Eric Hobsbawm: 'It is not a good peace - but any peace is better than war. Will it last? Do not ask'; Pax Americana: Bosnia is its first success

We have got so used to conflicts that cannot be ended, that we have invented a special term to describe them: "peace process", which is never quite "peace". So any actual signed agreement to conclude a war is as unexpected as it is welcome. Any peace must be, which ends four years of war in a country of 4 million, a war that has killed people by the hundreds of thousands, forced them to flee by the multitudes and left a civil society in ruins.

It will not be a good peace. For many centuries it was taken for granted that peoples of different cultures, religions and languages could live together as neighbours in the Balkans. For 40 years after the Second World War, in what will seem to the inhabitants of this ravaged region the golden age of Tito, a non-ethnic Yugoslav state, uncommitted to any of its many communities, even succeeded in reconciling the survivors of the mutual massacres of 1941-45. The Bosnian peace will, for the first time, turn the region into a patchwork of ghettos each "belonging" to some community aspiring to ethnic purity and/or religious exclusiveness. But it will be better than war.

Whatever we feel about it, one thing is clear. It will be a triumph for the US government which, virtually single-handed, took over the task of peace-making, and in the end virtually imprisoned the Balkan negotiators, equally far from their home base, the United Nations and from the Europeans, for weeks in the depths of middle America, until they signed. The triumph is all the more brilliant because it was achieved not only over the various ex-Yugoslavs and the Europeans but also in spite of the music-hall antics of American politics - the neo-isolationist rhetoric about arming the Bosnians, the congressional refusal to send US soldiers and the rest of it.

At the same time the peace underlines the total failure of the states of Europe, singly or collectively through the European Union. From the moment when Germany, for reasons which are still incomprehensible, but can only have been frivolous or irrelevant, insisted on recognising the independence of Slovenia and Croatia - and consequently also of Bosnia - the story has been one of unbroken disaster. The Europeans fell in line, for equally irrelevant and, in Major's case, frivolous reasons, although they were against the decision and knew what the consequences would be. Bosnia was "recognised" but few countries opened embassies in Sarajevo.

Faced with the first major war in mid-Europe since 1945, the European Union demonstrated its complete incapacity to agree on any common policy, let alone on effective backing for its diplomats and on the ground. Each of its operational members had a separate national take on the situation. They, or rather their military advisers, only agreed on one thing - to stay out of the war. In fact, they took cover under the convenient blue umbrella of the UN. The European failure was, and remains, total. They have now been so completely bypassed by the US that Washington has blackballed a former Dutch prime minister as secretary-general of Nato on the grounds that he can't be guaranteed to follow the US line on Bosnia automatically.

One can't say that the UN failed, since the UN's capacity for positive action depends entirely on the decisions of the Security Council, and on resources made available by member states, that is to say in both respects on the US. The UN has done the only job it was allowed to do, watching and humanitarian relief. It is not in the business of peace-making, and there was no peace to keep. Still, it did not cover itself with glory and some of the troops given blue berets by member states behaved scandalously. But this reflects less on the UN than on the quality of armies in the states concerned.

The US finally took over the job of peacemaking, not because it has any special interest in the Balkans - except for the Greeks, the region's inhabitants don't yet count in American politics - but because it is today the only great world power, and consequently the only power with a global policy, rather as Britain was in the 19th century. Nobody else has more than regional policies. What exactly that policy should be in the post- Soviet era has not been clear. The Yugoslav settlement is the first systematic attempt to work it out.

What does the only great power in the world do? It cannot look for a way to be a world dominator, which would be beyond its power, even if US politicians accepted that professional soldiers should sometimes be ready to be killed as well as kill. It must try to be a world decider, using its position as the largest single economy in the world and the largest owner of hi-tech military hardware. In short, there is nobody else who has America's high capacity to bribe or subsidise and to threaten and blackmail, especially relatively small or weak states.

This situation only works where there are states. No amount of Washington arm-twisting can end the carnage in Somalia or Afghanistan by the methods of Dayton, Ohio. The US has a substantial interest in maintaining some kind of stable post-Soviet state system. That is why, without publicity - what would Gingrich do if he knew? - it has actually maintained some troops in the Balkans for years, namely in Macedonia, as a warning to local powers in that explosive region. The Bosnian peace is the first successful experiment in maintaining the pax Americana in the world today.

It is based on ruthless realism. Essentially the peace was made by scaring the Serbs (economic blackmail) and strengthening the Croats, without whose US-backed and trained military advances the Bosnian Serbs would not have given in. In spite of the rhetoric about arming the Bosnians, they will get least out of the settlement. They will be an appendix to the "Croat- Muslim" federation, guaranteed at most against further genocide and ethnic expulsion and the formal survival of the Bosnian state frontiers. In most other respects the division of Bosnia between Croatia and Serbia, which Milosevic and Tudjman planned, will be realised.

It will not be a good peace. It will strengthen the Islamist tendencies of the Bosnian Muslims, and enormously reinforce the role of the ultra- nationalist Tudjman, whose regime is actually worse than Milosevic's. Zagreb will now regard itself - one hopes wrongly - as Washington's Balkan answer to Moscow. The refugee masses will return to their homes only in symbolic dribbles. Most of the educated professional classes of Bosnia will prefer to live abroad, if they can. But it will be peace after almost four years of war.

Will it be a lasting peace? Will it guarantee peace in south-eastern Europe? Better not even to ask these questions. This is not the day for sceptical answers.

Eric Hobsbawm is the author of 'The Age of Extremes', published by Michael Joseph at pounds 20.

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