Skidelsky v. Ignatieff (On Kosovo and “Allied Force”)

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.

 Suggested Reading Collaborate GCCT

By Dražen Pehar

NATO “Allied Force” strikes against selected targets in Serbia and Kosovo ended in early June 1999. Relations between some of the NATO allies have in the process become somewhat tense, which probably contributed to the decision to end the action earlier than initially scheduled (Ignatieff 2000, 208). NATO troops then entered Kosovo as the Serbian side was persuaded by a strong application of “the language of military means.”[1] However, the war of words, a hermeneutical war concerning the question “for or against armed intervention?” has not ended; actually, it continues to this day.

The dialogue, which is scrutinized in this section, does not take place between the parties that later fought a war, but is sufficiently similar to such a dialogue. In fact, it was to a large extent simply an echo of the debate that took place prior to the NATO strikes, and even prior to the Rambouillet conference itself. It is a dialogue in which the parties propose mutually irreconcilable views vis-à-vis the following question: “Should one apply (or should one have applied) an international military force against Milošević in order to resolve the Kosovo issue?” Also, it is quite possible, and I think legitimate, to consider the dialogue simply as an effect of the polarization of opinion that is a necessary side-effect of all wars. It is also important to add that the polarized views by and large reflect and reiterate the views advocated by the very parties to the conflict prior to, during, and even after, the war. I think that one should as well bear in mind that those polarized views, as expressed by external parties, cannot be simply reduced to expressions of sentiments, for instance, sympathies for one or the other “gladiator,” though sentiments of course play some role. Here one deals with a real and intellectually weighty conflict between different views on politics, morality, and the human relationships; finally, to complicate issues even more, such kind of a conflict necessarily involves the matters of anthropology and political philosophy, or theory, broadly conceived.

The dialogue discussed here involves Michael Ignatieff, a political commentator and journalist (later a Harvard lecturer), and Robert Skidelsky, an independent member of the UK House of Lords. It took place in the form of an exchange of letters published in Prospect magazine in June 1999 (reprinted in Ignatieff 2000, 71-87). The total of six letters was published, three for each participant to the debate, with Skidelsky having published the first. It is also important to emphasize that the letters were written in May at the peak of the NATO military campaign, the outcome of which was still uncertain at the time. Briefly, Ignatieff was writing in favor of the intervention, hence one can treat him as an advocate of the official American and British, as well as Kosovar Albanian position. Skidelsky, on the other hand, opposed the intervention, and one can, with some qualifiers, treat him as an advocate of the Serbian, or independent, and opposition-based, Anglo-American voice to the debate on Kosovo.

I am presenting their dialogue here for one fundamental reason: I believe it can inform us of a special form of dediscoursification that we have not encountered in previous sections. However, before focusing on the special form (which also closely relates to some parts of the dialogue discussed in section 1.6), a few introductory words concerning the framework and context of the dialogue are in order.

Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister and a key Bill Clinton’s ally, also one of the two key advocates (and commanders-in-chief) of NATO strikes, delivered a speech titled “The doctrine of international community” (Ignatieff 2000, 72-73) in Chicago on 22 April 1999. The speech defends the idea of humanitarian military intervention, and offers a number of arguments in support of the military action against Milošević. Those arguments are closely related to the tradition of the just-war theorizing I discuss in Chapter 4. Most importantly for the purposes of this section, the arguments also provide a framework to the Prospect debate between Skidelsky and Ignatieff. The former opened the debate by arguing against Blair’s arguments; the latter will defend Blair in subsequent letters. Blair himself drew on the human rights doctrine and presented four conditions which, in his opinion, make a military intervention legitimate and justified: 1. violations of human rights reach a degree of systematic attempt to expel or destroy a group of people; 2. those violations pose a threat to the peace and stability of neighboring region, or have the capacity to produce spill-over effect; 3. all diplomatic means must have been exhausted prior to the decision to take a military action; 4. military force should be applied only if we reasonably think that it could really change the situation and be effective in accordance with our definition of effectiveness and/or political interest.

Ignatieff attempted to frame the debate as one between “kin souls,” or advocates of identical premises. He described such premises as broadly “liberal” and emphasized that those who defend such values can nevertheless come to opposed views concerning the values’ proper implementation. Ignatieff thus took the whole debate to be a pertinent illustration of Isaiah Berlin’s idea that, even if two interlocutors or decision-makers share key premises concerning their moral values, this does not guarantee that there will be no conflict over the proper implementation, or practical interpretation, of such values in some specific conditions, or over the issue of proper response to the situation when such values seem to be undermined (Ignatieff 2000, 71-72). Once you have read the debate, however, you will promptly realize that this is not the case here. Ignatieff and Skidelsky do not subscribe to the same set of values, whether one decides to call them “liberal” or not. During their debate, Skidelsky even wonders if Ignatieff “rates justice higher than peace,” which is perhaps the key point of their contention (Ignatieff 2000, 80); obviously, Skidelsky rates peace as at least equal to justice, or assigns to it perhaps even a higher value.

At some key junctures the dialogue becomes a rich source of the examples of sophistry, or of conclusions that could not survive a more detailed logical-epistemological scrutiny. This applies primarily to Ignatieff’s own contributions to the debate. For instance, at the very end of the debate, Ignatieff accused Skidelsky of “appeasement” (Ignatieff 2000, 87). The word is infamous and was used many times by the advocates of the NATO strikes, and it was also implied by the comparison of London and Munich that Madeleine Albright conveyed to James Rubin. The word connotes that Milošević was a Hitler, and that the Hitler had to be contained by military means in a timely fashion. A sufficiently educated person should not find it difficult to defeat this historical analogy. Milošević could not have posed a threat to the European order, or to NATO; four years earlier, he signed the Dayton peace framework that recognized international borders of a neighboring country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and at Rambouillet it was his delegation, not the Kosovo-Albanian, which was put in the position of a victim of ultimatums. Serbia was not a country in a state of emergency, as was German Reich in 1933, etc. etc. These are just some of the indicators that the reference to “appeasement” seems to have served only as a tool of political propaganda that depicted Milošević as “a demon of the past,” an “evil incarnate,” that deserves to be struck and defeated by the mighty NATO engine.

Secondly, Ignatieff has failed to understand that at the time NATO did not have a clear definition of their political goals. Today, in year 2015, we know that the US secretly had such a definition in mind, but it was and remains to a large extent politically incorrect. It was in violation of all the UNSC resolutions concerning Kosovo/a, and it was also fully in line with the political goals of the Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo Liberation Army. As such, it could not have been officially presented as a part of the NATO campaign. This has an important impact on the conditions justifying humanitarian military intervention that Blair referred to in his speech as, without the said definition, Blair’s fourth condition could not have been satisfied. In other words, one cannot assess the impact of one’s military action unless one has a clear political goal in mind in light of which one can assess such action. That is why Ignatieff described the conditions of the success of the NATO military action in totally unrealistic terms, as follows (2nd letter):

“If Milošević agrees to negotiate a settlement which allows for the refugees to return under international protection, then the bombing should cease at once. If he refuses to negotiate, the bombing should continue until Serb forces are sufficiently weakened to permit a ground invasion of Kosovo, whose aim would be to occupy the province, disarm Serb forces, return refugees, rebuild the province, place it under UN administration and then exit as soon as a permanent ceasefire could be negotiated with the Serbs.” (Ignatieff 2000, 85)

The Ignatieff’s “vision for Kosovo” can easily be shown as unrealistic and implausible. First, the land invasion was considered impossible because the NATO planners were against it since the very start. Secondly, imagine that the invasion did take place; and imagine that Kosovo was occupied by the NATO force without a previous agreement. Ignatieff does not explain, nor could he explain, why, in such conditions, should NATO need a permanent ceasefire with the Serbian side. Is it for the purpose of NATO’s departure from Kosovo, and a hand-over of governance to a UN administration? If so, should not that allow the Serbian forces to resume hostilities, and try re-conquering Kosovo by force in the conditions when no political agreement was in force? Obviously, Ignatieff does not even come close to an attempt at formulating a viable political solution to the Kosovo problem, which is why his vision of an ideal post-war situation in Kosovo reads as a phantasm.

Thirdly, like Blair, Ignatieff in his letters advocates the view that all diplomatic alternatives have been effectively exhausted prior to the start of the NATO action. Skidelsky denies such a view. One should first of all notice that, contra Ignatieff, this is not a debate concerning the values, but one concerning the matters of fact. If you have collected all relevant information concerning diplomatic efforts by USA, EU and Russia, before and during the Rambouillet talks, you should be in a position to propose and defend a plausible answer to the question of whether all available diplomatic methods have been in fact exhausted. In other words, in such conditions one would be in a position to arrive at a reliable conclusion concerning the following query: have the international actors rightfully inferred that it was impossible to reach an agreement with Milošević, that he stood outside the discourse, and was the key dediscoursifying agent not only in relation to Kosovo Albanians, but to the international representatives as well?

In light of the previous section it is clear that the answer to the query must be in the negative. However, even more interestingly, a part of the answer draws on some excerpts from Ignatieff’s book, for instance, when he quotes Richard Holbrooke’s view of the Rambouillet talks, which was also supported by the words of James Rubin. To repeat: according to the words, and the excerpts from Ignatieff’s own book, the goal of the conference was not to reach an agreement, or to effectively use a period of diplomatic negotiations for a free and fair exchange of arguments with the goal to reach a compromise; its goal was, first, to present Kosovo Albanians to the EU as good guys that are but victims of the bad ones (i.e. the Serbians); and secondly, to convince the Kosovo Albanian delegation to give their consent to a fixed peace framework that was defined well in advance of the conference. In light of such facts, Ignatieff’s (and Blair’s) view, that the third condition for the NATO strikes was fulfilled, is utterly unconvincing, of which Skidelsky was aware too. Now, how does the latter respond to the positions and letters by Ignatieff?

First, as was already emphasized in “Toch’s” dialogues, a phenomenon typical of dediscoursification takes place: Skidelsky, as Ignatieff too, assumes a metalingual perspective. He needs to say something about language as used by Ignatieff. Following this, and based on the view he takes of the language of his interlocutor, he also takes a more or less negative view of the interlocutor himself. One can recognize this to a certain extent in the second letter, but in the third letter the phenomenon is unmistakable. In the second letter Skidelsky emphasizes the following: “You also weaken the presumption [emphasis added by Pehar] of non-interference unduly by omitting the most compelling argument in its favor, namely that it offers the only secure basis for good (and peaceful) interstate relations in a world where values differ” (Ignatieff 2000, 80). And then: “…you rather airily wave aside the objection [emphasis added by Pehar] that NATO is making war on a member of the UN without UN authorization” (Ignatieff 2000, 81).

However, in the third letter, the metalingual perspective, together with an implied view of interlocutor, becomes fully explicit: “I am amazed that you continue to believe [emphasis added by Pehar] that Russia at any time supported the NATO solution;” and: “I would have expected more skepticism from you [emphasis added by Pehar] about NATO’s claims.” (Ignatieff 2000, 86) In other words, we witness Skidelsky who depicts Ignatieff’s words as non-rationally motivated statements, which also implies a negative view of both the interlocutor and the dialogue with him. Skidelsky is “amazed,” and his expectation vis-à-vis Ignatieff’s skepticism, prudence or intellectual honesty, is disappointed.

On the other side, Ignatieff’s response is of the same character. In comparison, his utterances are even less kind. In his third and last letter, Ignatieff employed the word “you” four times, and attached to it some moral attributes that can be identified only by a metalingual perspective: “You can only maintain your position by misrepresenting the facts….You cling to the fiction that diplomacy might have averted war….You forget that the Russians were at Rambouillet…The fact which you do not wish to face [emphasis added by Pehar] is that every peaceful diplomatic alternative to war was tried and failed….” (Ignatieff 2000, 86-87) Altogether, this means that Ignatieff views Skidelsky as someone who distorts facts, who is forgetful, and who lives in a fiction or in the state of deliberate denial of reality.

Again we find a metalingual perspective which, by producing an image of an interlocutor, also produces a relationship that has an adverse effect on the will to continue communicating with the interlocutor. If Skidelsky is indeed forgetful, if he deliberately distorts facts and lives in the world of fiction, then one can hardly expect to arrive at a fair and sustainable agreement through talking to him. Here Skidelsky, in Ignatieff’s discourse, becomes something like “Milošević writ small,”a defender of authoritarian leaders who “believe that force should substitute for dialogue in their domestic affairs” (Ignatieff 2000, 79).

Secondly, which brings us to the reason why the dialogue is discussed in this section, a special form of dediscoursification we have not yet identified can be clearly discerned between Ignatieff and Skidelsky. Here Ignatieff is the one who generates dediscoursification, while Skidelsky had been dediscoursified–he is a victim of Ignatieff’s dediscoursifying. What does this form look like? First of all, it concerns the meaning of words or sentences; hence, it concerns one of the fundamental components of communication. For example, it is already in his first letter to Skidelsky that Ignatieff writes as follows: “Your position–to stay out and do nothing–is sustainable only on the assumption that Milošević is telling the truth.” (Ignatieff 2000, 77) However, in the first letter by Skidelsky we cannot find statement supporting that position. That is why Skidelsky, in his next letter to Ignatieff, needs to emphasize that, “this does not mean that ‘stay out and do nothing’ is the only option; nor do I believe Milošević’s propaganda” (Ignatieff 2000, 81).

In his second letter to Skidelsky, Ignatieff also emphasized the following: “You dismiss this structure of international human rights law as nothing more than the homage which vice pays to virtue” (Ignatieff 2000, 83). Again, in Skidelsky’s previous letters one cannot find the sentence that could be strictly identified as the sentence Ignatieff attributed to him. What Skidelsky really claimed was that “international human rights law” is a subject of conflicting interpretations, that different states interpret the relevant conventions differently; also that, in some states, the standards of conduct internally are different from the standards adopted in western democracies, and that conflicts might arise between some individual norms at moral, legal, and/or political level, which makes such conflicts intractable and hard to resolve (for instance, when two nations claim a right to a single stretch of territory, which calls for some kind of modus vivendi); and finally, that there is a presumption against interference in internal affairs of another state as stipulated by UN Charter (Ignatieff 2000, 80-81). However, we cannot find the strong statement that Ignatieff attributes to Skidelsky on insignificance, or weakness, or a fictional nature, of international human rights law. So, what kind of discursive practice do we deal with in this case?

Actually, Ignatieff ascribes, or imputes, to Skidelsky’s statements the meanings that those statements do not carry. He does not relate to Skidelsky’s language with a sufficient level of respect in the sense that Skidelsky must be a chief interpretive authority of his own verbal deliveries. We are constrained in relation to the discourse produced by others in both moral and semantic sense: our interpretation should not be arbitrary since, frequently enough, there is an objective structure of meaning that one should not depict, grasp, or pass on, in an unfounded, subjective, or distorted way.

In moments of a heated debate, a strong conflict of opinion, the phenomenon of semantic imputation is not unexpected or rare. One party to such a debate will have a very strong desire to defeat his or her opponent, to show to the audience that the opponent advocates the views that deserve not only intellectual defeat, but also condemnation. In a situation when an opponent advocates some more sophisticated views, one of the ways to quasi-defeat him before an audience is by reformulating his own views, consciously or not, and projecting into them some simpler meanings that can be then straightforwardly denied and condemned. Such is the fundamental function of “the imputation of meaning,” or semantic imputation, within the context of a heated and highly polarized debate. Among the more famous historical figures Lenin used frequently such a form of manipulation to defeat his opponent, and often humiliate him in front of listeners or a wider public (Inić 1984, 74).

One needs to emphasize immediately that the “imputer” talks for the sake of a third party. He is not really interested in communication with his opponent, or a critic of his own opinion. He is interested exclusively in the effect that his presentation will have on the public or those who follow, and form a public opinion of the debate. Hence, it is fully logical that the imputer is interested in an inattentive audience, or one who has already formed a fixed view favorable to the imputer’s. Obviously, he needs to rely on those who are insufficiently capable of drawing some finer intellectual distinctions. So, in the mouth of the imputer, the words become swords that are in advance defined as servants to a higher purpose, which is to present a negative view of the opponent in order for such a view to be broadly accepted or reinforced. In fact, the phenomenon is one of a relatively sophisticated kind of lying–a kind of lie that relates to the original, authentic sentence, but is worse than common lying primarily because it draws on the assumed inimical attitude of the audience toward its own, and the audience’s, target.

Semantic imputation brings discomfort to its victims in several ways. First and foremost, it is discomforting because it shows that a true communication, or debate, does not take place. The opponent is not making an attempt to understand the victim’s views in order to try to defeat them with a sound counterargument. S/he is making an attempt at distorting the victim’s views in order to launch some arguments that are a part of his or her fixed bag of arguments against thus distorted views. Hence, most importantly, the imputer demonstrates that s/he does not communicate with the victim. The latter’s words seem to be futile as they seem unable to convey the meaning to a person who officially claims s/he has been communicating. The victim’s words are deflected and deformed in the mind of the imputer. This experience, however, suggests that, in this case, communication with one who reads another’s words so viciously and poorly makes no sense.

We need to notice immediately that the imputation nearly automatically generates a metalingual perspective. To counter the imputation, Skidelsky needed to adopt such a perspective as it is only through such a perspective that he, or anyone, is in a position to compare his meanings with those that Ignatieff, or anyone, attributed to him. Of course, along the way the former also had to form a view of such practice. In the course of the experience he also had to realize that it is very inconvenient when one wastes time to “clear the very ground” instead of exchanging arguments proper. Imputer forces one to deal with very elementary matters; immediately after the first letter, Ignatieff must have come to the conclusion that the position he projected into Skidelsky’s words was not Skidelsky’s real position. Regardless of Ignatieff’s conclusions, however, in his second letter Skidelsky had to deal with something that, from the viewpoint of a reasoned debate and conversation, sounds like an “unnecessary interpretation” that is not required in the conditions of a normal, reasoned debate.

Also, we need to notice that “clearing the very ground” may give to the imputer simply another opportunity for another imputation. The imputer is not interested in real communication between persons, nor in the kind of honesty that is required to sustain communication between reasonable adults. His communication reminds one of a communication with ghosts or a fiction that the imputer aims to dispel or silence. In light of this fact, Skidelsky’s continuation of letter-exchange with Ignatieff may seem surprising or overly optimistic. After such imputation takes place, communication is almost entirely refocused on a third party–one party, your direct interlocutor, is “throwing dirt” at you, while you try to clean yourself before a third “pair of ears.” At the same time, you immediately start to realize that the whole process of communicating is likely to come to nothing. This indeed is the process of dediscoursifying with a highly predictable outcome.

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.


  1. As Ignatieff pointed out (2000, 176-7), the leaders of NATO alliance have not officially declared war, nor have they asked their parliaments for consent; the constitutions have simply been bypassed–to which a “linguistic subterfuge,” as Ignatieff calls it, came in handy: the Kosovo war was not called “war,” “our leaders spoke of strikes and coercive diplomacy.”

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