Selected Longer Reviews

Europe's Backyard War: the war in the Balkans

By Almond, Mark

Heinemann, London, 1994, 432 pages,
Price: 20.00 Pound Sterling
Shelf mark: 949.702'4

One of the most striking features of the West's calamitous failure in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been its persistent over-estimation of the viability of the 'Greater Serbia' project, and corresponding under-estimation of the human forces and material constraints arrayed against it. Mark Almond outlines two dominant interpretations of why Western policy should have been as it has. First, that the West (the British Foreign Office in particular) 'preferred an Ordnungsmacht to dominate the Balkans, and Serbia fitted the bill'. Secondly, 'the plausible alternative to the Machiavellian interpretation of the inefficacy of Western policy is that crass stupidity not cynical Realpolitik dictated its course throughout the crisis.' But whichever explanation is preferred, the miscalculation remains the same. A simple totting up of tanks, howitzers and air strength is a very poor guide to understanding the character of a war and forecasting its likely outcome (a rather more pertinent lesson of Vietnam than the absurd 'quagmire' analogies indulged in by armchair critics of a more active US intervention against aggression in Bosnia). The truth, as Almond exhaustively catalogues, is that Western policy has from the outset been predicated upon at least the inevitability, and. perhaps the desirability, of a victory for Belgrade's expansionist ambitions. Of all the books so far to have appeared on the breakup of Yugoslavia and its bloody aftermath, this furnishes the most devastating and well-documented portrayal of the West's response. Chapters 2 ('Countdown: the West and the Yugoslav crisis') and 13 ('Last chances for peace') in particular should be required reading for anyone, for example, who still believes the myth of Germany's 'premature' recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, or who cannot understand how Lord Owen came to pin all his hopes on a peace with terms dictated by Slobodan Miloševiƒ.

Almond shows how, when Western politicians swore they would 'never' recognize the independence of Yugoslavia's republics, they were thinking above all of the Soviet Union, and how, even when they were nevertheless compelled to recognize them, as with the former Soviet republics, they did so only reluctantly and half-heartedly. As a consequence, instead of pursuing policies designed to ensure the integrity and viability of all the new successor states, they hoped instead that Serbia—like Russia—would re-establish some simulacrum of the order that had so regrettably passed away. This is why they have tried so hard to redefine Serbia*s wars of aggression as civil conflicts internal to Croatia and Bosnia: first to ignore, then quickly to forget, the genocidal nature of a war designed to acquire territory without its non-Serb population; to treat Bosnia's legitimate and multi-ethnic government as a purely Muslim 'warring party'; and to present the project of carving a racially pure Serb state out of areas where Serbs were for the most part only a minority, as being both the will of all Bosnian Serbs and, ultimately, acceptable to the new European order. But they did not reckon with the other side of the equation: the new successor states and their refusal to surrender, or, standing behind these, all those latent forces throughout the region (including in Serbia itself) in search of a democratic future.

Almond aptly concludes by quoting Aristotle on 'occasions when indignation is the only appropriate response and indifference is a sign of folly', and Louis MacNeice*s 'contemptuous verdict in 1938 on the illusions of appeasement'.

Branka Magaš

This review first appeared in International Affairs (London), April 1995

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