On June 9, 1999, after 11 weeks of aerial bombing by NATO, dictator Slobodan Milosevic was forced to capitulate and end his ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kosovo.
I was a 15-year-old refugee at the time — one among more than 1 million Kosovar Albanians who, much like many Syrians today, were forced to flee their homes.
Unlike the Syrians, we were lucky. Someone stood up for us before it was too late. Those who wanted to kill or deport us were thwarted, and we were able to return to rebuild our homes.
I remember coming back to my home city of Prishtina to jubilant streets. It was July 4, and in the center of the city, the Albanian American unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army was celebrating U.S. Independence Day.
That scene marked for me the beginning of our honest — and often obsessive — love affair with the United States.
Like much of the Balkans, Kosovo is still struggling on many fronts. But we were right to celebrate back then. Democracy-building and development are never easy, especially in post-conflict settings. What’s important is that the region has since remained stable and continues to look forward.
Thus, by any measurable parameter, the U.S.-led intervention in Kosovo was a success. And it’s one that the United States needs to remember as it struggles with doubts about its engagement in the so-called post-American world.
As someone who has seen firsthand the importance of U.S. engagement, I am troubled by the increased resonance of isolationist thinking in U.S. politics and media.
Those voices have, of course, always been there. Twenty years ago, some on the fringes even rationalized Milosevic as he was butchering civilians and blamed NATO for the mess.
It’s a testament to how much the world has changed that this sense of responsibility to use U.S. power seems to have greatly diminished in the U.S. public sphere.
The skepticism is understandable. The United States’ global involvement has come at a high social and economic cost at home. People also associate engagement with the more recent failures in the Middle East — especially, of course, the war in Iraq.
Then there’s the appreciation of the limits to what the United States can do in a multipolar world. And, of course, the rightful anger with European allies for not sharing the burden fairly.
But while these are legitimate concerns, there are other lines of isolationist reasoning creeping into the mainstream that are not just deeply erroneous but also very dangerous.
The first is the moral equivalence worldview, which equates U.S. engagement in world affairs with the engagement of authoritarian regimes.
The second is the skeptical realist worldview, which advocates U.S. engagement only when it aligns with narrowly defined national interests.
The combination of these extremes of self-doubt and self-interest in mainstream U.S. discourse puts the entire democratic world at risk. It distorts people’s perception not just of the merits of defending democracy and human rights abroad, but also of how they need to be defended.
While it’s encouraging to see that younger people in the United States are more likely to consider genocide prevention and human rights protection top foreign policy priorities than older generations, they are paradoxically also less likely to consider it important to limit the influence of authoritarian countries such as China and Russia — which actively empower tyrants and promote alternatives to democracy around the world.
These two positions are mutually exclusive. One cannot protect the sheep from the wolves if the wolves are not actively contained — not by going to war with other powers but by countering their influence in fragile democracies, much like how the United States shielded Europe from the Soviet Union.
Twenty years ago, NATO decided to intervene in Kosovo because it learned a lesson from the international community’s earlier inaction in preventing the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. The lesson was that human rights violators are emboldened by the lack of credible deterrents.
We now live in a world of emboldened autocrats. The democratic world needs the United States to look back at successes such as Kosovo and restore its confidence on the world stage, so it can defend the democratic space that is also central to U.S. security.
In almost all cases, engagement does not mean the use of force. Stepping up support for grass-roots democratic forces through the vast range of diplomatic and economic tools will suffice to achieve this goal.
But this will work only if the United States operates in a system of broad alliances that share burdens and, yes, create credible military deterrents.
That’s why the main priority should be to double down on NATO and restore the transatlantic alliance. Even in the realist age of great power competition, there are no better allies than those that share your values.
And values in foreign policy matter. Trust this former refugee.