The Blog

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Twenty Years After

1:40 PM, Apr 17, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In the 17 years since Dayton, Bosnia-Herzegovina has sunk into deep economic stagnation and civic despair. According to the Economist, Bosnia has the highest level of brain drain in the world. Under Dayton, Bosnia is burdened with a complicated, multilayered system of local and ethnic bureaucracies, and has yet to undertake an economic reform that would utilize its resources and encourage entrepreneurship.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has become an exemplar of how the European Union and the U.N., under the pretext of “nation-building,” have failed utterly to reconstruct, as a nation, a local identity and culture that survived Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Yugoslav rule for hundreds of years. Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs are different from Croatians and Serbians in their “home” countries, regardless of attempts to make the former appear as no more than “unredeemed” co-ethnics of the latter. Bosnian Muslims are different from other Balkan and formerly-Ottoman Muslims, and Bosnian Sephardic Jews take pride in their distinctive traditions. A Bosnian nation existed; it did not need to be invented.

But the European Union and the U.N., with the complicity of the Obama administration, have left Bosnia prostrate, divided, and hemorrhaging talent and wealth. Black-market networks have assumed power over much of the economy on both sides of the demarcation line between the “Serb Republic” and the “Bosniak-Croat Federation.” The bosses of these “mafias” have more in common with each other than either have with ordinary Serbs, Bosnians, or Croats. The moderation that characterized the Bosniak Islamic leadership during the war has given way to alignment with Arab-financed radicals.

Was the U.S. right to intervene in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995? Without doubt. But it shouldn't have left the Bosnians in the hands of the Europeans and the U.N., which had already demonstrated their sympathy for Serbia. The war crimes trials of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague provided the victims of Bosnia-Herzegovina with some comfort. But the prisoners at the Hague live a secure and placid life in the Dutch penal system, which many Bosnians of all ethnicities would envy. On March 1, Serbia gained candidate status to enter the European Union, while Croatia is amid a process of confirmation that should end with EU membership next year. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. Any such possibility for Bosnia-Herzegovina has been delayed indefinitely.

The war that began in Bosnia-Herzegovina 20 years ago remains relevant today to people other than its residents and a few outsiders who observed the fate of the Bosnians sympathetically. In Syria, as in Sarajevo then, a dictator’s military is unleashed against civilians, and the world appears helpless to prevent further bloodshed. As Russia served as Milosevic’s patron, so it supports Bashar al-Assad. In the years of killing leading to Dayton, Americans were told that ending the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina would require the sacrifice of American troops to subdue the Serbs. In the end, as in Kosovo and Libya, NATO air strikes, supporting local fighters on the ground, were sufficient to end Milosevic’s Bosnian offensive.

America lost no troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, and gained, at least temporarily, recognition that it would assist Muslim (and Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and non-religious) victims of aggression, by the use of our unmatched military aviation. But NATO did not and could not, once they were saved, substitute for efforts by the Bosnians and Kosovars to attain full nationhood. And the U.N. and EU have failed to conceive of measures that would help turn Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo into well-functioning countries.

More Bosnias will doubtless appear around the globe. American military assets may once again be deployed, even “leading from behind,” to stop mass killing. But in the future, the rebuilding of stricken lands should not be left to the EU, and much less to the U.N. After the second world war, in Germany and Japan, and following the Korean War, the United States established a defensive shield over our former Axis adversaries, followed by South Korea (and Taiwan), that allowed those countries to flourish on their own, without the meddling of foreign bureaucrats. That is how Bosnia-Herzegovina should have been treated after Dayton; that is the main lesson to be learned from the 20 years that have passed since war began in Sarajevo.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers