April Books 5) Collision Course

5) Collision Course: NATO, Russia and Kosovo, by John Norris

John Norris is a colleague of mine, but previously worked as director of communications for Strobe Talbott, then the US Deputy Secretary of State. This book is an insider’s account of the April-June 1999 negotiations behind the scenes of the Kosovo crisis, largely from the perspective of Talbott’s entourage. John is as modest on the page as he is in real life, and does not use the first person, either singular or plural, even once as far as I can tell.

There are two big policy lessons that come out of the book for me. First, it was a very big mistake for NATO (and especially the US) to rule out the use of ground troops right at the start of the conflict. Wars are not about being nice to the other side. Much better to have said “We’ll use them if we have to”, which is always the real policy position; NATO’s initial determination not to use ground troops made the air campaign look half-hearted to the Serbs. I have always believed that it is very significant that Milosevic’s unexpected acceptance of the first draft of the mediators’ peace terms happened within a few hours of the first serious meeting at the White House to discuss a ground war. Serbia’s intelligence services are dilapidated but I’m sure they picked up what was going on.

Second, as I was saying earlier, the role of Russia is of crucial importance to multilateral diplomacy, or at least it was here. Just understanding what was going on in Yeltsin’s Russia was difficult enough. John adds to the stock of stories that I’ve already heard about disjointed, rambling phone calls from Boris Yeltsin to Bill Clinton, and adds an account of a meeting with the foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, which was interrupted by a phone call from the newly appointed prime minister Stepashin to tell him if he was being sacked or not (he wasn’t). The Russian army then shifted troops from Bosnia to Kosovo without telling anyone else, except President Yeltsin, who omitted to let the foreign ministry know about it. I’m still myself getting to grips with the power structures in Moscow; I hope that the professional diplomats out there are doing the same.

There are some interesting personal vignettes of people I know, or know of: Wesley Clark being gradually cut out of the decision-making matrix as his relations with the Pentagon deteriorated; Richard Holbrooke likewise, as Talbott and his team got tired of his undermining them; Vladimir Putin’s late but suitably sinister appearance in the narrative; the negotiating back channel that almost opened up between Robert Gelbard and Bogoljub Karic; President Ahtisaari of Finland, accidentally locked into a small room during a break in negotiations, reassures Talbott that “One of the good things about being president is that they never let me go missing for very long”.

And in general it’s a pretty good picture of the blow-by-blow coalition-building that is the essence of international diplomacy. Here of course the emphasis is on two quite different but crucial coalitions – the US and European coalition with the Russians that in the end imposed terms on Milosevic, and the coalition of different interests within the Washington/NATO power structures, especially the uneasy relationship between the US military, US allies (specifically the British military) and the diplomats, which while not quite as dysfunctional as the equivalent relations in Moscow still sounds pretty tense. The third aspect, the US relationship with NATO and the EU, gets somewhat less coverage than one might have expected – presumably because this was mainly finessed by the regular US diplomatic missions in European capitals rather than by Talbott’s team – but it’s there nonetheless.

I think the book’s one weakness is that, while we get a very good sense of the size of the trees, we don’t really get a feel for the forest. By the time the story properly gets going, NATO’s air war on Kosovo has been going for several weeks, and the uninformed reader might have difficulty working out how we got there; likewise the account of what happened after the crisis of the Russian troops in Kosovo had been resolved covers five years in about as many pages, an abrupt shift of gear after the minute-by-minute narrative of the previous chapters. The odd expository paragraph is dropped in here and there but it might have been better for the general reader to consolidate them properly at the beginning. Since I’m living and breathing this stuff every day, it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment.

One thought on “April Books 5) Collision Course

  1. don’t pretend to do critical analysis either – I just think I know what I like!

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