Overwhelming Logic

Spain?s decision to withdraw from Kosovo will come at a high price to its international image

This article was published in El País on 23 March 2009.

Politicians are normally accused of being too pragmatic. In their defence, they will often argue that reality is more complicated than meets the eye, that what is desirable is simply not always feasible, going on to stress that if they failed to weigh up the pros and cons of any decision beforehand, they would not be fulfilling their obligations. But what we are much less used to is the opposite scenario, one in which a government sticks to its decision to the bitter end, independently of the price to be paid, come what may.

The Spanish Government’s decision last week to withdraw its troops from Kosovo provided us with an example of just that kind of blind logic. No doubt President Zapatero is right when he defends the measure for being “logical and coherent” with his government’s refusal to recognise an independent Kosovo. But the timing of the announcement hardly looks like a decision based on rational calculation, coming as it does just a few days after the visit of the Serbian President and his Defence Minister to Madrid – so providing an example of what Zapatero himself described as a “very close” bilateral relationship – and just a few days before President Obama arrives in Europe to attend a number of Summits (NATO summit included) crucial for US relations. At the very least, the announcement leaves itself open to serious misinterpretation, something clearly demonstrated by the barrage of negative statements made by some of our closest allies in its wake, including France and the United States, not to mention NATO itself and the Czech Presidency of the EU. Sometimes, decisions based on overwhelming logic can end up overwhelming us.

Strangely enough, however one chooses to look at it, Kosovo is of little importance from the standpoint of Spanish interests. Still, the matter is fast becoming one of the high profile foreign policy issues for which Zapatero will be remembered. Aznar made a similar mistake when he blew the question of Perejil out of all proportion, ultimately allowing a small disputed island of no importance to upset his European policy, making him see enemies in every corner.

If Kosovo were a policy, the pros and cons of adopting one course of action over another would have been evaluated from the start. But Kosovo is simply an instinct, a Pavlovian reflex which makes any rational analysis by the government well nigh impossible. The Spanish government has been steadily advancing down this blind alley for about a year now, since the declaration of independence by Pristina.

First of all it adopted a decision aimed at achieving two mutually incompatible things at one stroke; vehemently denying that Kosovo’s declaration of independence constitutes any kind of precedent, Spain immediately conceded that very precedent by refusing to recognise the fledgling State. This oddly original and highly flawed logic (“there is no precedent, but I refuse to recognise”), has led the government to go on to adopt a number of decisions which, one after the other, have been as logical and coherent as they have proved costly for our wider foreign policy. First came the attempt to justify its argument from the perspective of international law when it was national law which was at stake. Then Spain voted in the UN in favour of the International Court of Justice examining the legality of the declaration of independence, even when it meant voting with non-aligned countries and against our NATO and EU allies. And now we have the withdrawal of Spanish troops, a decision taken despite it leaving our NATO and EU allies in a state of complete shock.

One might wonder what we can expect to gain in return for our troubles in this affair. I confess to being ignorant of some of the nitty-gritty details of Basque and Catalan politics, but I would happily take consolation from any tangible benefits accruing in the domestic sphere from the government’s stance on Kosovo, such a burden for our foreign policy at large. But whether the troop withdrawal is of any use to Patxi López or the cause of national unity is a mystery I am unable to shed any light on.

Unlikely gains to one side, the price to pay for Kosovo will undeniably be a high one, because whilst it is not Iraq, two military withdrawals can scarcely be accounted for convincingly by coincidence. Naturally, questions will be asked about Spain and why it has a problem with such missions. And while Iraq was clearly the work of the Bush Administration, Kosovo is unequivocally a legacy of Bill Clinton’s term in office, including the war against Serbia which, by the way, Spain took part in despite the absence of any formal ratification in the shape of a UN resolution. Allies roll up their sleeves and get on with things, they don’t spend their time lecturing each other on principles. That explains why Greece, Rumania and Slovakia have not withdrawn their troops from Kosovo, despite also refusing to recognise its independence. If the plan was to seduce Obama, the President of a country born of a beautiful (and unilateral) declaration of independence, then Zapatero is going to have to work a lot harder than was originally envisaged. [email protected]

(English Translation)

Translated from Spanish by Douglas Wilson

Aplastados bajo la lógica

Los políticos suelen ser acusados de ser demasiado pragmáticos. En su defensa, suelen argüir que la realidad es más compleja de lo que parece, que lo deseable no siempre es posible y que su obligación es considerar los costes y beneficios de una decisión antes de tomarla. Pero a lo que no estamos acostumbrados es a la situación contraria, es decir, a que un Gobierno siga una decisión hasta sus últimas consecuencias, independientemente de sus costes, caiga quien caiga, como se dice popularmente.

Algo de esta lógica ciega hemos visto la semana pasada en la decisión del Gobierno de retirar las tropas de Kosovo. No cabe duda de que el presidente tiene razón cuando defiende la medida como “lógica y coherente” con la decisión de no reconocer la independencia. Pero anunciar la retirada a unos pocos días de que el presidente de Serbia y su ministro de Defensa se pasearan por Madrid, ejemplificando lo que Zapatero personalmente describió como prueba de unas relaciones bilaterales “muy estrechas”, y a unos pocos días de que el presidente Obama llegue a Europa para participar en una serie de cumbres (entre ellas de la OTAN) cruciales para las relaciones con Estados Unidos, no parece desde luego producto de un cálculo racional. En cualquier caso, puede ser muy mal entendido, como ha quedado demostrado en la cascada de declaraciones negativas que el anuncio ha producido entre nuestros más estrechos aliados, incluyendo Francia y Estados Unidos, así como por parte de la OTAN y la presidencia checa de la Unión Europea. Hay decisiones de una lógica tan aplastante que pueden aplastarle a uno.

Lo curioso es que Kosovo es, bajo cualquier criterio, un asunto menor desde el punto de vista de los intereses de España. Y sin embargo, va camino de convertirse en uno de los legados más visibles de la política exterior de Zapatero. Aznar también cometió un error similar al magnificar un incidente como el de Perejil, un islote sin importancia y de disputada soberanía pero que acabó trastocando su política europea haciéndole ver enemigos por todas partes.

Si Kosovo fuera una política, se hubieran valorado desde un principio los costes y beneficios de adoptar uno u otro curso de acción. Pero Kosovo es simplemente un instinto, un reflejo condicionado, lo que hace imposible todo análisis racional de las acciones del Gobierno. Así, desde que hace un año Pristina declarara la independencia, el Gobierno se ha ido encerrando en un callejón sin salida.

Primero, adoptó una decisión que pretendía lograr de una tacada dos cosas incompatibles entre sí: negar con toda rotundidad que la declaración de independencia de Kosovo constituyera precedente alguno para, a continuación, conceder el precedente negándose a reconocer la independencia. Desde esta lógica original, tan singular como defectuosa -“no constituye precedente, pero me niego a reconocerlo”-, el Gobierno ha ido adoptando sucesivas decisiones, todas tan lógicas y coherentes como costosas para la política exterior. Primero fue intentar justificar su argumentación desde el derecho internacional, cuando era el derecho interno lo que preocupaba. Luego fue votar en la ONU para que el Tribunal Internacional de Justicia examinara la legalidad de la declaración de la independencia, aunque hubiera que votar con los no alineados y en contra de todos nuestros aliados de la OTAN y de la UE. Y ahora, retirar las tropas aunque nuestros aliados de la OTAN y de la UE se queden boquiabiertos.

Todo ello a cambio de qué, cabe preguntarse. Me confieso ignorante de las sutilezas de la política vasca y catalana, pero al menos me consolaría que, dado que el coste de las decisiones del Gobierno sobre Kosovo pesa como una losa sobre nuestra política exterior, hubiera beneficios tangibles en el ámbito doméstico. Pero si sirve o no a Patxi López o a la unidad patria la retirada de tropas es desde luego un enigma para el cual carezco de respuesta.

Más allá de los dudosos beneficios, es innegable que los costes serán elevados. Kosovo no es Irak, pero dos retiradas son muchas como para ser una coincidencia. Lógicamente, algunos se preguntarán qué problema tiene España. Si Irak era Administración Bush cien por cien, Kosovo es un claro producto de la Administración de Bill Clinton, incluida una guerra con Serbia en la que (por cierto) España participó a pesar de carecer de una resolución de la ONU que la refrendara. Un aliado es alguien que arrima el hombro, no alguien que constantemente imparte lecciones de principios. Por eso, Grecia, Rumania y Eslovaquia, que tampoco reconocen Kosovo, mantienen sus tropas allí. Desde luego, si el plan era seducir a Obama, presidente de un país nacido de una bellísima declaración (unilateral) de independencia, ZP va a tener que trabajar mucho más de lo inicialmente previsto.

Publicado en El País el 23 de marzo de 2009

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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