I am honored to be your commencement speaker. A commencement speech is meant to be an inspiration to the young people who are completing their education and going out into the big world. I am not sure whether I can deliver such a speech because as a citizen of that big world, I am stunned and devastated by what is happening in Kosovo. I am deeply involved in that part of the world and what is happening there has raised in my mind a lot of questions to which, frankly speaking, I don't have the answers. The results of the NATO intervention have shocked me and forced me to reconsider some of my most cherished preconceptions.
I am a believer in what I call an open society which is basically a broader and more universal concept of democracy. Open society is based on the recognition that nobody has access to the ultimate truth; perfection is unattainable and therefore we must be satisfied with the next best thing: a society that holds itself open to improvement. An open society allows people with different views, identities and interests to live together in peace. An open society transcends boundaries; it allows intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states because people living in an oppressive regime often cannot defend themselves against oppression without outside intervention but the intervention must be confined to supporting the people living in a country to attain their legitimate aspirations, not to impose a particular ideology or to subjugate one state to the interests of another. These are the principles I have put into practice through my network of open society foundations.
Judging by these principles, I have no doubt that Milosevic infringed the rights of the Albanian population in Kosovo. Nor do I have any doubts that the situation required outside intervention. The case for intervention is clearer in Kosovo than in most other situations of ethnic conflict because Milosevic unilaterally deprived the inhabitants of Kosovo of the autonomy that they had already enjoyed. He also broke an international agreement into which he entered in October of last year. My doubts center on the ways in which international pressure can be successfully applied.
I am more aware than most people that actions have unintended consequences. Nevertheless I'm shocked by the consequences of our intervention. We have accomplished exactly the opposite of what we intended. We have accelerated the ethnic cleansing we sought to interdict. We have helped to consolidate in power the Milosevic regime and we have helped to create instability in the neighboring countries of Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania, not to mention the broader international implications such as our relationship with China.
It is obvious that something has gone woefully wrong and we find ourselves in an awful quandary. I am not going to discuss how we got there and how we can extricate ourselves. I want to discuss the principle of intervening in the internal affairs of a sovereign state in order to protect its people. Because that is what we are doing and it is not working. It is easy to find fault with the way we have gone about it, but the problem that preoccupies me goes deeper. In the case of Yugoslavia we have intervened in different ways. In Bosnia we tried it with the United Nations and it didn't work. That is why in Kosovo we tried it without the United Nations and that didn't work either. We also tried it by applying economic sanctions but that too had adverse consequences. The sanctions could be broken with the help of the ruling regimes by shady businessmen who in turn became an important source of support for the ruling regimes not only in Yugoslavia but also in the neighboring countries. In short, nothing worked. And we have a similar record in Africa.
The question I have to ask myself: is it possible, is it appropriate to intervene in the internal affairs of a state in the name of some general principle like human rights or open society? I did not want to consider such a question and I certainly don't want to accept no for an answer. It would be the end of the aspiration to an open society. In the absence of outside intervention oppressive regimes could perpetrate untold atrocities. Moreover, internal conflicts could easily broaden into international hostilities. In our increasingly interdependent world, there are certain kinds of behavior by sovereign states -- aggression, terrorism, ethnic cleansing -- that cannot be tolerated by the international community. At the same time we must recognize that the current approach does not work. We must find some better way. This will require a profound rethinking and reorganization of the way we conduct international relations.
As things are now, international relations involve relations between states. How a state treats its own citizens involves relations within the state. The two relations are largely independent of each other because the states enjoy sovereignty over their territory and their inhabitants. Sovereignty is an outdated concept but it prevails. It derives from the time when kings wielded power over their subjects but in the French Revolution when the people of France overthrew their king they assumed his sovereignty. That was the birth of the modern state. Since then, there has been a gradual recognition that states must also be subject to the rule of law but international law has been slow to develop and it does not have any teeth. We have the United Nations but the UN does not work well because it is an association of states and states are guided by their interests not by universal principles, and we have the Declaration of Universal Human Rights.
The principles which ought to govern the behavior of states towards their own citizens have been reasonably well-established. What is missing is an authority to enforce those principles -- an authority that transcends the sovereign state. Since the sovereignty of the modern state is derived from the people, the authority that transcends the sovereign state must be derived from the people of the world. As long as we live in a world of sovereign states, the people need to exercise their authority through the states to which they belong, particularly where military action is concerned. Democratic states are supposed to carry out the will of the people. So in the ultimate analysis the development and enforcement of international law depends on the will of the people who live in democratic countries.
And that is where the problem lies. People who live in democratic countries do not believe in democracy as a universal principle. They tend to be guided by self-interest, not by universal principles. They may be willing to defend democracy in their own country because they consider it to be in their own self-interest but few people care sufficiently about democracy as an abstract idea to defend it in other countries, especially when the idea is so far removed from the reality. Yet people do have some concerns that go beyond self-interest. They are aroused by pictures of atrocities. How could these concerns be mobilized to prevent the atrocities? That is the question that preoccupies me.
I have attended a number of discussions about Kosovo and I was shocked to discover how vague and confused people, well-informed people, are about the reasons for our involvement. They speak of humanitarian reasons and human rights almost interchangeably. Yet the two are quite different. Human rights are political rights. When they are violated, it may lead to a humanitarian disaster, pictures on CNN that arouse peopleís emotions but by then it is too late. The damage is done and the intervention is often counterproductive. The humanitarian disaster could have been prevented only by protecting the political rights of the people. But to achieve this, people must take an interest in the principles of open society. Prevention cannot start early enough. To be successful it must be guided by a set of clear objectives. That is what the concept of open society can provide.
For instance, if the people of the world had been sufficiently aroused by the atrocities in Kosovo to impose a ban on Yugoslav basketball teams, the eventual bombing of Yugoslavia might have been more effective. The Serbs would have been aware that the people of the world are revolted by the behavior of the Milosevic regime. As it is, the Serbs simply fail to connect what is done to them with what they have done to others. It fits their self-image as victims, and those who think of themselves as victims are often the worst victimizers.
Unfortunately, the people of the world were not aroused by Kosovo. The atrocities started more than a year ago, and the principles of open society were violated ten years ago. But people did not even know where Kosovo was until we started bombing Yugoslavia.
Suppose that the people subscribed to the principles of an open society; how could those principles be translated into effective institutions? It would require the cooperation of democratic states. We need an authority that transcends the sovereignty of states. We have such an authority in the form of the United Nations, but the UN is not guided by the principles of open society. It is an association of states, some of which are democratic, others not, each of which is guided by its national interests. We have an association of democratic states, NATO, which did intervene in defense of democratic values, but it is a military alliance incapable of preventive action. By the time it intervenes it is too late and we have seen that its intervention can be counterproductive. It needs to be complemented by a political alliance dedicated to the promotion of open society and capable of acting both within the UN and outside it.
Such an alliance would work more by providing rewards for good behavior than punishment for bad behavior. Belonging to the alliance or meeting its standards should be a rewarding experience. This would encourage voluntary compliance and defer any problems connected with the infringement of national sovereignty. The first degree of punishment would be exclusion; only if it fails need other measures be considered. The greatest rewards would be access to markets, access to finance, better treatment by the international financial institutions and, where appropriate, association with the European Union. There are a thousand little ways that diplomatic pressure can be applied; the important thing is to be clear about the objectives. I am sure that the abolition of Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 could have been reversed if the international community had been determined enough about it. In Latvia, international pressure had led to a reform of the naturalization law which could have caused conflict in Russia. In Croatia, the international community did not do enough to assure the existence of independent media. Nor is it sufficiently aroused by proposals in various Central Asian republics to introduce lifetime presidencies. We shall not be able to get rid of Milosevic by bombing but if, after the war, there is a grand plan for the reconstruction of South East Europe involving a customs union and virtual membership in the EU for those countries which qualify, I am sure that the Serbs would soon get rid of Milosevic in order to qualify.
A political alliance dedicated to the promotion of open society might even be able to change the way the UN functions, especially if it had a much broader membership than NATO. NATO could still serve as its military arm.
Ironically, it is the US that stands in the way of such a political alliance. We are caught in a trap of our own making. We used to be one of the two superpowers and the leaders of the free world. We are now the sole remaining superpower and we would like to think of ourselves as the leaders of the free world. But that is where we fail, because we fail to observe one of the basic principles of the open society. Nobody has a monopoly of the truth, yet we act as if we did. We are willing to violate the sovereignty of other states in the name of universal principles but we are unwilling to accept any infringement of our own sovereignty. We are willing to drop bombs on others from high altitudes but we are reluctant to expose our own men to risk. We refuse to submit ourselves to any kind of international governance. We were one of seven countries which refused to subscribe to the International Criminal Court; the others were China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen. We do not even pay our dues to the United Nations. This kind of behavior does not lend much legitimacy to our claim to be the leaders of the free world.
To reclaim that role we must radically alter our attitude to international cooperation. We cannot and should not be the policemen of the world; but the world needs a policeman. Therefore we must cooperate with like-minded countries and abide by the rules that we seek to impose on others. We cannot bomb the world into submission but we cannot withdraw into isolation either. If we cannot prevent atrocities like Kosovo we must also be willing to accept body bags. I hate to end on such a note, but that is where we are right now.
* Commencement Speech delivered by George Soros on May 27, 1999, at Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University.