Regardless of official promises that Serb and Croat territorial conquests would never be tolerated, the old Bosnian republic is now clearly dead. Does this amount to appeasement of the aggressors, similar to that which preceded the Second World War?
Despite obvious historical analogies, Slobodan Milosevic is no Adolf Hitler. His supporters may strut around in ridiculous uniforms, and Serbia's policies certainly represent a nasty brew of nationalism and Balkan socialism, the consequences of which the West failed to predict. Yet Serbia's noxious ideological fumes are not particularly intoxicating. No latter-day Unity Mitford has come forward to write adoringly about Milosevic's steely blue eyes. And Serbia is not the Germany of the Thirties. Moral arguments apart, even allowing Mr Milosevic to feed on Bosnia's corpse is unlikely to result in the Serbian occupation of the Balkans.
Yet historical analogies are relevant, for today's Western politicians labour under the same mentality that produced the disaster of the Thirties. They continue to claim a divine right to tell all East Europeans how to behave, but assume that this entails no obligations. And they believe that it is still possible to confine collective security to a prosperous West, despite the evidence that they are increasingly surrounded by a wild East.
Although most Western politicians and institutions have been compromised in the former Yugoslavia, a slide towards more European strife can still be avoided, provided the lessons of the Yugoslav debacle are properly understood. Yet this can only happen if Bosnia's demise is regarded as a catalyst for new European security arrangements; a signal for more, rather than less, Western involvement in the region.
Yugoslavia's war exposed what may well turn out to be Europe's most important mistake this century. Since 1989, the West believed that the end of Communism was something that affected only half the continent. The East Europeans were urged to reform their economies and overhaul their political systems; in short, they were expected to become 'people like us'. In fact, the end of the Cold War is now melting down all European institutions.
Every institution, from the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, through to the European Community, the Western European Union and Nato, tried to handle an utterly predictable war, and all were disgraced for one simple reason: they tackled a post-Communist conflict with instruments best suited for a previous age.
Since the end of the Second World War, generations of Europeans and North Americans were taught to fear a massive onslaught from the East. Vast arsenals were built up to meet this eventuality, and elaborate triggering mechanisms were put in place to ensure that these were used from the start of any warfare.
Yet no Serbian soldier, however brutal, can endanger the security of any Westerner; and if a politician wished to advocate military intervention in the Balkans, he should have been prepared to argue why Yugoslavia mattered. No Western government did so, and the lukewarm popular response to the Balkan crisis became the excuse, rather than the reason, for inaction. It may come as a revelation to John Major and his colleagues, but the role of governments in a democracy is both to guide and to articulate public opinion at the same time.
Politicians who never seriously believed that the Balkans were important for European security ultimately paralysed their military forces as well. Barking, but never biting, Western generals who had the ability to pulverise Serbia in one night were left to argue, ridiculously, that they could do nothing to stop the advance of a few bands of drunken marauders. And an American administration elected on the platform of 'It's the economy, stupid', merely managed to add to world stupidity by advancing plans that were supposed to offer intervention without involvement, painless Western solutions for real Eastern tragedies.
The lesson of Yugoslavia is relatively simple. Far from promising peace, the end of the Cold War has made local wars more likely, mainly because it has reduced the stakes. Taken individually, none of these local wars threatens Western security; viewed in unison, however, such conflicts will tear away Europe's stability. The future is a situation of neither total war nor celestial peace, and it calls for a completely different approach to that applied during the time of the Soviet threat.
The Western response in former Yugoslavia was paralysed by competition between various institutions, all of which insisted on handling the conflict on their own. The EC, for instance, rushed into the Balkans not because it had any idea what needed to be done, but because it hoped to acquire security responsibilities as it went along. This disgraceful game must stop: every institution in Europe today can play a role, according to its responsibilities and strengths. Thus, the EC is clearly best at co-ordinating economic policy in ravaged areas; the Conference on Security and Co-operation is the appropriate forum for discussing any necessary territorial changes; and the Council of Europe remains the appropriate institution for protecting human rights and ethnic minorities.
Most importantly, aspirations can never act as substitutes for realities: Europe will have its joint foreign policy when it has joint interests and not simply because the Maastricht treaty decrees so. Since the end of the Cold War, Western governments have eagerly cashed in on a supposed 'peace dividend' by reducing their armed forces. The entire argument was conducted on the assumption that no Soviet threat existed.
Yet those determined to prevent future local wars must also be ready to continue seriously investing in their armed forces. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who embarks on a visit to the Balkans this week, fondly claims that in terms of world influence, Britain still has 'a punch above its weight'. A flabby paunch above a thin waist is a more accurate description.
Providing for Europe's future security threats still requires real military alliances, not pies in the sky. The Western European Union, touted as the EC's military arm, is composed of a few bureaucrats, planners and filing cabinets still on the move between London and its new Brussels headquarters. Those who argued from the beginning of the Balkan crisis that 'Europe' should do 'something' knew nothing of military capabilities: as even the French now accept, 'Europe', as such, cannot do much without Nato, and the alliance, in turn, is paralysed without active US participation.
Western governments should stop advocating principles they have no intention of upholding. The West decreed that Yugoslavia should stay together because it wanted to avoid the disintegration of Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union. The strategy ignored the very nature of nationalist aspirations and was ultimately supported only by hot air. Yet, far from admitting its error, the West vowed to support Bosnia's unity, another multi-ethnic Yugoslavia in microcosm.
As distressful as it may seem to Western liberal thought, countries with no ethnic group in the majority have no future: blood is still thicker than water. Instead of haphazardly trying to apply Western dreams on Eastern realities, the aim must be to limit the violent potential of ethnic conflicts. Not every clash offers a neat solution: in many cases territorial changes are preferable to perpetual war; while in others, the long-term protection of ethnic minorities should suffice. Claims for self-determination do not always need to result in territorial revision, provided they are handled well before they erupt.
Throughout, three fundamental aims should be pursued. First, neighbouring states must be involved in the handling of the conflict from the beginning: one of the major mistakes in Yugoslavia was that the country's neighbours were deliberately ignored, and have no stake in the settlement currently imposed by the West. Second, no government should have the right of defending its ethnic kin in other states. Minority problems are universal concerns: the easy acceptance of Serbia's claims to defend its people in other independent states should never be repeated.
And finally, Western governments must realise that collective security is no longer divisible between East and West: it either becomes a reality for all European states, or it ceases to exist at all. It is no longer possible to maintain the fiction that nobody knows where the continent's frontiers end, and that as a consequence East Europeans should remain in suspended animation, awaiting the verdict of Western politicians who do nothing but scratch their heads.
Tragic as it may seem, Bosnia's carve-up is now less important than the lessons that can be drawn from this conflict. Europe's future challenge is to devise a response to the violence that may follow in the former Soviet Union, violence often sponsored by Kremlin forces that are not prepared to accept their empire's demise.
If the central Europeans are accepted into Western alliances and Moscow's claims on other republics are rebuffed early, the sacrifice of Bosnia will not have been in vain. If, however, the response to future troubles apes the errors in former Yugoslavia, Western politicians are advised to don Chamberlain's bowler hat, while many Europeans reach for their helmets.
The writer is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
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