The World and Yugoslavia's Wars

January 01, 1997

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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What role did outside powers play in the dissolution of Yugoslavia and in the wars that wracked that once-stable country? Why did the victors in the Cold War and the 1991 Gulf War not act earlier to stop the slaughter? What might be the implications for other situations of communal conflict given the international community's failure to take timely action when war enveloped Bosnia? What might be the implications of Yugoslavia's wars for future peacekeeping and peacemaking by the United Nations and by NATO? And what can outside powers do to heal the real and imagined wounds of war?

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On November 21, 1995, in the improbable setting of an air force base in the industrial rust belt of the United States, representatives of the three major ethnic groups of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia put their initials on an agreement that, if faithfully carried out, would bring to an end the most ferocious war fought on the continent of Europe since 1945.

Indeed, for sheer horror, especially for the savagery of crimes against noncombatants, the only apt comparison with the Yugoslav conflict is World War II itself. The similarity is not coincidental: many of the murderous hatreds that burned like an acid through the territory of the former Yugoslavia during the four-plus years from June 1991 through November 1995 had their origins in the same ideological-cum-religious-cum-ethnic conflicts that made the Balkans a killing field half a century before. The human toll of the recent conflict, like that of the earlier one, is mind-numbingly large. As many as 300,000 persons may have lost their lives since 1991—many of them willfully slaughtered, others the victims of starvation, disease, or exposure. And as many as two million persons may have been forcibly displaced from their homes or have otherwise become refugees.[1] Such privations were inflicted for the most part in fulfillment of a policy whose euphemistic label, "ethnic cleansing," would have been a credit to the propagandists of Hitler's Reich or Stalin's Soviet Union.

For the moment, perhaps longer, Yugoslavia's wars are in abeyance. The plural, wars, is appropriate: since 1991 there have been four. First was the brief and successful struggle for independence waged against the federal army (the so-called Yugoslav People's Army, or YPA) by the republic of Slovenia. Next was Croatia's much more protracted but ultimately successful effort to achieve the same objective, which, like Slovenia's, began with a declaration of independence on June 25, 1991. Third was the attempt by the Serbs of the Croatian district known as the Krajina, where they were locally a majority, to join their lands to Serbia. They failed: in August 1995 the Croatian army overran the Krajina in a lightning invasion and forced most of the Serbs— some 170,000 of them— to flee for their lives.[2]

The fourth— and the largest and bloodiest— war ravaged the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The complicated origins of that conflict might without undue distortion be said to lie in the insistence of the Bosnian Serbs, who made up 31 percent of the prewar population, on breaking up the republic and attaching the districts in which they lived to Serbia. They rejected the alternative: becoming part of a unified independent state whose government might be dominated by the 44 percent who were Muslims. In turn, the Muslims feared that they themselves would be dominated by Serbia if they were to remain in a rump Yugoslavia whose ethnic balance had been upset by the secession of Slovenia and Croatia. They chose instead to move toward independence— for a more or less unified Bosnian state that would include the increasingly unwilling Serbs, not one divided on ethnic lines. That sequence of impulses and actions, in March-April 1992, triggered the outbreak of Bosnia's horrifying war.[3]

Although they differed drastically in scope and intensity, all four of these wars were real ones. There remain, as well, two wars-in-waiting. At the core of the flames if either were to ignite would be ethnic Albanians, another national element of the former Yugoslavia. They were a presence in two republics. In Serbia, Albanians form 90 percent of the population of the province of Kosovo, which constitutionally enjoys formal autonomy. But during the last decade what once was Kosovo's substantial real autonomy has been reduced to an empty shell by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. Recently there have been not-so-veiled Serb threats that the Kosovars (as the Albanians are called) will be expelled to make room for Serb refugees from the Krajina and elsewhere. The second republic in which ethnic Albanians were an important part was Macedonia, whose own choice in 1992 of independence was unopposed by Serbia: as in Slovenia, the local Serb population was too small and too scattered to be grist for Belgrade's demagogic mill. A fifth of Macedonia's population is Albanian. An upheaval in Kosovo that resulted in international recognition of the right of Albanian Kosovars to self-determination might lead Macedonia's Albanians to seek substantial autonomy or even the incorporation into Albania of those areas of Macedonia in which they are a majority.[4]

If Yugoslavia's wars were to widen, expansion of the zone of conflict probably would come through the involvement of Kosovo's or Macedonia's ethnic Albanians. Such an event would raise the prospect of having Albania itself becoming involved, which might, in turn, call forth a military response on the part of a Greece fearful not merely of the spread of unrest to the ethnic Macedonian population of its northern provinces, but also that Macedonia would seek to annex them. And hostilities between Greece and Albania would raise the prospect of some sort of intervention by Greece's ancient enemy, Turkey, and therefore of additional ripples spreading outward.

The purpose of this book is to explore, from different perspectives, the implications of Yugoslavia's wars and would-be wars for the international system as a whole and for the principal powers within that system. Those implications would differ considerably depending on whether the violence were confined to the territory of the former Yugoslavia or whether it spread to, and engulfed, other states in the region. There has, in fact, never been a high probability that any of these scenarios for a wider war would become actual, and the wider the hypothesized circle of expanded conflict, the lower the probability has been. Indeed, as chapter 1 argues at length, a striking aspect of Yugoslavia's wars is not how likely they were to spread but how resistant to their enlargement the international system has been. That chapter argues explicitly, and most of the other chapters argue by implication, that since the beginnings of Yugoslavia's wars in 1991 none of the great powers has concluded that any plausible outcome of those wars would so jeopardize its interests as to impel its military intervention to defend them.

On the contrary, the major powers today perceive their interests in terms sharply different from those that made the Balkans the vortex of earlier great power conflicts. Europe's peace today is a divisible peace: violent conflicts will be sufficiently confined so that they will be very unlikely to escalate across the threshold of war among the major European powers. There will certainly be quarrels and animosities, more often within states than between them. Their locus will be predominantly in eastern Europe— on the territory of the satellites and republics of the former Soviet Union. The Balkans, obviously, will be a zone of some instability. Some of these quarrels and animosities— a very few of them— will escalate to serious levels of violence. Yet outsiders will have every incentive to remain outside rather than to escalate the level of conflict through competitive interventions. Most Europeans— indeed, an overwhelming majority of them— will live their entire lives without firsthand experience of the flames of war. Given Europe's history of wars that have not been contained, that is a revolutionary development. It is small consolation, however, to the peoples who will be involved in the conflicts that do take place. Indeed, for them its implication is grim. It means that rescue, in the form of an intervention by outside actors that smothers the flames, will be late in coming— if it comes at all.[5]

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina exemplifies this point. It raged for nearly four years before the leaders of the Western powers acknowledged what had long been apparent to any newspaper reader or television viewer: that the U.N. presence under the limited rules of engagement that Thomas Weiss describes in his contribution to this volume had the effect only of prolonging the violence rather than damping it. With the somewhat ambivalent acquiescence of their Russian counterparts— an ambivalence combined with a growing hostility, both chronicled in these pages by Paul Goble— Western governments, at the insistence of U.S. President Bill Clinton, decided at long last to bring to bear enough military force to induce the contending parties to reach a settlement. In deciding to act, they were motivated not so much by interest as by embarrassment. "We've known for years of the devastation," U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry told journalists in early January 1996 when he flew into Sarajevo with detachments of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Implementation Force. Nevertheless, he said, it was still "unspeakably saddening" to see it firsthand. "It's just appalling," he continued, "that this could happen in Europe in the 1990s, that the world would let this happen." And he noted in conclusion: "it does give me a very good, warm feeling, though, that the world is taking an action now."[6]

"The world," of course, did not let Yugoslavia happen. Governments did. The indecision, vacillation, confusion, and dissimulation that characterized the approach to the problem of Yugoslavia by both the United States and its major European allies are treated at length in chapter 5 by David Gompert (himself a senior policymaker in the administration he discusses at length, that of President George Bush) and by Stanley Hoffmann in chapter 4. Nor did "the world" initiate the actions that gave Secretary Perry his warm feeling. Again, a few governments did, his own among them. Their newfound consensus in the wake of particularly atrocious Bosnian Serb behavior— overrunning the "safe areas" of Srebrenica and Zepa and executing thousands of Muslims, then firing a mortar shell into the main Sarajevo market— gave rise to the NATO bombing campaign of August-September 1995 that made it possible for Perry to land at Sarajevo airport five months later.[7] There is a point, of course, when interest and embarrassment merge. When television sets worldwide nightly show pictures of massacred civilians, governments that previously have not perceived an important interest at stake in any specific outcome of a conflict discover that they have a real interest in ceasing to appear— to their own publics and to the world— as not only callous but impotent.

Students and practitioners of international relations can only applaud the fact that the statesmen of today assess their stakes in the Balkans as quite different and very much less weighty than their predecessors as recently as two decades before had assessed them as being. Those earlier assessments made the region the vortex of great power rivalries and, therefore, a tinderbox for wider wars. But most of these analysts would then deplore one obvious consequence of these changed assessments: that for more than four years the governments of the world, and of Europe in particular, stood by and took no effective action to put an end to the horrors that were consuming a once-tranquil and "civilized" land.

Reluctance to get involved is reinforced by another characteristic of the post-Cold War era: the governments of liberal democracies are extremely reluctant to place members of their armed forces in situations where their lives may be at risk. This is true even in the instance of all-volunteer armed forces, such as those of the United States and the United Kingdom. For the United States it is a peculiarly constricting condition. Two administrations in Washington refused to contribute U.S. ground forces to U.N. peacekeeping activities for fear of potential casualties. By the time of the Dayton agreement, 54 French soldiers had been killed in peacekeeping efforts in the former Yugoslavia (the French, as Hoffmann makes clear, had been the most aggressive peacekeepers, especially under the presidency of Jacques Chirac); had they been Americans, the pressure on the president to withdraw any remaining personnel would probably have been enormous. In chapter 3, Thomas Weiss points out the anomaly of this situation: "Ironically, the only country to project military power worldwide is timid while lesser powers with considerably less capacity are far more willing to sustain the deaths and casualties that are often concomitants of the present generation of U.N. peacekeeping."

A particularly striking aspect of the world's relationship to Yugoslavia's wars is that throughout the West, but especially in Europe, publics consistently favored stronger actions to bring the fighting to a close than governments did. As Richard Sobel makes clear in chapter 6, the publics in the United States and western Europe had been appalled for some time by the images from the former Yugoslavia. Public opinion in the West was increasingly united in demanding that governments do something to end the bloodletting. Especially in Europe, but at many junctures also in the United States, publics favored robust measures of military intervention. Sobel reports that there was in Europe nearly always at least a plurality in favor of such measures even when they were posited to be unilateral. Once the poll takers posited international sharing of the burden, under either NATO's banner or that of the United Nations, a plurality became a majority. That was also the case in the United States, so long as only air and naval forces, and not ground combat forces, would be involved. The data indicate that the public favored internationalization not only because it meant that the burden would be shared but because it conferred a legitimacy that unilateral actions lacked.

Legitimacy is a central issue in two other chapters of this volume. In chapter 8 Abram and Antonia Chayes analyze the myriad things that must be done to make it more likely that the Dayton agreement will not merely be a temporary cease-fire but will form the basis of a lasting peace. Among the many documents that were endorsed at Dayton as if almost in passing was a constitution for the new state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Chayes make clear how problematic such efforts at state-building often are. Most of all, the various centers and layers of authority need to be accepted as legitimate rather than as imposed by either domestic or foreign forces.

Legitimacy is also at stake in the issue of war crimes. The U.N. Security Council decided early in 1993 to establish an international tribunal for the prosecution of persons responsible for "serious violations of international humanitarian law." By the end of 1995 the tribunal, presided over by a distinguished South African jurist, had indicted 56 men— 49 Serbs and 7 Croats. It had held only one trial, however— of a Bosnian Serb who was arrested while visiting Germany. The continuation of the project, and especially any attempt to bring to justice leaders of any of the warring factions, raises squarely the question: What, if anything, can be done to assure that the process seems legitimate to the members of all the region's peoples, particularly the Serbs?[8]

The issue of legitimacy is also at the core of what Jean Manas finds in chapter 2 to be the trade-off between the goals of peace and justice. In contexts like those of the former Yugoslavia, he asserts, it is impossible to seek both peace and justice at the same time. War can be brought to a close if the aggressed-upon side is willing to make sufficiently large concessions to the aggressor. But the concessions make a mockery of the ideal of justice. By the same token, one can rigorously pursue the goal of justice if one is prepared to forgo peace. Outside actors who have tried to influence the course of events in the former Yugoslavia— for example, by proposing the terms of a settlement— usually demonstrate that they have failed to recognize the immutability of this trade-off. By trying to achieve both, they end up achieving neither. The pages of this book contain many examples that demonstrate how apposite are Manas's observations.

The chapters that follow had their origins in a study group sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations during 1993-94. All have been revised and brought up to date many times as their authors struggled to keep up with events. The Dayton agreement of November 21, 1995, supplied the natural break the editor was seeking to enable him to bring the volume forward to publication. For that watershed he wishes to thank the tireless master of the Dayton process, Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke. He is grateful also to Leslie H. Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, for pushing him to convene the study group and then insisting that its products be of publishable quality; to Nicholas X. Rizopoulos, senior studies editor of the Council and authority on Balkan politics, for his provocative contributions to the group's discussions and then for his searching critiques of early drafts of the papers that eventually became the chapters of this book; and to Linda Wrigley, who brought her impeccable sense of relevance and of style to the line editing of penultimate drafts.


  1. ^ For a discussion of the human and demographic consequences of the conflict, see Milorad Pipovac, "Piecing Together the Balkan Puzzle," in Payam Akhavan and Robert Howse, eds., Yugoslavia the Former and Future: Reflections by Scholars from the Region (Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1995), pp. 145-46. Correspondent Roger Cohen, in his valedictory article following 21 months in Bosnia, stated that the death toll in Bosnia alone was more than 200,000. "Spent Bosnia Now Tries to Make Its Peace," New York Times, December 31, 1995, p. 1.
  2. ^ See, among many, the following interpretive articles by Roger Cohen in New York Times, written in the wake of the Croat occupation of the Krajina: "From 'Greater Serbia' to Lesser Serbs: A War Turns," August 20, 1995, p. E1; "Finally Torn Apart, the Balkans Can Hope," September 3, 1995, p. E6; "Calling History to Arms: Serbs Invoke Their Past," September 7, 1995, p. A1; "Serbs of 'Greater Serbia' Find Suffering and Decay," September 17, 1995, p. 1.
  3. ^ For these events, see Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995).
  4. ^ Ibid., pp. 215-16. See also the very useful map on p. 217.
  5. ^ For an extended statement of the argument that Europe's peace today is a "divisible peace," see Richard H. Ullman, Securing Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  6. ^ Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, "Secretary of Defense William J. Perry Departure Interview, Sarajevo, Bosnia," January 3, 1996, p. 1. See also Ian Fisher, "Pentagon Boss Walks in Footsteps of Peacekeepers," New York Times, January 4, 1996, p. A8.
  7. ^ The shelling of the Mrkale market, killing 38 civilians, was the main factor that gave rise to the NATO air strikes. The mass executions after the fall of Srebrenica were then still only rumors, regarded as well founded but still unconfirmed. For a definitive account, see "Bosnia-Hercegovina: The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of U.N. Peacekeeping," Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, vol. 7, no. 13 (October 1995).
  8. ^ The resolution creating the tribunal was U.N. S.C. Res. 808, February 22, 1993. For a summary table listing the name, ethnicity, rank, or position and location of crime(s) of all those indicted during the period 1993-95, and the tribunal's charges against each, see "The Accused, the Allegations," Washington Post, December 18, 1995, p. A17.