Does Bosnia Need a "Second Dayton"?

By Steven E. Meyer
Saturday, 20 Feb 2010

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From Saving Peace in Bosnia (LBF 2010; cf Our Publications)


The ink was hardly dry on the 1995 Dayton Accords when calls began to surface that a second “Dayton Conference” was needed to complete the transition of Bosnia from a dysfunctional war-torn ward of the “international community” to a vibrant, stable, multi-ethnic, free enterprise democracy.Already in September 1996, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the primary architect of the Dayton agreement, said that a second conference was required to “strengthen” these accords. At the tenth anniversary of the Accords, while there was broad self congratulations at the “success” of the Dayton agreement, many officials in Europe and the United States saw the need to convene another Dayton-styled conference to consolidate the “benefits” of the 1995 agreement and to take Bosnia to the next level. In March 2009 the International Crisis Group published an assessment of Bosnia which proposed a series of substantial recommendations that are once again designed to overcome considerable residual problems through ever tighter central structures supposedly designed to bring Bosnia into the European family of fully functioning states.

The Old Paradigm – These are but three time-sequenced examples of fairly consistent calls, present ever since late 1995, to convene some sort of Dayton-like conference to “fix” Bosnia’s serious, nagging problems. Such calls over the years have demonstrated two major phenomena. First, they underscore that fact that the Dayton Accords of 1995 have been a failure in establishing the conditions necessary to guarantee a viable, modern, democratic, multi-ethnic, free enterprise state. To its credit, the Dayton process did bring the Bosnian war to an end. Nevertheless, it has failed in its efforts to engineer the necessary social, economic and political conditions required to establish a broadly accepted political community. Most importantly for Bosnia, this has meant that the Dayton process has been totally unable to meld the three ethnic groups into any semblance of what Benedict Anderson has eloquently described as the “imagined community.”

The Dayton Accords have failed on two major, specific points described by Anderson. First, the large majority of the inhabitants of Bosnia do not recognize that the state is limited—that there are recognized borders beyond which exist other, different states. And, second, they do not recognize that Bosnia is sovereign—that in law and practice, Bosnia coincides with the commonly accepted borders. Put simply, for too many citizens of Bosnia, borders and sovereignty do not coincide with what the Dayton Accords define as the state.

The calls over the years for a “second Dayton” reflect the determination and self-defined responsibility of the “international community” (in reality, the U.S. and several European countries) to perpetuate the process of control and management of the social, political and economic process in Bosnia. This determination by a handful of powerful countries, which are euphemistically known as the “international community,” is founded on a traditional paradigm of how political community must be constructed. It is a paradigm built on firm conviction that only this handful of major powers—but, primarily the U.S.—has the knowledge, wisdom, power and wherewithal to determine how political communities must be established if they are to be successful and deemed legitimate. It is a paradigm that considers the interest of the great powers to be both very broadly understood and to be superior to the interests of the smaller powers they dominate.

Through much of modern history—at least since the 15th century—the West has justified domination of a large portion of the globe through the old paradigm. In the Balkans, this domination began with the collapse of the Croatian and Serbian medieval states in the 12th and 15th centuries respectively, and has continued with few interruptions until today. Consequently, over the centuries the Balkans became an imperial playground not because the great powers were interested in the region as such, but because it had become the intersection of several powers that competed with each other. The Congress of Berlin, called by German Chancellor Bismarck in 1878, set the standard for modern imperial domination of the Balkans for the purposes of the imperial powers irrespective of the impact on the Balkans itself. Although they differ in substance, the Dayton Accords of 1995 follow the logic and impact of the Congress of Berlin.

Yet the weight of responsibility does not rest only with the great imperial powers, the ‘international community.’ As time passed, the peoples and leaders in the Balkans became complicit with the old paradigm. Although it took root gradually after the Middle Ages, the old paradigm began to sink deeply into the psyche in the Balkans after the advent of the industrial revolution and the French Revolution, which together defined “modernity” after the first quarter of the 19th century. The message was passed to the Balkans (as well as elsewhere) by the major powers of northwestern Europe, and soon thereafter by the United States, that to be truly modern, to be counted among the first rank of states, a country had to embrace fully the benefits of these twin revolutions. Along with all the rest of Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans has struggled to attain the prescribed level of modernity. But, try as they may, the Balkans has never come remotely near the mark, either politically or economically. Despite some variations in the level of development, the countries of the Balkans remain prisoners of two powerful forces: the ongoing domination of outside powers, and the propensity of those powers to administer self-inflicted wounds.

Renewing the Old Paradigm – During the 1990s, the Balkans became the single most important foreign policy of the Clinton administration. Although that administration was successful in ending the war in Bosnia, it struggled – as have so many other powers in the past – to design and enforce a political settlement in the region. While the Dayton Accords were the cornerstone of the Clinton administration’s ineptness, its overall failures in the region have helped sow continuing economic and political failure and backwardness in the Balkans.

The Clinton administration’s saving grace was that finally left office and the Balkans faded from the American foreign policy consciousness, not because success had been achieved there but because other more serious matters intervened and the incoming Bush administration had other priorities. The Bush administration decided early on in its tenure that the U.S. would withdraw from the Balkans and turn the issue over to the Europeans to the greatest extent possible. Bush did not decide to do this because he rejected the old paradigm in favor of some new, enlightened course of action, but because he felt compelled to apply the old paradigm in other parts of the world.

The end of the Bush administration and the advent of the Obama administration has seen a return of the Balkans to the American foreign policy agenda. It has become Clinton era redux. The Balkans in general and Bosnia specifically are being pushed as an issue less by the White House and more by the upper levels of the “new” State Department. In addition, the Balkans have become a renewed priority among a few prominent politicians in Western Europe and among several think-tanks and advocacy groups in the United States. Their stated concern is that Bosnia is failing, that it is not making the requisite progress toward becoming that viable, stable, democratic, multi-ethnic, free enterprise state that danced so vividly in their imaginations when the Dayton Accords were concluded in 1995.

As their argument goes, Bosnia was showing “steady progress” prior to 2006. Reforms, the One Bosnia advocates argued, were moving forward steadily: judicial and tax reform had become realities, intelligence and security reform were in place, two rounds of defense reform had been concluded, reform of the Council of Ministers was in place, police reform had moved forward, and reform of the Constitution, especially in the realm of human rights, had been cemented into place. Since then, however, not only have the reforms flat lined, Bosnia has slipped “dangerously backward.” The situation, according to the self-appointed saviors of Bosnia, has become critical. Bosnia is in danger of slipping into chaos and disintegration.

Why has this happened? According to the saviors, there are two primary reasons. First, they assign blame to the Bush administration for its alleged neglect of the Balkans generally and Bosnia specifically. Second, and perhaps most important, they argue that there is a failure of indigenous leadership. Specifically, they assign blame to Milorad Dodik, the Prime Minister of the Republika Srpska, and, to a lesser extent, to Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim member of the Bosnian tripartite Presidency. According to the Western illuminati, Dodik (in particular) and Silajdzic (perhaps) are pursuing policies that strongly favor their own ethnicity rather than Bosnia as a whole.

Consequently, this combination of government officials (mostly in the Obama administration) and their closely allied cohorts in think-tanks and advocacy groups believe that it is necessary to pick up the thread of solid reform that they believe dominated the “positive” evolution of Bosnia prior to 2006 and reestablish it before it is “too late.” This group is blinded by its own arrogance and by its misunderstanding of Bosnia, the Balkans, and the larger reality of international politics. There is no rational argument, in fact, for any major American re-engagement in Bosnia, or the Balkans. There are no significant American interests now at stake in the region. There have never been any. The Obama administration does face a welter of bewildering and dangerous issues elsewhere that are clearly in the vital interest of the U.S. Moreover, the contention that there was real progress prior to 2006 is a figment of a collective, self-important, self-righteous imagination.

Certainly there was structural change; but the new, ever more centralized “Bosnian” structures were a chimera. Those structures meant very little. The locus of power has always been in the ethnic communities. The leadership in Muslim-Bosnia has always been adept at telling American and other Western officials what they wanted to hear, regardless of reality. In short, the reforms were a triumph of form over substance. They were hollow, phony attempts to make it appear that change had taken place when, in reality, it had not and could not.

For Western advocates of intervention, the fault for failure in Bosnia lies squarely on the shoulders of Bosnia’s leadership. These leaders, they argue, have failed to take seriously the good efforts of the architects of Dayton and have failed miserably, at least since 2006, of implementing the plan that would make Bosnia a shining example of a vibrant multi-ethnic democracy. In truth, however, to the extent Bosnia has “failed,” the fault rests squarely with the Western advocates themselves. The root cause of failure is with them and their misguided, inept polices initiated during the 1990s. The failure of Bosnia has nothing to do with the neglect of the Bush administration or indigenous leadership. It has, rather, to do with the arrogant inability or refusal to understand the nature of ethnic politics, to totally misjudge what is required to establish a modern political community.

The Bosnifiers completely miss the fact that self-determination cannot be smothered by dictate. A piecemeal resolution of the Yugoslav issue, instead of one that focused on the region as a whole, was a prescription for disaster. In the end, for the who advocate a strong U.S. reengagement in Bosnia (and the Balkans), that country and that region as such were never really the point. For them, the point speaks to a strong strain of American imperialism and exceptionalism, the power of manifest destiny. For many of them, the cause of Bosnia has become a way to fulfill a personal and psychological need in the guise of national interest.

A (Not So) New Paradigm – Simply stated, Bosnia does not a new Dayton or anything even remotely resembling it. Undergirding this contention is the more basic judgment that the old paradigm of imperial intervention has long since outlived its usefulness in the globalizing world of the 21st century. In a world in which economic, social and political structures are rapidly changing, it is no longer workable or just to determine the nature of political community for others. It is especially inappropriate for a major power, such as the U.S., to attempt to “dictate” or even prescribe the form and substance of economic, social and political organization and interaction, such as the Balkans, which is of minimal national interest.

Instead, the U.S. and the major powers in Western Europe need to accept a new paradigm—one that is not really all that new. In the evolving world, no longer will there be one acceptable, legitimate way to organize communities, to pursue interests, and to express ideologies. States will continue to be the dominant form of political organization, but they are being challenged increasingly by other modes of organization – by non-state actors that are leveling the global playing field by becoming legitimate and authoritative organs of political, social and economic expression. In the contemporary world, this reality is manifest in a new understanding of self-determination and self-actualization.

These are not new principles, but in the past they have almost always been expressed in terms of new state formation or state re-formation based on some sort of mutual material, cultural or ideological interest. While self-determination and self-actualization will continue to be expressed this way in the future, increasingly communities will form along business, cultural, ethnic, religious, military, etc. lines. Although at times controversial and open to differing interpretations, one can point for instruction to the “subsidiarity” principle that is firmly ensconced in European Union law (see the European Charter of Local and Self-Government and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty).

For the contemporary great powers to buy into a new paradigm that links self-determination, self-actualization and subsidiarity would require a change in outlook and policy that is, at best, unlikely but which may be forced upon them by evolving circumstance. Such an acceptance would require an admission that past Western policy has failed in the Balkans and that a new approach is unavoidable.

At minimum this would require closing the Office of the High Representative, ending the Bonn Powers and Peace Implementation Committee (PIC) some time in 2010. These two offices, in particular, are vestiges of a heavy-handed, often oppressive weight on local self-development. Of course the OHR and the PIC see themselves as enlightened guarantors of peaceful transition to successful statehood for Bosnia. In the absence of war the opposite is closer to reality, because these organizations inhibit the local parties from coming to terms with each other. Their continued existence encourages either subterfuge on the part of local authorities or a pretext for not having to honestly find areas of compromise, agreement and disagreement.

Leaders in Washington, along with those in every other capital, realize at an intellectual level that the Cold War era has passed into the globalizing, post-September 11 world. Since this means that American hegemony has passed and the world is now much more differentiated, real acceptance by the Western policy cognoscenti is extremely difficult. Translating such acceptance into true policy change is very difficult. It is especially hard for those who have come to professional maturity during the heady days of the Cold War and have been used to American supremacy. Irrespective of whether American (and some European) policy-makers cannot make the transition to the emerging new world, it is important that others do not fall prey to belief in an American dominance and hegemony that no longer exist. Indeed, it is ever more necessary for political leaders in the region, and especially in Bosnia, to hold American influence and interference at arm’s length, and to exert their own leadership and influence far more assertively.

Ironically, the only place in the Balkans where that is happening right now is in the Republika Srpska (RS). At least for now, the RS leadership, especially Milorad Dodik, has shown the courage, fortitude and intelligence to insist that local leaders and citizens take responsibility for their futures. The SNSD leadership has taken the advice of Muslim leader Sulejman Tihić to end the “philosophy of victimhood and self-pity” that has pervaded broad swaths of Bosnian-Muslim leadership since the collapse of Yugoslavia and which actually reinforces Western dominance.

If this experiment in local control and decision making, consistent with the EU policy of subsidiarity, is to continue and locals are to gain real and lasting control of the political process, it will be necessary for the Bosnian Serb Republic to continue to lead. To do this, RS leaders need to articulate and pursue several specific policies:
• Revive the ‘Prud Process’ based on direct negotiations – free from foreign meddling – between the parties inside Bosnia-Herzegovina, not because it will necessarily lead to agreement on the structure and function of political community, but because it empowers the leaders and citizens in the region to take charge of their own lives.
• As The RS needs to insist on elimination of the OHR, the Bonn Powers, and the PIC in 2010. These are all vestiges of overbearing concepts and policies that have long since outlived their usefulness.
• Under Dayton the RS can expand cultural, security, and especially economic relations with many other areas. In particular, the RS should seek to expand its credit line with Russia.
• Expand and improve tools to protect its financial assets and use financial assets as leverage in Bosnia and throughout the Balkans.
• Expand Ministry of Interior (MUP) police forces as a way of better protecting RS people and property. This should be seen as clearly a defensive, cautionary measure.
• Explore expanding relations with Serbia, which is quite consistent with Article IV of the Dayton Accords.

Conclusion – It is a time of potentially significant change in the Balkans generally and specifically in Bosnia and the RS—it is perhaps the most important time since the advent of the Dayton Accords in 1995. There are those in Washington who wish to return to the old paradigm, but there also are people in Washington who see the necessity for the political communities in the Balkans to determine their own futures.

The region would be much better served by a hands-off approach by the Obama administration, with the heavy hand of imperial authority replaced by an enlightened hand of restraint. The the leaders and citizens in the region should seize the initiative, follow the lead of the Republika Srpska, and begin more forcefully to shape their own destinies.

Dr. Steven Meyer is Professor of Political Science at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University in Washington D.C.