Review by Dennis M. Murphy
Reconstruction and Peace Building in the Balkans: The Brcko Experience by Robert William Farrand. With Allison Frendak-Blume, Rowland and Littlefield: Lanham, MD, ISBN: 978-1-4422-1235-0, 2011. 310 pp, , $39.95.
Consider a newly contrived nation in the immediate aftermath of war, consumed by ethnic strife, with tensions simmering directly beneath the surface and often boiling over to violence. The infrastructure is destroyed, there is no rule of law, no economy to speak of, displaced citizens cannot safely return to their homes. Thus was the case of the municipality of Brcko when the Dayton Accords were signed in November 1995 ending that conflict in the Balkans. But so difficult was the Brcko situation that it was held up as a special case in the Accords, to be solved by arbitration under the direction of an appointed supervisor, U.S. Ambassador Robert W. (Bill) Farrand. In his autobiographical case study, Farrand provides a first-hand look into a role that, as he notes, no one person is trained or educated to carry out.
The Dayton Accords established the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina composed of two semi-autonomous entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb Republic. Brcko straddles the Posavina Corridor that links two portions of the Serb Republic and is in some places only three miles wide. Thus, as the author points out, the outcome of war made a relatively obscure place a strategically important crossroads (much like Gettysburg). Brcko had a rich multi-ethnic heritage prior to the conflict, with Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs and Croats living in relative peace. Factories abounded, and the port on the Sava River was an active center of commerce and transportation. The war saw ethnic cleansing on a monumental level by the Serbs leaving the municipality in ruins and hatred palpable among all three ethnic groups.
Farrand takes the reader step by step through the process of reconciliation and rebuilding in all its myriad forms and with all its significant warts. He repeatedly emphasizes the important role of culture in his efforts, but not just the expected cultural filters of the indigenous populations on the ground, but significantly the organizational cultures of those charged with rebuilding the nation and Brcko itself. Non-governmental organizations, the international community, the bureaucracy of donor nations and entities, all complicated the already complex task of making Brcko whole. Among the more interesting anecdotes in this regard is Farrand’s discussion of the cultural differences between the mindset of the diplomat and the military. Reminiscent of a past research paper entitled “Defense is from Mars, State is from Venus,” Farrand is savvy enough to identify the finite nature of military operations, its impatience with ambiguity, and its can-do attitude. He contrasts this with the acceptance of complexity and informality of civilian decision-makers. Farrand deftly contrasts these styles without judgment but with the refreshing maturity of acceptance and need for understanding toward achieving a mutually desired end. This portion of the book, in and of itself, should be a must read in the professional education institutions of State and Defense.
Subsequent chapters take the reader through Farrand’s journey of 38 months as supervisor. It begins with a discussion of freedom of movement that sets the stage for the nuanced circumstances that made every step toward progress difficult. Something as simple as license plates serves to illustrate. The Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs each had different plates with elements abhorrent to at least one other faction based on ethnic symbols, colors, and even writing systems (Latin vs. Cyrillic). The mere fact that this topic merited a section in the book (and it was merited in my opinion) gives the potential reader a sense of the challenges of more significant issues.
In like manner, Farrand discusses refugee return, democratic governance and power sharing, establishment of the rule of law, and he wraps up by setting the stage for economic recovery. Creating a secure environment, establishing a fair and equitable percentage of ethnic representation while building a government, courts and police, and addressing a black market fraught with corruption are just some of the issues Farrand faced and tackled. He covers these topics not academically, but from the very personal perspective of someone who has “walked the walk” and has the scars to prove it.
I found “The Brcko Experience” a fascinating read for the most part. I must admit to struggling through the first chapter, where Farrand necessarily sets the stage by describing the players, the geographic realities, and the legalistic documents that made up the various arbitration “awards.” Had I stopped there, however, I would have missed an important retrospective, rich with lessons to apply against current and future geo-strategic dilemmas. In many ways this is a book about strategic communication. Farrand continually emphasizes the importance of relationships, using the media, communicating up, down and laterally, and establishing trust and credibility through a long-term presence, fairness, and consistent behavior. In doing so, he reasserts the important but oft overlooked value of human emotion and cultural understanding and sensitivity. Don’t get me wrong, he points out that there are times to wield what is arguably his unlimited power as supervisor to make things happen, but he also takes pains to do so in a nuanced, well-considered fashion after exhausting all other avenues.
“The Brcko Experience” should attract a wide audience to include those interested in the challenges of failed states, reconstruction, ethnic tension and governance. Perhaps more importantly it should be read with an eye toward learning from the recent past in order to avoid or mitigate similar current or future dilemmas. One only need look as far as current day Iraq and Afghanistan to see parallels…and recognize that there are inevitably other Brcko’s lurking in the future. If your time is limited read the first and last chapters and the conclusions of each of the other chapters. Farrand does a service in wrapping up each section succinctly with the important lessons covered. He ends with a list of “do’s and don’ts” in the final pages. You’ll recall I started this review by stating that no one person is trained or educated to rebuild a municipality under the conditions described. In the end, Farrand takes a shot at describing the best person for a civilian leadership role in these types of operations based on his experience. You’ll be surprised by the recommendation and enlightened by the explanation of why.
I think it’s fair to say that “The Brcko Experience” is a seminal work worthy of wide reading and study. I highly recommend it.