focuses on human nature. He discusses the views of various philosophers on human nature. Are humans basically nasty and brutish with a propensity toward violence, conflict and outright war, or are they kind, peace-loving creatures whose values are distorted by the second image (the state or groups within the state)?

With regard to the second image, the influence of groups and the state government on human activities, people have argued, are the primary forces. Humans are kind and peace-loving, but their behavior changes when in groups. The group mentality takes over. French Philosopher Gustav Le Bon in the 1800s wrote about the crowd mentality. He suggested that if ten people gathered together, an eleventh invisible person would represent the mentality of the crowd and it would be the mentality of the lowest person in the group. Lynch mobs in the old US West might serve as one example.

National leaders can easily generate interest in and support for ethnic solidarity when they present a situation in terms of 'we versus they' or 'our ethnic group vs theirs'; we are being attacked by enemies of our race, religion, culture, language, etc. Such statements from leaders tend to rally people with widely different ideological views around an ethnic flag. So, as long as there are groups or individuals wanting to seek personal political advantage, it is possible to play the ethnic solidarity (we vs. they) card when it comes to war.

Kosovo-Albanian refugees are supplied fresh water from relief workers
Kosovo-Albanian refugees are supplied fresh water from relief workers

Waltz's third image relates to the international community. Many argue that states go to war because there is no global authority strong enough (legally or militarily) to deter them. A solution, of course, is to create a world government, something that has been tried at least twice since the end of World War I: the League of Nations and the United Nations.

Another aspect of this would be the establishment of regional organizations or alliances that are set up in theory to keep the regional peace. The West set up NATO 50 years ago (1949) and the Soviet Union set up the Warsaw Treaty Organization to counter it. Several European countries set up the Common Market (EEC) and the Soviet Union set up COMECON to counter it.

I have used the book as a thought-provoking tool to generate discussion in foreign policy classes I have taught. The recent crises in the Balkans (and they are crises by whatever indicators you use) have caused me to think once again about the Waltz book.

Why is this conflict in Kosovo happening? Why now? Is it a first image problem — a madman who will do anything to stay in power? Is it because of a leader who played the 'we-they' ethnic card in order to rally groups to support his personal ambition (e.g., a second image aspect). Or is it that authoritarian regimes (such as Milosovic's) are inherently more aggressive and war-like than democracies (also a second image aspect)?

Or is it a third image problem: anarchy in the international system now that the Cold War rivalry between superpowers has ended? Given the anarchical state of the international community and given the weakness of the UN system to act against aggression, is it that regional organizations, such as NATO, feel that it is their responsibility to "take charge"?

NATO air strikes in Belgrade
NATO air strikes in Belgrade

With respect to what is going on now in the Balkans in general, and in Kosovo in particular, I have my own biases, views and dilemmas to sort out. Which is worse? Media images of the bombing of a capital city in Europe, or the resulting death and destruction versus ethnic cleansing (a nice word for genocide?) and the hundreds of thousands of refugees of one ethnic persuasion seeking refuge from tyranny in neighboring countries. Which is the lesser of two evils?

This article is not an attempt to persuade the reader one way or another about the cause(s) of the Kosovo crises. It is simply an attempt to inform readers about a book that might provide some new and interesting insights into an incomprehensible war at the end of the second millennium.

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