New World Order: The Bosnian Model

Congress flirted earlier this year with taking a more assertive role in determining U.S. policy in Kosovo and the other countries in the Balkans, but ultimately chose to stick with the pattern that has characterized most of the last several decades: Congress grumps and grouses from time to time but essentially leaves foreign policy to the president, which means to the executive branch.

Depending on how personally involved and detail-oriented a president is with foreign policy, that means leaving it to a semi-permanent floating crap game of national security experts and professional defense intellectuals of both major parties who drift amongst actual State Department jobs, Defense Department jobs with a foreign policy aspect, various think tanks and foundations, and certain of the more prestigious universities. There are fine distinctions amongst these intellectuals as to the circumstances under which US military force should be deployed, what the goals of interventions should be and whether a coherent exit strategy should be determined before a deployment is begun. But all share the premise that the United States, whether it is the “indispensable nation,” the sole remaining superpower, or simply an influential member of the community of nations, has serious responsibilities in the world at large.


In this intellectual environment – given that responsible people will differ on the precise meaning of the word in different circumstances – few policy sins are more grave than a recommendation that the US “shirk” its responsibilities in the brave new interdependent and dangerous world. It is acceptable to disagree about a particular intervention proposal, but to espouse the notion that the US should, as a matter of policy, leave the rest of the world pretty much to its own devices is to court excommunication.

These, then are the court theologians of the empire. They might disagree about whether the US should make a practice of acting more unilaterally than multilaterally, even as medieval theologians disagreed about whether the eucharistic bread and wine was actually transformed or symbolically transformed into the body and blood of Christ. But they agree that the US not only should but must act – proactively – in the world at large, even as all Christians believed Jesus is the Son of God.


Even if this session of Congress continues to abdicate its responsibility to exercise at least fiscal oversight over US military, quasi-military and diplomatic activity overseas, the next Congress, with a new president, will be brought face to face with some important potential decisions. Will the mission in Kosovo be a semi-permanent one? Will an end ever come to the Bosnian mission? Will NATO be expanded further or its mission formally changed? How aggressively should the United States push a formal Israeli-Palestinian arrangement? How should Russia be handled? And on and on. Virtually all of these issues carry the potential for more semi-permanent military-cum-diplomatic presences in foreign countries – outposts of Empire, if you will. Can the resources at the disposal of the US government handle such commitments, and in what fashion are they likely to discharge them?

A microcosm of how that international band of diplomats and bureaucrats that are the concrete manifestation of the fuzzy term “the world community” handles a “nation-building” assignment can be seen in Bosnia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. In an extensive article in the Spring 2000 issue of Mediterranean Quarterly, Dr. Ted Galen Carpenter, Vice President of Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, relying on a new book from London’s Pluto publishing house (Bosnia: Faking Democracy after Dayton, by David Chandler) and journalistic sources, explains how the building of a peaceful multiethnic Bosnia is going.


“Far from becoming a functioning democratic state, Bosnia,” writes Dr. Carpenter, “is little more than a colony of the West run be increasingly arrogant and autocratic international officials.” Far from being free and diverse (as they might well be without international “management”), the media are tightly controlled and the range of acceptable opinions is dictated by international bureaucrats. Elections have been rigged and political processes interfered with. The “international community” has openly sided with and subsidized certain Bosnian political candidates and factions, while quite candidly trying to discourage other factions and rigging the rules to disfavor them.

This may be the international community’s idea of how you create “stability” in countries with a recent history of ethnic and political violence. But it’s about as far as one can imagine from being an open society with important political rights like freedom of the press and democratic ideals like making the government a conduit to translate the will of the people, at least roughly, into policy protected, respected and encouraged. And it’s hard to see how people pressured, often by open military force, into obeying arbitrary edicts from foreign bureaucrats can learn the habits of behavior that are the most important underpinning of a civil or democratic society.

If this is how the “international community” trains nations with problems in running a democracy, democracy is in a lot of trouble.


Ted Carpenter tells the following story both in sorrow and in anger:

“A potent symbol of the political reality in Bosnia was conveyed in a recent front-page story in the Washington Post,” he writes. “According to the Post account [in the January 23, 2000 issue], the three members of Bosnia’s collective presidency were called to the New York home of US Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, the principal author of the Dayton Accords. Once there, they were pressured by Holbrooke to sign a three-page statement affirming an intensified commitment to political cooperation and measures for greater ethnic integration. The three elected presidents responded that the document was far too complex and had far too many political ramifications for them to sign it without careful, extended scrutiny. All three men also told Holbrooke they had social commitments that evening and simply did not have the time to give the document an adequate review. Holbrooke reportedly responded that they could not leave until they accepted the document. Ultimately they did so, and the US government hailed this new accord as another step toward ethnic reconciliation in Bosnia.

“The spectacle of a US policy maker holding the top elected officials of another country hostage,” Dr. Carpenter comments, “until they agreed to a diktat from Washington should be a jarring image for anybody who supports democracy. Yet that episode in Holbrooke’s apartment is an appropriate symbol of the policy that the West has been pursuing in Bosnia. It is a policy based on disdain for the electoral process, a fondness for ruling by decree, and contempt for even the most basic standards of freedom of the press. It is in every respect a perversion of democratic norms.”


Bosnia, unlike some countries created through international conferences, at least had some history of being an entity – the kingdom or principality of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire – with boundaries similar to its current boundaries. Zagreb was a cultivated, refined city when Washington, DC was swampland. It was incorporated into Yugoslavia, the artificial, inherently unstable country created by diplomatic fiat after World War I and virtually guaranteed to be broken apart later.

After the death of communism and the beginning of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Bosnia devolved into civil war among Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, ended by NATO bombing and the threat of more. The Dayton Accords forced on the country by the bombers created something resembling a de facto partition along ethnic lines, and since the three ethnicities are approximately equal in numbers, that might be the arrangement that offers the closest thing to a realistic hope of stability – three ethnic enclaves with a weak central government that mostly leaves them alone.

But for members of the international nation-building brigade, leaving people alone and weak central governments don’t compute. They saw Bosnia as an opportunity to create, through judicious use of state power and appropriate civil-rights laws, a model multiethnic state simply dripping with tolerance and mutual respect.

The way to do that, in modern statist theology, is not to let people to work out living arrangements (as people in Bosnia had done for decades until politicians stirred up simmering ethnic resentments while maneuvering for advantage in the wake of Yugoslavia breaking apart) but to extirpate reactionary attitudes, re-educate people into the joys of multiethnic harmony and force people to face their prejudices and get rid of them. That way the new society would be the product of the nation-builders and their abstract theories rather than something that grew from the bottom up. International bureaucrats and diplomats are nothing if not top-downers.

What the builders faced, however, was a situation in which most of the active expression of political and/or social attitudes and opinions tended to be along ethnic or what might be viewed as nationalist lines. There was diversity among the media, but it was the wrong kind of diversity – all kinds of people expressing views and attitudes the international bureaucrats just knew were reactionary, backward and not constructive at all. Worst of all, many of those media expressed doubts – can you believe it? – about the supreme wisdom and desirability of the agreement cobbled together at Dayton and the guardians of righteousness sent out by the international community to enforce them.


So the process of taming the media and introducing the kind of diversity the nation-builders wanted (as opposed to what the people who would have to live in the nation might prefer) began. This wasn’t sold as censorship, of course, but as increasing pluralism.

“The conduct of international officials, however,” Ted Carpenter explains, “suggests that media pluralism is a synonym for media enthusiasm for the Dayton Accords and the objective of a united, multiethnic Bosnian state.” So the international bureaucrats created a Media Experts Commission to develop politically-correct standards for Bosnia’s media – end then enforce them. Independent journalists were chastised for using the “rhetorical jargon of war” when they referred to the “Bosnian Serb entity” rather than the Bosnian nation as a whole.

Media outlets that resisted these enlightened standards were first pressured into compliance and in some cases physically shut down, with military force. Media that would parrot the internationalist line were created and/or subsidized. The media monitors either didn’t notice or didn’t care that such media were mostly despised by the population (of all ethnicities) as mouthpieces for the occupying powers.


The subversion of media freedom in the name of media diversity – a cruel caricature of Western ideals – was mirrored in the international bureaucrats approach to political expression and electoral processes. Dr. Carpenter details how the international bureaucrats disqualified candidates of whom they disapproved, subsidized candidates they wanted to win, changed the rules to make it more difficult for parties of which they disapproved to qualify for electoral participation.

“Routinely harassing and disqualifying candidates they dislike is not the only method international authorities have used to attempt to manipulate election results,” writes Dr. Carpenter. Indeed, skewing the voter registration lists has been an even more pervasive tactic.” Allowing people to vote either from their current residence or from their prewar residences “amounted to the creation of ‘rotten boroughs,’ since most of the refugees had little prospect of ever returning to their prewar homes.” The ploy “is seen by many in Bosnia as a cynical ploy by the West to dilute the power of the nationalist parties.”


The result of all this international meddling – let’s be kind and assume it is to some extent well-intentioned – is to create a sham democracy with sham freedoms, all tightly controlled by an authoritarian band of nation-building mercenaries. “What is occurring in Bosnia today,” writes Dr. Carpenter, “is not the evolution of a democratic system but the ugly face of new-style colonialism. The officials who implement this new, multilateral colonialism may have better motives than their predecessors in the now dead European colonial empires that once dominated Asia and Africa, but their charges do not enjoy more meaningful political rights.”

Even worse, the model evolving in Bosnia is being applied in Kosovo and is likely to be the model used after future interventions create future dependencies destabilized more than they were originally by intervention and management.

Congress should face the question: Do we want to show, by example, that when the United States and the West talk about media freedom we really mean media suppression and censorship? When we speak of the virtues of democracy and civil society, do we want to make it clear that what we mean is democracy that comes out the way autocratic authorities imposed from the outside prefer?

If not, we need to rethink our foreign policy down to the roots.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).