The Balkans continue to provide fodder for books looking for answers to some of the most profoundly troubling aspects of man’s inhumanity to man. Among the best of this year’s crop is Swanee Hunt’s Worlds Apart.
Ambassador Hunt, the heir to the H.L. Hunt oil fortune whose background is as a progressive social activist rather than a diplomat takes an unconventional approach to a “political” book. This approach should surprise no one who is familiar with her tour as President Clinton’s Ambassador to Austria (1993-97). She was unconventional in that position as well, concentrating her robust efforts not so much on the country of Austria to which she was accredited but rather on the ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the refugees the war produced.
The author takes a no holds barred approach to those of whom she approves and disapproves. Swanee Hunt is a proud Democrat and so her political partisans rank near the top along with Bosnian Muslims; some State Department and other officials who agreed with or at least did not oppose her are also among those gaining her approval and kudos.
First among “the disapproved of” are the Serbs, followed by the military and civilian authorities (from CIA to the NSC) that disagreed with her views of the Serbs and scores of international civilians who insisted on “neutrality” both in the conflict itself and in the post-Dayton Accords period. In her view impartiality does not mean neutrality since the Serbs were largely at fault and thus neutrality would mean ratifying their bad behavior. The Ambassador’s strongly held opinions add a degree of subjectivity that might trouble the historian or career diplomat but she makes no apologizes for her views.
The Worlds Apart in the title refers to the two worlds of the “Outside” and the “Inside” that form the duality of each chapter or vignette in the book. The Outside refers to the official world of diplomacy, international organizations, media and humanitarian organizations, in headquarters in Washington, Geneva, New York or Brussels as well as those charged with carrying our policies in the field in Bosnia; with all the institutional perspectives, prejudices and attitudes they brought to the war and the post-war conditions. The Inside refers to those human beings on the ground in Bosnia, mainly Bosnian Muslims but also including a smattering of Croats and Serbs whose lives were dominated and consumed by the events of war and peace in their communities.
One might expect that the Inside would make for depressing reading and indeed some of the vignettes are disturbing and disgusting but the overall thrust of these stories—some directly experienced, others gleaned from others’ re-telling or journalistic reports—call forth a more optimistic view of humanity’s condition than would be expected. The truly depressing sections of the book are the Outside portions that describe the emptiness, futility and utter worthlessness of much of the official activity devoted to the war in Bosnia and the aftermath of the Dayton Accords.
Ambassador Hunt has long championed a greater and more substantive role for women in political and civil life and this book is rich with illustrations why that cause is both worthy today and should have been employed much earlier in the Balkan unraveling that led to the wars over Bosnia and Kosovo. In her prologue the author encourages her readers to look ahead to the last chapter and her conclusions. This reviewer took her advice and encourages other readers to do the same. Ambassador Hunt’s “six lessons” can be applied to other conflicts current and to come and could help to bridge that perception gap between the world of officialdom and the people on the street. Whether the reader may agree with Swanee Hunt’s opinions on Bosnia or not, one can come away from this book with some useful lessons to apply to areas of conflict generally.