The New Statesman Interview - Robin Cook

"The liberation of Kosovo is as important, historically, as the fall of the Berlin Wall." Robin Cook

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, believes that the liberation of Kosovo is the equal of the fall of the Berlin Wall in importance to the future of Europe - indeed of the world. He believes, too, that the Dayton accords negotiated with Slobodan Milosevic appeased and encouraged Milosevic when he should have been confronted and beaten; that Milosevic's comprehensive defeat now was necessary to release south-east Europe from his thrall and speed the coming together of all of Europe; that the defence of humanitarian values that Nato has made will echo round the globe - but that we've had enough of just wars. "We're not looking for another conflict, thank you very much."

When I talked to him in the VIP suite of Gatwick airport before he flew to the EU-Latin American summit, Cook expressed the belief that this had not only been a just war, but a creative one. In a previous interview for the NS ("Cook declares total war on fascism", 3 May) he commended the war to the left as according with its internationalist values; he now commends it to the world as having asserted the values of freedom and democracy. He admits to "dark hours" but is enthusiastic for a postwar order and believes that the Kosovo war moved the world decisively away from an absolute commitment to the inviolability of the nation state and towards a recognition that the most powerful states are willing to fight for human rights.

"The war is opening up new possibilities. We now have half a dozen countries - Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Bosnia, Montenegro - which have a chance of a fresh start. It's a new deal for these countries. We can take this as an opportunity to close the chapters of Balkans history that are written in blood. We can start treating them as what they are - part of the European continent with whom we should share the same guarantees of stability and the same standards of freedom. The bringing down of the Berlin Wall was tremendously symbolic and catalytic between east and west. The liberation of Kosovo can be the same catalyst."

What of Milosevic? "I've always said if it was necessary to deal with those with real power then we must do so. There were no concessions, nor was there any amnesty or immunity for him. I am clearer than ever, having seen his handiwork, that we must pursue all of those who were indicted - including him. One day there will be a change of regime in Serbia, and if it wants to join the international community, it must observe its obligations to the international community.

"None of the exciting possibilities for eastern Europe would have been possible if we had not inflicted a serious defeat on Milosevic's poisonous policies of ethnic cleansing. It would be wrong to describe this as an aim or objective - but we were always playing for higher stakes than Kosovo. Was ethnic cleansing going to become something that other countries in Europe would see us as putting up with? Or [would we] firmly say, 'look, this belongs to the fascist period of 50 years ago, it has no place in modern Europe, we're not putting up with it'? We succeeded in the latter."

He criticises the west for its loss of nerve at the Dayton accords: "At Dayton, Milosevic was allowed to emerge as one of the architects of the peace - in fact he was one of the prime architects of the war. There was a failure to deal with Kosovo - Milosevic vetoed any mention of it in the agreement. Had those in power tackled Kosovo then we might not have had the problem of the past year.

"What we now have done is what we should have done before; Milosevic has taken a serious defeat and been seen to do so. Psychologically that is very important within Serbia but it is vital for the health of the region. They can now see that the future of the region is not ethnic cleansing - trying to cantonise it into pure ethnic identities, into different borders and different political groups. The future is working with Europe, respecting borders but reducing the significance of the borders."

The war has been "creative" in that the west has finally recognised that it has been slow to enfold the former communist world in its community. "We have allowed this area of instability to remain too much in our shadows . . . we must now fully assist them. Our key tasks are first of all to increase trade, open up their markets and help them with economic progress, to intensify the integration with European structures . . . and accelerate negotiations on [EU] membership with Romania and Bulgaria. We must increase their ties with Nato in order to make sure that they do have a greater sense of security and we must take a stronger part in their security. We must enhance political dialogue - and there is a real excitement in these countries since they can see a new future for themselves in a Europe that is now taking them seriously, which is investing funds and effort, too, to help them develop their democratic institutions and their civic societies.

"We have demonstrated that we are willing to undertake military action, not to seize territory, not for expansion, not for mineral resources. There is no oil in Kosovo. The Socialist Workers' Party keep saying we are doing this for oil, which is deeply perplexing, since there is only some dirty lignite, and the sooner we encourage them to use something other than dirty lignite, the better. This was a war fought in defence not of territory but in defence of values. So here I can say . . . foreign policy has been driven by those concerns.

"There is another dimension - which is that it has really put centre stage . . . the importance of international justice and humanitarian law. It was the UK that drafted the text of the Security Council resolution which insisted that there must be a firm reference to the War Crimes Tribunal and that we should demand full co- operation . . . we must now build up the structure and the acceptance that there is an international remedy for appalling humanitarian injustice. And this will feed through to the UK's commitment to building up the International Criminal Court.

"And around the world tyrants and dictators will see what happened here and may reflect more closely before they defy international norms on humanitarian behaviour."

Cook's "dark hours" came when the media depicted the war as unwinnable and Nato's resolve as faltering. He angrily refutes the line that Nato expected a short, sharp war. "It's bollocks that we expected early capitulation. I never expected it would be easy; indeed, looking through the back papers, I find that as far back as February, the view that we expressed was that if we got into this we must be prepared to see it through. This was the view I approved.

"We knew from the start that Serbia had one of the largest standing armies left in Europe and that Milosevic was an old-fashioned Stalinist who liked to have what the communists termed the 'power ministries' - interior ministry, police, security services and army - at the centre of his state. So pushing that over was never going to be a one-shove exercise. We went into this with no illusions - and it makes me very irritable when I see this canard that we expected the quick collapse of Serbia . . . I always knew in military terms it would succeed because it always seemed to me that Serbia, however strong, could not take on the whole of Nato and come out on top. Of course there would be reverses - there would be dark hours. An awful lot of commentators and many of our opponents in parliament . . . believed that the campaign would not and could not succeed. I never shared that view, but there was a time when a lot of people lost a clear perspective."

He was moved by his visit to Pristina and the grateful enthusiasm of the people who greeted him and the other three major European foreign ministers; and he was reduced to horror by the sight of mass graves and of the skeletons around farmhouses. "It was touching to see the sheer joy, particularly of the young children - what it brought home to you was the stark terror and darkness from which we had liberated them. And 'liberate' is the right word here. I do think that . . . we have struck a blow for human decency. I've always said that I wanted human rights, democracy and freedom - the place where human rights, democracy and freedom have been challenged over this past year has been in Kosovo, and we've asserted these values."

This article first appeared in the 05 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, He makes us nice enough for export