Culture and Coercion: Revisiting the Kosovo War

Culture and Coercion: Revisiting the Kosovo War

Josh Wiitala

Editor’s Note:  This article discusses the role of cultural understanding in coercion by airpower.  While it utilizes a small war case study, recent air campaigns in Libya, Iraq and Syria are not discussed given that these air operations were/are more about empowering one side of a civil war than coercing an adversary to change their behavior.

Hans Morgenthau, one of the twentieth century’s most prominent realist thinkers, argued that international relations theory should capture the “rational essence” of interstate affairs by sifting out less influential factors and focusing on the “immediate” motivation of states.1  He compared international relations theory to a painting that captures the essential elements of a subject while shedding the unwieldy complexity of a photograph.2  This perspective on the utility of theory, coupled with a Hobbesian view of human nature, led Morgenthau to conclude that international relations should be understood solely through the lens of power.  In his influential view, power is the substance of international relations and the decisions of senior political leaders are simply cost/benefit analyses meant to optimize power.3

In order to effectively tailor coercive airpower strategies for a given strategic context, twenty-first century strategists must assess the adequacy of classical realism’s reductionist logic with regard to state decision-making.  In short, airpower strategists must accurately understand and address what a specific foe truly values if they are going to craft successful coercive campaigns.  This article examines whether cultural factors should be integrated into coercive airpower strategies alongside more familiar power-based considerations or whether cultural influences are either too unpredictable for use in planning or too inconsequential to warrant major consideration.  As a case study, this article utilizes the 1999 Kosovo War to illustrate the impact of culture on the prospects of coercion by airpower.

Perspectives on Coercive Airpower

Carl von Clausewitz describes war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”4  For Clausewitz, this makes war “nothing but a duel on a larger scale.”5  A central task for military strategists then becomes winning this duel at minimum cost.  As Sun Tzu so aptly put it, “In war…let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.”6  In modern warfare, political leaders and military strategists often attempt to follow these timeless insights by selecting strategies of coercion over strategies requiring total military victory.  This is because coercion offers the potential for fulfilling a given state’s political objectives at a reduced cost compared to the more exhaustive demands of “complete military victory.”7  Furthermore, contemporary political leaders often turn to airpower as the primary instrument of coercion given its ability to inflict costs on a foe faster and with “less risk” than other means.8

This potential role for airpower has shaped airpower theory from the very beginning.  In The Command of the Air, Giulio Douhet argues that, “To be defeated in the air” leaves a state “at the mercy of the enemy, with no chance at all of defending oneself, compelled to accept whatever terms he sees fit to dictate.”9  For Douhet, this meant that gaining the “command of the air” could bring about decision in war without completely defeating an adversary’s military.10

In Bombing to Win, Robert Pape evaluates this historically influential perspective using case studies from airpower’s first 90 years. He describes coercion as simply “efforts to change the behavior of a state by manipulating costs and benefits.”11 For Pape, coercive airpower succeeds through one of two main strategies.  The first is “coercion by punishment” which “operates by raising costs or risks to civilian populations.”12  The second is “coercion by denial” which “operates by using military means to prevent the target from attaining its political objectives or territorial goals.”13              

Pape concludes that airpower can reliably coerce an adversary through punishment with the use, or at least credible threat, of nuclear weapons.14  However; in the vast majority of situations in which nuclear weapons cannot be viably threatened or employed, Pape argues that coercion by punishment almost always fails.15  Instead, he asserts that coercion is generally successful when it denies an adversary’s ability to serve political objectives via military means.16  Thus, the key to designing successful coercive strategies is determining an adversary’s core objectives and effectively targeting the military capacities that allow them to pursue those objectives.  Once those capacities are sufficiently degraded, Pape argues that a given state will agree to the terms of the coercer “in order to avoid suffering further losses to no purpose.”17

John Warden takes a much different view on the prospects of coercive strategies.  He contends that an enemy’s capacity to resist is contingent on two dimensions.18  The first is the “physical” war-making capability of a given state.  The second is the “psychological” aspects of an adversary such as “will, morale, and attitudes.”19  For Warden, a state must possess strengths in both dimensions to effectively resist.  However, Warden cautions that, “Operational planners must understand the indeterminateness of the psychological side of the equation, because relying on changing this side of the equation means relying on the unknowable and the unpredictable.”20  For Warden, this conviction has enormous bearing on the prospects of coercion. 

While Pape acknowledges that predicting when an adversary will be coerced is inevitably problematic, he nonetheless believes that coercion can be planned for in a somewhat formulaic manner in which costs and benefits (both realized and anticipated) are carefully calculated by campaign planners.21  Warden, however, concludes that “predicting psychological effects in any given situation verges on impossible.”22  This causes him to conclude that “coercion as a war theory does not stand the test of common sense.”23  While coercion may occur in the course of a given war as a “bonus,” Warden advocates for airpower strategies that focus on the physical capacities of a given state by planning for “predictable system change.”24

This debate concerning the plausibility of accurately evaluating the decision calculus of a target state leads to the question of whether a better understanding of an adversary’s strategically-relevant culture can help de-mystify this process through the infusion of a key contextual factor into the overall analysis.  Colin Gray argues with regard to airpower that, “Context tends to be sovereign over allegedly inherent capability, which is why it is perilous to draw large lessons from what amounts to strongly exclusive historical evidence.”25  Given this primacy of context, can accurate cultural understanding be the lynch-pin to designing effective coercive airpower strategies?  In order to answer this question, one must first determine how influential culture is in the decision calculus of modern states.    

The Role of Culture in State Decision-Making

For cultural knowledge to provide a decisive level of insight into a potential adversary, cultural factors must determine how a state perceives and values the interests at stake in a given scenario.  Anthony Smith describes two diverging perspectives on this relationship between cultural influences and political decision-making.  The first perspective is “instrumentalist and modernist.”26  This perspective views cultural factors, such as ethnicity and nationalism, as tools to be manipulated by leaders according to the interests of the state.  In this view, nations of people are a “product of specifically modern conditions like the modern state, bureaucracy, secularism and capitalism.”27  The second perspective is “primordialist and perennialist.”28  In this view, culture forms the bedrock of modern states which are simply the “public expression of…pre-existing ethnic cleavages and cultural identities.”29  Smith concludes that neither perspective is entirely correct.  Instead, he argues that the true relationship between culture and politics defies these all-or-nothing perspectives.

For Smith, “state-centered” approaches, such as the instrumentalist and modernist perspective, are particularly problematic because they fail to recognize the immense “influence of ethnic origin and culture on politics and state formation.”30  Instead, he argues for three factors that help delineate the relationship between underlying culture and state behavior.  The first factor is the “purification of culture.”31  This depicts the process in which a certain ethnic group develops into a distinct nation based off of a shared sense of identity.  This identity forms the basis for excluding outsiders and can provide cohesion in modern nation-states.  The second factor is the “universalization of chosenness.”32  This factor is rooted in ancient religious beliefs but is expressed in the era of the state through the conviction “that every nation must possess an authentic identity, that is, have its own distinctive and original ethnic culture.”33  The final factor is the “territorialization of memory.”34  Smith describes this factor as a process in which ethnicities start to view specific territories as essential to their ethnic or national identities given that significant cultural events occurred in those places.35  Smith concludes by arguing that “these [three] long-term processes are still at work across the globe, and that we may therefore expect that the world which they have created, a world of ethnic conflict and national competition, will continue to provide the environment and much of the substance of national and international politics well into the next century.”36

Writing in 1996, Smith cites several ways in which Serbia exemplified the effects of his three factors.  Specifically, he asserts that the territorialization of memory accounts for why Kosovo is “so important to present-day Serbs.”37  Given that NATO launched airstrikes against Serbia in order to coerce them to withdraw from Kosovo three years after Smith wrote his article, the Kosovo War provides a superb case study for evaluating how cultural understanding, or the lack thereof, can influence the effectiveness of a coercive air campaign.

The Kosovo War

In 1987, a Serbian communist leader named Slobodan Milosevic traveled to Kosovo “to hear grievances from irate Serbs living in the province.”38  His response to their conflicts with local Kosovar Albanians was to encourage them to remain in Kosovo so as to not “‘shame your ancestors and disappoint your descendants.’”39  He concluded his remarks by passionately proclaiming that, “‘Yugoslavia does not exist without Kosovo!  Yugoslavia would disintegrate without Kosovo!  Yugoslavia and Serbia are not going to give up Kosovo.’”40  Eight years later, as the president of Yugoslavia, Milosevic would state that, “‘Every nation has a love which eternally warms its heart…For Serbia it is Kosovo.’”41  Milosevic’s statements about Serbia touched on a core facet of what it meant to be a Serb.  Charles Kegley and Gregory Raymond explain that, “At the heart of the Serbian foundational myth is a sense of continuity between ancient traumas and current events.”42  For the Serbian people, no ancient trauma resonated more than the Serb defeat at Kosovo Polje in 1389.  It was here that Serb forces were bested by Ottoman troops bringing about a four-hundred year occupation of Kosovo.43  Culturally, retaining Kosovo appeared to be central to an entire national identity.

This cultural significance seemed to underpin the Serbian campaign of atrocities in early 1999 aimed at evicting ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo.44  It also seemed to be an essential factor in determining how easily NATO would be able to coerce the Serbs to cease their campaign of ethnic cleansing and withdraw from Kosovo through airstrikes.  However, despite this cultural backdrop, NATO political leaders initially assumed “that a brief display of air power would compel Milosevic to stop the atrocities.”45  Instead, to the surprise of NATO leadership, Milosevic intensified his purge of Kosovo during the initial stages of the bombing.46  This action seemed to underscore the relevance of Serbian culture in generating Serb resolve to outlast NATO’s coercive air campaign.

Yet, despite these initial problems, Milosevic eventually relented and withdrew his forces from Kosovo.  However, by war’s end Milosevic had removed 800,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and NATO expended 28,000 munitions on over 37,000 sorties during the 78 day air war.47  These costs in both blood and treasure generate two important questions relevant to our overall discussion.  First, could Milosevic’s initial stubbornness and eventual capitulation have been accurately predicted by a more refined cultural understanding of the Serbian worldview?  Second, if Milosevic’s decision calculus was better understood from the beginning of hostilities, could NATO have designed a better coercive air campaign to bring about a quicker, and thus less costly, end to the war?  In order to answer these questions, one must examine what caused Milosevic to eventually withdraw. 

Given the extreme cultural significance of Kosovo as embodied by Milosevic’s rhetoric, it seems plausible from a cultural standpoint to expect the Serbs to risk military annihilation in order to retain control of their heartland.  If this were not the case, one might at least expect that Serb forces would have to be degraded sufficiently to deny Serbian military prospects.  In the end, however, neither reality was required to cause the Serbs to abandon Kosovo.  Instead, Gray records that “NATO bombing of economic and national communications infrastructure targets in Serbia triggered a distress and then a political dissatisfaction” that caused Milosevic to fear for his political future and personal safety.48  In sum, Gray concludes that, “The bombing of Serbian economic assets, although initially politically counterproductive” eventually “coerced” the Serbs.49  This result seems difficult to predict given the cultural meaning of Kosovo. 

At the end of the bombing campaign, NATO claimed to have destroyed only eight percent of Serb tanks, seven percent of Serb “armored fighting vehicles,” and four percent of their artillery.50  If campaign planners were to adopt a culturally-focused approach to campaign design and simultaneously insist at the outset of the war that the Serbs would be willing to give up their beloved ethnic heartland for less than a tenth of their force, would this have seemed like a realistic accounting of the cultural factors at work within the conflict?  The obvious answer to this question casts doubt on the ability of Smith’s cultural factors to explain Serb decision-making. 

Although cultural factors caused the Serbs to value Kosovo beyond its apparent economic and strategic value, these same cultural considerations also proved limited in their ability to motivate the Serbs to accept increasing economic punishment and strategic isolation in order to retain Kosovo.  The Milosevic government certainly valued Serb culture but ultimately viewed it as subservient to the interests of the state.  Simply put, culture was a significant but not determinant factor in state decision-making during the Kosovo War. 


Marc Ross offers an alternative view of the role of culture in state-level politics that offers a better explanation for Serb behavior.  He strikes a more balanced approach by arguing that, “ethnic conflicts are about competing interests, constitutional arrangements, and political power, as well as about incompatible identities.”51  For Ross, “Interests and identities are often highly interconnected” making a more balanced perspective critical to understanding the causes of a conflict and the resulting resolve of a given state.52  He states that, “Cultures and cultural differences do not themselves cause conflict…but are the lenses through which the causes of conflict are refracted.”53  This limits cultural considerations to “a valuable supplement” to the core elements of “politics and negotiation” in efforts to end conflict.54  This insight is critical for designers of coercive airpower strategies because it allows planners to properly balance the implications of culture with the other essential components of an adversary’s decision calculus.  This does not mean that gauging the influence of culture will be easy, however.   

In a discussion that mirrors many of Warden’s concerns over the basic feasibility of designing coercive strategies, Ross argues that there are four reasons why pre-judging the relevance of culture is so difficult.  First, he states that “psychocultural analyses” of a given group cannot reliably identify “the specific interests that will emerge as critical in a given conflict and why the parties define their identities around one set of concerns rather than another.”55  The fact that economic punishment eventually caused the Serbs to give up a central facet of their cultural heritage illustrates this point well.  Second, he argues that psychocultural analyses are often effective in describing past events but are not able to predict which facets of a culture are most likely to generate conflict in the first place.56  By 1999, the world had seen how powerful ethnic and cultural grievances could be in generating conflict in the Balkans yet the level of Serb atrocities in Kosovo still came as a surprise to world leaders. 

Third, he asserts that a cultural focus “can easily ignore the role of proximate forces” that exploit access to decision-makers and trump broader cultural factors.57  This point is also critical to understand in that the losses of Serbia’s financial elite certainly proved important to Milosevic’s final decision to withdraw from Kosovo.58  Finally, Ross contends that psychocultural analyses can often predict “strong emotions” but offer “relatively little about what a group will do in a given situation.”59  The unpredictable nature of the fiercely nationalist Serbian regime throughout the Kosovo War certainly validates this insight as well.

However, despite these limitations, cultural understanding is critical to heeding the classic advice of Sun Tzu who stressed the importance of knowing one’s enemy.60  In his recent book on the history of world order, Henry Kissinger states that “each society’s perceptions [of relative state power] are affected by its domestic structure, culture, and history and by the overriding reality that the elements of power-however objective-are in constant flux.”61  This statement effectively describes the complex realm of state perceptions that coercive airpower must operate in and attempt to influence.  It is the role of strategists to assess and account for the influence of each of Kissinger’s factors on the adversary’s decision calculus as accurately as possible while admitting how difficult and problematic a task this truly is.62

The limited and unpredictable nature of cultural influences demonstrates that utilizing culture to predict how a given state will react to a coercive air campaign should not be regarded as a reliable planning paradigm.  Instead, when presented with coercion as a political objective, airpower planners should account for as many of the adversary’s relevant considerations as possible (to include culture) while making sure that political leaders understand the requirements of complete military victory should coercion fail.  It is here that Warden’s theory of system paralysis should be considered the next option on the table and coercive strategies should be designed from the beginning with logical branches that allow for the United States to seek comprehensive military victory should the political objective change.  This not only provides leaders with options beyond coercion but also makes coercion more credible given that adversaries risk incurring even more costs should they continue to resist.63


In sum, assessing a given adversary’s cost/benefit analysis is inevitably problematic and designing an air campaign to manipulate this analysis is even harder.64  In addition to the Kosovo War, American efforts to coerce German and Japanese surrenders through strategic bombing in World War II and efforts to coerce a settlement throughout the Korean and Vietnam Wars reinforce this notion that understanding one’s adversary is never easy.  Importantly, these campaigns also illustrate how the role of cultural factors varies significantly across differing strategic contexts.  Despite these difficulties, however, attempting to understand how one’s adversary perceives their interests in a given conflict is an essential starting point for building a successful coercive airpower strategy and cultural analysis can play a productive role in enhancing this understanding when applied with both caution and intellectual humility.  In short, while power is the substance of international relations, culture is a significant part of the overall picture that must not be either overlooked or over-emphasized.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any US government entity.

End Notes

  1. Hans J. Morgenthau, “Six Principles of Political Realism,” in Understanding International Relations: The Value of Alternative Lenses, ed. Daniel J. Kaufman et al. (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill Custom Publishing, 2004), 149 and Hans J. Morgenthau, “Political Power,” in Understanding International Relations: The Value of Alternative Lenses, ed. Daniel J. Kaufman et al. (Boston, MA: McGraw Hill Custom Publishing, 2004), 61.
  1. Hans J. Morgenthau, “Six Principles,” 152.
  1. Hans J. Morgenthau, “Political Power,” 66.
  1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (New York, NY: Everyman’s Library, 1993), 83.
  1. Ibid., 83.
  1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, ed. Dallas Galvin, trans. Lionel Giles (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003), 13.
  1. Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996) 13.
  1. Ibid., 2.
  1. Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), 23.
  1. Ibid., 23.
  1. Pape, Bombing to Win, 4.
  1. Ibid., 13.
  1. Ibid., 13.
  1. Ibid., 10.
  1. Ibid., 10.
  1. Ibid., 10.
  1. Ibid., 10.
  1. John A. Warden III, “Smart Strategy, Smart Airpower,” in Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd, ed. John Andreas Olsen (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 103.
  1. Ibid., 103.
  1. Ibid., 103.
  1. Pape, Bombing to Win, 20, 16.
  1. Warden, “Smart Strategy, Smart Airpower,” 104.
  1. Ibid., 104.
  1. Ibid., 104.
  1. Colin S. Gray, “Air Power Theory,” in Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd, ed. John Andreas Olsen (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 157.
  1. Anthony D. Smith, “Culture, Community and Territory: The Politics of Ethnicity and Nationalism,” International Affairs, Volume 72 Number 3, 446.
  1. Ibid., 446.
  1. Ibid., 446.
  1. Ibid., 446.
  1. Ibid., 448.
  1. Ibid., 449-451.
  1. Ibid., 452-453.
  1. Ibid., 453.
  1. Ibid., 453-455.
  1. Smith, “Culture,” 454.
  1. Ibid., 458.
  1. Ibid., 454.
  1. Charles W. Kegley Jr. and Gregory A. Raymond, From War to Peace (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002) 223.
  1. Ibid., 223.
  1. Ibid., 223.
  1. Ibid., 216.
  1. Ibid., 217.
  1. Ibid., 217.  For a thorough discussion on the cultural significance of Kosovo Polje to Serbs living in the 1990s, see Robert Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1994).
  1. Ibid., 216.
  1. Ibid., 216.
  1. Ibid., 216.
  1. Ibid., 232; and Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010) 249.
  1. Colin S. Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2012) 225.
  1. Ibid., 225.
  1. Kegley and Raymond, From War to Peace, 232.
  1. Marc Howard Ross, “Cultural Expressions and Ethnic Conflict,” in Cultural Contestation in Ethnic Conflict (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 2007) 1.
  1. Ibid., 1.
  1. Ibid., 3.
  1. Ibid., 8.
  1. Ibid., 8.
  1. Ibid., 8.
  1. Ibid., 8.
  2. Alan Stephens, “Fifth Generation Strategy,” in Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd, ed. John Andreas Olsen (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 141.
  1. Ross, “Cultural Expressions,” 8.
  1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 17.
  1. Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2014) 30-31.
  1. A 2002 RAND study on coercive airpower offered a similar construct on adversary perceptions.  Byman, Waxman, and Shapiro assert that, "Understanding [the] relationship between a target’s destruction and the desired outcome is difficult and requires insights into culture, psychology, and organizational behavior."  Daniel L. Byman, Matthew C. Waxman, and Jeremy Shapiro, “The Future of U.S. Coercive Airpower,” in Strategic Appraisal: United States Air and Space Power in the 21st Century, ed. Zalmay Khalilzad and Jeremy Shapiro (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2002), 71,
  1. RAND’s 2002 analysis of coercive airpower argued similarly that "planners should prepare more-robust alternative uses of force in case limited force fails" given that these "plans make policymakers’ threats to escalate more effective."  Byman, Waxman, and Shapiro, “U.S. Coercive Airpower,” 77.
  1. Alan Stephens applies this general assertion to the Kosovo War specifically. He states that the initial ineffectiveness of the air campaign was more a problem with “application” than "theory" as NATO’s senior leadership struggled to connect actual targets with desired effects.  Stephens, “Fifth Generation Strategy,” 141.
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