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Analysing the NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia in 1999 from a Theoretical Perspective

Updated on August 14, 2017

The theoretical framework relates to a structure that is used in supporting a given theory of research. The purpose of theories is to predict, explain, and comprehend a given phenomena. In addition, theories are used in challenging and in extending the extant knowledge within the boundaries of critical assumptions (Gabrie, 2008: 198). In this paper, the author will employ various theories including 1) JUST WAR THEORY; 2) THEORY OF COERCION; and 3) J. WARDEN'S FIVE-RING THEORY and Additional of REALISM, LIBERALISM and CONSTRUCTIVISM in order to understand the “international intervention aspect” or the violation of the international state sovereignty in NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia in 1999.

Just War Theory

Just war theory is a principle that ensures moral justification of war through a series of guidelines which must be adhered to prior to considering war as just. The criteria which are mainly identified into two categories include the right to conduct war and the right to go to war. In recent perspective, there have been calls to instigate and incorporate a third category of this theory, jus post bellum— which is basically an evaluation of the post-war outcome (Guthrie, 2007: 13). The theoretical underpinnings of just war doctrine are based on the assumption that while war is terrible and should be avoided at all costs, circumstances may at times make it necessary in order to create peace. Other factors that may justify war include preventable atrocities, undesirable outcomes and important responsibilities (Fiala, 2014).

In the context of this theory, NATO could claim to have had a right in engaging in the Yugoslavia war. According to NATO, the conditions in Kosovo were a great risk to the stability of the region and hence; there was a need to intervene. Consequently, NATO claimed to harbor a legitimate interest in Kosovo matters because of its impact in the regions stability (Pug, 2003:56). NATO could also focus on the outcome of their actions in justifying the war by arguing that the bombing ended the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Albanian population. On the other hand, there are those who will rule out this action as illegitimate by stating that the large number of civilian causalities that resulted from the war and NATOs target on non-military buildings could not be justified under any means (Erlanger, 2000, 13).

The original course of the doctrine of Just War was essentially to leverage the impact of conflict between two conflicting forces by facilitating a moral judgement in wartime (Orend, 2006: 10). Furthermore, the concept was hardly applied to interventions that were conducted on humanitarian grounds. However, since the questioning by Hugo Grotius and John Stuart Mill on the unchallenged norm of non-intervention among human rights violations that are considered post-gross against citizens by sovereign states have become regular phenomena, particularly from the time of the cold war. According to Schied, and Chatterjee, 2003; 5), current supporters of Just War theory are relying on an establishment of human rights norm as a basis for action. This is a challenge to the sanctity of a state autonomy by considering the state as having failed to take responsibility in protecting the rights of its own citizens.

This theory will be applied in this study to assist in analyzing whether the criteria in the just theory was followed by NATO in its engagement in the Kosovo fight. In other words, through this theory, we will be able to identify whether there was a legitimate need for NATO to bomb Yugoslavia.

Theory of Coercion

Coercion is forcing to someone or a group of people to choose a particular action by making its choice to be more attractive than another alternative. In international perspective, the aim of coercion is to change the behavior or condition of a given state(s) or non-state actors, by either competing an enemy to surrender or ending aggression. Coercers may resort to use of various instruments of power including economic, military, diplomacy, and other information instruments which are employed for the purpose of achieving essential security objectives (Kirshner, 1997: 12). Daniel et al (1999: 55) defines coercion as the utilization of threatened force, including the partial use of real effort in inducing the enemy or perpetrator to change behavior or in backing up the threat. Coercion seeks to leverage on its entirety the ability of the target in doing anything other than complying with the demands of the attacker; otherwise the subject of the dispute is eliminated or seized.

The bombing of Kosovo by NATO was described as a humanitarian intervention. Although the concept of humanitarian intervention is at times ambiguous, Holzgrefe (2003: 18) defines it as the use of force across borders by a state or group of states for the purpose of violating grave violations of human rights of the citizens without authorization of the state in question. Holzgrefe;s references to action by a “group of states” is specifically application to NATO’s action since the operation was undertaken by a combination of states hen the UNSC refused to authorized concerned parties Therefore, NATO’s action was outside the context of conventional international law (Chesterman, 2001: 228). Based on a humanitarian language, NATO defended its action as only interested towards preventing mass expulsions and to a large extend genocide of a specific group of people (Chatterjee and Schied, 2003: 3).

In coercion, Armed forces are used in achieving the desired objectives through pure force as seen in the NATO bombing of Kosovo. In most cases, coercion is used as the only alternative where other avenues have failed in preventing substantial wars or achieving its mission. Accordingly, NATO considered the use of coercion as a last resort instrument after other means had failed. The negotiations between Richard Holbrooke and Slobodan Milosevic at Rambouillet were not only becoming ineffective but were becoming too prolonged. In addition, they had failed to offer reassurance that abuses of human rights could end, and hence NATO was left with no other alternative but to forcefully intervene in reducing the military capabilities of Serbia (Herring, 2001: 45). However, other authors such as Booth (2001: 314) were concerned that despite the apparent humanitarian crisis, the approaches which NATO employed in solving the issue was hugely flawed, particularly because they did not prioritize the aspect of humanitarianism over other motives for action. For instance, its decision to employ remote based bombing instead of land invasions risked civilians, subsequently contributing to mass movement of refugees and massive causality. Further questions on NATO’s moral judgment were in regard to why the FRY was targeted instead of Indonesia or Turkey (Johnstone, 2002: 23).

Therefore, the author will evaluate how NATO employed the theory of coercion in its Kosovo invasion and the justification for the same.

In essence, the use of coercion by NATO is in sharp contrast to the principle of liberalism. Liberalism does not rely on using force or intimidation to achieve its course. Rather, it mostly utilizes consent and diplomacy in order to do things willingly. According to Gramasci (1971), liberalism has been quite effective considering that how the West has used in maintaining and reinforcing its status in the world hegemony. The author emphasizes that the rest of the West has been able to exert a forceful influence through the use of this model. In addition, consent has been increasingly utilized by the West in legitimizing hegemony. In light of this, NATO could have opted to use this principle as an alternative to coercion.


The Five-Ring Systems theory by Walden is a model of military strategic attack which is basically framed on five system attributes. These features which are named in honour of Col. John A. Warden III, a former senior officer in the United States Air Force include 1) organic, 2) leadership, 3) population, 4) military forces and 5) infrastructure. Each system level, is regarded as one of the adversaries center of gravity (Warden, 1994: 78). The idea behind the theory is to attack every of these ring for the purpose of paralyzing the forces. In order for the attack to be paralyzed, the one attacking ought to engage as many rings as possible with a focus of reaching out out the center ring, which is the leadership of the enemy. This would effectively cause a physical paralysis of the target, and hence; incapacitate its control (Ware, 1995: 67).

Nonetheless, Warden’s theory has received a considerable number of criticisms particularly because of its reiteration of strategic bombing concepts which have been discredited by various historical analysts of the Vietnam War and the Second World War. Furthermore, Walden’s doctrine has also been considered to be applicable only on weaker and developing regimes (Szafranski, 1995: 34). This makes us to ask ourselves whether similar approaches used by NATO could be applied to developed and stronger nations. Could the use of lethal and stronger force to a weaker regime as Kosovo be justified?

The principle of jus ad interventionism was evoked to defend NATO’s action through the argument that the aspect of undertaking an intervention using proportional means was upheld considering that the bombing campaign was done strategically, with military installations being the target. Nonetheless, Walzer (2006) any collateral damage emanating from this action does not make NATO’s invasion in Yugoslavia illegitimate. Furthermore, certain circumstances may make civilian deaths to be regarded as just under the doctrine of “Double Effect” as long as those deaths were not intended. From the commencement of the operation, NATO stressed that the bombings were targeted at military institutions and not citizens.

Accordingly, the author will examine the application of the Five-Ring-Systems theory and its relevance in the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia. If at all NATO resorted to applying the concept espoused in this theory, what is the justification behind this?

Barkin (2010: 55) discusses the nature of state and considers it as a mystery of everyone being at war against each other. This is the fundamental logic of a realism doctrine. According to this principle, anarchy is one of the conditions inherent in International relations and that statecraft, diplomacy and foreign policy is purposed to achieve the perceived interest of specific nations and the survival of nations. Accordingly, the essence of realism is on the survival of nations and the actions of nations in the perspective of international relations emanating from their competitive interests.

The principle mostly relied on to justify NATO’s intervention is that there was a serious ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ (Wheeler, 2000: 265), and that such a widespread oppression of Kosovar Albanians necessitated the “external intervention for the survival of the villages”. NATO was also focused on regional stability as well other interests.

Holzgrefe (2003) argues that in truly determining whether a specific intervention is just or not, it is not possible to separate legal and moral qualifications of legitimacy since two are equally essential (50). The author goes on to point out that any case of intervention that disregards the need for legitimacy by use of extant international law portrays a failure of the general legal system is serving its judicial purpose. The assumption of a violation of the extant legal boundaries discredits the moral justification of those intervening and thus questioning the justification of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.


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