Dr Sten Rynning

Kosovo Traumas

How NATO Got Itself Out of Depth in Crisis Management Operations


When Leon Trotsky remarked that “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” he inadvertently captured the essence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) relationship to crisis management operations. These operations sought out NATO and demanded of the Alliance a leadership role, but NATO did not have sufficient interest involved to develop coherent leadership. And this proved the rub for NATO for the two decades that followed: NATO was widely seen as the only credible military option for Western diplomacy in matters of crisis management and, relatedly, the promotion of new standards of protecting civilians and saving strangers, but as Western diplomacy lacked a political compass, NATO developed an ambitious but unmanageable agenda that it still today is unlearning.

Kosovo propelled NATO into the role as first responder to security crises. The shift away from defense to crisis management had begun earlier, but with Kosovo it became intimately clear that NATO through the 1990s had gained an ambition for which it did not have an adequate political-military posture. Questions of strategy thus came to bedevil the Alliance: should NATO define its own narrow but clear purpose in crisis management operations, or should it rather act in wider global interests; and should NATO apply military power to impose its will on an opponent, or should it lend its military force to a much broader and amorphous process of international conflict management? NATO answered these questions in an irregular fashion, at first struggling, then gaining grand confidence, and finally retreating.

The enduring legacy of Kosovo is a contested and ongoing political balancing act between cooperative security and human rights legitimacy on the one hand and NATO-led military coercion and strategy on the other. It thus involves the art of strategy—the art of building a bridge from political ambition to policy means and execution (Gray, 2010; Strachan, 2014). In NATO the art is dynamic and political to the point where formal processes of organizational learning at best have marginal weight: NATO does not learn strategic lessons by organizational design but by informal political processes (Hardt, 2018). The cumulative effect in NATO has been to grant disproportionate influence on the Alliance’s development to the most willing and able allies who sometimes act through NATO, sometimes in parallel through coalitions, but who consistently leverage their operational weight to shape NATO’s strategic agenda (Jung, 2012; McInnis, 2013; Rynning, 2013; Weitsman, 2014; Schmitt, 2018).

The article traces the multifaceted impact hereof on NATO. The first section examines how NATO in the immediate post-Kosovo years, 1999-2005, entered a phase of strategic ambiguity but ultimately with a determination to take control of its political destiny. Thus began a new phase of grand ambition, 2006-2012, that promised to overcome the timidity of the Kosovo years and offer strategic strength, and it led NATO deep into Afghan governance. Climbing down or adjusting its sights came next for NATO, and the third and final section traces how a new strategic bargain, if such it is, emerged in NATO and enabled the Alliance’s inactivity as the Syrian war unfolded and expanded—ultimately to the detriment of the Alliance’s cohesion. The conclusion takes stock of what Kosovo and its aftermath in terms of strategic adjustment tells us about NATO and its ability to cohere at the political-military interface.