Representation and agency in diplomacy: how Kosovo came to agree to the Rambouillet accords


This article traces how Kosovo came to agree to the Rambouillet accords, with the aim of exploring the nexus between diplomatic representation and international agency. It demonstrates that, in the world of diplomacy, entities like ‘Kosovo’ can act only when they are carefully staged. Thus far, however, the academic discipline of International Relations (IR) has largely failed to acknowledge the role of diplomacy in the constitution of agency. Therefore, to clarify what is at stake in the theoretical debate, I begin with a systematic discussion of how IR has conceived of diplomatic representation. Taking cue from Bruno Latour’s and Lisa Disch’s writings on political representation, I then suggest an alternative understanding of diplomacy that takes its performative character seriously. Equipped with this conceptual toolkit, I subsequently turn to the story of Kosovo’s representation at the Rambouillet conference held in 1999. Tracing how Kosovo Albanians and their international supporters staged Kosovo’s diplomatic performance, and how the Yugoslav/Serbian delegation tried to undermine it, I demonstrate that diplomatic representation can indeed generate agency. I also identify three factors that influence whether or not a diplomatic performance succeeds in making those who are represented act: recognition by other international actors, practical competence, and the alignment of the represented.

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  1. 1.

    I use the terms ‘Kosovo Albanian’ and ‘Kosovar’ interchangeably to denote the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

  2. 2.

    For a general account of Kosovo Albanians’ political struggle during the 1990s, see Judah (2002); for a comprehensive discussion of its political and legal aspects, see Bellamy (2002), Weller (2009); on non-violent resistance in Kosovo, see Clark (2000), Kostovicova (2005).

  3. 3.

    ‘Kosovo Albanians arrive for peace talks’, Agence France Presse, 6 February, 1999.

  4. 4.

    On the history of the KLA, see Perritt (2008), Pettifer (2012).

  5. 5.

    Discussions of the problem of agency in the context of diplomacy usually focus on the extent to which individual diplomats can make a difference in face of structural constraint; for an overview, see Adler-Nissen (2016). However, I am not concerned with this question in the present article.

  6. 6.

    With its focus on how actors at the very margins of the international system struggled to come to terms with the world of diplomacy, this article takes its inspiration from recent studies that have engaged with unofficial forms of diplomacy and liminal spaces; specifically Bátora and Hynek (2014), McConnell (2017), McConnell et al. (2012).

  7. 7.

    I take this distinction from speech act theory; see Austin (1962).

  8. 8.

    Cross (2008, p. 2); a similar argument could be made in regard to ‘communities of practice’, even though I am not aware of any text that does so explicitly; see Adler (2008), Bicchi (2011).

  9. 9.

    See Wille (2016); for a general critique of poststructuralist IR scholarship along these lines, see Ringmar (2016).

  10. 10.

    I understand ‘success’ with regard to diplomatic representation in a narrow sense to mean that those who are represented indeed act. One could also conceive of ‘success’ in a broader sense which takes into account whether the act actually brought about the intended consequences.

  11. 11.

    In the vocabulary of speech act theory, these could be characterised as the ‘felicity conditions’ under which a performance can produce a certain effect; see Austin (1962) and Latour (2013, Ch. 2).

  12. 12.

    On the role of the Contact Group during the Kosovo conflict, see Prantl (2006, Ch. 7).

  13. 13.

    A month later, after a brutal counter-insurgency campaign by Serbian security forces, which cost the lives of several civilians, Gelbard qualified this statement saying that the KLA ‘committed terrorist acts’, but has ‘not been classified legally by the U.S. Government as a terrorist organization’; ‘U.S. says it might consider attacking Serbs’, New York Times, 13 March, 1998.

  14. 14.

    Joint press conference by Hubert Védrine and Robin Cook, 6 February, 1999, printed in Krieger (2001, pp. 258–259).

  15. 15.

    BBC interview with Robin Cook, 29 January, 1999, printed in Petritsch et al. (1999, pp. 272–273).

  16. 16.

    Even within this narrative there are exceptions, such as international organisations, the Holy See, or the Order of Malta, which can engage in diplomacy even though they are not sovereign states; see Bátora and Hynek (2014).

  17. 17.

    Bukoshi, who was living in Bonn, and two KLA representatives who had slipped out of Kosovo earlier joined the delegation at Rambouillet.

  18. 18.

    ‘Peace talks threatened by Serb brinkmanship’, Associated Press International, 5 February, 1999.

  19. 19.

    One can only speculate about the reasons for this. Two frequently formulated suspicions are that Milošević was afraid of being arrested on war crimes charges and that he thought he would be more likely to achieve a favourable outcome of the talks by pulling the strings from a distance; see Bellamy (2002, p. 131).

  20. 20.

    Interview with Edita Tahiri, Pristina, 19 May, 2014.

  21. 21.

    Interview with Skënder Hyseni, Pristina, 22 May, 2014.

  22. 22.

    Conclusions, printed in Tahiri (2001, p. 489).

  23. 23.

    Interview with Shinasi Rama, New York, 25 February, 2015; see Judah (2002, p. 205).

  24. 24.

    For Weller’s own account of the Kosovo conference, see Weller (1999b, 2009).

  25. 25.

    Interview with Bujar Bukoshi, Pristina, 28 September, 2015; Kola (2003, p. 349).

  26. 26.

    Interview with Marshall Harris, Washington, 27 February, 2015.

  27. 27.

    Interview with Bujar Bukoshi, Pristina, 28 September, 2015; Albright (2013, p. 402).

  28. 28.

    Interview with Marshall Harris, Washington, 27 February, 2015.

  29. 29.

    Interview with Skënder Hyseni, Pristina, 22 May, 2014.

  30. 30.

    A concern with practical knowledge and competence is a thread that runs through the whole recent debate on international practices; see Adler and Pouliot (2011), Bueger and Gadinger (2015), and Neumann (2002).

  31. 31.

    Press briefing by the Contact Group negotiators, 18 February, 1999, printed in Weller (1999a, pp. 441–444).

  32. 32.

    Interview with Hydajet Hyseni, Pristina, 20 May, 2014.

  33. 33.

    Interview with Shinasi Rama, New York, 25 February, 2015.

  34. 34.

    Interview with Ramush Haradinaj, Pristina, 11 June, 2015.

  35. 35.

    Haradinaj later claimed that Demaçi’s influence over the zone commanders was not decisive and that in appointing Selimi they acted as ‘as soldiers’ and ‘as fighters’, and thus presumably not as politicians; Hamzaj (2000, p. 147).

  36. 36.

    Press briefing by James Rubin, 21 February, 1999, printed in Weller (1999a: 451).

  37. 37.


  38. 38.

    ‘Talks on Kosovo near breakdown’, New York Times, 23 February, 1999.

  39. 39.

    Ibid.; see also Albright (2013, p. 405) and Hill (2014, pp. 152–153).

  40. 40.

    Hill (2014, p. 153); according to Madeleine Albright (2013, p. 406), Thaçi had made a similar remark to James Rubin.

  41. 41.

    Statement by the delegation of Kosovo, 23 February, 1999, printed in Weller (1999a, p. 471); see Albright (2013, p. 407), Hill (2014, pp. 154–155) and Weller (2009, p. 134).

  42. 42.

    Press conference by Madeleine Albright, 23 February, 1999, printed in Weller (1999a, pp. 472–474).

  43. 43.

    One can only speculate about Milošević’s reasoning. A plausible explanation is that he expected only a short bombing campaign after which NATO would offer him a better deal. Sell (2002, p. 301) argues in his biography of the Serb leader that ‘Milošević thought that he could outlast NATO in a duel of wills’.

  44. 44.

    On the process that led to Kosovo’s declaration of independence, see Perritt (2009) and Weller (2009).


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I would like to thank the interviewees on whose accounts this article builds for their time and their willingness to share their recollections of the events at Rambouillet with me. Sedat Burrniku, Arban Mehmeti, Ariana Musliu Shoshi, and Meriton Shoshi helped me to make sense of Kosovo politics and to arrange interviews. I am grateful to Benjamin Braun, Christopher Daase, Kristina Lepold, Christian Reus-Smit, Erik Ringmar, Berthold Rittberger, and Sebastian Schindler, as well as to the anonymous reviewers and the editors of JIRD, for their helpful comments on various drafts of this article.

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Wille, T. Representation and agency in diplomacy: how Kosovo came to agree to the Rambouillet accords. J Int Relat Dev 22, 808–831 (2019).

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  • Agency
  • Diplomacy
  • Kosovo
  • Performativity
  • Political representation
  • Practice theory