Bosnia and the West: A Study in Failure

Bosnia and the West: A Study in Failure

Mini Teaser: The Western world's reaction to the destruction of Bosnia has been a triumph of diplomacy. A triumph, that is, of diplomacy over foreign policy.

by Author(s): Noel Malcolm

The Western world's reaction to the destruction of Bosnia has been a
triumph of diplomacy. A triumph, that is, of diplomacy over foreign
policy. The sky has been dark with airplanes shuttling statesmen and
their entourages between London, Paris, Washington and Geneva.
Meetings have been held, deferred and reconvened; pieces of paper
have been signed, and declarations made to the television cameras.
And yet, in spite of all this--or rather, to a large extent, because
of all this--the killing and destruction in Bosnia have continued

A crude but adequate account of the difference between diplomacy and
foreign policy might go as follows. The sign of successful diplomacy
is that all parties can come out of a meeting feeling that their
interests have been respected. The sign of successful foreign policy
is that one party can come out of the meeting knowing that its own
interests have been advanced. Diplomacy seeks to assuage, to
conciliate, to reassure: the end-state at which it aims is a
psychological one. Foreign policy, on the other hand, has concrete
aims: to make things happen which are in a country's own interest, or
stop things happening which are frustrating it.

On Bosnia, Western governments were from the outset unsure about what
their own policy interests were. Insofar as they had some general
guiding principles (the need for "stability" in south-eastern Europe,
the wish to avoid setting precedents for other parts of the former
communist world, the desire to maintain good relations with Russia),
they failed to apply them correctly. Indeed, they managed (as will be
discussed below) to achieve almost systematically the opposite of
those aims. But their primary activity was always diplomacy,
negotiation and conciliation. To give just one crucial example: in
the summer of 1992, after the first reports and pictures had emerged
of Serb-run concentration camps in northern Bosnia, a wave of public
concern gave many of the Western governments the feeling that
"something must be done." At this point, the obvious thing to do was
to convene a special meeting of American, EC, and NATO governments
(with perhaps one or two pro-Western Muslim powers as well), hammer
out a joint policy, and agree on ways of implementing it. Instead of
this, a conference was held in London during August 1992 to which a
huge range of countries was invited, including all the Balkan states
and all the parties to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. They
were politely asked to settle their differences, which of course they
failed to do. All that the West had achieved was to advertise its own
lack of clear policy objectives--and, by the same token, to show that
it had no preferences of its own when it came to judging between the
competing claims of the attackers and defenders in Bosnia's war.

A Failure to Understand

At this point, the two basic failures of the West on the Bosnian
issue become so closely entwined as to be almost inseparable. One is
a failure (largely, an absence) of policy. The other is a failure of
understanding. At no point during the entire Bosnian war have the
pronouncements of Western statesmen shown any clear understanding of
who made this war happen and why. Although commentators and analysts
had been accurately charting the political strategy of the Serbian
communist leader, Slobodan Milosevic, since 1988--the take-over of
the political machinery in Montenegro and the Vojvodina, the illegal
suppression of local government in Kosovo in 1989, the mobilization
of nationalist feeling in Serbian public opinion, the slow-moving
constitutional coup against the federal presidency, the Serbian
economic blockade against Croatia and Slovenia in late 1990, the
theft by Serbia that year of billions of dinars from the federal
budget, thereby destroying the federal economic reform program, and
the incitement and arming of Serb minorities in Croatia and Bosnia
during 1990 and 1991--it was as if the Western governments could see
no pattern in these events whatsoever. When Croatia and Slovenia,
losing patience with Milosevic's attempts to manipulate the federal
Yugoslav system, voted for independence, the West reacted with
incomprehension. Until the last moment, in June 1991, politicians
from both the EC and the United States were trying hard to persuade
the Yugoslav republics to stay together. Then, not long after the
Yugoslav Federation had broken apart, they began to comfort
themselves instead with the thought that the break-up had been
inevitable--something caused not by the particular policies of a man
sitting at his desk in Belgrade, but by long-term, impersonal forces
of history.

Two theories of historical inevitability were touted, one external,
and one internal. The external theory said that the break-up of
Yugoslavia had been caused by the collapse of communism in the Soviet
Union. Quite how or why events in Moscow should have such dramatic
effects on Yugoslavia, which since 1948 had been more free of Russian
control than any other country in Eastern Europe, was not explained.
Nor did the proponents of this theory ever say why it was that
Yugoslavia had been plunged into war, while Czechoslovakia, a country
so much more directly influenced by the fate of communism in Russia,
managed to split itself with all the bloodlessness of a self-dividing
amoeba. The main reason for holding this implausible theory about
Yugoslavia was not that it rested on historical analysis, but that it
carried the comforting (and diplomatically useful) implication that
nobody in particular inside the former Yugoslavia was ultimately
responsible for the war. And insofar as anyone there was responsible,
everyone was equally responsible: they were all merely fulfilling the
roles allotted to them by history.

A similar conclusion was drawn from the theory of internal
inevitability. This was the theory which said that the driving forces
of Yugoslav history were "ancient ethnic hatreds." Lazy politicians
who dipped into their history books were able to pick out a few
examples of wars and massacres, which they flourished at their
audiences with the words: "It was ever thus." In fact, the examples
they offered were from the twentieth century, or at most the late
nineteenth; they arose mainly from the most untypical episodes in
Balkan history, conflicts introduced or exacerbated by forces (such
as the Axis invasion) from outside Yugoslavia itself. For most of the
rest of the history of those lands, there are no records of Croats
killing Serbs because they were Serbs, or vice versa. And even though
it was of course true that the killing had been severe during the
Second World War, it was not obvious why, nearly fifty years later, a
population the majority of which had no personal memories of that war
should spontaneously rise up to re-enact its horrors.

But the myth of all-consuming "ancient ethnic hatreds" was too
convenient for the politicians to ignore. Within days of the Croatian
and Slovene declarations of independence in 1991, British Foreign
Secretary Douglas Hurd declared, "Yugoslavia was invented in 1919 to
solve a problem of different peoples living in the same part of the
Balkans with a long history of peoples fighting each other." One
British diplomat, Sir Crispin Tickell, breezily announced that there
was a history of hatred between the Yugoslav peoples running back
"thousands of years"--a remarkable statement, in view of the fact
that the Slav peoples are known to have arrived in the Balkans only
in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. Prime Minister John Major,
meanwhile, managed to combine both the external and the internal
theory, when he assured the House of Commons, more than one year
after the outbreak of the Bosnian war:

"The biggest single element behind what has happened in Bosnia is the
collapse of the Soviet Union and of the discipline that that exerted
over the ancient hatreds in the old Yugoslavia. Once that discipline
had disappeared, those ancient hatreds reappeared, and we began to
see their consequences when the fighting occurred."

American politicians were not immune to the temptations offered by
such catch-all theories. According to theaccount of the Clinton White
House recently published by Elizabeth Drew, at the very time when
Warren Christopher was touring Europe (in May 1993) trying to get
support for a more active policy on Bosnia, President Clinton became
convinced that nothing could be done about the war because it was
just an upsurge of "ancient ethnic hatreds." What had convinced him
(and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and General Colin Powell) was the book
by Robert Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, which, while it says almost nothing
about the history of Bosnia, fancifully portrays all the inhabitants
of the Balkans as zombie-like creatures out of Bram Stoker, naturally
programmed to hate and kill one another. We can only speculate as to
what the course of history might have been if, instead of reading
Kaplan's book, President Clinton had read the long and critical
review of it published in the Summer 1993 issue of The National

The Doctrine of Equivalence

This particular failure of understanding, shared by statesmen in both
Europe and America, was crucial to Western policy (or rather, to the
lack of it). It was the perfect counterpart to the West's reliance on
mere diplomacy: each reinforced the other. The original sin of
diplomacy is its doctrine of equivalence--its assumption that all
parties to a conflict must be treated equally, with prima facie equal
rights and claims. The theory of "ancient ethnic hatreds,"
conveniently, rendered all parties to the conflict equivalent: the
Serbs were expressing ancient Serb hatred, the Muslims ancient Muslim
hatred, et cetera, and one bundle of hatred can be no better and no
worse than another. At a stroke, attacker and defender were reduced
to the same status. The fact that the defender in this war was not
just an ethnic group but a democratically-elected government,
containing Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, was an unfortunate detail
which most Western policymakers tended to elide. (To this day,
situation maps issued by the UN Protection Force [Unprofor] in
Sarajevo mark Bosnian army positions not as the Bosnian army but as
"the Muslims." One wonders whether these maps are ever glimpsed by
that battalion of the Bosnian army's Second Corps in Tuzla, which is
composed entirely of Serbs.) Indeed, the reduction of the Bosnian war
to an upwelling of "ancient ethnic hatreds" did not only lower the
status of the elected government of that country. It also raised the
status of the rebel Serb leadership, who now tended to be regarded
not as a gang of ambitious local politicians egged on from Belgrade,
but as representative figures, through whom the deep, historic forces
of ancient Serb hatred found their natural outlet.

Essay Types: Essay