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Understanding Policy: Collective Action in Kosovo

Editor's Note: This brief series on Collective Action demonstrates how public policy can be analyzed through the lens of Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action. Each piece looks at a specific humanitarian crisis and how the logic applies for that case. For a brief summary on the theory, see Understanding Policy: Collective Action. 

By Joyce Kang

In June of 1999, NATO deployed an air campaign in Kosovo to intervene in a humanitarian crisis to protect ethnic Albanians. Building up to the airstrikes, NATO countries had both common and individual interests to participate in a humanitarian intervention. According to Sumon Dantiki, costs such as refugee flows, regional security concerns, and damage to global prestige provide incentives for military intervention (Dantiki, 4). Several of these concerns were at the core of NATO’s decision to enter into Kosovo. First, NATO needed to rebuild legitimacy following the end of the Cold War. Left without a common enemy and thus less incentive for cooperation, Kosovo provided another opportunity to build global prestige and credibility for NATO. Preexisting structure and coordination prior to involvement (Olson, 47) eased the intervention in missions like Yugoslavia and also provided a reason for the group to continue.

Second, the ethnic cleansing of Albanians caused a refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Albanians fled and sought asylum in other countries. Simply put, refugees became a negative externality for countries in the surrounding region. Following the Cold War, NATO restructured and moved from an exclusive group to expand its membership, admitting Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1997 (Kupchan, 1). The inclusion of these countries further deepened the NATO security alliance into Eastern and Central Europe. In addition to newly admitted Hungary and Poland, other member states including the United Kingdom and Italy were concerned over the impact of refugee flows into their borders (“UK prepares”, 2). These countries could achieve both economic and political benefits (Olson 5) by avoiding or reducing refugee flows through agreeing to NATO intervention. The return of refugees became a primary initial task of NATO-led Kosovo Force (NATO, 7).

Despite these common interests, NATO still faced the challenges of collective action: difficulties in obtaining participation from key members and the problem of divergent domestic interests. Olson claims that even if mutual interests align, rational self-interested actors will not act to achieve these interests (Olson 2). The free rider problem in collective action describes self-interested actors who are unwilling to contribute and instead attempt to exploit benefits provided by other members (Dantiki 3). Olson distinguishes how the effects of the free rider problem vary based on the size of group; a small organization needs greater participation from members (Olson, 33) whereas a large organization is less impacted by nonparticipation from some members. However, a medium-sized group is dependent on the actions of the members (Ostrom, 6). As a medium-sized exclusive group, NATO faced issues of participation from larger members in their commitment to provide ground troops in Kosovo. The lack of unity between NATO members, compounded by the inability to determine when, how, and from which countries troops would be deployed, led to a collective action problem. Although France and the UK were willing to provide ground troops, other countries were unwilling to commit (Kaufman 178). In particular, the U.S. did not commit to ground troops due to lack of domestic support. This negatively impacted NATO’s credibility.

At the same time, the U.S. contributed the majority of military assets to the air bombing campaign (Kupchan, 2). Olson mentions the U.S. provided a disproportionate share of the burden in NATO (Olson, 36). Disproportionate burden sharing also perpetuates the free rider problem because it provides even less incentives for states to contribute, as other parties are already paying the majority of the costs. The free rider problem is further maintained by the fact that the end to conflict in Yugoslavia is a public good, provided for everyone. In other words, everyone benefits and it is impossible to block the benefits from others. If the conflict ends, the U.S. cannot take away positive benefits (no war, refugee crisis alleviated) from countries that did not contribute. Because this cannot be exclusively beneficial, countries have less incentive to assume the costs themselves, even if it is in their interest (11). As the U.S. provided the majority of military air campaign in this conflict, it is clear these free rider problems were unable to be completely eliminated.

In attempts to address the free rider problem, exclusive groups desire one hundred percent participation. NATO achieves this through consensus. This is significant because all parties had to unanimously agree to each airstrike in Kosovo. Consensus is sometimes difficult to attain because of divergent interests, but also creates stronger cooperation if achieved. NATO committed to an air campaign after some difficulty and uncertainty. NATO was able to achieve a consensus on air strikes and eventually on the threat of use of ground troops. NATO’s credibility, damaged by lack of unity, had to be proven repeatedly throughout the crisis. This was in part due to domestic politics in the U.S., the largest contributor. In the end, the Yugoslav troops withdrew from Kosovo and the international community, including NATO, intervened.    

Olson’s theory on collective action can be applied to NATO’s role in the Kosovo humanitarian crisis because the intervention required a consensus from start to finish. Seventy-eight days of airstrikes and the potential for deployment of ground troops led to the end of the conflict. This intervention also provided a means for NATO to reshape its cooperation efforts and reestablish a stronger institution through participation in Kosovo. However, this conflict was not without issues. NATO member states faced free-rider problems in addition to lukewarm commitment of key members of NATO. Expanding membership and becoming exclusively inclusive during the 1990s also impacted NATO and its reach. Considered a controversial yet relatively successful intervention, NATO’s involvement provided an opportunity for member states to attempt to achieve a collective good by ending the mass murdering of Albanians, alleviating the refugees issue, and building legitimacy for NATO as a whole. 


Joyce Kang is a Robertson Foundation for Government Fellow and first-year MPIA student at IRPS concentrating in International Politics and Korea. In addition to JIPS, she is the upcoming President of Mannam Korean Cultural Club and Director of External Affairs for Women Going Global at IRPS. Joyce graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in Political Science and Asian Studies and a minor in Theater from Temple University Honors Program. Prior to coming to IRPS, she interned at Korea Economic Institute and worked as a coordinator through AmeriCorps at an education non-profit. Her research interests include the role of educational and cultural diplomacy, soft power, and national identity in shaping foreign policy and security initiatives. 



“UK prepares for more Kosovo refugees.” BBC News, 31 March 1999. Web. 1 April 2014.           “NATO’s role in Kosovo.” NATO, n.d. Web. 1 April 2014. 

Dantiki, Sumon. “Organizing for Peace: Collective Action Problems and Humanitarian        Intervention.” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 7.3 (2005). Print.

Kaufman, Joyce P. NATO and the Former Yugoslavia: crisis, conflict, and the Atlantic Alliance. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. 150-190. Print.

Kupchan, Charles A. “… And Fractured U.S. Resolve.” CFR, 13 June 1999. Web. 1 April 2014.

NATO. NATO, n.d. Web. 1 April 2014.

Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action. Harvard University Press, 1965. 1-16, 33-52, 132-135, 165-167. Print.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.

New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 1-21. Print.


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