The show that Europe missed

Michael Ignatieff: 'After the Balkan failure, who will ever believe in Europe again?'
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They were so like us, both the killers and the victims, good Europeans one and all. There was no saving distance of race or culture to spare us the pain of identification and the sting of shame. The widows of Srebrenica could have been our mothers or grandmothers. The killers were like us, too: professors of Shakespeare, practising psychoanalysts, liars adept at telling us what we wanted to hear. This was "our" war in an especially intimate and uncomfortable way. No one who was there will ever believe in Europe again.

We could have stopped it. Radovan Karadzic admits as much. The dispatch of 20,000 Nato troops to guarantee the integrity of Bosnia would have stopped the Serb succession, if they had been sent in January 1992.

The obstacle, so our leaders told us, was ourselves. We would never accept the body bags. But real leaders create their own support - and support was there for the making. By early 1992, the European public had seen what Serbian artillery could do to European cities such as Vukovar and Dubrovnik. It didn't require Churchillian powers of rhetoric to persuade the British public that some lives might well be spent defending the integrity of a European state; that, however complex these identifications might be, these were "our" people and had a claim on our protection. There was a public waiting to be mobilised in defence of Europe itself, and that public waited in vain for its call.

It is wrong to suppose that the British are so anti-European that they could never have been mobilised in such a cause. The only European leader who seemed to grasp that Europe itself was at stake in Bosnia was the staunchest anti-European of them all, Margaret Thatcher. She could see that if Europe had any pretensions to rival the power of the Americans and the Japanese, it had to prove that it could stop the Serbs.

Some will argue that the failure in Yugoslavia makes the case even stronger for a united Europe, but it is hard to see why anyone should believe in this united Europe, if its already formidable institutions proved unable to stop ethnic cleansing two hours from Brussels.

So the peace that is being dictated has not been initialled in Geneva, where it ought to have been, but at an American air base in Ohio. This is so much an American show that they do not even make a pretence of keeping European capitals informed. Europe remains as beholden to American power as it was in 1941, when Churchill called on the New World to redress the balance of the Old. Bosnia offered Europe the chance of a generation to end its 50-year dependence on the Americans. The best chance Europe had since 1945 to stand on its own two feet has been thrown away.

We may suppose that, while it is a bit shameful for the Americans to do our work for us, no costs to us attach to their success. But a special price attaches to any peace dictated by the Americans: the ratification of Croatian ethnic cleansing.

The Serbs have been brought to the table because the Americans have lined up on the Croatian side. Seeing that the Serbs could not count on Russia for belligerent support, the Americans decided that there were no substantial costs, from their point of view, in aligning with Tudjman's camp. In early 1994, they brokered the federation between the Croats and Muslims; and in the summer of 1995, gave the Croatians permission to drive the Serbs from Krajina. The Americans have concluded that Tudjman may be a bastard, but he is their bastard.

It was this American support, coupled with the Croatian gains in central Bosnia, that finally broke Serb intransigence. But the costs will be high: an ethnically cleansed Croatia, bent on final absorption of Croatian Bosnia. And unless the Americans keep their client on a tight leash, Tudjman will soon turn on his Muslim allies. Anyone who has seen what the Croatians have done to Muslim East Mostar can have no doubt as to the long-term viability of the Croat-Muslim federation.

If the Dayton agreement fails to deliver a durable peace, and if the Americans walk away, as they have said they will after a year, who will defend Bosnia then? The UN has been disgraced; Nato will deploy from the air, but not on the ground; and all Europe has to offer are natty but useless monitors in white cricket outfits. The eventual partition of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia seems inevitable. The treaty language about preserving a unified, federal Bosnia is designed to save, not the Bosnians' face, but our own. In reality, a perfectly viable multi-ethnic state in southern Europe has been carved in two and served up to two aggressors.

If you reflect on the meaning of this defining moment at Dayton, it is clear that Europe took nearly 40 years to recover its belief in itself after the Holocaust. The elan behind European integration in the Seventies and early Eighties was built on this happy amnesia. The Balkan wars of 1991-95, by returning the concentration camp to Europe, have shattered once again that fiction which led us to equate the word European with civilised.

Many in the Third World will say that is no bad thing. It was better that we woke from our narcissistic slumbers. But there are some ideas that originated in Europe, and nowhere else - human rights, international humanitarian law and the law of war - which we have reason to think deserve the status of moral universals. What made the Balkan wars so shocking - beyond our failure to intervene - was how little these universals were respected in their home continent.

Civilised warfare is not a contradiction in terms - the idea of civilising warfare has been at the heart of the European natural law tradition since Grotius. But European ethnic cleansers probably violated the laws of war more systematically than any Afghan guerrilla fighter or Somali gunman. Rape as an instrument of war, the bombardment of civilians, the starvation of prisoners: the Balkan war has left the European human rights tradition in tatters.

The memory of atrocity will poison the wells of trust in the Balkans for generations. Just as the Balkan wars of 1991-95 were the culmination of the Chetnik-Ustashe-Partisan wars of 1941-45, so one must imagine a future in which the sons and grandsons of today's fighters set out to avenge their fathers. This is the fatal chain that must be broken if any peace is to endure.

Any paper peace will not break that chain: only truth about the past will. This is why international war-crimes tribunals are essential. Even if the guilty parties escape punishment, war-crimes tribunals are not an empty exercise. They attribute guilt to individuals and not to ethnic groups, and replace atrocity myth with fact and evidence. The Balkans need truth as much as they need roads, bridges, new schools and peace- keepers. The tribunals must sit, for a long time if need be, so that eventually there can be the elements from which a common, shared truth about the past can be created. It is utopian, given the hatreds on all sides, still to believe in the power of truth, but without shared historical truth the ordinary peoples of the Balkans will never build the enduring peace they so desperately need.

Michael Ignatieff is the author of 'Blood and Belonging', published by BBC/ Chatto at pounds 16.99.