bosnia report
New Series No. 1 November - December 1997
 
Squaring the Circle

Everything about Western policy in B-H today can be seen as an attempt to square the Dayton circle. Ethnic cleansers are supposed to welcome home those they have expelled, and refugees to return to areas where their tormentors still wield absolute power. War criminals are supposed to be arrested by their accomplices in crime. Racists, national chauvinists and profiteers are supposed to play leading roles in (re)building a multi-ethnic and democratic society. The regimes in Belgrade and Zagreb are supposed to guarantee a state they have been doing their best to destroy. The legitimacy of Bosnian statehood is supposed to be upheld, not by the republican institutions that made resistance to aggression possible, but by new and intentionally impotent structures, ruled by ethnic quotas, in which its staunch defenders are permanently outnumbered by its bitter enemies.

But the whole point about squaring the circle is that it cannot be done and everyone knows this. So what really motivates the policies of the US and its Contact Group partners in B-H, and what are those policies really designed to achieve? This is the central question with which Bosnia and its friends are obliged perpetually to wrestle, and the answer is certainly not a simple one.

Despite proclaimed principles, Washington clearly has little a priori interest in the fate of Bosnia-Herzegovina as such, and this has doubtless been a prime factor in its apparent inconsistency of aim and indifference to principle. At the same time, the country and region have since 1990 become a major node of Washington's international policies, requiring a heavy diplomatic, political, military and financial investment and participating centrally in a number of crucially important evolving scenarios: NATO retooling, reorientation and expansion; post-Cold-War relations with Russia; post-Communist reorganization of eastern Europe; relations with western Europe and with the Islamic world; the definition of new roles for such bodies as the UN or the OSCE - the list could be extended.

Within this complex web of considerations, the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its population do not loom very large. This is what explains the yawning gulf between proclaimed objectives - return of refugees, punishment of war criminals, establishment of democracy - and actual practice. The latter is a kind of lowest common denominator in which US determination to avoid all risk to its soldiers, German impatience to send refugees back to B-H even if they cannot go to their homes, French willingness to make 'their' part of Bosnia a safe haven for war criminals (as chief prosecutor Louise Arbour of the Hague Tribunal has recently complained), the Russian propensity to identify with the Serb nationalist cause and the traditional British view (has it really changed now that the Conservatives have left office?ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ) that stability in the region requires a Serbian gendarme all contribute to a refusal to implement the reintegrative elements of Dayton.

Ultimately, of course, it has always been the case that only the Bosnians themselves can remake their country. But the cards have been heavily stacked against their succeeding, now that the increasing concentration of power in foreign and not obviously friendly hands has so enormously reduced the room for local initiatives. Bosnia is currently ruled by powers that are responsible to no one but themselves. In such a thoroughly unhealthy situation, questions of morality and strategic wisdom are too easily sacrificed to everyday pragmatism.

In brokering the Dayton Accords, the United States has assumed much of the responsibility for what happens in B-H; its record must consequently be most open to criticism. This does not, however, absolve friends of Bosnia here in Europe from maintaining a constant and searching scrutiny of the conduct of their own governments. Our newly established Bosnian Institute will make its own contribu- tion to educating public opinion in Britain and beyond regarding the importance of Bosnia for Europe's peace, stability and civilized existence.

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