The Magazine

How Not to Nation-Build

The Europeans do their best to mess up the Balkans.

Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Similar frictions are seen in Kosovo, where at the beginning of October the members of the Union of Elementary and Secondary School Teachers went on strike against their de facto employer, the United Nations. Numbering 20,000, the strikers are the lowest-paid education workers in Europe: Full-time elementary and middle school teachers make about $150 a month, while other public employees earn a generous $250--and the sons and daughters of Kosovar public servants make up to $750 a month as drivers and translators for the "internationals."

Foreign bureaucrats have created a Kosovo where 30 percent of all income derives from services to humanitarian functionaries. There is more incentive in Kosovo today to speculate by renting apartments to foreigners than to build schools; to sell pizza to foreigners than to provide hot meals for kids in school. For most Kosovar Albanians, it is better to work as a guard in front of an international agency than as a teacher in front of a class.

There are important lessons here. As the United States shoulders more nation-building tasks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, we should steer clear of the European style. In Bosnia, the European legacy includes the engineering of electoral outcomes and media censorship (a whole separate continent of grotesque mistakes); in Kosovo, stinginess in the establishment of essential services. In both places, Eurocrats have blocked privatization.

Beyond the obvious point that these policies violate American principles and also bring poor practical results, there is this other matter: The Bosnian Muslim political and intellectual leaders, after all that their people suffered in Milosevic's wars, rejected Saudi-funded extremism and terrorism. To make good on George W. Bush's pledge that the war against terror is not a war against Islam, the United States should dramatically upgrade our support for Bosnian civil society. Bosnian citizens need American-style practical help in rebuilding their economy, rather than European social malpractice. Greater success in balancing ethnic claims and civil needs in Bosnia, and the Balkans generally, is difficult, but not impossible, and could provide a textbook for sorting out the competing aims of Kurds, Shiite Muslims, and others in Iraq, as well as of the factions in Afghanistan.

Here's one concrete suggestion: To demonstrate our commitment to democratic transitions in Muslim societies, the U.S. government and the American teachers' unions could show solidarity with the striking teachers of Kosovo by helping them reach a just settlement of their dispute. In the realm of public diplomacy, what would speak more eloquently than American support for thousands of elementary and secondary teachers, many of them Muslim, in Kosovo's new, secular, Western-style schools?

Stephen Schwartz is the author of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud From Tradition to Terror," just published by Doubleday.