US Should Leave the Balkans Be

Foreign policy is a dangerous instrument in the hands of modern liberals. Indeed, few people are as fearsome as one filled with good intentions wielding military power. One result, nearly three decades ago, was the unloved artificial state of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Now Serbian leader Milorad Dodik is moving to dismantle the tripartite nation. Dodik denounced what amounts to a Western colony, ruled by a European governor with the inflated title of high representative, as a "failed country" and Western "experiment" that "does not work." This threat to their dubious handiwork left disbelieving US and European diplomats near hysteria. After all, it is one of the few interventionist "successes" they routinely tout. European Union grandee and current High Representative Christian Schmidt wailed that Bosnia faced "the greatest existential threat of the postwar period."

Oh, the horror! Can Western civilization survive? Will a new Dark Ages descend upon Europe?

The Balkans has been the fount of much tragedy over the last century and more. The low point for Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, came on June 28, 1914 when the Serb terrorist, Gavrilo Princip – armed by Serbia’s head of military intelligence – assassinated the Habsburg heir to the throne. In doing so Princip lit the slow-burning fuse to World War I. Upwards of 20 million people died in the ensuing conflict.

The Habsburg monarchy did not survive the war, and Bosnia ended up as part of the new polyglot state of Yugoslavia, whose name was concocted from words meaning south and Slavs. Yugoslavia survived World War II and the Cold War, but ingloriously collapsed after the death of dictator Josip Broz Tito and dissolution of the Soviet Union. A series of civil wars erupted, with secession actively encouraged by Germany followed by other Western governments.

Bosnia became the bloodiest battleground. The Bosniak (Muslim) plurality hoped to maintain a multi-ethnic state in which it was dominant. Ethnic Croats and Serbs wanted out, hoping to join their co-nationals in other, ethnically unified states. In 1992 they all agreed to separate as part of the Lisbon Agreement. The accord was killed by Warren Zimmerman, then America’s ambassador in Belgrade, who recklessly promised US support for the Bosnian state. The result was a terrible civil war in which all sides committed atrocities, though the Serbs most ostentatiously so. Washington policymakers later admitted that they blundered in blocking the settlement.

At the time, however, frustrated that the unruly natives refused to listen to their American betters, the US launched a bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs. (Washington refused to even acknowledge atrocities by other factions, such as the violent ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Croatia.) Taking the side of the Bosniaks led to the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which created a hideous, ungainly, purposeless state atop two semi-autonomous political entities and three ethnic communities. Above them all was placed the impressively titled European gauleiter.

The only reason Bosnia exists is because US and European officials were excited to take advantage of their unique opportunity to engage in social engineering and create the sort of multiethnic state that they believed should exist and others should welcome. What the Bosnian people actually wanted was irrelevant. Their role was to obey their foreign overlords and, as Americans once said of Mexico after the Mexican-American war, to learn "to love her ravisher."

However, Serbian subservience ended under Dodik, who announced plans to systematically withdraw from Bosnia’s joint military, judiciary, and tax authority. The caterwauling in Sarajevo, Brussels, and Washington was fearsome to behold. The high representative whined that that this was "tantamount to secession without proclaiming it."

The US imposed sanctions on Dodik, whose motives and actions admittedly are not pure. However, this is Washington’s initial response to everyone who disagrees with Washington and resists its dictates. Moreover, personal sanctions such as these are largely symbolic, with no impact on government policy. Indeed, Dodik played off of the hostility, proclaiming that "There is no authority in the world that can stop us."

Which sent the usual suspects running wildly, like headless chickens. Harkening back to World War I, journalist Srecko Latal warned that "The fuse on the Balkans’ powder keg has been lit. It must be stamped out before the region, and even Europe itself, is engulfed in fire." Appealing more to US audiences, Hikmet Karcic of the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy urged American intervention lest Bosnia "become another Afghanistan."


Dodik hasn’t threatened anyone. He merely wants Sarajevo, Brussels, and Washington to leave his people alone. If there is a threat of war, it only comes from the Croats and Bosniaks if they attempt to hold the Serbs in. That is the possibility which the US and European Union should reject.

Instead, as good liberals, American and European officials back the authoritarian, undemocratic structure unfairly imposed upon Bosnian residents. They act as if it was chosen by the people, despite having been preceded by a US bombing campaign. For instance, State Department Counselor Derek Chollet urged Bosnian officials "to rise above their own self-interest and to try to keep in mind the broader interest of their country."

If not, he threatened "to punish that kind of behavior." That he felt the need to promise coercion if Serbs failed to love and obey their ravisher merely demonstrated again that Bosnia is not and never has been "their country." Of course, Washington’s position on Bosnia has nothing to do with serving the interests of Bosnians and everything to do with advancing Washington’s geopolitical interests by, admitted Chollet, placing Bosnia "back on its path towards its Euro-Atlantic destination," no deviations allowed.

What will Washington and Brussels do if Dodik moves ahead? The Biden administration sanctioned him again in early January for "significant corruption and destabilizing activities." Alas, this had no impact. Last fall he told an American envoy that he "didn’t give a shit" about such threats. After Washington’s latest blast Dodik held a rally on a banned holiday celebration the territory’s 1992 declaration of independence, which was attended by top Serbian officials. He declared: "This gathering is the best response to those who deny us our rights … who keep imposing sanctions on us." He added that "It proves to me that I must listen to you, that you did not elect me to fulfill Americans’ wishes but to fulfill the wishes of Serb people."

How about allied military action? The Europeans won’t fight for each other against a real threat; they certainly won’t intervene in the Balkans for nothing. Nor does Biden seem likely to go to war for a united Bosnia. What if the Croats and Bosniaks mobilize? The Bosniak president, Sefik Dzaferovic, opined: "It will not be peaceful." Why not? Absent an attack on his people or institutions, why should he object to the departure of ethnic Serbs?

Dodik is confident that he will prevail, though his career has featured dramatic political pirouettes. Last fall he insisted: "Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to embrace a realistic policy instead of threatening us with sanctions." Maybe, though Washington has a long history of clinging to braindead policies, as in Afghanistan, as long as others are paying the cost.

Whatever the result, Dodik’s independent course doesn’t constitute a crisis. The Balkans never mattered much to the US and even to most European nations. The region no longer is aflame or likely to burn anew. If the Bosnian Serbs choose to leave, Washington and Brussels should encourage negotiations among the three groups to make the split as efficient and amicable as possible. And then everyone should get on with their lives, leaving the people of the Balkans to decide their own futures.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.