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 suggestion here is quite plain: only the over-scrupulous "good
taste" of Western readers, who have no experience of these brutal
Balkan types, will prevent them from recognizing that the Serbs had
the best solution to the problem all along. (Somewhere in this chain
of reasoning the General has lost sight of the fact that, until the
Serbs started applying this solution by driving tens of thousands of
peaceful Muslim citizens out of their homes in April 1992, the
problem of war in Bosnia did not exist.)

Gradually, the Western diplomats began to apply the principle of
ethnic separation. The process began with their use of the phrase
"the facts on the ground" to describe the conditions which the
outside world was powerless to alter (even though the immovability of
those "facts" was itself largely a consequence of the arms embargo
enforced by the outside world). Sometimes the impression was given
that those "facts on the ground" were purely military; but within a
few months of the outbreak of the war, most observers had understood
that the mass expulsion of non-Serb populations from Serb-conquered
areas was not just a by-product of the fighting, but belonged to its
central purpose. Although the first version of the Vance-Owen plan,
unveiled in October 1992, did contain some clauses about the safe
return of refugees to their homes, the concessions it made to local
power in the system of "cantons" it envisaged (even the police force
would be locally, not centrally, controlled) made it impossible to
imagine that ethnic cleansing would be reversed. The second version
of the plan, released in January 1993, took a further, fateful step:
it assigned "ethnic" labels (Serb, Muslim, Croat) to the various
cantons themselves. This was an open endorsement of ethnic
separation, and a major factor in the outbreak of serious fighting
one month later in central Bosnia between Muslims and Croats, who
wanted to secure "their" respective territories.

The Vance-Owen plan was rejected by the Serbs in May 1993: their
experience of Western diplomacy was that they were pushing against an
open door, and they saw no reason why it should not be opened even
wider. Accordingly, the next set of proposals, the Owen-Stoltenberg
plan of August 1993, outlined a cruder division of Bosnia into three
ethnic mini-republics, the borders of which were explicitly a
reflection (albeit a modified one) of the "front lines" of Serb
military conquest. Since Radovan Karadzic had issued instructions
that no more than 5 percent of the population in the territory he
controlled was permitted to be non-Serb, any proposal which
consolidated his conquests as a Serb mini-republic was bound to be,
in effect, an endorsement of ethnic cleansing.

Since then, the paper proposals have changed again. Thanks to the
initiative of the "Council of Bosnian-Hercegovinan Croats" in
February 1994, assisted by a more positive American policy initiative
in Sarajevo and Zagreb, the war between Muslims and Croats has ended,
and a Croat-Muslim Federation has been declared. In theory, this
Federation will be completed eventually when the Serbs join it too:
there will then be a Croat-Muslim-Serb federal Bosnian state.
However, for the purposes of negotiations to end the war, the
Federation is one entity and the Serbs are very much another. The
"Contact Group" of diplomatically involved countries (Britain,
France, Germany, the United States and Russia) has come up with a
proposal for a territorial settlement which gives 51 percent of
Bosnia to the Federation and 49 percent to the Serbs. This proposal,
put forward originally as a final, take-it-or-leave-it offer, does
contain theoretical commitments to the continuing existence of the
whole Bosnian territory as a Bosnian state; it also has pledges to
respect human rights, permit the return of refugees to their homes,
and so on. In recent months, however, it has become clear that this
"final" offer will be modified yet further to satisfy the Serb
leaders. The one thing they require, without which they will never
sign the plan, is the granting of a constitutional status to the
Serb-controlled 49 percent, of such a kind as to allow it ultimately
to secede from Bosnia. If they are granted this, the final
achievement of Western diplomacy will be the division of Bosnia, the
ratification of Serb military action and the perpetuation of ethnic

Western diplomats may be inclined to ask, "Never mind about ancient
ethnic hatreds. Whatever their reasons, is it not a fact that the
political will of the Serb people of Bosnia today is set against
being included in a Bosnian state? Do not the Serbs too, like the
Bosnian state itself, have a right to self-determination?" To this
there are two answers. The first is that nobody knows what the
democratic will of the whole Bosnian Serb population really is. It
is often said that "the Serbs" boycotted the referendum on Bosnian
independence in February-March 1992; in fact, people in many
predominantly Serb areas of Bosnia were prevented from voting by
Karadzic's paramilitary gangs, which erected road-blocks and stopped
the ballot-boxes from entering. Serbs in almost all the major cities
did vote, and voted in favor of independence for Bosnia. Today, there
are still 200,000 Serbs living in Bosnian government-controlled
territory. The territory controlled by Karadzic now contains
approximately 600,000 Serbs. Before the war, there were 1,369,000
Serbs in the whole of Bosnia: this means that Karadzic, despite
having conquered 70 percent of Bosnia, including all the areas with
majority Serb populations (and many without), now has less than half
the original population under him. Of the rest, some have been killed
in the fighting, but the vast majority have fled--either to Serbia
itself, or further afield. Karadzic's claims to be the democratic
representative of all the Serbs are thus numerically doubtful; they
are also historically baseless, since, on the one occasion when his
party did win a democratic election (gaining the votes of most
Bosnian Serbs in the election of 1990), their platform said nothing
whatsoever about dividing Bosnia by force.

As for the Serbs' claims to "self-determination," it is the simple
facts of ethnic geography which render them invalid. Had the Serbs
all lived in a compact bloc of territory, with its own traditions and
political identity, it might eventually have been right for a
democratic Bosnian state to let that territory go, if that was what
the Serbs desired--just as the British government would eventually
grant Scotland independence, if the great majority of Scots so
wished. But the ethnic map of Bosnia was a crazy patchwork, not a
neat conjunction of three blocs, and the exercise of the so-called
"right" of self-determination by the Serbs has involved the wrongful
expulsion of hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs from their homes.
This is not democratic self-determination, but the invention, by
force, of a new political-territorial entity based on ethnic or
racial purity--something not seen on European soil since the 1930s.
And the invoking of the phrase "self-determination" is of course
doubly false here, given that the political plan which this move was
meant to serve, and the massive military resources which helped to
effect it, came not from the Bosnian Serbs themselves but from the
Serbian government in Belgrade.

Three Principles of Policy

Such, then, is the main achievement of Western diplomacy: an
acceptance, through ignorance, of the "inevitability" of the Bosnian
war, which led step by step towards an acceptance of the fundamental
claims of the people who made that war happen. In this sense, the
Western governments, by not having any definite policy, have had a
pro-Serb policy by default.

But it would be unfair to imply that the foreign ministries of the
leading European and NATO countries had never been able to think of
any principles of foreign policy that might have some relevance to
the Bosnian war. Three general principles have been evident in their
thinking. One was the need for "stability;" another was the desire
not to set precedents for other parts of the ex-communist world; and
the third was the wish to maintain close, cooperative relations with
Russia. On each of these principles, the European governments (led by
Britain and France) have sought to maintain what they believed to be
their long-term interests; but on each of the three, their attempts
to do so have been essentially counter-productive.

"Stability" is one of the key words in the British Foreign Office
lexicon, where it tends to be associated with the doctrine that every
region needs one strong local power to keep it in order. Although no
British spokesman has ever said on the record that Serbia ought to be
the dominant power in the Balkans, this pattern of thought was
nevertheless evident in the eagerness of British ministers to accept
the Serb conquests in Bosnia as a fait accompli--as if a new level of
entropy had been created, a more stable system, which it would be in
no one's long-term interest to reverse. The truth, however, is that
any division of Bosnia (and particularly one which enables the
Serb-held territories there to join up with Serb-held parts of
Croatia) will create long-term instability in the region. It will
lead not only to obsessive irredentism, in both Bosnia and Croatia,
but also to a political power struggle within the new Greater Serbia,
between the Belgrade regime and politicians in the outlying

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