TransConflict is pleased to present extracts from Dražen Pehar’s book, ‘Dediscoursification – how discursive attitudes cause wars’, the key contention of which is that the attitude to language should be theorized as one of the major causes of war.
By Dražen Pehar
Serbs v. USA and others (Rambouillet negotiations and “Allied Force”) 
Imagine that you find yourself in the middle of a military-police conflict with a group you consider a guerilla, a military wing of political party who propagate secession of a land you consider a part of your own territory. A foreign representative comes to you for a visit and, after the meeting, in front of TV cameras states that the wing is in fact a “terrorist organization.” You reasonably take his statement as a sign of his approval of your actions (Petritsch et al. 1999, 211). You then continue with your actions against the guerilla force. However, a year later, the representatives of the same state accused you of a massacre of a civilian population in whose interest the “terrorist organization” claimed to have been fighting; on your own part, you are confident that the alleged massacre has not taken place (Herman, Peterson 2010, 95-99). You realize that the roles now had been terribly reversed, that the said state starts considering you as a “terrorist organization,” or a “terrorist state” that not only violates the rights of the people the guerilla has been fighting for, but also do not hesitate to commit the worst possible atrocities against the people. Soon, the state starts threatening you with a military action. What attitude can you take to the situation?
Expectedly, at first you will sense confusion; but then the state of confusion will be probably replaced with the following realization: you sense that the foreign representative, who approved of your military-police action, was actually a part of a script–he wanted you to understand him in a way that led to the escalation of violence. You have been encouraged to fight the enemy, but then this was turned against you; you realize that you have been misled, that you were expected to act with no inhibition, following which they decided to stop you at a moment when it was least expected. Such a script is one that explains the change in their attitude to the guerilla. Besides, you are also aware that what the foreign media present abroad as a “massacre of civilian population” is a hideous lie and fabrication intended to present you as a villain who needs to be stopped by all available means.
You are now also aware that you have no efficient means to oppose the strong and aggressive propaganda; they have more money and are in control of more influential media. The feeling that you had been misled, or trapped, in a morally ruthless way, gave rise to another feeling: that you are already picked as a sitting duck, that a military machine is ready, and that you will be the agent through whom some other agents will achieve certain goals which you knew nothing about. In other words, in such conditions you will, on the basis of solid reasons, believe that the foreign state is not really interested in negotiating with you; they do not view you as a participant to some international-political dialogue–they have already decided, and your task is simply to bow your head and obey their orders. Of course, you could start opposing them, but they seem not too concerned about such a possibility. In other words, in such conditions you already realize that you will not be treated as a talking being, as somebody who needs to rely on the resources of language in order to arrive at a sustainable political solution of the conflict through a common, rational, and honest search for compromise.
It is probably in such a state of mind that the Serbian delegation, the victim of the ruthless and immoral use of discourse, arrived at chateau Rambouillet near Paris on February 5 1999 to hold talks with Kosovo-Albanian delegation, with American, Russian, and EU representative as official mediators to the talks. Today we know that direct negotiations never took place. The two delegations were hosted on different floors and never met face-to-face. As the EU representative described their common strategy, he and his American colleague took the position that a draft agreement needed to be sold first to the Kosovo-Albanian negotiators, and only later to the Serbian side. In light of the content of the draft agreement as later presented by the EU representative himself, this was not a reasonable strategy. The representative emphasized that the draft was one of a de facto international protectorate, which was more favorable to the weaker party, i.e. the Kosovo-Albanians, who argued for their own right of self-determination, and ultimately secession. Objectively, the Serbian side had more difficulty in accepting the basics of the draft. Additionally, in the course of Rambouillet negotiations, two very strange developments took place.
First, the question of the Kosovo-Albanian referendum for independence of Kosovo/a was placed explicitly on the agenda; together with the question of what to do with UÇK, the Kosovo-Albanian military wing, it was the key stumbling block of the negotiations–the Kosovo-Albanian delegation insisted on the right to hold referendum and demanded that such a right be incorporated into a so-called “3 year-assessment clause.” The draft agreement, as initially presented to both Serbs and Kosovo-Albanians, contained no mention of referendum: “In three years, there shall be a comprehensive assessment of the Agreement under international auspices with the aim of improving its implementation and determining whether to implement proposals by either side for additional steps.” (Article III, provision 3, initial draft agreement). However, after a crisis in their relationship with the Kosovo-Albanian negotiators, some mediators decided to add a “creative ambiguity” to the aforementioned provision. Their proposal read as follows:
“Three years after the entry into force of this Agreement, an international meeting shall be convened to determine a mechanism for a final settlement for Kosovo, on the basis of the will of the people [emphasis added by Pehar], opinions of relevant authorities, each Party’s efforts regarding the implementation of this Agreement, and the Helsinki Final Act, and to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the implementation of this Agreement and to consider proposals by any Party for additional measures.”
At first glance, the amended proposal suited neither Kosovo-Albanian nor the Serbian delegation. First, it did not suit Kosovo-Albanians because it did not explicitly refer to the possibility of referendum; and second, it did not suit the Serbian negotiators because it seemed to leave open the possibility of referendum, which was and remains irreconcilable to all UN Security Council resolutions concerning Kosovo/a. Kosovo-Albanian side then made their first proposal for amendment: to add a reference to “referendum,” and when this was refused by the mediators, they proposed to change the wording to “on the basis of explicit will of its people.” However, the latter proposal was declined as well–the mediators thought that the possibility of holding a referendum was already left sufficiently open.
Another strange or thought-provoking development occurred: in this situation, a common EU perspective or position had already disappeared. For instance, the Italian representative emphasized that, if they have already taken the view that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia should remain an undivided state within its (then) current borders, as indeed they have, the mediators should not refer to any possibility of independence, not even in the most ambiguous terms possible. As one of the commentators noted, “In its final chaotic hours, the Rambouillet peace conference on Kosovo degenerated into a play lacking both a director and its main character” (Hoagland 1999). One needs to also bear in mind that, near the end of the conference, an event bordering on incident took place. The American mediator guaranteed secretly to Kosovo-Albanian negotiators that the “assessment clause” actually means what Kosovo negotiators intended it to mean, which is the right to hold a pro-independence referendum (Weller 1999, 232). Upon having been informed of this, the Russian mediator issued a strong protest. More importantly, as he was informed of this, the Serbian delegation must have been informed too. It is exactly because of such bilateral assurances that the Kosovo-Albanians gave their consent to the draft agreement on one condition: they would give their full and unanimous consent after having consulted political and military bodies of their people in Kosovo/a, in a two-week period. They also attached a note to their conditional consent, which stated that “the assessment clause” should be interpreted as calling for the referendum for Kosovo/a independence.
The Serbian side was informed of all such developments. As expected, they declined the draft agreement. Politely, however, they also welcomed the progress achieved during negotiations, and pointed to some specific areas in which some harmonization of views was noted. Specifically, they emphasized two things: first, they expressed their desire for further negotiations, and also expressed the view that direct negotiations between the two key parties would be beneficial to all. More interestingly, at this point, the USA could not have claimed unambiguously that a single party was to be blamed for the negligible result of the negotiating round, but it was also impossible to claim that one party was more bellicose either. On February 23 1999, the Rambouillet negotiations officially ended. Another round of negotiations was scheduled to take place in Paris, from March 15 to March 19.
Between the two rounds of negotiations, an important meeting took place between the Serbian President Milan Milutinović and the EU representative. The latter explained to Milutinović that the “assessment clause ambiguity” was “deliberately chosen to give justice to both, mutually exclusive positions.” Besides, the EU representative suggested to Milutinović to submit in a “side letter” the Serbian interpretation of the assessment clause, specifically of the phrase “on the basis of the will of the people.” It seems that Milutinović never responded positively to such a suggestion (for more detail, see Pehar 2005).
Further developments took a straightforward and predictable direction. In Paris, Kosovo-Albanian delegation accepted the draft agreement. Again, there were no direct negotiations between the parties, and the Serbian delegation declined the draft despite the pressure that was put on them. At the last meeting between the trio of mediators and Yugoslav President Milošević, on March 22, Milošević characterized the Rambouillet draft agreement as nothing but “a fraud.” More importantly, however, the American decision-makers were now in a position to place blame squarely on one side: the Serbians declined the draft peace agreement, hence, according to US representatives, the Serbians were opposed to political problem-solving by peaceful means; hence, they were the key culprit against whom a military force had to be applied. On March 24 1999, the NATO strikes against selected targets in Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, code-named “Allied Force,” began. In light of this brief recounting of the history of Rambouillet negotiations, the key question one needs to pose is as follows: what really happened in the story? How did the Serbian negotiators view and interpret the process of negotiating with the Kosovo-Albanian and the American side, on the basis of the draft agreement the mediators offered to them?
First, as to the meaning of the problematic “assessment clause”: in principle, the Serbian side could have tried to offer their own interpretation that would place obstacles on an attempt to justify the independence of Kosovo through a referendum. However, one ought to also keep in mind that “on the basis of the will of the people” could hardly be interpreted as meaning something other than the possibility of a referendum. How could one determine “the will of the people” except by means of a referendum? Hence, in that particular regard, a door to a securing interpretation for the Serbian side seems not to have been open. However, the Serbian delegation could have offered something else by way of interpretation: insistence upon the additional elements of interpretation (opinions of relevant authorities, efforts by the each party in the course of implementation, and the Helsinki Final Act). Of course, this could have been deemed problematic: the fact that “the will of the people” was explicitly stated as the first in the original proposal could have had the implication that it was also the most important factor for the purpose of interpretation.
Therefore, the Serbian negotiators could have said the following: “According to our own interpretation, the syntactical position of the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has no implications to the process of interpreting; to us, the most important factors are as follows: Helsinki Final Act, the opinions of relevant authorities, and efforts by each party.” However, one immediately recognizes that, in this context, the only relatively clear source of interpretation is the Helsinki Final Act; but, bear in mind that the Act was unable to prevent dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia nine years earlier. As to the remaining factors, the Serbian side was in no position to influence them, and even worse, the meaning of “the will of the people” was to them, and everybody else, very clear.
Besides, the most important matter to consider in this context is the fact that the Serbian interpretation would emphasize something that was already contained in the preamble to the agreement (“commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity of  Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [FRY]”), which is a bizarre implication. Secondly, as to “the opinions of relevant authorities” and “efforts by each implementing party,” it is clear that the key question was “who determines which authorities are relevant?” and “who will assess the efforts by the implementing parties?” This indeed leads us to the gravest problem.
Whatever the meaning of the contentious “assessment clause,” its application and rudimentary meaning obviously imply that somebody stands above the parties to the agreement; somebody should assess their efforts, and somebody should determine which opinions of which authorities are relevant ones. In other words, the clause itself implies that, by signing the treaty, each signatory also accepts its legal and interpretive inferiority in relation to a third party that is not named in the clause; the latter’s superiority and sovereignty are secured since it has the final say, and holds a paternalistic relationship, to the parties-signatories to the agreement, i.e. the Kosovo-Albanian and the Serbian side. This fact has obviously to a large degree eluded the Kosovo-Albanians too.
Now, one needs to have in mind that the third, superior party is defined in the document in clear and straightforward terms. The party is a “High Representative” for Kosovo, an institution that is officially called The Chief of the Implementation Mission (CIM). S/he is the one who should assess the efforts of the implementing parties. Most importantly, the draft agreement provides that “the CIM shall be the final authority in theatre regarding interpretation of the civilian aspects of this Agreement, and the Parties agree to abide by his determinations as binding on all Parties and persons” (Article V, Chapter 5 of Rambouillet Draft Agreement).
Considerations presented thus far have two key implications. First, the Serbian side was motivated to focus on the issue of interpretation; moreover, it was encouraged to give its own interpretation of the agreement. However, as a part of the same process, the side had also been brought to realize that, in the future, it will have declared its own interpretation irrelevant, and submitted fully to the interpretive authority of the CIM. Secondly, this immediately implies that, had it adopted the draft treaty, the Serbian side would give up its own voice, or silence its own language. The side was supposed to give up its own right of substantial participation in real political problem-solving in Kosovo/a–it was threatened to sign the document in which it was clearly stipulated that Kosovo/a will be placed under an international protector whose decisions will be deemed unquestionable and non-opposable. The cynical part of the agreement made sure that the Serbian side gives up their sovereignty in order to confirm “territorial integrity and sovereignty of FRY.” Altogether, this means that the ultimate meaning of the entire Rambouillet package, from the US to the Serbian side, was in a simple, and yet forceful, message: “be silent for an indefinite period of time.”
Therefore, when Milošević characterized the agreement as “a fraud/deception,” he was correct. He was faced with a simple choice: either “he” goes silent of his own, or is forced to do so. From the perspective of a language-using being, these are not real options. Thus, the final conclusion to be drawn from this episode must read as follows: before the start of NATO intervention at FRY/Kosovo/a, the American diplomacy dediscoursified the Serbian side by demanding that the latter, through the act of signing a document, commits itself to an indefinite period of political silence and of political irrelevance. A human being can respond to such a demand only by refusing to sign the document that places such a demand.
Looking at the whole dynamics from another, American angle, the fact that the USA managed to make the world buy the idea that the Serbian side declined a just agreement, and that it thereby showed it was not peaceful or negotiations-friendly, is both disturbing and depressing. The major problem is not as much in the fact that Clinton’s envoys did not at all negotiate with the Serbian side as is in the fact that they demanded from the Serbian side an incredible thing: to express by its own words its own, free cessation of the use of language, which is really an impossible demand similar to the following one: “by my own will, I accept the conditions in which another’s will shall replace my own.” American mediators and diplomats then explained to the world that the unwillingness of a party to meet such a demand was proof that the party was in principle against peace.
There is no doubt that those who cared to read were able to see through the American strategy. A writer who argued for the NATO strikes in his book on the war at Kosovo also reported quite honestly both Richard Holbrooke’s and James Rubin’s view of the Rambouillet negotiations:
“What negotiation [at Rambouillet] there was took place between the Americans and the Albanians, as Hill and Albright forced the Kosovars to defer independence and to disarm their guerillas. For Richard Holbrooke, now side-lined from the diplomacy by Albright, Rambouillet seemed like a chaotic waste of time: negotiating with one side, but not the other. But State Department spokesman James Rubin insists that the real point of Rambouillet was to persuade the Europeans, especially the Italians who tended to think of the Albanians as terrorists and drug traffickers, that they were actually ‘the good guys.’ Rambouillet was necessary, in other words, to get the Europeans to ‘stop blaming the victims’ and to build the resolve at NATO to use force.” (Ignatieff 2000, 56)
A statement by a close aide to Madeleine Albright (perhaps again Rubin) leads us to the same conclusion. He claimed that, for the American diplomacy, the Rambouillet negotiations served a single purpose: “to get the war started with the Europeans locked in” (the quote in Daalder, O’Hanlon 2000, 89). In other words, the intention of the Rambouillet negotiations was primarily to generate the impression that the Serbians were against peace, as well as to prevent the Europeans from opposing such an impression in a more concerted fashion. For such a purpose, a game with so-called “creative ambiguities” was necessary; this was aided by the Austrian ambassador Petritsch, the EU representative, who managed to maintain the illusion that the EU had a common position both during the Rambouillet talks and in their aftermath.
Clinton’s envoys at Rambouillet, and also during the preparations for NATO strikes, played a simulation game: they offered a “peace agreement;” the party who was deemed an ally adopted the agreement; the party who was under the threat of NATO-strikes declined it (though it obviously accepted it as a foundation for talks), which the US administration then used as a quasi-reason to accuse the party of a bellicose, or fundamentally peace-unfriendly, attitude. However, it is very clear today that the US actually offered a kind of an agreement that the Serbian side was simply in no position to accept; the draft agreement not only demanded that the Serbian side give up its own sovereignty, but that, more importantly, it also give up its status of an equal signatory party, which needs to partake in the process of a fair implementation of the peace treaty.
This means that the American diplomacy used discourse itself exclusively as a weapon by which the adversary, in this case the Serbian side, was to be cornered or defeated. Discourse was used as such in the sense that the adversary’s attitude to the agreement, as well as to the process of negotiating the agreement, was viewed and interpreted only through the lens of justification of an already prepared military action. One could have recognized this already in verbal behavior of Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State, who responded to the news of “a massacre” in Račak (January 15 1999) with the following words of enthusiasm: “Spring has come early to Kosovo” (Herman, Peterson 2010, 96). During the London conference on Kosovo, on January 29 1999, at which the US and its allies drafted their final negotiating position, Ms. Albright also rebuffed her own spokesman James Rubin, who dared to propose somewhat softened, more diplomatic wording of the final communiqué, with the following words: “This is London, remember….not Munich” (Ignatieff 2000, 61). In other words, “it will be as we (USA), not as Hitler/Milošević, decide,” Albright implied.
Here we witness a special kind of dediscoursification. The discussion in section 1.2 indicated that one possible form of dediscoursification consists of a violation of a currently valid agreement, or of an act that one of the parties can reasonably interpret as such violation; or of an interpretation that was offered in such a way that the partner party can reasonably claim that a) their own concerns or interests were not sufficiently taken into account, or b) that no attempt was made to form a consensus on the interpretation. This form of dediscoursification is, therefore, committed against a background of an already adopted, officially binding agreement.
In the case of the Rambouillet talks and the American diplomacy as analyzed here, we witness a more intriguing example. An agreement had not been officially adopted, but adoption of the agreement was officially sought. At the same time, one party is encouraged to focus on the interpretability of the agreement, but is also explicitly told that its own interpretation did not matter; what matters is the ultimate interpretive decision by the ultimate foreign decision-maker. This means that one seeks the adoption of an agreement that cannot be adopted because one party simply could not adopt it due to the fact that the party is presented with an ultimatum, as a precondition for the agreement, to consider their own discourse as irrelevant. This also means that the phenomenon of dediscoursification is already produced in that party. The American diplomacy simply exploits this fact and uses it as a quasi-reason to support its claim that the Serbian side is bellicose, and most importantly, that its inimical attitude to the particular draft agreement demonstrates that the “language of military force” is the only language it can understand.
Moreover, one should emphasize that the American diplomacy itself is dediscoursified from the very start. It needs the whole process of quasi-negotiating, a long chain of discourse, only to get a shaky and illusory justification for a war, the decision for which had already been made. In this episode discourse is put to the service of war from the very start; it is intended as something that should show its own inefficiency, and in turn open the door to the use of military force. Hence, a single role is assigned to discourse–to create a situation in which the general public is likely to form the view that discourse had come to an end, leaving the space wide open to non-discursive, military means of “persuasion.”
Dražen Pehar has a PhD in politics and international relations from Keele University (SPIRE 2006), holds an assistant professorship (BiH) in the philosophy of law and in politics with sociology. Dražen is a DiploFoundation Associate, and previously served as Chief of Staff to the BiH Federation President (1996) and as a media analyst to the OHR (1999/2000). Dražen is also part of the Institute for Social and Political Research (IDPI), a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.
- In this section I draw considerably on Pehar (2005).
- That is why, after it turned out that there was disagreement between the American mediators and the Kosovo-Albanian delegation at Rambouillet, Madeleine Albright explained her frustration in the following way: “The Kosovar Albanians must do their part by giving a clear and unequivocal yes. It is up to them to create a black and white situation.” (in Herman, Peterson 2000, note 14)