Blair revives imperialism

The war over Kosovo (or "conflict" as western politicians insist on calling it) is beginning to migrate to the inside pages of the newspapers and to the backs of our minds. This was no doubt inevitable; the late-20th-century mind has a chronically short attention span. We have created a desert, called it a humanitarian intervention, and soon we shall grow bored with it. Yet the western leaders who have recklessly intervened in the Balkans will soon face painful choices about the region's future.

The war was launched on a false assumption: that Slobodan Milosevic would quickly back down; indeed, that he wished to do so and merely needed a few bombs as political cover against hard-line Serbian rivals. When that premise proved unsustainable, Nato switched to another false assumption: that Milosevic is personally responsible for the atrocities in Kosovo and that, once he is removed from power or forced to climb down, everybody can go home and live happily ever after. The reality is different. The west has taken responsibility for a region where the ethnic groups show no signs of co-existing in peace. The violence is now in Kosovo; it was formerly in Bosnia; it may next be in Macedonia or Montenegro or even Serbia itself. We may be bored; but there is not the remotest chance that Serbs, Albanians, Macedonians, Hungarians and others will grow tired of their ancient quarrels, any more than have the Catholics and Protestants of Ulster. The west must therefore do one of two things: police the region indefinitely, or preside over a series of partitions and population exchanges. And if humanitarian intervention is to become the norm, as Tony Blair suggests, the west is likely to face similar choices in parts of Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and south Asia. Yet the western liberal mind will not be comfortable with either alternative.

The first option - policing - means in effect the revival of imperialism, with the liberal humanitarian's burden replacing the white man's burden. Imperial powers have always been the most effective at suppression of ethnic conflicts, as the British were in India and Africa, the Habsburgs in central Europe, the Russians in Caucasia. Just as western powers once took peace and Christianity to savage people, so now (if we accept Mr Blair's logic) they will take peace and western liberal democracy. Just as markets were once secured for the East India Company, so now they will be secured for Microsoft or McDonald's, since our belief in the civilising benefits of western trade and capital is quite as strong as our ancestors'. But imperialism is not usually a pretty thing. If policing is to be effective in areas of ethnic division, it must be armed and it must be ruthless. Otherwise, the population will continue to fear the local police and the ethnically based gangs more than they fear the outside authorities, so that hatreds continue to build. The security must also be offered without any fixed time limit; local police officers will not act against their own ethnic group if they think they would be left unprotected from revenge a year later. These lessons, in different ways, can be learnt from both Bosnia and Ulster.

The second alternative - partition and population exchange - was most famously adopted by the British in India. It was clumsily done, with horrific short-term results, yet the Indian subcontinent, by international standards, has stayed mercifully free of serious ethnic conflict. Population exchange has happened in Europe, too, notably between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. Though never officially recognised, partition has been the solution for Cyprus. Yet our minds recoil. Partition and population exchange legitimise ethnic cleansing; worse, they encourage it elsewhere and seem to undermine the principles of tolerance and multiracialism that western societies have struggled so painfully to establish.

So this is a choice between a rock and a hard place if ever there was one. No wonder western leaders prefer not to think about either too much. Is there, to coin a phrase, a third way? Yes, though not a very glamorous or exciting one. It is simply to re-state the UN principle that the proper occasion for war is when international boundaries are breached; to keep out of other people's internal conflicts, unless there is overwhelming evidence that we can enforce a solution; to spend on food, medicine, clothing and shelter what we now spend on bombs and missiles; to give a warmer welcome to refugees who flee tyranny or ethnic harassment; and to show our disapproval of odious regimes by ostracising them and refusing to sell them arms or to give them trading privileges. That option - which is more or less what worked for South Africa - has the merit of being both realistic and humanitarian.