Getting Back on Track in Bosnia-Herzegovina

“The international officials who have run Bosnia as a virtual protectorate since the West forced a peace deal in 1995 are eager to scale back their presence here soon,” reported the New York Times eight years agoSadly, not much has changed since. Bosnia was Europe’s first major post–Cold war tragedy. Its bloody collapse attracted global attention and shaped our understanding of the security dilemmas posed by the post–Cold War world. Peace has held since the 1995 Dayton Accords, but in spite of over $15 billion in foreign aid as well as the sustained deployment of thousands of NATO and EU troops, the country still struggles to achieve the political consensus necessary to cement its stability and break free of international tutelage. To make matters worse, the situation has deteriorated, especially over the last four years. Circumstances on the ground are polarized and increasingly tense. Meanwhile, Bosnia’s problems are contributing to rifts between the United States and Europe.

The fifteenth anniversary of the Dayton Accords arrives this fall, along with the second round of national elections since tensions have begun again. The time is ripe for a reorientation of transatlantic strategy. Revitalizing the stalled reform progress will be crucial to overcome the debilitating dynamics of ethnic nationalism and to allow self-sustaining peace to take hold. To do so, however, both the United States and Europe should reassess their current policies and recover their common perspective.

Back to the Brink in Bosnia?

In the last few years concerns about stability of Bosnia–Herzegovina has increased. Could Bosnia go back to war? What would it take? How likely is it? Not highly likely, but far from impossible. Much turns on the behaviour of Milorad Dodik, the current Bosnian Serb Prime Minister. Nevertheless, it is too soon for the international community to close up shop and get out. The Office of the High Representative needs to stay on, at least until Dodik is off the scene, or his threat of secession is effectively neutralised.

Today in Sarajevo there is disturbing talk of an unravelling of the Dayton Accords that ended the bloody civil war there 14 years ago. Nearly 100,000 people were killed in that war, which pitted Muslims against Serbs against Croats, and saw Europe’s nastiest massacres since the Second World War. Since 1995, Bosnia has been at peace, but the main political parties continue to fight over the basic issues that started the war almost two decades ago. Concern over the general political situation has increased as nationalist rhetoric has raised the spectre of a re-division of the country and an ensuing descent into violence. Some in Sarajevo even evoke the possibility of ‘European Gazas’ emerging in some parts of the county, where there are hints that unemployed Muslim youth may be coming under the influence of a radical, foreign brand of Wahhabist Islam.

The international community has invested over $15 billion and 14 years of effort to ensure that fighting does not break out again in Bosnia. Washington and European capitals are naturally eager to leave the region given the many demands on their resources elsewhere in the world. Many European leaders, moreover, are eager to see the United States withdraw so that responsibility for Bosnia can be handed over to the European Union. This is a sentiment that the United States should support in principle, especially given the manifold challenges it faces elsewhere, but if a withdrawal risks a return to war, then it is clearly too soon.

Indeed, another Bosnian implosion would be a disaster, not only for Bosnia, but for the Balkans, Europe and the United States. The decision to leave must thus be based on a clear-headed assessment of the chances of renewed violence. If they are real, the international community and the United States must stay fully engaged, and the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the main instrument of that engagement over the last 12 years, needs to be kept open and possibly even strengthened. If the danger is imagined, it is time to pack up and get out.

The Dayton Dilemma

Fifteen years after the Dayton Accords, Bosnia is still at peace. In some ways, Bosnia was an easier case than Afghanistan and Iraq, and is a sobering lesson in both the promise and inherent limitations of contemporary military interventions and state-building operations. While the international community proved adept at stopping the violence, generating self-sustaining peace has been much more difficult. Dayton posed an inherent dilemma: on the one hand, the political structures it had established were unworkable and too often served the interests of Bosnia’s most malign political forces; on the other, the agreement was the foundation of the peace, and uprooting it threatened a return to war. Bosnia’s current predicament should not be construed as evidence of the inherent impossibility of state-building, but only of the extreme difficulty, resource-intensiveness and decades-long timeframe such projects require. A policy of benign neglect or a purely military approach are not, in most cases, apt to be more effective. Ultimately, the logic of intervention can be very compelling for liberal democracies in possession of the power to stop violence, and extended interventions will thus sometimes be unavoidable.

The Western powers intervened in Bosnia to stop a war, not build a nation. Having done the former, however, they discovered the latter inescapable. As of 21 November 2010, it will be 15 years since the signing of the Dayton Accords. The US negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, made Dayton’s purpose clear in the title of his memoir, To End A War. In this purpose Dayton succeeded, but the cost of sustaining that success was a protracted international engagement that required far more in terms of troops, money and international diplomatic capital than nearly anyone at the time thought it would. Today, Bosnia is still at peace, and the intervention looks good on this count, especially when compared with later interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Serious problems remain, however, and the situation has recently deteriorated.

Bosnia is not Afghanistan, much less Iraq. But in some ways, it was the easier case, and the history of the last 15 years is a sobering lesson in both the promise and inherent limitations of contemporary military interventions and state-building operations. While the international community proved adept at stopping the violence, generating self-sustaining peace has been much more difficult.

In Bosnia’s case, the main difficulties were rooted in the very nature of the Dayton Accords. When the war ended, the country needed not just post-war reconstruction but a process of social healing and deep political transformation if it were ever to recover its former tolerant and multiethnic character. Several factors stood in the way of this process, ranging from divergent interests and strategies within the international community, to a lack of civilian resources and planning, to the narrow and often criminal interests of Bosnia’s wartime leadership. In this context, Dayton posed an inherent dilemma: on the one hand, the political structures it had established were unworkable and too often served the interests of Bosnia’s most malign political forces; on the other, the agreement was the foundation of the peace, and uprooting it threatened a return to war.