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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 1998

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Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupe, founder and president emeritus of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA, has held five ambassadorial posts, the latest as U.S. ambassador to Turkey (1981-89). He is author of numerous books on international politics, most recently Democracy and American Foreign Policy (1993). His book Geopolitics: The Struggle for Space and Power, published in 1942, is said to have introduced the word "geopolitics" into the American vocabulary.
~ Ed.

by Robert Strausz-Hupé

The 20th century Balkan crisis and I are about the same age, and if longevity has any reward, it lies in one's ability to take a long view. President Clinton's recent decision to extend the stay of American forces in Bosnia should therefore be seen in the light of what we know, after nine decades of experiences, about this troubled region.

The political structure of the Balkans has not changed, and we are the most ill-suited power to change it. Unless we are prepared to be most ruthless, the only policy available to us is a cynical one, the kind that requires a strong stomach and the suppression of strong emotions. The political structure of the Balkans is determined by the peoples living there. Despite wars, revolutions, and assorted half-peaces, the character of these peoples has endured. They remain the same as they were when I first knew them, a political age ago, when the Austro-Hungarian empire and pre-1914 European civilization came to grief in a Balkans quarrel.

The Serbs are the most warlike, and they still see force as the main instrument of their expansion. The Croats are the most brave, with a well-founded reputation for cruelty. The Muslims, the former clerks of the late Ottoman Empire, are the least able in war. These are three groups destined by their own inclinations to tear at each other without mercy and without any regard for the rules, except, of course, the rule of superior force.

In the early part of this century, the Great Powers of Europe had fastened the rules of superior force on the Balkans, establishing a tenuous peace based on the general balance of power inherited from the previous generation. The outsiders tended to play by those rules and continued to do so even as the Balkan peoples tore up the rulebook. Supreme among those who imagined that habit and respect for law had changed the Balkans were the imperial bureaucrats of Vienna. When Gavrilo Princip, who murdered the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife and sparked the First World War, was put on trial, the magistrates discovered that he was too young to be sentenced to death. So they did not execute him for his high crime, but put him into the Theriesenstadt fortress, where he died three years later of disease.

Americans, too, play by the rules. Before the Dayton Accords were belatedly reached in 1995, we and our allies spent three years hurling resolutions at the massacres. The Europeans deployed troops who became bystanders to unspeakable horrors. And the U.N. bureaucrats, like their Viennese predecessors, followed the protocols of civilization in the midst of barbarism.

Ambassador Holbrooke, the author of the Dayton settlement, perhaps understood best how ill-suited America was to change the underlying political structure reconfirmed by the Bosnian war. The United States and its European allies, principally the British and French, had very unwisely put NATO's prestige at risk through a half-hearted military intervention. Holbrooke was able to rescue this through an agreement that allowed a quick military success in establishing a cease-fire in place — something the parties wanted. But the price was to detach the military from the stated political objective, namely, to recreate the mythical Bosnia of yore, with every group dressed in its special costume, only with empty bandoliers or, at least, only the desire to fire into the air in celebration. This will never be, and two years on, even the wishful man in the White House has figured it out. Meanwhile, Mr. Holbrooke has wisely departed the scene.


There are but three futures ahead for the West's involvement in the Balkans.

  • The first is to continue, laden with pious hope, costly expenditure, and mounting frustration. Ultimately, we will get shot and then probably get out.

  • The second is brutal pacification of the kind practiced by the great empires in their martial phases. Turkish, Austrian, and Russian history offer lessons in this respect; America, however, is most ill-suited to carry out such a draconian policy. No modern army, especially one under NATO control in the full glare of the media's klieg lights, can be bent to this task, nor should it be.

  • That leaves a third policy, the only one that can work for any length of time and that will not get us shot up too often or force us to shoot up the Serbs, Croats, or Muslims. That is a classic balance-of-power policy, backed up by small forces whose intervention can be triggered quietly. The various parties will have to be kept more or less unhappy with each other and constantly badgering us for advantage. And we shall have to give one side or another advantage but only temporarily and not too much.

    Our objective should be to keep the peace, not to patch together what never was and therefore cannot be patched. Our method must be cynical, precise, and prompt; no hesitation and no qualms. And then we may hope that the next generation, having learned no other way and unwilling to shed more blood on behalf of their parents' quarrel, finally reverts once more to the margins of European history.

    © Copyright 1998, Foreign Policy Research Institute, published by permission. For information on membership in the Foreign Policy Research Institute, call Alan Luxenberg at (212) 732- 3774, ext. 105.




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