The end of a false consensus

The problems in Bosnia can never be sorted out unless we get the Americans on our side, writes Michael Sheridan
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The Independent Online
Less than a month has elapsed since the House of Commons last debated Britain's role in Bosnia, but during that period an era has ended. It was the era of the false consensus, a long period when Europe, the United States and Russia pretended to agree about Bosnia but succeeded only in anaesthetising their conflict through inaction.

Under these rules, the United Nations could not go forward nor could it go back. The British and the French talked progress, but shrank from offending their American allies. The American allies talked tough, but worried about pushing the Russians too far. In Moscow, they refused to abandon the Serbs, but declined to break with the Western allies. All three sides placed their hopes in an unctuous diplomacy intended to woo President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia into a new role as the grand arbiter of peace.

But in the past week General Ratko Mladic and the Bosnian Serbs exploded these pretensions with the same sudden and violent force as Gavrilo Princip's shots at Sarajevo in the hot early summer of 1914.

The crisis caused by Serb assaults on Sarajevo, Nato reprisal bombing and the inevitable hostage-taking has overwhelmed the cautious, consensus- seeking plod towards a settlement. Britain finds itself forced to take sudden, difficult choices, as unity fractures and nations suddenly rediscover the traditional pursuit of their own interests.

So why are we in Bosnia? Douglas Hurd, the great sustainer of rational equilibrium, seemed suddenly to revert to basic instincts yesterday when asked to explain, in the face of a chorus of public alarm, why British soldiers should stay put. The hallowed memorials in every town and village of these islands called the muster of those who died in two wars set off by the Sarajevo assassination, said the Foreign Secretary. Britain could not ignore the dangers to Europe posed by war in the Balkans.

The dangers to the British government are clear enough. Never mind that some of the tabloids now demanding that our boys should get out were once baying that "something must be done" because a Bosnian baby had aroused the vital element of Human Interest. Never mind that Mr Hurd has been caricatured by interventionists as Neville Chamberlain. But the Foreign Secretary does occupy the same office from which Sir Edward Grey stared out on 3 August, 1914 as he watched "the lamps going out all over Europe". He, like Grey, must now live with the consequences of a diplomacy so intricate that it became intractable.

For three years Britain and France conducted a balancing act to keep the lamp of consensus aglow. Deliver aid, fend off banditry, humour the Americans, placate the Russians, keep the Germans quiet and hope that something turns up. And all the while a blizzard of maps, plans, draft constitutions and ceasefire agreements fell upon the Balkan landscape. By one calculation the United Nations has produced more than half as many resolutions on Yugoslavia as on the entire half century of Arab-Israeli conflict.

The truth of Britain's diplomatic position has never been grasped. Today would be a good time for Members of Parliament to do so once and for all.

Britain's principal problem in the wars of the Yugoslav succession has not been Slobodan Milosevic, Boris Yeltsin, Helmut Kohl or Francois Mitterrand. It has been the administration of President Bill Clinton. The comedy of errors over Bosnia has seen the United States subvert the Vance-Owen peace plan, walk away from enforcing a UN arms embargo it did not like, quietly undermine a succession of British generals and all the while encourage a naive Muslim leadership in Sarajevo to hold out for the phantom cavalry that was destined never to come.

Yet so preciously does the Foreign Office treasure the relationship it declines to call "special" that on every occasion when assertiveness threatened harmony it was avoided. Only in the past few weeks did a measure of real concord prevail, when the Clinton administration dispatched an envoy to Mr Milosevic in pursuit of a settlement. Even that hopeful initiative foundered on the rock of interpretation between those who wanted sanctions on Serbia lifted and those (in Washington) who wanted them only suspended. It has now been revived.

President Jacques Chirac, less burdened down by the weight of transatlantic history, had the courage to break the old consensus in public. There is little doubt that Mr Hurd was happy to let the French set the pace. But that was a clever act of camouflage, not an assertion of British interests.

It is not yet known whether the camouflage was stripped away at the meeting of the "Contact Group" into the early hours of Tuesday. It seems more likely that, as Britain sat with the US, France, Russia and Germany, it seemed easier to deal with the common affront of Serb aggression - upon whose malevolence all might agree.

Unless Britain sorts out its relationship with the United States there is no hope of a solution to the Bosnian dilemma. Without American back- up there is not even any certainty of a successful British expedition to extract our troops, let alone free the hostages. And unless there is an effort to build a real consensus - at least between London, Paris and Washington - then the withdrawal of troops will become unavoidable.

The textbook argument is that a nation measures its vital interests by a combination of trade, military and political factors, and that no single strand ever justifies tearing at the whole fabric. Mr Major and Mr Hurd have a whole range of considerations: vital nuclear co-operation, shared intelligence gathering, Northern Ireland, the Gulf and the future of Nato, to name but a few. But the fabric of the Anglo-American relationship is more flexible than most.

The Government has now declared that the fate of British soldiers is a vital interest. Protecting them will mean forging a workable policy with the US to stabilise the Balkans.

Britain sees pretty much eye to eye with France in linking increased troop deployment to the renewed effort for a settlement via Belgrade. It cannot do much more to wean Russia from the orthodox brotherhood that ties it to the Serbs. It need not take Germany as too great a factor in the critical decisions ahead. But it needs to get the United States back on its side. Otherwise military action could outrun diplomacy and before knowing it we will find ourselves back to Somalia 1993, or Lebanon 1983. Honourable members may take their pick.