The American Interest

Smokers in the Arsenal

Several years after he was forced into retirement, Otto von Bismarck was asked what could start the next major war.  “Europe today is a powder keg,” he replied, “and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal . . . I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where: some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.”

Indeed, the Annexation Crisis of 1908—just ten years after Bismarck’s death—paved the way for the catastrophe of 1914.  Austria-Hungary acted unilaterally in annexing Bosnia-Herzegovina, in open violation of international law and, specifically, of the Treaty of Berlin (1878).  Confident of Germany’s support, the dual monarchy rode roughshod over Serbia, humiliated Russia, and presented other powers with a fait accompli—setting the stage for a series of crises that culminated in the suicide of Europe six years later.

Exactly one century later, U.S. actions in the Balkans bear an uncanny semblance to those of imperial Vienna.  Kosovo’s independence, unilaterally proclaimed on February 17 and recognized by Washington two days later, has been Washington’s project from the outset.  It is supported enthusiastically by a few European countries (Great Britain), only reluctantly by most of them (e.g., Italy), and not at all by some (Spain).  That project also involves a blatant...

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