KOSOVO'S declaration of independence from Serbia over the weekend, along with the quick recognition of that unilateral act by the United States and several European governments, was the sign of a diplomatic failure. It would have been healthier for everyone concerned - Serbs, Albanian Kosovars, the European Union, Russia, and America - to have persisted with multilateral negotiations until a separation agreement acceptable to Serbs and Kosovars could be forged.
But that did not happen, and now the governments of that volatile region and the nations responsible for the UN resolution that ended the 1999 Kosovo war must prevent another outbreak of Balkan mayhem. This will be all the more difficult because Kosovo's declaration of independence was not authorized by the United Nations; does not conform to international law; sets a dangerous precedent for would-be secessionists elsewhere; and is not accepted even by some EU members that fear the effects of the Kosovo precedent.
Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo - about 90 percent of the region's population of 2 million - are justified in wanting to be free of Serbian domination. They were subjected to horrific atrocities by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s.
So American and European diplomats who argue that Serbia long since forfeited its right to rule Kosovo are not defending a frivolous position. But when those diplomats defend Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence by contending that negotiations were tried and failed, they are on shakier ground.
American, European, and Russian diplomats ought to have been more patient and persistent. Russia - which is now threatening to use the Kosovo precedent as justification for the secession or absorption of ethnically Russian areas in Georgia and Moldova - had agreed to abide by any agreement on Kosovo's independence that Serbia accepted. With so much at stake, the mediators should have kept Serbs and Kosovars at the negotiating table until an agreement was reached.
Now there will be added pressure on the 16,000 NATO peacekeepers protecting Serbs and Kosovars from each other. The UN administrative group that has been in Kosovo since 1999 will have to be replaced by about 2,000 EU administrators as well as police and judicial advisers. These NATO and EU nation builders will now be responsible for implanting rule of law where there was very little, guarding ethnic minorities from harm, preventing violence against women, and enabling refugees to return to their homes. All this without a mandate from the United Nations or an agreement between the parties in conflict.