An Internet Peace Initiative -- first draft
by Michael H. Goldhaber
May 17 , '99
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By now it is apparent that the NATO bombing campaign, while wreaking
destruction on the Serbs is in no way making things better for the
supposed beneficiaries, the Kosovo Albanians. The bankruptcy of
state-supported violence is evident to all. To all current appearances,
despite the damage already done, all sides seem poised to continue
fighting in the same manner for the foreseeable future, leading only to
further death and destruction. Diplomacy has also failed, quite
clearly. But there is another failure as well: that of the new power of
The Internet has been touted as an international community, global in
reach, and one that in many ways invalidates and outmodes state power.
Not so, as yet, in Kosovo. Though much reporting of the war has
travelled through the Net, no independent, influential peace initiatives
have emerged or even been offered. I am not convinced it had to be that
way. Even now it is not too late for the pro-peace community that has
access to the Internet to play a decisive role. Success obviously still
eludes conventional forces of all kinds, so the opportunity as well as
the challenge is real.
I begin this call with the thought that the use of force as a means
towards power is rarely simply that. You can completely control a person
by force only if you either kill them outright or so overpower them that
you can move their limbs like those of a marionette. To a lesser extent
you can control someone by physically confining them, say putting them
in jail. But most of the time force of whatever strength works not
directly but through the attention, imaginative powers and fears of its
victims and potential victims. Some times, the display of force operates
through the admiration of its would-be emulators or of those who believe
they somehow benefit from it. The Holocaust was one of the rare true
uses of pure force to gain an end, useless as that end was in practical
terms even to those who organized it. Close to this absolute use of
force are such actions as the Serb militants' atrocities in Srebrenica
and apparently in Kosovo, where they chiefly kill potential opposition
By contrast even the German bombing of London in WWII or destruction of
Hiroshima by US atomic bomb in that same war and the current NATO
bombing campaign functioned (or are intended to function) largely
through their effects on the witnesses, not directly on the victims.
They are metaphors for a still larger destruction. Thus, when it is said
of Milosevic (possibly falsely) that he only understands force, it
becomes clear that force is used as a kind of demonstration, a metonymy
in which the actual destruction stands for potential further destruction
and is intended not to kill Milosevic or eliminate his government but
rather to convince him to change course.
Even the Serb murders in Srebrenica and elsewhere are partially intended
as messages of a similar nature. They are to mean "don't resist us" to
the victims' compatriots, while, at least weakly, they also signal the
Serb leaders' determination not to give ground,which itself is a means
for rallying the nationalist sentiments in the Serb population.
(I am not commenting here on the relative morality of these different
actions, just on how they are supposed to work. To me, killing for
whatever reason is morally repulsive, whether it is to make a statement
or just because you want to eliminate the victims. I suppose one might
argue over the relative badness of killings for some good end, but even
such an argument quickly becomes pretty disgusting. My hope in writing
this is of course to contribute to ending mayhem of both kinds.)
Why go through this gruesome calculus of the effects of force? Only to
emphasize that force is usually not simply destructive but also, largely
rhetorical, and as such it must take its place as only one form of
persuasion among many, and generally not the most persuasive. The faces
of the victims, for instance, can be a more powerful message than the
weapons that made them victims in the first place. Thus, those of us
who oppose force must not see ourselves as therefore powerless. We must
find the most effective ways to use the power we have. In the case of
Kosovo, I am ashamed to say, we have not done so.
Non-deadly persuasion plays a further role in relation to force. Even
the Holocaust, or any other organized destructive effort must after all
depend on something other than pure force to lead the "willing
executioners" to be willing enough to proceed. Soldiers in battle
require such persuasion at least as much. In the current world, they
cannot be said to be isolated from all but their commanders, and in turn
the commanders are not captive of the political leaders who command
them. Finally, whatever their power, the political leaders themselves
are subject to public opinion, which they may try to control, often
successfully, but that they don't automatically own.
As I discussed in a previous piece a large reason for the war and the
precise form it I has taken is the very fear of NATO leaders that their
own televised images will be juxtaposed with unacceptable, and
personalized images of suffering, and at the same time Miliosevic's own
astute sense of the kind of figure he must appear to be to hold onto
power in the rump Yugoslavia, and perhaps in the entire Eastern Orthodox
All of this implies that the world pro-peace community, and
specifically the internet pro-peace community has failed up to this
point to use its real powers effectively to transform the debate, to
capture public attention, and to come up with peaceful alternative plans
that would have provided pressure on leaders of all sides not to take up
the gun. It is not too late for us all to use our creative and
communicative abilities to make a difference, to reframe the debate, to
formulate a workable peace, and to help bring it about in reality.
What has already happened has of course to be our starting point. This
means the solution to the conflict, whatever form it might ultimately
take, will inevitably involve considerable uprooting. Also inevitable by
now is that any successful solution will occupy world energies for a
long time, which also implies it will not come cheaply. That
realization ought to liberate imagination in a way. If the status quo
ante cannot be restored, we must come up with something new, and the
expense incurred by a new solution should be no barrier because if it
works it may still be the least costly option.
The Serb-Kosovar conflict, like many others, gains its energy from
conflicting claims for the same "homeland." But the rise of the Internet
itself makes evident that the notion of place and home is more
complicated than the fight over Kosovo suggests. Via the Internet, we
can remain to some degree rooted in our ancestral communities wherever
we happen to be on the physical earth, and foreseeable additions to the
technology will add to that potential. (As for roots, as a child of
German Jewish refugees in America, I know that it is possible to find a
new homeland. I am American, not German, certainly not Israeli, not
totally at home here to be sure, but as much at home as I could expect
to be anywhere.) No existing place is a true and permanent, cozy
homeland for anyone, and we ought not forget this.
Further, even Kosovars have already become active members of the
international community, whether or not they are on the Internet. They
may frown at having been made to live in a Serb linguistic environment,
but they have proved at least partially adept at functioning in world
where English predominates, and even had Kosovo remained autonomous in
1989, Kosovars would still have found themselves pulled into the new
global, partially net-spread culture. Home would not have been the home
the most ardent of nationalists would envision, even had their been no
These thoughts, together with two more, can provide the basis for a set
of requirements for an Internet peace plan. The first extra thought is
that any peace plan should be so designed as not to encourage but
actively to discourage future wars and/or ethnic cleansing, either in
the Balkans or elsewhere. The war makers should not be rewarded; the
culpable should as much as possible be punished, while the innocent
victims should be restored and made whole as fully as possible,
consistent with a workable peace.
Finally, a true Internet peace plan cannot rely on the combatants'
cooperation for its effectiveness.
In the case of Kosovo, this suggests the following steps, most of which
could start as soon as enough people on the Internet agree to support
them, or rather the steps that emerge in the discussion I hope these
1. Whatever happens in the fighting, the refugees should be assured as
good a life as possible, whether in Kosovo or elsewhere. This requires
organized calls to open immigration and ensure resettlement in
situations at least comparable to what was lost. It also demands a
commitment to continued involvement and monitoring. Rather than make
this monitoring simply the province of some special agency, each Kosovar
could be "adopted" for watching over by a number of a number of
unconnected, individual internet users, who would retain a
responsibility for making sure the particular adoptee was faring well,
and to help with specific problems as they arose. Naturally , these
adopters would maintain their own discussion community on the Net. The
goodness of the resulting life should be held up in the face of the
various perpetrators— "A happy life is the best revenge."
2. Albanian and Kosovar culture, but not the desire for revenge or for
return by force should be kept alive with maximum aid of the Internet.
Refugees should be afforded every opportunity to maintain contacts, to
recall and record their history, to preserve their language skills, etc.
The Internet community knows how to do most of these things right now.
What it will take is simply the will.
3. Another requirement is that misdeeds not go unrecorded and
unpunished. The Internet community could and should keep a detailed list
of possible perpetrators and try to assemble, preserve, publicize and
discuss accurate evidence about the various offenses. Like Mary
Robinson, head of the UN Human Rights Commission, I believe this must
include crimes on all sides, among which are not only Serb ethnic
cleansers, Kosovar reprisalists, but also possibly instigators and
operatives in the NATO strikes, which have only added to the suffering.
Names should be named in public, and arguments about guilt or innocence
should also take place in public, even if no direct punishment is
possible. Stigma is something, though every effort should be made to
prevent unjustified smears from being perpetuated.
4. The Kosovar community and the rest of the world needs to record and
suitably memorialize every victim of murder, rape, etc.
5. Innocent Serbs should not be left holding the bag or made to suffer
from the war. A campaign for rebuilding when it is over should start
now. Reparations to specific victims could be promulgated, liken the
treatment of Kosovars I've already proposed. At the same time the Serb
public should not be allowed to forget its indirect complicity in the
misdeeds of its army and paramilitary units with government support.
Neither the slaughter from the ground nor the slaughter from the sky
should be forgotten.
6. Important as it is to heal the victims, and recall the abuses, Serbs
and Albanians should be encouraged to begin a dialogue on what went
wrong. Again the net is ideal for helping this process.
7. Along with these of course, should come calls to end the fighting,
both of the bombing and on the ground in Kosovo. And these calls should
be coupled with reminders that continuing a pointless war is itself a
crime that won't be forgotten.
This is only a start. These details need fleshing out, urgently. The
entire call requires rapid discussion, reshaping, endorsement and
implementation. I urge readers to pass it on, to debate it, adopt it,
and if necessary reformulate it, and make it sound more urgent than I
can easily do.
The swifter we move, the more lives might be spared.
Michael H. Goldhaber
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