In a collective display of wisdom and will in the Balkans, the U.S. and Europe imposed an uneasy peace upon the war-torn region in the second half of the 1990s.
The Dayton agreement, the United Nations Security Council resolution that brought the Kosovo conflict to a close and the democratic overthrow of the Milosevic dictatorship were all products of western statecraft of the highest order. So, too, were the brokered reconciliation between Serbia and Montenegro and the negotiated settlement of Macedonia's civil conflict.
For several years, Americans have tended to rest on their Balkan laurels, while Europeans have prepared for the day they will have to assume the burdens of stabilizing the region unaided. Washington regards the Balkans as yesterday's business, while Brussels regards it as tomorrow's test case for Europe's new security and defense institutions. It was in this spirit that NATO decided last year to hand over peacekeeping duties in Bosnia to the European Union at the end of 2004.
The Contact Group, made up of the U.S., the EU and Russia, has also set in train another difficult transition for this time-frame, to open the process for deciding Kosovo's final status in early 2005.
The Balkan landscape has become decidedly more unsettled since these decisions. Just last week, ultra-nationalists made big gains in Serbia's parliamentary elections. In preparation for that balloting, four of the competing parties nominated indicted war criminals as candidates. Two parties, the Socialists and the Radicals, are headed by prisoners in The Hague: Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj, both on or awaiting trial for war crimes and genocide. Mr. Seselj's party managed to triple its vote count in the election, achieving nearly 28 per cent of the total and emerging as the largest party in the new parliament.
Nationalist parties also made gains in last year's Bosnian and Croatian elections, displacing governments headed by democratically minded reformers. Although Croatia and Bosnia are again governed by the parties that led them into civil war a decade ago, people can change. Not all today's Bosnian, Croat or Serb nationalists espouse the same positions they defended a decade ago. Yet one observes no remorse on the part of Mr. Milosevic or Mr. Seselj and one must wonder whether the attitudes of their parties and those who voted for them have evolved.
In the light of the recent setbacks for pro-European parties and democratic reformers in the western Balkans, Washington and the EU should be reviewing their plans for this region. Only the combination of American hard power, in the form of air strikes and robust occupation, and European soft power, in the form of economic aid and the promise of ultimate EU membership, were enough to stabilise the region in the late 1990s. For the future, one needs to test carefully the thesis that Europe's efforts alone can keep the peace.
Proponents of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague also need to give careful thought to that process. It is argued that the international prosecution of war crimes will advance the cause of both justice and reconciliation. Those most guilty would be punished, while their many followers would be educated and reformed. The highly publicised Milosevic trial does not seem to have had the latter effect, if rising support among Serb voters for ultra-nationalist parties is any guide.
At issue is not just the balance between justice and reconciliation in Serbia but between the carrots and sticks employed by the international community to promote reform there. The democratic regime that overthrew Mr. Milosevic three years ago found itself under immediate pressure to yield defendants for the Hague tribunal. Having done so, Serbia has not received aid of the magnitude that the U.S. and Europe provided to Bosnia or Kosovo after their conflicts, let alone the amounts lavished today on Iraq.
It serves little purpose for the international community to impose justice in The Hague if it is not making a commensurate effort to promote democratic reform in Belgrade. And generous aid for post-conflict reconstruction should not be reserved for countries that must first be invaded, in order to be transformed.
The writer was senior adviser to President Bill Clinton on the Balkans and heads the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, a non-profit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on January 6, 2004.