Henry Kissinger was not directly involved in negotiations or politics related to Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-1995 war. But shortly before the signing of the Dayton Agreement, he wrote a text in which he expressed his views on this issue. As it says at the beginning of Kissinger’s text published by the American Washington Post, the sustained NATO bombing in Bosnia probably marks, in Winston Churchill’s words, less the beginning of the end than the end of the beginning. The agreement reached late last week on principles for the division of Bosnia is a big step forward for which the Clinton administration deserves credit. Now this administration, having accepted the proposition that diplomacy needed to be buttressed by force or the threat of force, must — to bring the war to a conclusion — send two messages: to the Serbs, that there is no option other than negotiation; to the Bosnian-Croat confederation, that the West is able to protect any agreement, but that its military force will not be available for ambitions beyond the scope of Western proposals.
The appalling conduct of the Serbs (matched by the conduct of the other parties at various stages) fits the category of aggression less than of a historical Balkan ethnic conflict. In 1991 Bosnia was recklessly created by the Western countries as a multi-ethnic state through the device of recognizing the administrative boundaries of the provinces of the former Yugoslavia as international borders. But these provincial boundaries had been drawn precisely to prevent the political cohesion of the provinces by manipulating ethnic rivalries so as to discourage autonomy. Not surprisingly, Bosnia’s emergence as a unitary state under Muslim rule was rejected by the Croats and Serbs, who between them comprise over half the population of Bosnia. They were supported in this by their mother countries, and unspeakable brutalities were committed in the name of ethnic cleansing.
Ethnic conflicts are quit a different phenomenon from our historical experience. The Cold War encouraged some calculus of risks and rewards on which superpower policy could be based. Even in regions of intense passions such as the Middle East, the adversaries were clients of the superpowers and therefore to some extent restrained.
By contrast, the hatred of ethnic conflicts transcends rational calculations. Each ethnic group hearkens back to some mythic Golden Age when it was dominant: the Muslims recall the Ottoman Empire; the Croats remember the Hapsburg preeminence; the Serbs are sustained by their endless wars for independence. The ideal ethnic map of each is incompatible with the ethnic maps of its rivals; each treats as anathema any arrangement dependent on the good faith of the other.
Ethnic conflicts almost inevitably lead to ethnic cleansing. They end either in victory or defeat, or in exhaustion. Paradoxically, the parties can sometimes submit to superior outside force but not to each other. (This in fact is how Bosnia has been governed for most of its history, successively by the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs and Marshal Tito.)
The conflict in Bosnia is therefore not a simple act of aggression threatening world peace. The limits of each party’s aims are essentially defined ethnically, though no doubt with an ambitious sweep. Not even the most paranoid Serb aspires to world domination.
True, Serbia started the last round. But surely one contributing cause was the memory of other rounds — some not so far in the past — in which the roles were reversed. And, as the former U.S. European deputy commander, Gen. Charles G. Boyd, has pointed out in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the Croat and Muslim conduct has on occasion been no less despicable than that of the Serbs — though it has been condoned by the media and winked at by the administration.
Some view such an outcome as appropriate punishment for the evils perpetrated by the Serbs. But punishment of evil must be balanced — indeed it is constantly balanced — against other concerns. We have tolerated a carnage in Rwanda far exceeding the worst Bosnian atrocities. And we made little more than paper protests against Russian actions in Chechnya. The risks in each case were judged exorbitant in relation to the national interest.
The gap between moral convictions and the risks we are prepared to run is reflected in the congressional debate on the arms embargo. The majority that voted to lift the embargo insisted on the administration’s moral pronouncements. But it wants to eliminate all risk to American lives; the Bosnian Muslims are supposed to prevail with American supplies. Yet, since a Bosnian victory would surely lead to ethnic cleansing against the Bosnian Serbs of the variety suffered in Krajina, the congressional action is building toward the same moral dilemma that paralyzed us in the first place.
The vote on the arms embargo has served a useful purpose in ending the administration’s and NATO’s vacillations regarding the use of force, but Congress now would be well advised to shelve overriding the president’s veto, if only because the embargo issue has been superseded by recent events, and because the Croats and Muslims have obviously created a formidable military machine despite the embargo’s unjust restraints. The administration should be permitted to play its hand now.
It is therefore crucial to obtain a NATO consensus on how the alliance should respond if the negotiations lag. Since military pressure will be applied against Serbia but should not be against Bosnia or Croatia, special thought must be given to the allied attitude if — as is highly possible — the Muslims and Croats insist on unifying the country.
Our able negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, has defined his most difficult challenge as the composition of the autonomous areas based on ethnicity. In my view, the far more intractable issue concerns the international status of these regions: whether they are to have autonomy within a unified Bosnian state or the right to secede and join the mother country. Many insist on a sovereign Bosnia within its original borders because any other outcome would reward aggression. But now that each of the communities, using the most inhuman methods, has expelled the others from its area of control, it makes no sense to try to impose a multi-ethnic solution for all of Bosnia-Herzegovina. If the goal is stability and not revenge, and if we want to avoid being bogged down in endless conflict, the only responsible outcome is to define Bosnia as a state for the Muslim community within generous borders and to give the other communities the right of self-determination.
In a nation composed of three warring nationalities, the danger of two of them ganging up on the third would be overwhelming. Moreover, if the existing border of Bosnia became internationally recognized, Serbians (or Croatians) would be accused of aggression internationally if they supported their compatriots in Bosnia, and of betrayal, or worse, domestically, if they acquiesced in their strangulation.
Bosnian leaders forget at their peril that in the first phase of the current struggle, Croatia followed a policy parallel to that of Serbia, seeking to carve the Croat ethnic group out of Bosnia. Indeed, a few months ago, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, perceiving himself off the record at a dinner in London, let it out that despite the opportunistic confederation with Bosnian Muslims, the most sensible outcome would be a partition of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia.
The definition of the borders will have great import for East-West relations as well. Russia has so far been relatively restrained in the face of the punishment suffered by the Serbs, its historical Balkan allies. That restraint is likely to turn into a Russian domestic issue if Serbia’s humiliation is protracted. So far, the Bosnian crisis has been contained, but prolonged erosion of Serbia could repeat the experience that led to World War I, when several Serbian setbacks swallowed by Russia produced a resolve never to yield again. I do not object to challenging Russia where fundamental American interests are involved — as on NATO expansion. But the attempt to make the Bosnian Serb population part of Bosnian sovereignty — violating our principle of self-determination and ignoring the Serbs’ centuries-long struggle against Muslim rule — is the opposite of the national interest; it is a form of domestic politics. And it would make Sarajevo, for the second time, the origin of unnecessary conflict. The definition of the legal status of the autonomous areas will shape the deployment of the peacekeeping force, to which President Clinton exuberantly promised a major American contribution in the heady early days of his administration, when he still thought of war and peace as discrete phases of policy. I do not favor any prolonged presence of American forces in the Balkan powder keg, where war and peace shade insensibly into each other. But if troops are sent, they should protect a meaningful objective. Located at the present international border, they cannot prevent either the destruction of the Serb autonomous area by Bosnia or the incorporation of Bosnia into Croatia — the two most likely contingencies for the next phase of Bosnian policy. The most sensible objective for a peacekeeping force is to protect the Muslim area as a separate state.
To navigate this delicate course, the president needs to abandon his coy posture of pretending that American policy simply registers international consensus. We have been the motor behind recent actions, and if we are not to be driven by pictures on the evening news, the president must be prepared to explain to the American people his purposes, his opportunities, his risks and their limits.
When this crisis is over, America needs to ask itself an even deeper question: How far does it wish to push the principle of self-determination? Bosnia is now too divided to design a government under which the three ethnic groups can live in harmony. But if pressed on a global basis, will the concept of ethnic self-determination not splinter the world into unmanageable confusion? And, at the extremes, what might it do to the cohesion of our own society? The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm that has clients with business interests in many countries abroad.