‘NATO as the Left Hand of God?’ by Slavoj Žižek

The text as published in Law, Justice, and Power: Between Reason and Will, ed. by Sinkwan Cheng and published by Standford University Press in 2004.
The image is used purely for symbolic purposes.

The Impasse of the Left

The winner in the contest for the greatest blunder of 1998 was a Latin American patriotic terrorist who sent a letter bomb to a U.S. consulate to protest against the Americans interfering with local politics. As a conscientious citizen, he wrote his return address on the envelope; however, he did not put enough stamps on it, so the post office returned the letter to him. Forgetting what he had put in it, he opened it and blew himself up—a perfect example of how, ultimately, a letter always arrives at its destination. And is not something quite similar happening to the regime of Slobodan Milošević with the recent NATO bombing? For years, Milošević was sending letter bombs to his neighbors, from the Albanians to Croatia and Bosnia, keeping himself out of the conflict while igniting fire all around Serbia—finally, his last letter returned to him. Let us hope that the result of the NATO intervention will be that Milošević will be proclaimed the political blunderer of the year.

There is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the west finally intervened apropos of Kosovo—let us not forget that it all began there, with Milošević’s ascension to power. This ascension was legitimized by the promise to amend the underprivileged situation of Serbia within the Yugoslav federation, especially with regard to the Albanian “separatism.” Albanians were Milošević’s first target; afterward, he shifted his wrath onto other Yugoslav republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia), until finally the focus of the conflict returned to Kosovo—as in a closed loop of destiny, the arrow returned to the one who shot it by way of setting free the specter of ethnic passions. This is the key point worth remembering: Yugoslavia did not start to disintegrate when the Slovene “secession” triggered the domino effect (first Croatia, then Bosnia, Macedonia . . . ); it was already disintegrating at the time of Milošević’s constitutional reforms in 1987, depriving Kosovo and Vojvodina of their limited autonomy. The fragile balance on which Yugoslavia rested was irretrievably disturbed. From that moment onward, Yugoslavia continued to live only because it hadn’t yet noticed that it was already dead—it was like the proverbial cat in the cartoons walking over the precipice, floating in the air, and falling only when it becomes aware that it has no ground under its feet.

As to this key point, even such a penetrating political philosopher as Alain Badiou insists that the only Yugoslavia worth of respect was Tito’s Yugoslavia, and that in its disintegration along ethnic lines, all sides are ultimately the same: “ethnic cleaners” of their own entity—Serbs, Slovenes, or Bosnians:

The Serb nationalism is worthless. But in what is it worse than others? It is more broad, more expanded, more armed, it had without any doubt more occasions to exercise its criminal passion. But this only depends on circumstances. . . . Let us suppose that, tomorrow, the KLA of the Kosovar nationalists will take power: can one imagine that one Serb will remain in Kosovo? Outside the victimizing rhetorics, we haven’t seen one good political reason to prefer a Kosovar (or Croat, or Albanian, or Slovene, or Muslim-Bosnian) nationalist to the Serb nationalist. . . . Sure, Milošević is a brutish nationalist, as all his colleagues from Croatia, Bosnia, or Albania. . . . From the beginning of the conflict, the Westerners have effectively only taken side, and in an awkward way, of the weak (Bosnian, Kosovar) nationalism against the strong (Serb and subsidiary Croat) nationalism.

The ultimate irony of such leftist nostalgic longing for the lost Yugoslavia is that it ends up identifying as the successor of Yugoslavia the very force that effectively killed it: the Serbia of Milošević. In the post-Yugoslav crisis of the 1990s, it was the (“Muslim”) Bosnia which can be said to stand for the positive legacy of the Titoist Yugoslavia—the much-praised multiculturalist tolerance—: the Serb aggression toward Bosnia was (also) the aggression of Milošević, the first true post-Titoist (the first Yugoslav politician who effectively acted as if Tito were dead, as a perceptive Serb social scientist put it more than a decade ago), against those who desperately clung to the Titoist legacy of ethnic “brotherhood and unity.” No wonder that the supreme commander of the “Muslim” army was General Rasim Delić, an ethnic Serb; no wonder that, all through the 1990s, “Muslim” Bosnia was the only part of ex-Yugoslavia in whose government offices Tito’s portraits were still hanging. To obliterate this crucial aspect of the Yugoslav war, and to reduce the Bosnian conflict to the civil war between different “ethnic groups” in Bosnia, are not neutral gestures, but gestures that adopt the standpoint of one of the sides in the conflict: Serbia.

To justify their avoidance of the inexorable political choice, many leftists resort to the “what if. . .” game (a thoroughly fictional alternative scenario). The favored options here are the fate of the last federal government of Ante Markovic and the recognition of Slovenia and other “secessionist” republics: instead of choosing the “secessionist” path that set in motion the overall destruction, Slovenia and Croatia should have fully supported the Markovic government and thus made possible a unified, peaceful, democratic, market-oriented Yugoslavia. The west should not have recognized Slovene and Croat independence so quickly, because this recognition set the civil war in motion. Both these arguments advocate a thoroughly nonrealistic option: Markovic never had a chance in the face of Milošević’s nationalist populism; the advocacy of the nonrecognition of Slovenia and other “secessionists” is not only factually wrong (in this case, the war would have been even more bloody and protracted because it would render the resistance to the Serb Army more difficult), it also relies on a fatal misreading of the situation: the true “separatist” was none other than Milošević himself, who undermined the fragile balance that kept together Tito’s Yugoslavia, and, paradoxical as it may sound, the separation from him was, for the others, the only way to save what was positive in the idea (that is, the political project) of Yugoslavia.

However, resorting to such fictional scenarios enables us to assume a comfortable position, one in which we can avoid taking sides in the actual conflict. Furthermore, if one accepted the game of (non)recognition, then the only consistent ethicopolitical stance of the “great powers” in 1991 would have been to conclude that Yugoslavia as a federal state, as a sovereign international political subject, ceased to exist once the federal bodies lost efficiency and legitimacy, and consequently to withdraw diplomatic recognition from all post-Yugoslav entities, inclusive of the Serb-dominated new “Yugoslavia,” and to set minimal political conditions (democratic political life, respect of the minority rights, and so on) for the recognition of its parts as sovereign states.

This, of course, does not mean that in ex-Yugoslavia, the worst possible scenario was played out. There is a subgenre of science fiction, the alternative history, in which history plays out differently. The hero may intervene in the past in order to prevent some catastrophic event from occurring, yet the unexpected result of his intervention may be an even worse catastrophe, as in Stephen Fry’s chillingly amusing Making History, in which a scientist intervenes in the past, making Hitler’s father impotent just before Hitler’s conception, so that Hitler is not born. As one can expect, the result of this intervention is that another German officer of aristocratic origins takes over the role of Hitler, develops the atomic bomb, and wins the World War II. .. . And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for ex-Yugoslavia: it might have been worse. Instead of Milošević, there might have been a more intelligent nationalist politician who would successfully play the game of presenting himself to the West as the main proponent of stability in the region.

Perhaps, after a delay of ten years, this can happen now. The partisans of global liberal capitalism see the choice that confronts ex-Yugoslav republics as that between embracing Western liberal capitalism or persisting in their ethnic self-enclosure. But what if this is a false alternative and there is a third choice—the combination of the two that Vesna Pešić, member of the Serb democratic opposition, called the possible “Russification” of Serbia? What if, after Milošević, we’ll get a new ruling elite, composed of the corrupted nouveaux riches and members of the present political class, who will present themselves to the West as “pro-Western” (in order to get Western financial support), while endlessly postponing true democratic changes, justifying it by special circumstances, and (while, in internal politics, actually following the nationalist line) claiming that if the west withdraws its support from it, the nationalist hard-liners will take over again?

This phenomenon is more general than it may appear. In a lot of third world states, the ideological interpellation of the ruling elite is double: the elite in the cities resort to liberal-democratic interpellation while simultaneously interpellating individuals (especially in remote areas) as members of an exclusive ethnic community. And the illusion of a lot of political agents, from patronizingly benevolent Western interveners to Mandela, is that it is possible to simply suspend the ethnic identification, this alleged source of “tribal ethnic savage violence,” and directly impose the regime of universal democratic citizenship. As the experience from Bosnia to Kenya demonstrates, this solution doesn’t function: in this case, the catastrophic outcome is that the main political options get overdetermined (or invested, colored) by ethnic differences: a certain political orientation is identified with members of a certain ethnic community.

So, back to Serbia, the proof of Milošević’s hegemony is that, until now, no political force, not even the most “democratic” one, was able to formulate an all-inclusive platform interpellating and including Albanians. Their exclusion was silently accepted by everyone—that is, all parties concerned shared a substantial nationalistic agenda. Even if some most radical circles of the Serb “democratic opposition” unambiguously admitted and condemned Serb crimes against Albanians (for that, they deserve full recognition), they were unable to propose a political platform that would not only condemn the violence against Albanians as object-victims, but also actively interpellate them as political subjects, making them part of a common movement. In clear contrast to it, and notwithstanding the presence of the “regressive” political tendencies in other ex-Yugoslav republics, in all of them, there are serious political forces that advocate a platform that also addresses the ethnic Other. That is, in them, there is no nationalist consensus. And this is probably the minimum criterion of democratic politics in ex-Yugoslavia: the absence of a nationalist consensus between power and opposition.

The ultimate cause of the opposition to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in some leftist circles is their refusal to confront the impasse of today’s left. This refusal also explains the properly uncanny appeal of negative gestures like the spectacular retreat of the German superminister Oskar Lafontaine: the very fact that he stepped down without giving a reason, combined with his demonization in the predominant mass media (from the front-page headline of The Sun —“The most dangerous man in Europe”— to the photo of him in Bild, portraying him in profile, as in a mug shot), made him an ideal projection for all the fantasies of the frustrated left that reject the predominant Third Way politics. If Lafontaine were to stay, he would save the essentials of the welfare state, restore the proper role to the trade unions, reassert the control of politics over the “autonomous” financial politics of the state banks, even prevent the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. . . . Although Lafontaine’s elevation to a cult figure has its positive side (it articulates the utopian desires for an authentic left that would break the hegemonic Third Way stance of accepting the unquestioned reign of the logic of the capital), suspicions should nonetheless be raised that there is something false about it. Very simply, if Lafontaine were effectively in the position to accomplish at least some of the above-mentioned goals, he would simply not step down. Rather, he would go on with his job. The cult of Lafontaine is thus possible only as a negative gesture: it is his stepping down that created the void in which utopian leftist energies can be invested, relying on the illusion that, if external circumstances (for example, Schroeder’s opportunism) were not preventing Lafontaine from doing his task, he would effectively accomplish something. The true problem, however, is this: what would have happened if Lafontaine had not been forced to step down? The sad but most probable answer is that either nothing of real substance would have happened (he would have been gradually “gentrified,” coopted into the predominant Third Way politics, as had already happened with Jospin in France), or his interventions would have triggered a global economic-political crisis forcing him—again—to step down and discrediting Social Democracy as unable to govern. (In this respect, Lafontaine is a phenomenon that parallels the leaders of Prague in spring 1968: in a way, the soviet intervention saved face. It provided the illusion that, if they could remain in power, they would effectively give birth to a “socialism with a human face,” to an authentic alternative to both Real Socialism and Real Capitalism.)

Human Rights and Their Obverse

Does this mean that one should simply praise the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia as the first case of an intervention—not into the confused situation of a civil war, but into a country with full sovereign power? True, it may appear comforting to see the NATO forces intervene not for any specific economic-strategic interests, but simply because a country is cruelly violating the basic human rights of an ethnic group. Is not this the only hope in our global era—to see some internationally acknowledged force as a guarantee that all countries will respect a certain minimum of ethical (and, one hopes, also health, social, ecological) standards? This is the message that Vaclav Havel tries to bring home in his essay, significantly titled “Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State”; according to Havel, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia

places human rights above the rights of the state. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was attacked by the alliance without a direct mandate from the UN. This did not happen irresponsibly, as an act of aggression or out of disrespect for international law. It happened, on the contrary, out of respect for the law, for a law that ranks higher than the law which protects the sovereignty of states. The alliance has acted out of respect for human rights, as both conscience and international legal documents dictate. (6)

Havel further specifies this “higher law” when he claims that “human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world. . . . while the state is a human creation, human beings are the creation of God” (6). If we read Havel’s two statements as the two premises of a judgment, the conclusion that imposes itself is none other than that the NATO forces were allowed to violate the existing international law because they acted as a direct instrument of the “higher law” of God himself. If this is not a clear-cut case of “religious fundamentalism,” then this term is devoid of any minimally consistent meaning. There are, however, a series of features that disturb this idyllic picture: the first thing that cannot but arouse suspicion is how, in the NATO justification of the intervention, the reference to the violation of human rights is always accompanied by the vague but ominous reference to “strategic interests.” The story of NATO as the enforcer of the respect for human rights is thus only one of the two coherent stories that can be told about the bombings of Yugoslavia, and the problem is that each story has its own rationale. The second story concerns the other side of the much-praised new global ethical politics in which one is allowed to violate the state sovereignty on behalf of the violation of human rights. The first glimpse into this other side is provided by the way the big Western media selectively elevate some local “warlord” or dictator into the embodiment of Evil: Sadam Hussein, Milošević, up to the unfortunate (now forgotten) Aidid in Somalia. At every point, it is or was “the community of civilized nations against. . . .” And on what criterion does this selection rely? Why Albanians in Serbia, but not also Palestinians in Israel, Kurds in Turkey, and so on? Here, of course, we enter the shady world of international capital and its strategic interests.

According to Project CENSORED (Carl Jensen, Censored 1999), the top censored story of 1998 was that of a half-secret international agreement in working, called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The primary goal of MAI is to protect the foreign interests of multinational companies. The agreement will basically undermine the sovereignty of nations by assigning power to the corporations that is almost equal to that of the countries in which these corporations are located. Governments will no longer be able to treat their domestic firms more favorably than foreign firms. Furthermore, countries that do not relax their environmental, landuse, and health and labor standards to meet the demands of foreign firms may be accused of acting illegally. Corporations will be able to sue sovereign states if they impose ecological or other standards that they deem too severe. Under NAFTA (which is the main model for MAI), Ethyl Corporation already sued Canada for banning the use of its gasoline additive MMT. The greatest threat is, of course, to the developing nations that will be pressured into depleting their natural resources for commercial exploitation. Renato Ruggerio, director of the World Trade Organization, the sponsor of MAI, is already hailing this project, elaborated and discussed in a clandestine manner, with almost no public discussion and media attention, as the “constitution for a new global economy.” And in the same way in which, already for Marx, market relations provided the true foundation for the notion of individual freedoms and rights, this is also the obverse of the much-praised new global morality celebrated even by some neoliberal philosophers as signaling the beginning of a new era in which the international community will establish and enforce some minimal code that prevents sovereign states from engaging in crimes against humanity, even within its own territory. The recent catastrophic economic situation in Russia, far from being the heritage of old socialist mismanagement, is a direct result of this global capitalist logic embodied in MAI.

This other story also has its ominous military side. The ultimate lesson of the last American military interventions, from Operation Desert Fox against Iraq at the end of 1998 to the renewed war against Iraq in 2003, is that they signal a new era in military history—battles in which the attacking force operates under the constraint that it can sustain no casualties. When the first stealth fighter fell in Serbia, the emphasis of the American media was that there were no casualties—the pilot was saved! (This concept of “war without casualties” was elaborated by General Colin Powell.) And was not the counterpoint to it the almost surreal way CNN reported on the war: not only was it presented as a TV event, but the Iraqis themselves seem to treat it this way. During the day, Bagdad was a normal city, with people going about their business, as if war and bombardment were unreal, nightmarish specters that occurred only during the night and did not take place in effective reality.

Let us recall what went on in the final American assault on the Iraqi lines during the Gulf War: no photos, no reports—just rumors that tanks with bulldozer-like shields in front of them rolled over Iraqi trenches, simply burying thousands of troops in earth and sand. What went on was allegedly considered too cruel in its sheer mechanical efficiency, too different from the standard notion of heroic face-to-face combat, with images that would perturb too much. Public opinion could not handle it, so a total censorship blackout was strictly imposed. Here we have the two aspects joined together: the new notion of war as a purely technological event, taking place behind radar and computer screens, with no casualties, and extreme physical cruelty too unbearable for the gaze of the media—not the crippled children and raped women, victims of caricaturized local ethnic “fundamentalist warlords,” but thousands of nameless soldiers, victims of efficient technological warfare. When Jean Baudrillard made the claim that the Gulf War did not take place, this statement could also be read in the sense that such traumatic pictures that stand for the Real of this war were totally censored.

There is another, even more disturbing aspect to be discerned in this virtualization of the war. The usual Serb complaint is that instead of confronting them face to face, as befits brave soldiers, NATO was cowardly bombing them from distant ships and planes. And, effectively, the lesson here is that it is thoroughly false to claim that war is made less traumatic if it is no longer experienced by the soldiers (or presented) as an actual encounter with another human being to be killed, but as an abstract activity in front of a screen or behind a gun far from the explosion, like guiding a missile on a warship hundreds of miles away from its target. Although this kind of distance makes the soldier less guilty, it is open to question whether it effectively causes less anxiety. Take, for example, the strange fact that soldiers often fantasize about killing the enemy in a face-to-face confrontation, looking him into the eyes before stabbing him with a bayonet (in a kind of military version of the sexual false memory syndrome, they even often “remember” such encounters when they never took place). There is a long literary tradition of elevating such face-to-face encounters as an authentic war experience (see the writings of Ernst Juenger, who praised them in his memoirs of the trench attacks in World War I). So what if the truly traumatic feature is not the awareness that I am killing another human being (to be obliterated through the “dehumanization” and “objectivization” of war into a technical procedure), but, on the contrary, this very “objectivization,” which then generates the need to supplement it by the fantasies of authentic personal encounters with the enemy? It is thus not the fantasy of a purely aseptic war run as a video game behind computer screens that protects us from the reality of the face-to-face killing of another person; it is, rather, this fantasy of a face-to-face encounter with an enemy killed in a bloody confrontation that we construct in order to escape the trauma of the depersonalized war turned into an anonymous technological apparatus.

The Ideology of Victimization

What all this means is that the impasse of the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia is not simply the result of some particular failure of strategic reasoning, but depends on the fundamental inconsistency of the very notion on which this intervention relies. The problem with NATO acting in Yugoslavia as an agent of “militaristic humanismism” or even “militaristic pacifism” (Ulrich Beck) is not that these terms are Orwellian oxymorons (reminding us of “peace is war” slogans from his 1984), which, as such, directly belies the truth of its position (against this obvious pacifist-liberal criticism, I rather think that it is the pacifist position—“more bombs and killing never brings peace”—which is a fake, and that one should heroically endorse the paradox of militaristic pacifism); it is neither that, obviously, the targets of bombardment are not chosen out of pure moral consideration, but selectively, depending on unadmitted geopolitical and economic strategic interests (the obvious Marxist-style criticism). The problem is rather that this purely humanitarian-ethic legitimization (again) thoroughly depoliticizes the military intervention, changing it from an intervention into humanitarian catastrophe grounded in purely moral reasons, not an intervention into a well-defined political struggle. In other words, the problem with “militaristic humanism/pacifism” resides not in “militaristic,” but in “humanism/pacifism”: in the way the “militaristic” intervention (into the social struggle) is presented as a help to the victims of (for example, ethnic) hatred and violence, justified directly in depoliticized universal human rights. Consequently, what we need is not a “true” (demilitarized) humanism/pacifism, but a “militaristic” social intervention divested of the depoliticized humanist/pacifist coating.

Even the large majority of those who opposed the NATO bombing silently accepted this moralistic logic and merely complained that this logic was not fully implemented, that there were other (strategic, geopolitical) interests behind it. The typical stance of a moralist opponent to the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia was that he supports the moral consideration for human rights, but deplores the concrete way in which NATO militarily intervened (bombing bridges and civilian objects). What I am tempted to do is to reverse this commonplace: the NATO intervention ultimately did bring about some good results (refugees are returning; the Milošević rule is for the first time seriously threatened), but what was problematic about it was precisely its depoliticized humanitarian legitimization, the most outstanding expression of the new moral tone that pervades contemporary political discourse more and more.

To get a taste of this falsity, it is sufficient to compare this recent moral tone with the great emancipatory movements based on the universalist moral appeal epitomized by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Gandhi and King led movements directed not against a certain group of people but against concrete (racist, colonialist) institutionalized practices. Their movements involved a positive, all-inclusive stance that, far from excluding the “enemy” (whites, English colonizers), made an appeal to their moral sense and asked them to do something that would restore their own moral dignity. As Wendy Brown astutely demonstrated, the predominant form of today’s “politically correct” moralism, on the contrary, is that of the Nietzschean ressentiment and envy: it is the fake gesture of the disavowed politics, of assuming a “moral,” depoliticized stance in order to make a stronger political case. We are dealing here with a perverted version of what, in the good old days of dissidence, Havel called the “power of the powerless”: one manipulates one’s powerlessness as a stratagem in order to gain more power in exactly the same way that today, in our politically correct times, in order for one’s voice to gain authority, one has to legitimize oneself as being some kind of a (potential or actual) victim of power. This stance is not assertive, but controlling, leveraging, bridling—like the “ethical committees” in the sciences popping up everywhere today, which are mainly concerned with how to define the limits and prevent things (say, biogenetic engineering) from happening. So, in this perspective, every actual act is bad: when Serbs cleanse Kosovo of Albanians, it’s bad; when NATO intervenes to prevent it, it’s bad; when the KLA strikes back, it’s bad—every excuse is good because it allows us to claim that of course we await an act, we want an act—but a proper moralistic act, the conditions for which are simply never here—like the proverbial falsely enlightened husband who, in principle, agrees that his wife can take lovers but complains of every actual lover she chooses, “You can have lovers, but not this one. Why did you have to pick this miserable guy?”

The ultimate cause of this moralistic depoliticization is, of course, the retreat of the great leftist historical-political narratives and projects. In this constellation, rationally convinced that the radical change of the existing liberal-democratic capitalist system is no longer even imaginable as a serious political project, but nonetheless unable to fully renounce their passionate attachment to the prospect of such a global change, the disappointed leftists invest the thwarted excess of their political energy that cannot find satisfaction in the moderate changes within the system, into the abstract and excessively rigid moralizing stance. So the choice is: either we resignedly renounce this “excessive” stubborn attachment to the prospect of global change and “maturely” accept our postpolitical universe of particular pragmatic solutions, or we risk a thorough repoliticization that would translate the false moralist zeal back into a radical ethico-political commitment.

A May 12,1999, report by Steven Erlanger on the suffering of the Kosovo Albanians in the New York Times perfectly renders this logic of depoliticized victimization (A13). Its title is telling: “In One Kosovo Woman, an Emblem of Suffering”—the subject to be protected (by the NATO intervention) is from the outset identified as a powerless victim of circumstances, deprived of all political identity, reduced to bare suffering. Her basic stance is that of excessive suffering, of traumatic experience that blurs all differences: “She’s seen too much, Meli said. She wants a rest. She wants it to be over.” As such, she is beyond any political recrimination—an independent Kosovo is not on her agenda; she just wants the horror to be over: “Does she favor an independent Kosovo? ‘You know, I don’t care if it’s this or that,’ Meli said. ‘I just want all this to end, and to feel good again, to feel good in my place and my house with my friends and family.’” Her support of the foreign (NATO) intervention is grounded in her wish for all this horror to be over: “She wants a settlement that brings foreigners here ‘with some force behind them.’ She is indifferent about who the foreigners are.” Consequently, she sympathizes with all the sides in an all-embracing humanist stance: “There is tragedy enough for everyone,” she says. “I feel sorry for the Serbs who’ve been bombed and died, and I feel sorry for my own people. But maybe now there will be a conclusion, a settlement for good. That would be great.” Here we have the ideological construction of the ideal subject-victim to whose aid NATO intervenes: not a political subject with a clear agenda, but a subject of helpless suffering, sympathizing with all suffering sides in the conflict, caught in the madness of a local clash that can only be pacified by the intervention of a benevolent foreign power, a subject whose innermost desire is reduced to the almost animal craving to “feel good again.”

The ultimate paradox of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia is thus not the one about which Western pacifists complain (by bombing Yugoslavia in order to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO effectively triggered a large-scale cleansing and thus created the very humanitarian catastrophe it wanted to prevent), but a deeper paradox involved in the ideology of victimization: the key aspect to take note of is NATO’s privileging of the now discredited “moderate” Kosovar faction of Ibrahim Rugova against the “radical” Kosovo Liberation Army. What this means is that NATO is actively blocking the only and obvious alternative to the ground intervention of Western military forces: the full-scale armed resistance of the Albanians themselves. (The moment this option is mentioned, fears start to circulate: KLA is not really an army, just a bunch of untrained fighters; we should not trust KLA because it is involved in drug trafficking and/or is a Maoist group whose victory would led to a Khmer Rouge or Taliban regime in Kosovo. . . .) Now, with the agreement on the Serb Army’s withdrawal from Kosovo, this distrust against the KLA resurfaced with a vengeance: after a couple of weeks in which it seemed that the U.S. army was seriously counting on the KLA against the Serb forces, the topic of the day is again the “danger” that, after the Serb army’s withdrawal, the KLA will—as the NATO sources and the media like to put it—“fill in the vacuum” and take over. The message of this distrust, again, cannot be clearer: it’s OK to help the helpless Albanians against the Serb monsters, but in no way are they to be allowed to effectively cast off this helplessness by way of asserting themselves as a sovereign and self-reliant political subject, a subject with no need for the benevolent charge of the NATO “protectorate.”

In short, while NATO is intervening in order to protect the Kosovar victims, at the same time, it is taking care that they will remain victims, not an active politicomilitary force capable of defending itself. The strategy of NATO is thus perverse in the precise Freudian sense of the term: it is itself (co)responsible for the calamity against which it offers itself as a remedy (like the mad governess from Patricia Highsmith’s “Pleroine”, who sets the family house on fire in order to be able to prove her devotion to the family by bravely saving the children from the raging fire). What we encounter here is again the paradox of victimization: the Other to be protected is good insofar as it remains a victim (which is why we are bombarded with pictures of helpless Kosovar mothers, children, and the elderly, all telling moving stories of their suffering); the moment it no longer behaves as a victim but wants to strike back on its own, it suddenly, magically turns into a terrorist/fundamentalist/drug-trafficking Other.

The uncanny phenomenon that is strictly correlative to this logic of victimization is the blurring of the line of separation between private and public in the political discourse: when the German defense minister Rudolph Scharping tried to justify the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, he did not present his stance as something grounded in a clear, cold decision. Rather, he went deep into rendering his inner turmoil public, openly evoking his doubts, his moral dilemmas regarding this difficult decision. So if this tendency catches on, we shall no longer have politicians who will publicly speak the cold, impersonal official language, following the ritual of public declarations, but rather will share their inner turmoils and doubts with the public in a unique display of “sincerity.” Here, however, the mystery begins: one would expect this “sincere” sharing of private dilemmas to act as a countermeasure to the predominant cynicism of those in power: is not the ultimate cynic a politician who, in his public discourse, speaks in a cold, dignified language about the high politics, while privately he entertains a distance toward his statements, well aware of particular pragmatic considerations that lie behind these high-principled public statements? It thus may seem that the natural counterpoint to cynicism is the “dignified” public discourse. However, a closer look soon reveals that the “sincere” revealing of inner turmoils is the ultimate, highest form of cynicism. The impersonal dignified public speech counts on the gap between public and private. We are well aware that when a politician speaks in the official dignified tone, he speaks as the stand-in for the Institution, not as a psychological individual (that is, the Institution speaks through him), and therefore nobody expects him to be “sincere” because that is simply not the point (in the same way, a judge who passes a sentence is not expected to be “sincere,” but simply to follow and apply the law, whatever his sentiments). On the other hand, the public sharing of the inner turmoils, the coincidence between public and private, even and especially when it is psychologically “sincere,” is cynical—not because such a public display of private doubts and uncertainties is faked, concealing the true privacy. What this display conceals is the objective sociopolitical and ideological dimension of the decisions, so the more this display is psychologically “sincere,” the more it is “objectively” cynical in that it mystifies the true social meaning and effect of these decisions.

So how are we to break out of this deadlock? A year or so ago, on Austrian TV, there was a roundtable discussion about Kosovo with a Serb, a Kosovar Albanian, and a German-speaking pacifist. The Serb and the Kosovar were arguing in a clear and “rational” way (rational, of course, if one accepts the underlying politico-ideological premise of their respective reasoning): the Serb for the Serb right to retain their hold over Kosovo, the Kosovar for the right of the Albanian majority there to freely decide their fate. However, the pacifist basically ignored their arguments and just repeatedly insisted that they should renounce violence and promise not to shoot and kill each other, that they should strive to replace intolerance and hatred with the tolerant acceptance of the Other. … In the midst of these pacifist’s ruminations, the Serb and the Kosovar, the two sworn enemies, quickly, almost imperceptibly, exchanged their glances in an amused and perplexed way, as if, in an unexpected gesture of solidarity, saying to each other: “What is this idiot talking about? How can he be so stupid as not to understand anything at all}” And my point is that if this brief moment of solidarity could have been somehow operationalized (to put it in an ironically brutal way, if the Serb and the Kosovar were to tell to each other: “Do we really have to take this crap? Let’s just shoot the idiot and go on . . .”), there would be some real hope for Serb-Kosovar relations. That is to say, how are we to interpret this exchange of gazes? The obvious way would be to read it as the sign of the obscene solidarity of “primitive” ethnic murderers directed against a sincere civilized pacifist: “Let him go—the idiot doesn’t know what pleasure ethnic hatred can bring!” However, what if the perplexity of the two ex-Yugoslavs rather expressed their awareness of how the pacifist’s attitude itself displayed a patronizing, racist ignorance?

The point here is not to get a cheap laugh at the pacifist’s sincere effort, but rather to bring to light its hidden arrogance. Michael Ignatieff, with whose liberal approach I otherwise profoundly disagree, recently drew attention to the term “protectorate” used to describe the immediate political status of Kosovo: as if the international community were dealing with immature people who had to be disciplined and protected from their destructive impulses by a benevolent outside force. For the same reason, one should reject the multiculturalist pacifist appeals to tolerance. They also involve a gesture of disabling the other, as if we are dealing with fighting children who should be taught to treat each other kindly. Again, paradoxical and counterintuitive as it may appear, one should therefore reject the patronizing diagnostic of Yugoslav war(s) in terms of “ethnic” or “nationalist” conflicts—the struggle was between different political options. This perception (“ethnic conflict”) is itself a distortion that involves an a priori moral patronizing judgment (the people are “immature,” all sides are the same, the need for protectorate . . . ) and is thus part of the moralizing depoliticization of the situation.

The Carnival in the Eye of the Storm

The “disavowal of reality” in the NATO-Yugoslav war was double: the Serb counterpart to the NATO fantasy of war without casualties, of a precise surgical operation ideologically sustained by the ideology of global victimization, was—in the first weeks of the NATO bombardment—the faked carnivalization of the war, which involved the total disconnection from the reality of what went on down in Kosovo. So, on the one hand, we had the more and more openly racist tone of the Western media reports on the war: when three American soldiers were taken prisoners, CNN dedicated the first ten minutes of the news to their predicament (although everyone knew that nothing would happen to them!), and only then reported on the tens of thousands of refugees, the burned villages, and new ghost town of Pristina. And the Serb counterpoint to it was the obscenities of the state propaganda: they regularly referred to Clinton not as “the American president,” but as “the American Fuehrer”; two of the posters on their stateorganized anti-NATO demonstrations were “Clinton, come here and be our Monica!” (that is, suck our . . . ), and “Monica, did you also suck out his brain?” This is where the NATO planners got it wrong, caught in their schemes of strategic reasoning, unable to forecast that the Serb reaction to bombardment will be recourse to a collective Bakhtinian carnivalization of the social life.

The standard topic of critical psychiatry is that a “madman” is not in himself mad, but rather functions as a kind of focal point in which the pathological tension that permeates the entire group (family) to which he belongs finds its outlet. The “madman” is the product of the group pathology, the symptomatic point in which the global pathology becomes visible—one can say that all other members of the group succeed in retaining (the appearance of) their sanity by condensing their pathology in (or by projecting it onto) the sacrificial figure of the madman, this exception who grounds the global order of group sanity. However, more interesting than this is the opposite case, exemplified by the life of Bertrand Russell. He lived until his death in his late 90s a long, normal life, full of creativity and “healthy” sexual satisfactions, yet all the people around him, members of his larger family, seemed to be afflicted with some kind of madness. He had love affairs with most of the wives of his sons, and most of his sons and other close relatives committed suicide. It is thus as if, in a kind of inversion of the standard logic of group sanity guaranteed by the exclusion of the “madman,” here, we have the central figure who retained (the appearance of) his sanity by way of spreading his madness all around him, onto all his close relatives. The task of critical analysis here, of course, is to demonstrate how the true point of madness of this social network is precisely the only point that appears “sane”: its central paternal figure who perceives madness everywhere around himself, but is unable to recognize in himself its true source.

And does the same not hold’ for the predominant way the Serbs perceive their role today? On the one hand, one can argue that, for the West, Serbia is a symptomatic point in which the repressed truth of a more global situation violently breaks out. On the other hand, Serbs behave as an island of sanity in the sea of nationalist/secessionist madness all around them, refusing to acknowledge even a part of responsibility. It is illuminating to watch the Serb satellite state TV that targets the foreign public: no reports on atrocities in Kosovo are presented, and refugees are mentioned only as people fleeing the NATO bombing. The overall idea is that Serbia, the island of peace, the only place in ex-Yugoslavia that was not touched by the war raging all around it, is attacked by the NATO madmen destroying bridges and hospitals.

No wonder, then, that the atmosphere in Belgrade in the first weeks of the war was carnivalesque in a faked way—when they were not in shelters, people danced to rock or ethnic music on the streets, under the motto “With music against bombs!”, playing the role of the defiant victims (because they know that NATO does not really bomb civilian targets). Although it may fascinate some confused pseudo-leftists, this obscene carnivalization of the social life is effectively the other, public, face of ethnic cleansing: while in Belgrade people defiantly dance on the streets, three hundred kilometers to the south, genocide of monstrous proportions is taking place. So when, in the nighttime, crowds are camping out on the Belgrade bridges, participating in pop and ethnic music concerts held there in a defiantly festive mood, offering their bodies as the live shield to prevent the bridges from being bombed, the answer to this faked pathetic gesture should be a very simple one: why don’t you go to Kosovo and start a rock carnival in the Albanian parts of Pristina? And when people are wearing papers with a target emblem printed on them, the obscene falsity of this gesture cannot but strike the eye: can one imagine the real targets, years ago in Sarajevo or now in Kosovo, wearing such signs?

What is this almost psychotic refusal to perceive one’s responsibility grounded in? There is a well-known Israeli joke about Clinton visiting Bibi Netanyahu. When, in Bibi’s office, Clinton saw a mysterious blue phone, he asked Bibi what it was. Bibi answered that it allowed him to dial God up there in the sky. Upon his return to the United States, the envious Clinton demanded that the Secret Service provide him such a phone at any cost. In two weeks, they delivered it and it worked—but the phone bill was exorbitant: $2 million for a one-minute talk with God. So Clinton furiously called Bibi and complained: “How can you afford such a phone, if even we, who support you financially, cannot? Is this how you spend our money?” Bibi calmly answered: “No, it’s not that—you see, for us Jews, that call counts as a local call!”

The problem with Serbs is that, in their self-perception, they tend more and more to imitate Jews and identify themselves as the people for whom the phone call to God counts as a local call. That is to say, in the last years, the Serb propaganda promoted the identification of Serbia as the second Israel, with Serbs as the chosen nation and Kosovo as their West Bank where they fight, in the guise of “Albanian terrorists,” their own intifada. They went as far as repeating the old Israeli complaint against the Arabs: “We will pardon you for what you did to us, but we will never pardon you for forcing us to do to you the horrible things we had to do in order to defend ourselves!” The hilariously mocking Serb apology for shooting down the stealth bomber was, “Sorry, we didn’t know you were invisible!” One is tempted to say that the answer to Serb complaints about the “irrational barbaric bombing” of their country should be, “Sorry, we didn’t know you are a chosen nation!”

When the Western powers continuously repeat that they are not fighting the Serb people, but rather their corrupt leaders, they rely on the (typically liberal) wrong premise that Serbs are victims of their evil leadership personified in Milošević, that they are manipulated by him. The painful fact is that the Serb aggressive nationalism enjoys the support of the large majority of the population—no, Serbs are not passive victims of nationalist manipulation, they are not Americans in disguise, just waiting to be delivered from the nationalist spell. On the other hand, this misperception is accompanied by the apparently contradictory notion according to which Balkan people are living in the past, fighting old battles again and again, perceiving recent situation through old myths. I am tempted to say that these two cliches should be precisely turned around: not only are people not “good,” because they let themselves be manipulated with obscene pleasure, but there are also no ‘old myths” that we need to study if we are really to understand the complex situation, just the present outburst of racist nationalism that, according to its needs, opportunistically resuscitates old myths. To paraphrase the old Clintonian motto: no, it’s not the old myths and ethnic hatreds, it’s the political power struggle, stupid!

Where, in all this, is the much-praised Serb “democratic opposition”? One shouldn’t be too hard on them: in the present situation of Serbia, of course, any attempt at public disagreement would probably trigger direct death threats. On the other hand, one should nonetheless notice that there was a certain limit that, as far as I know, even the most radical Serb democratic opposition was never able to trespass: the farthest they can go is to admit the monstrous nature of Serb nationalism and ethnic cleansing, but nonetheless to insist that Milošević is ultimately just one in a series of the nationalist leaders who are to be blamed for the violence of the last decade: Milošević, Tudjman, Izetbegović, Kučan—they are ultimately all the same. I am not claiming, against such a vision, that one should put all the blame on Serbs. My point is just that instead of such pathetic apolitical generalizations (“they are all mad, all to blame”), one should, more than ever, insist on a concrete political analysis of the power struggles that triggered the catastrophe. And it is the rejection of such an analysis that accounts for the ultimate hypocrisy of the pacifist attitude toward the Kosovo war: “the true victims are women and children on all sides, so stop the bombing; more violence never helped to end violence—it just pushes us deeper into the vortex.”

So what should the Serb “democratic opposition” do? Let us recall Freud’s late book on Moses and monotheism: how did he react to the Nazi anti-Semitic threat? Not by joining the ranks of the beleaguered Jews in the defense of their legacy, but by targeting its own people, the most precious part of the Jewish legacy, the founding figure of Moses—that is, by endeavoring to deprive Jews of this figure, proving that Moses was not a Jew at all—this way, he effectively undermined the very unconscious foundation of the anti-Semitism. And is it not that Serbs should today risk a similar act with regard to Kosovo as their precious object-treasure, the cradle of their civilization, that which matters to them more than everything else and which they are never able to renounce? Therein resides the final limit of the large majority of the so-called democratic opposition to the Milošević regime: they unconditionally endorse Milošević’s anti-Albanian nationalist agenda, even accusing him of making compromises with the west and “betraying” Serb national interests in Kosovo. In the course of the student demonstrations against Milošević’s Socialist Party falsification of the election results in winter 1996, the Western media who closely followed the events and praised the revived democratic spirit in Serbia rarely mentioned the fact that one of the regular slogans of the demonstrators against the special police forces was “Instead of kicking us, go to Kosovo and kick out the Albanians!” For this very reason, the sine qua non of an authentic act in Serbia today would be precisely to renounce the claim to Kosovo, to sacrifice the substantial attachment to the privileged object. (What we have here is thus a nice case of the political dialectic of democracy: although democracy is the ultimate goal, in today’s Serbia, any direct advocacy of democracy that leaves uncontested nationalistic claims about Kosovo is doomed to fail —the issue, apropos of which the struggle for democracy will be decided, is that of Kosovo.)

The Second Way

The conclusion that imposes itself is thus that what we have here, in the NATO-Yugoslav conflict, is a political example of the famous drawing in which we recognize the contours either of a rabbit head or of a goose head, depending on our mental focus. If we look at the situation in a certain way, we see the international community enforcing minimal human rights standards on a nationalist neocommunist leader engaged in ethnic cleansing, ready to ruin his own nation just to retain power. If we shift the focus, we see NATO, the armed hand of the new capitalist global order, defending the strategic interests of the capital in the guise of a disgusting travesty, posing as a disinterested enforcer of human rights, attacking a sovereign country that, in spite of the problematic nature of its regime, nonetheless acts as an obstacle to the unbridled assertion of the New World Order.

How, then, are we to think these two stories together, without sacrificing the truth of each of them? A good starting point would be to reject the double blackmail implied in their contrast (if you are against NATO strikes, you are for Milošević’s protofascist regime of ethnic cleansing, and if you are against Milošević, you support the global capitalist New World Order). What if this very opposition between enlightened international intervention against ethnic fundamentalists, and the heroic last pockets of resistance against the New World Order, is a false one? What if phenomena like the Milošević regime are not the opposite to the New World Order, but rather its symptom, the place at which the hidden truth of the New World Order emerges? Recently, one of the American negotiators said that Milošević is not only part of the problem, but rather the problem itself. However, was this not clear from the very beginning? Why, then, the interminable procrastination of the Western powers, playing for years into Milošević’s hands, acknowledging him as a key factor of stability in the region, misreading clear cases of Serb aggression as civil or even tribal warfare, initially putting the blame on those who immediately saw what Milošević stands for and, for that reason, desperately wanted to escape his grasp (see James Baker’s public endorsement of a “limited military intervention” against Slovene secession), supporting the last Yugoslav prime minister Ante Markovic, whose program was, in an incredible case of political blindness, seriously considered as the last chance for a democratic market-oriented, unified Yugoslavia, and so on? When the West fights Milošević, it is not fighting its enemy, one of the last points of resistance against the liberal-democratic New World Order; it is rather fighting its own creature, a monster that grew as the result of the compromises and inconsistencies of the Western politics itself. (And, incidentally, it is the same as with Iraq: its strong position is also the result of the American strategy of containing Iran.)

In the last decade, the west followed a Hamlet-like procrastination toward Balkan, and the present bombardment effectively has all the signs of Hamlet’s final murderous outburst in which a lot of people unnecessarily die (not only the king, his true target, but also his mother, Laertius, and Hamlet himself), because Hamlet acted too late, when the proper moment had already passed. We are clearly dealing with a hysterical acting out, with an escape into activity, with a gesture that, instead of trying to achieve a welldefined goal, rather bears witness to the fact that there is no such goal, that the agent is caught in a web of conflicting goals. This also accounts for the insufficiency of the otherwise correct statement that, at the Rambouillet negotiations in the early spring of 1999, the Western proposal put Yugoslavia in an untenable position, effectively stripping it of its sovereignty: it demanded that the NATO ground troops be granted free access not only to Kosovo, but to the military facilities in all of Yugoslavia; the free use of all transport facilities; the exemption from being prosecuted by the Yugoslav authorities for any crimes committed; and so on—in short, an effective occupation of Yugoslavia. Does this not raise the suspicion that, at least for the United States, the Rambouillet meeting was from the very beginning not considered a serious negotiation? Was not the goal from the very beginning to put Serbs in a position to reject the western nonnegotiable proposal and thus to provide the blueprint for the bombing by putting the blame on the Milošević’s “stubborn rejection of the peace proposal”? However, although this observation is in itself adequate, one should nonetheless take note that its “excessive” character derives not from any direct “malevolence” or aggressive intent of the west, but from the simple and quite understandable frustration at being duped for so many years by Milošević s maneuver (recall the humiliations the UN forces were exposed in Bosnia, when they were even used as the protective shield against possible air attacks). The Western “cornering” of Yugoslavia in Rambouillet can only be properly grasped as the delayed acting out that tried to recompense for the long years of Western frustrations—its “excessive” character signals that previous unresolved tensions and frustrations were displaced onto it.

One thing is for sure: the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia did change the global geopolitic coordinates. The unwritten pact of peaceful coexistence (the respect of each state’s full sovereignty—that is, noninterference in internal affairs, even in the case of the grave violation of human rights) is over. However, the very first act of the new global police force usurping the right to punish sovereign states for their wrongdoings already signals its end, its own undermining, because it immediately became clear that the universality of human rights as its legitimization is false (that is, that the attacks on selective targets protect particular interests). The NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia also signals the end of any serious role of the UN and the Security Council: it is NATO, under U.S. guidance, that effectively pulls the strings. Furthermore, the silent pact with Russia that held until now is broken: in the terms of this pact, Russia was publicly treated as a superpower and was allowed to maintain the appearance of being one, on the condition that it did not effectively act as one. Now Russia’s humiliation is open, any pretense of dignity unmasked: Russia can only openly resist or openly comply with western pressure. On the other hand, the oscillations in the West’s relationship toward Russia also betrayed the confusion of their global strategy in the Balkans: because the western bombardment was a violent passage a I’acte lacking a clearly defined goal, after humiliating Russia, it had to turn again to Russian diplomacy to mediate the political solution of the crisis. The further logical result of this new situation will be, of course, the renewed rise of anti-Western resistance from Eastern Europe to the third world, with the sad consequence that criminal figures like Milošević will be elevated into the model fighters against the New World Order.

So the lesson is that the alternative between the New World Order and the neoracist nationalists opposing it is a false one: these are the two sides of the same coin—the New World Order itself breeds monstrosities that it fights. This is why the protests against bombing from the reformed communist parties all around Europe, inclusive of PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), are totally misdirected: these false protesters against the NATO bombardment of Serbia are like the caricatured pseudoleftists who oppose the trial against a drug dealer, claiming that his crime is the result of social pathology of the capitalist system. The way to fight the capitalist New World Order is not by supporting local protofascist resistances to it, but to focus on the only serious question today: how to build transnational political movements and institutions strong enough to seriously constrain the unlimited rule of the capital, and to render visible and politically relevant the fact that the local fundamentalist resistances against the New World Order, from Milošević to le Pen and the extreme right in Europe, are part of it?

According to the media, when, at a recent meeting of the leaders of the western great powers dedicated to the politico-ideological notion of the Third Way, the Italian prime minister, d’Alema, said that one should not be afraid of the word “socialism,” Clinton and, following him, Blair and Schroeder, could not restrain themselves and openly burst out laughing—this anecdote tells a lot about the problematic character of today’s talk about the Third Way. The curious enigma of the second way is crucial here: today, which is the second way? That is to say, did the notion of the Third Way not emerge at the very moment when, at least in the developed west, all other alternatives, from true conservativism to radical Social Democracy, lost in the face of the triumphant onslaught of the global capitalism and its notion of liberal democracy? Is the true message of the notion of the Third Way therefore not simply that there is no second way, no actual alternative to the global capitalism, so that, in a kind of mocking pseudo-Hegelian negation of negation, this much-praised Third Way brings us back to the first and only way? The Third Way is simply global capitalism with a human face—that is, an attempt to minimize the human cost of the global capitalist machinery, the functioning of which is left undisturbed.

Let us then hope that—out of simple necessity, because for these countries, in the long run, this is their only means of survival—Russia or another country like it will invent a true and simple second way—a way of breaking the vicious circle of global capitalism versus nationalist closure.


Badiou, Alain. “La Sainte-Alliance et ses serviteuirs.” 2001. Unpublished; available on the Internet.

Brown, Wendy. “Toward a Genealogy of Contemporary Political Moralism.” In Liberalism Out of History, 7-33. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Havel, Vaclav. “Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State.” New York Review of Books 46 (June 10, 1999): 10.

Jensen, Carl. Censored 1999: The News that Didn’t Make the News. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999.

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