A First-Lens Analysis
Madeleine Albright: Coercive Diplomat?

   Coercive diplomacy is an attempt, based on the threat to inflict economic or military costs, to persuade an opponent to engage in some specified activity. The Rambouillet conference was a stark example of coercive diplomacy—military action was threatened explicitly if Serbia did not accede to the demands of the Rambouillet organizers. And more than any other diplomat, Albright advocated using military force to resolve the Kosovo question.

  In early 1998 when the conflict in Kosovo began to intensify, Albright reportedly made the case for NATO military action against Serbia. Throughout 1998, she worked to build consensus in NATO and in the Clinton administration for intervention in Kosovo. On 19 January 1999, three days after the Racak massacre, Albright presented a significantly expanded plan of action to other top members of the Clinton national security team and called for a political settlement to be implemented through the deployment of NATO ground troops in Kosovo. If Milosevic would not agree, she argued that NATO should bomb Serbia until Milosevic acquiesced. Albright's bottom line was that she saw no way other than a physical NATO presence to protect against further violence in the region. National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Hugh Shelton all had reservations about the plan, which went beyond anything that had been formally proposed the year before, but in the end passed the plan along to President Clinton, who accepted the approach.

  Almost all of Albright's public statements during the Rambouillet conference focused on coercing the Serb leadership to accept a NATO implementation force. While other allies focused on the political elements of the accord, Albright hammered away at the military portion of the interim agreement. When Albright first arrived at Rambouillet, her spokesman noted, "She is not here to negotiate but to demonstrate that we are ready to back diplomacy by force; by taking part in a peace implementation force if there is an agreement, or by carrying out the NATO threats to submit Serb targets to military air strikes if the Serbs are the cause of a breakdown in the talks" ("Albright arrives in Paris with direct message for Kosovo negotiators," International News Section, Agence France Presse, 14 February 1999).

  Albright had insisted that the talks end after two weeks, but relented to a three-day extension, noting that "the Serb refusal to even consider the peace implementation force is largely responsible for our failure to reach an agreement" ("Peace Talks on Kosovo Extended Three Days," Los Angeles Times, 21 February 1999, A1). At the time she made this statement, the Kosovar Albanians had also rejected the agreement, but her focus remained on coercing the Serbs. Ultimately, Albright's focus paid off as the Albanians signed the agreement and gave NATO maximum leverage to threaten air strikes unless Serbia agreed to NATO deployment on their soil. Since Serb capitulation on the military terms was unlikely, the Albanian signature practically guaranteed that some bombing would occur.

  On one level, the effort at coercive diplomacy at Rambouillet failed. The threat to use force did not lead to Serbian acceptance of the interim agreement; instead, it would take seventy-nine days of bombing to produce a Serbian signature on a modified accord. However, Albright might not have viewed coercive diplomacy's failure at Rambouillet as an overall failure of foreign policy if one recognizes that a limited bombing of Serbia was an equally satisfactory outcome from her perspective.

  Both at the United Nations and as secretary of state, Albright viewed actual military force—not the mere threat to use force—as a diplomatic tool. Indeed, using some limited force may have been Albright's aim. The interim agreement was structured in such a manner that Milosevic was very unlikely to accept it. The actual military appendix to the eighty-two-page document, which was not given to the Serbs until late in the second round of talks in Paris, included a provision to allow NATO free access to Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), not just to the Kosovo region of Serbia. Any leader, authoritarian or democratic, would have had difficulty accepting this direct challenge to his or her own country's territorial sovereignty. The demand for access to all of Serbia, not just Kosovo, seems excessive if the goal was protection of the Kosovar population. It is possible that the ultimatum was constructed so as to fail. Future historians may regard this as an ironic historical twist, since the Austro-Hungarian Empire had also presented Serbia with a harsh ultimatum after the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand in 1914, that many historians have concluded was a pretext for the bombing of Belgrade, which the Austrians began in July 1914. The Austrian bombing of Serbia led to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. Serbian leaders likely understood this historical context in 1999; they were facing another harsh ultimatum from another great power.

  A senior State Department official reportedly confirmed this underlying approach to Rambouillet, telling U.S. journalists in deep background at the conference that "we intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. . . . The Serbs needed a little bombing to see reason" ("What Reporters Knew About Kosovo Talks-But Didn't Tell," Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 2 June 1999 <http://www.fair.org/press-releases/kosovo-talks.html> [18 July 2001]).

  Whether the ultimatum at Rambouillet was designed specifically as a pretext for bombing or simply as a very tough set of demands, the reality facing Milosevic was directed by a highly motivated individual, who viewed force and diplomacy as two sides of the same coin.

  What does a First-Lens focus on Madeleine Albright reveal about decisions at Rambouillet?