War and Peace in Bosnia

I learned that it is far easier to start a war than to build a peace. The Bosnian conflict had been a perfect illustration of this fundamental historic truth.

By Carl Bildt

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Published: Mon 30 Nov 2020, 6:34 PM

At a US Air Force base in Ohio 25 years ago, the European continent’s most devastating war since 1945 came to an end with the Dayton Agreement. After three and a half years, the war in Bosnia had taken more than 100,000 lives, wrought immense destruction, and displaced millions from their homes. “It may not be a just peace, but it is more just than a continuation of war,” the Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegović observed. “In the situation as it is, and in the world as it is, a better peace could not have been achieved.”

Too true. Together with the American and Russian negotiators, Richard Holbrooke and Igor Ivanov, I experienced the ups and downs of those 21 days in Dayton firsthand as the European Union’s co-chair of the peace talks. I then spent the next few years in Sarajevo, trying to guide the implementation of the agreement’s first steps. I learned that it is far easier to start a war than to build a peace. The Bosnian conflict had been a perfect illustration of this fundamental historic truth. When Yugoslavia started to fall apart in 1991, few people suspected that we were heading for a decade of bloody conflicts from Slovenia (briefly) in the North to Macedonia in the South.

As for the Dayton Agreement, it was really a compilation of multiple peace plans that different constellations of international actors had tried to implement in prior years. The reason we succeeded in November 1995 was that all the key international actors — the EU, the United States, and Russia — were finally on the same page. Previously, there had always been a temptation for one player or another to prolong the conflict in the hope of forcing a better deal.

After a war, one makes peace with one’s enemies. But any peace not built on total capitulation by one of the parties necessarily rests on compromise, and a lasting compromise is possible only if it meets the minimum demands of all parties without bending to the maximum demands of any party in particular. That is why the enthusiasm following such agreements tends to be muted.

When the guns fell silent in Bosnia, the monumental task of rebuilding a war-torn country began. Within the territory were three armies, three currencies, and three semi-states — two of which had already entered into a shotgun marriage. Over the course of the ensuing decades, Bosnia has been (physically) rebuilt with EU funding, such that in bustling Sarajevo, one now must search to find the scars of war.

That’s the part of the story with a happy ending. But the story of political reconstruction and reconciliation is more complicated. This process has been painfully slow, because for too long, too many Bosnian leaders saw peace as the continuation of war by other means. Despite massive and intrusive international efforts, the forces of disintegration have continued to make themselves felt throughout the region.

The new Bosnian constitution that came out of the Dayton talks reflected what was possible at the time, which is to say it was more “old Yugoslavia” than “new Europe”. It set a floor upon which to build cooperation — with provisions to deepen integration and to amend the constitution itself — but it didn’t set a ceiling for what could be achieved. The task of building the future was left to Bosnians themselves.

The fact that Bosnian leaders have not made better use of the possibilities that were on offer is a lasting tragedy of that era. Since 2003, the EU has made clear that its doors are open to all of the Balkan countries, provided that they can take the steps necessary to qualify for membership. But with the exception of Kosovo, Bosnia today is last in line among its Balkan neighbours for EU accession.

To be sure, one can question whether the EU has been proactive enough in its approach to the region. Though European leaders recognise that the pull of EU integration is the only force capable of countering the forces of regional disintegration, the fact is that the Balkans have slipped down Europe’s list of priorities.

Nonetheless, the EU has kept a small military force in Bosnia these past 25 years. With a robust mandate from the United Nations Security Council, this presence sends a strong signal that war will never again be tolerated in the region. Moreover, there is an equally strong international commitment to respecting the sovereignty and integrity of Bosnia and all other Balkan countries. The era of redrawing maps is over, and the task of reforming Bosnia will continue to rest with Bosnians themselves.

There are encouraging signs that a new generation is ready to consign the war to history and start seeing peace for what it really is: an opportunity to forge a new future together. In his address to the UN General Assembly this year, Šefik Džaferović, the current head of state for Bosnia and Herzegovina, made clear that: “There is a general consensus in Bosnia and Herzegovina about the irreplaceable significance of preserving peace, and thus, the Peace Accord on which it is based. This gives hope that in the future, the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be increasingly more preoccupied with issues of development, as it enters a new phase of its historic road.”

I and many others share that hope. There are many lessons to draw from Bosnia’s long saga. We must continue to reflect on the failure to prevent the war, the transatlantic divisions that prolonged it, the importance of inclusive institutions, and the need to counter disintegration with integration.

But the two most important lessons are these: it is far easier to start a war than it is to stop one, and silencing the guns is merely the first step towards lasting peace.

Carl Bildt, a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden, was European Union special envoy to the Former Yugoslavia, co-chair of the Dayton Peace Conference, high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995-97), and UN special envoy to the Balkans (1999-2001).

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