European Affairs

How Cell Phones Drive Today's Diplomacy     Print Email
James Dobbins

I would like to compare my perceptions of the quality of US-European relations during the Kosovo crisis to the last comparably intense and successful endeavor that we were engaged in and with which I was personally associated a decade ago - German unification. In both cases, it was a period of extremely intense diplomacy, the highest possible stakes, and in the end, a very successful effort at Alliance management and US-European relations. One of the similarities I found was the degree to which technology makes it possible for decision makers to be in direct and immediate contact and to concert policy in an immediate and personal fashion. A decade ago, the ability of Jim Baker and Hans-Dietrich Genscher and their British, French, and Russian colleagues to be in immediate, frequent - daily and momentary - contact clearly was critical to the success of that diplomacy.

The global village really came home to me a few months after the conclusion of German unification when, during the coup in the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin was besieged in the Russian Parliament, the White House. Jim Baker flew to Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, the purpose of which was to demonstrate resolve and to establish that NATO would not accept the rollback of the transition to democracy in Russia.

In the midst of this meeting, the NATO Secretary General, for the first time in a meeting of foreign ministers, got up to take a phone call. The ministers sat around somewhat stunned and wondered what was going on. Ten minutes later, he came back. He had gotten a phone call from Boris Yeltsin, who told him that the coup was over, that the coup leaders had given up, and that the crisis was finished. The first person Yeltsin had called was the Secretary General of NATO to inform him of this development. Then an hour later, the world leaders were lined up to get on CNN. George Bush, Boris Yeltsin, Jim Baker, Manfred Werner, the Secretary General of NATO, and others each had to give a press conference on the day's events. They scheduled their press conferences so they could get on CNN.

When George Bush got on television, Jim Baker had spent the last 45 minutes talking to several of Yeltsin's lieutenants about events and was still on the phone. Baker put down the phone and looked at the television. George Bush gave his statement and began answering questions. He was asked what Jim Baker was doing and how things were going at NATO and he said, "I don't know. I've been trying to call him for the last 45 minutes and I haven't been able to get through." At that point, Jim Baker immediately returned the President's phone call.

The immediacy of this real time, around-the-world, online communication a decade ago stunned me. Since then the cell phone has even intensified this. It used to be that in order to have a conference call with half a dozen foreign ministers, you had to find a time of day when they would all be in the office or at least in some fixed location where they would have access to a telephone. Now that is no longer necessary. You can get them at home. You can get them in the office. You can get them in an airplane. You can get them in an automobile. You can get them in a restaurant. It really makes no difference, and the ability to network in that fashion has made personal diplomacy among presidents, among foreign ministers and among their personal staffs easier and more intense.

The second similarity is the degree to which the diplomacy - vis-ˆ-vis the Russians - was central to both crisis management operations. In both cases, the name of the game was, in large measure, to bring them around to doing something that everyone would have told you they wouldn't do only a week before the crisis broke out. A successful effort at coordinating US and European diplomacy brought the Russians, in both cases, to do things that, only a few weeks earlier, no one would have imagined they would have done.

The third area, which I have already touched on, was the degree to which decisions were made in national capitals and then transmitted through a variety of organizations. The European Union, NATO, and other institutions played vital roles, but I think, in both cases, the decisions were made in national capitals by leaders of the principal countries.

The differences, I think, were also striking. One was that the European terrain had dramatically changed over the last decade. A decade ago, the other East European nations were by-and-large passive onlookers. It is true that the Poles, in the case of German unification, had some demands with respect to their own frontier, and the Hungarians did play a key role at one point in allowing East German refugees to transit Hungary, which in many ways precipitated the crisis. However, by-and-large they were not active participants in the process.

The expansion of NATO, and the promise of its further expansion, as well as the planned enlargement of the European Union have dramatically changed the willingness of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe to associate themselves with Western diplomacy. One of the most dramatic aspects of the crisis in Kosovo, more marked than in Bosnia, was the way in which every single neighbor of Serbia, without exception, explicitly, publicly, vocally and strongly identified themselves with the NATO effort.

They cooperated with it in virtually every fashion and, in private conversations, made clear that in their view the Milosevic regime was the core of their concerns and that there would never be stability in the Balkans until that regime was changed. I think that the prospect of membership in NATO and the European Union has given these countries a focus which has dramatically changed the content of their diplomacy. Indeed, in many ways the prospect of membership is more important than membership.

A second phenomenon which was strikingly different was the degree to which the European Union and NATO were able to collaborate in an informal, but unstressed fashion. I think this was brought home when the Europeans noted that at one meeting of European foreign ministers, they had actually had an American general who came to brief them on aspects of the conflict in his NATO capacity, not in his American capacity. The idea that an American general, in his NATO capacity, would attend an EU Foreign Ministers meeting to brief them on a military conflict is pretty startling and, a decade ago, completely unthinkable. This indicates the degree to which those two organizations have become more comfortable with each other and capable of cooperating.

Throughout the Kosovo crisis, it was notable how the European Union, in its various ministerial meetings, made pronouncements, took decisions and adopted positions that were directly relevant to a war that NATO, not the EU, was fighting. The Europeans made peace proposals and they set conditions for the conflict which, if one were looking for reasons for dispute and for a conflict between organizations, would have given ample ground. But the fact was that the diplomacy among the nations of the EU and the United States, as well as between the institutions, had become so close and so effective that it was very difficult to parse the differences between what NATO said one week and what the EU said the week later.

There were differences because time marches on; the EU had probably ten to 15 ministerial meetings during which time NATO probably had two. The EU was, in many ways, pushing the ball forward throughout this process with NATO only periodically catching up in terms of its ability to make decisions at the ministerial level. However, the interaction among member governments had become so intense that the distinction between the two organizations was frankly, in terms of its statements and its diplomacy, blurred to the point that they became happily indistinguishable.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number I in the Winter of 2000.

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