bosnia report
No. 5 April - 1994
Mr Hurd's Bosnian Waterloo
by Noel Malcolm

There is one area of policy where the errors committed by Mr Hurd are so gross, and their potential consequences so far-reaching, that he will be unable to escape the judgment of his contemporaries - let alone of history. It is his policy in Yugoslavia and the Balkans, and the intimately connected matter of his policy towards the former Soviet Union. History will certainly judge Mr Hurd, but now even his former colleagues are beginning to do so too. Only last week the former Defence Secretary Sir John Nott made an outspoken attack on Mr Hurd's Yugoslav policy in the Evening Standard under the heading "The Weak Man of Europe". "British foreign policy is in disarray", wrote Sir John. "The Foreign Secretary has become a liability".

Although a popular misconception (much promoted by the British Foreign Office) has it that the destruction of Bosnia was caused by a German policy of "premature recognition", there is an abundance of evidence which shows that the war in Bosnia was already planned by the Serbs and would have been started anyway. What ensured the destruction of Bosnia was not the West's recognition of Bosnian independence, but the arms embargo it maintained against that country, which prevented the Bosnian government from defending its people from attack. The chief supporter of the embargo was Mr Douglas Hurd. It was Mr Hurd who, when the American and German governments both expressed a desire to lift the embargo in February 1993, rushed off to Bonn and Washington to persuade them to change their minds. During his visit to Bonn he explained to the press that "a balance had to be struck" between "the German view that a supply of arms to the Muslims was the only fair way of allowing them to defend themselves, and the danger of escalating the fighting". He did not explain, unfortunately, why persuading the Germans to conform with the second of those utterly contradictory views should be described as striking a balance between them.

Other distortions of truth or logic were also required in order to maintain this position. From the outset of the Bosnian conflict it was clear to most observers that this was a war against Bosnia planned, instigated, directed and supplied by a neighbouring state (Serbia), and aimed at the conquest of most of the Bosnian territory and the eventual incorporation of that conquered land into a Greater Serbia. The Foreign Secretary, however, steadfastly described the conflict as "a civil war" - a piece of obfuscation aimed at preventing people from drawing any comparison with the case of Iraq and Kuwait. "This is a war with no front line", he said repeatedly, while maps showing the front line of Serbian conquest were being printed almost every day in the newspapers.

At the same tÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÀime, however, the Foreign Secretary felt obliged to go along with the policy adopted by other western countries, which was to put pressure on Ser- bia (through economic and other sanctions) to end the war. Blithely, Mr Hurd maintained these two lines of explanations side by side: that it was just an in- ternal Bosnian civil war, and that the way to stop it was to act against the neighbouring state which was causing it. The contradiction was no doubt eased by the trust and affection with which Mr Hurd, like so many Foreign Office men be- fore him, regarded the idea of sanctions. So trustful was he that 14 months ago he assured Mr George Soros that the Serbian President would "soon" be toppled by the popular discontent which sanctions were causing - a staggering misjudgment. (Similarly, he had advised Mrs Thatcher in September 1990 that sanctions "might succeed" against Saddam Hussein.)

The assumptions which underlie Mr Hurd's disastrous Yugoslav policy reflect his deformation professionnelle as a one-time career diplomat. There is the classic Foreign Office belief in the notion of "stability", which confuses stability with familiarity, and assumes that a strong regional power (Serbia - or, in another context, Russia) will be a stabilising influence, no matter how that regional strength is acquired or maintained. There is the love of diplomacy per se, a diplomacy which never recognises the limits of its own power and always prefers setting up new initiatives and "processes", believing that the world is full of reasonable men who will agree on reasonable solutions. And above all there is a kind of pseudo-realpolitik which thinks it can interpret every prob- lem not on its own merits but as a move in some more elaborate power-play. Thus Mr Hurd's deepest objection to lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia was that it might lead to a situation in which different western and eastern powers were "backing" different combatants, disturbing the post-Cold War harmony in Europe and the United Nations.

The disturbance of harmony has come about, however: almost every country is now out of tune with Britain. Mr Hurd's policy has earned us the impatience of the Americans and the open contempt of the French. In January the Dutch Foreign Minister described Britain's policy, on the record, as "disgraceful". And in Germany our position is viewed with resentment bordering on real hostility: many Germans officials and commentators believe (wrongly, I think, but understandably) that the main aim of British policy in the Balkans has been to thwart Germany's own policy objectives in that region. It takes an effort of will now to remember that in the winter of 1991-2, when Mr Hurd was finally given free rein over British foreign policy after the departure of Mrs Thatcher, the creation of a new epoch of Anglo-German amity was the main aim he adopted in Europe. As for the other parts of the wreckage of our foreign policy, they include widespread hostility to Britain's Bosnian policy throughout the Muslim world, a hostility of which Dr Mahathir of Malaysia is merely the leading exponent.

But there is one government with which relations have improved. When the Russians moved their troops to Sarajevo, and Mr Hurd praised their action as a "constructive" move, they had reason to believe that this was no empty compliment. They had strengthened his hand against a western policy which, a few days earlier, he had lacked the strength to block on his own. And for their own part the Russians can feel grateful to Mr Hurd for his previous foot-dragging over Bosnia, which has established a useful precedent for any future actions they make take in outlying parts of the former Soviet empire. Douglas Hurd was always against the break-up of the Soviet Union ("We have no intention or wish to undermine the stability of the Soviet Union", he said in February 1991, when its "stability" was already past all pÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÀossible repair). Three months ago he even co-authored an article with the Russian foreign minister, Andrew Kozyrev, in which he stated that armed conflicts in ex-Soviet republics were "a source of legitimate concern to the Russians, who are worried by clashes close to their borders". The fact that many of these conflicts were being actively stirred up by Russia for its own strategic purposes (as Rossiiskie Vesti admitted only a few weeks later) was of course conveniently ignored.

It is hard to think of any time since 1956 when Britain's foreign policy was in such a shambles. Even during the Suez crisis we had allies whose support was more valuable than that of the unpredictably crumbling Russian government today. But the main difference is that in 1956 the country knew that its foreign policy was a mess; today it persists in thinking - despite all the evidence to the contrary - that it rests in a safe pair of hands.

Noel Malcolm has recently published Bosnia: A Short History, which has won the highest praise. He is a member of the steering committee of the Alliance to De- fend Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is an extract from "A Most Undeserved Reputation", published in The Spectator, London, 3 March 1994.


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