BOSNIA : How to Make Peace and Uphold Morality

<i> Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger writes frequently for The Times</i>

The sustained NATO bombing in Bosnia probably marks, in Winston Churchill’s words, less the beginning of the end than the end of the beginning. The Clinton Administration, having accepted the proposition that diplomacy needed to be buttressed by force, must now urgently address four issues: How will the North Atlantic Treaty Organization respond toward the various parties if the talks stalemate? What international status will the three ethnically based autonomous areas emerging in Bosnia have? To what extent will the West insist on the principle of ethnic self-determination? Finally, what does it portend for world order if the ethnic principle is pressed to its logical conclusion on a global basis?

To end the war, the Bosnia bombing must send two messages: to the Serbs, that there is no option other than negotiation; to the Bosnian-Croat confederation, that the West is able to protect any agreement but that its military force will not be available for ambitions beyond the scope of Western proposals.

Ethnic conflicts are quite a different phenomenon from our historic experience. In Bosnia, each ethnic group hearkens back to some mythic Golden Age when it was dominant: the Muslims recall the Ottoman Empire; the Croats remember the Hapsburg preeminence; the Serbs are sustained by their endless wars for independence. The ideal ethnic map of each is incompatible with the ethnic maps of its rivals; each treats as anathema any arrangement dependent on the good faith of the other. The limits of each party’s aims are essentially defined ethnically, though, no doubt, with an ambitious sweep. Ethnic conflicts almost inevitably lead to ethnic cleansing. They end either in victory or defeat, or in exhaustion.


The gap between moral convictions and the risks we were prepared to run has been a pervasive cause of ambivalence throughout the Bosnian war. It is reflected as well in the current congressional debate on the arms embargo. The majority vote lifting the embargo insisted on the Administration’s moral pronouncements. But they want to eliminate all risk to American lives; the Bosnian Muslims are supposed to prevail with U.S. supplies. Yet, since a Bosnian victory would surely lead to ethnic cleansing against the Bosnian Serbs, the congressional action is building toward the same moral dilemma that paralyzed us in the first place.

The congressional vote on the arms embargo has served a useful purpose in ending the Administration’s and NATO’s vacillations regarding the use of force. Yet, Congress would be well advised to shelve overriding the President’s veto, if only because the issue of the embargo has been superseded by recent events, and because the Croats and Muslims have created a formidable military machine despite the embargo’s restraints.

The Administration must not be carried away by the favorable military situation. High-handed Serb conduct--especially the taking of NATO hostages--has stiffened allied resolve. But it is doubtful this resolve will endure indefinitely. One motive for British and French participation in NATO air strikes may be to weaken the Bosnian Serbs sufficiently so that allied forces can be withdrawn before the onset of winter. It is thus crucial to obtain a NATO consensus on how NATO should respond if the negotiations lag. Since military pressure will be applied against Serbia but withheld against Bosnia or Croatia, special thought must be given to the allied attitude if--as is highly possible--the Muslims and Croats insist on unifying the country.

Richard Holbrooke, the American negotiator, has defined his challenge as the composition of the autonomous areas based on ethnicity. The far more intractable issue concerns the international status of these regions. Two options are available: autonomy within a unified Bosnian state, or a right to secede and join the mother country. Many insist on a sovereign Bosnia within its original borders, because any other outcome would reward aggression. But now that each of the communities has expelled the others from its area of control, it makes no sense to try to impose a multiethnic solution for all Bosnia-Herzegovina. If the goal is stability and not revenge, and if we want to avoid being bogged down in endless conflict, the only responsible outcome is to define Bosnia as a state for the Muslim community within generous borders, and to give the other communities the right of self-determination.

In a nation composed of three warring nationalities, the danger of two of them ganging up on the third is overwhelming. Moreover, if the existing border of Bosnia becomes internationally recognized, Serbians (or Croatians) will be accused of aggression internationally if they support their compatriots, and of betrayal, or more, domestically, if they acquiesce in their strangulation.

Bosnian leaders forget at their peril that, in the first phase of the current struggle, Croatia had followed a policy parallel to that of Serbia, seeking to carve the Croat ethnic group out of Bosnia. A few months ago, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, perceiving himself off the record at a dinner in London, let it out that--despite the opportunistic confederation with Bosnia--the most sensible outcome would be a partition of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia.


The definition of the legal status of the autonomous areas will shape the deployment of the peacekeeping force, to which President Bill Clinton exuberantly promised a major U.S. contribution in the heady early days of his Administration, when he still thought of war and peace as discrete phases of policy. If troops are sent, they should protect a meaningful objective. Located at the present international border, they cannot prevent either the destruction of the Serb autonomous area by Bosnia or the incorporation of Bosnia into Croatia--the two most likely contingencies for the next phase of Bosnian policy. The most sensible objective for a peacekeeping force is to protect the Muslim area as a separate state.

To navigate this delicate course, the President needs to abandon his coy posture of pretending that U.S. policy simply registers international consensus. We have been the motor behind recent actions and if we are not to be driven by pictures on the evening news, the President must be prepared to explain to the American people his purposes, his opportunities, his risks and their limits.

When this crisis is over, the United States needs to ask itself an even deeper question: how far it wishes to push the principle of self-determination. Bosnia is now too divided to design a government under which the three ethnic groups can live in harmony. But if pressed on a global basis, will the concept of ethnic self-determination not splinter the world into unmanageable confusion? And, at the extremes, what might it do to the cohesion of our own society?*