The Balkan war has been underway for almost two years. It began on a large scale in the summer of 1991 as a war between Serbs in Croatia, assisted by the Yugoslavian government in Belgrade, and the government of Croatia, which seceded from the Yugoslav federation in June 1991. The conflict spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina last year, after that republic seceded in March 1992.

From the earliest months of the conflict, the European Community, and subsequently the United Nations, have pursued a peace process. In January the co-chairmen of the Conference on the Former Yugoslavia, Cyrus Vance and David Owen, put forward a peace plan. It maintains Bosnia-Herzegovina as independent within its current borders but weakens its central government. Bosnia would be divided into ten provinces, three majority Serb, three majority Croat, three majority Muslim and one mixed, with high levels of autonomy and power vested in the provincial governments. After some hesitation, the Clinton administration declared in February that, if all three parties agree to this plan, the United States might take part in its enforcement. The peace talks are currently in progress.

Foreign Affairs interviewed David Owen, who from 1975 to 1979 was foreign secretary of Great Britain, on February 16, 1993, in New York. The following is an edited version of the discussion.


Q: Why is this peace process the right one now?

A: It was clear to me by the end of August 1992 that there was no will in any of the major Western nations to take up arms against Serbian expansionism. So it had to be dealt with primarily by negotiation. You can argue that force ought to have been used earlier when Serbia began to fight to protect, as they saw it, their Serb nationals in different parts of Yugoslavia. In July 1992 I had argued publicly that selective air strikes should be used to tip the balance against the Bosnian Serbs, almost exactly at the same time as candidate Clinton was arguing the same case during the election campaign. But even then I never believed that the West should commit ground combat forces in Bosnia.

Q: Do you think that the European Community recognitions of Slovenia and Croatia and then Bosnia internationalized the problem in the former Yugoslavia, making it more difficult to solve?

A: I believe the original concept of the European Community's London conference on Yugoslavia was right--to seek a general political solution to the whole of the former Yugoslavia and to not allow unilateral secessions. The conference's chairman, Lord Carrington, advised against piecemeal recognitions. He was against the recognition of Croatia and then of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as were then Secretary of State James Baker and U.N. mediator Cyrus Vance. The European Community effectively ignored their advice and recognized those republics against the judgment of France and Britain in the mistaken belief that the hallmark of a future Maastricht-type European foreign policy was simultaneous recognition. In fact recognition is a very delicate question where diversity in timing is not only natural but even at times desirable.

Q: How do you answer critics who say the peace plan is appeasement?

A: The words "Munich" and "appeasement" are flying around. I certainly think it would have been more appropriate to have used that analogy in 1990 than in 1993, when the war has been raging for almost two years. Munich was signed before World War II had begun; it was appeasement because it tried to pretend that war was not inevitable. We are trying now in 1993 to bring about an end to a bitter war well underway in Bosnia and simmering on in Croatia. We are trying to stitch together in Bosnia a country that is now divided into two and is very likely to split into three. Partition is the danger, and Lebanon the historical parallel for Bosnia, not Munich.

Q: Does the plan reward Serbian aggression?

A: The rural Bosnian Serbs sat on over 60 percent of the country before the war, and we are offering them three provinces covering 43 percent. I'm also careful not to use the simplistic classification "aggression" because this is both a civil war and a war of aggression. The Bosnian Serbs are fighting for territory in which they have lived for centuries. They have of course been aided and abetted by Serbs outside Bosnia-Herzegovina. And they have been substantially equipped militarily by Serbs outside Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is a very complex war in its origins.

Q: What did you think of the Clinton administration's early statements on Bosnia?

A: They were not based on the facts as they had evolved over the winter months. In retrospect, in the two and a half month presidential transition we should have made sure Governor Clinton's team understood why the European Community and the Russian Federation disagreed with their statements over Bosnia-Herzegovina. This entire episode reinforces the need for constant briefings and consultations, not just with the president but also the president-elect.

The Clinton administration is perfectly entitled to have its own policy on the Balkans. But the United States, particularly now that it is the sole superpower, also needs continuity in its foreign policy. International policies cannot be completely reversed as a result of a presidential election without a lot of trauma. There has been a strong bipartisanship across the Atlantic on foreign policy over the years, and it is very necessary for this to continue. I was shattered to arrive in the United States at the end of January to discover that informed opinion, even among many good friends, believed that Vance and I were somehow rewarding ethnic cleansing and aggression.

The problem appears to have been in part that The New York Times editorially took a very emotive position on the issue right from the start and its assumptions spread through to other newspapers. It was outrageous that these false allegations should have been made on the basis of so little factual knowledge and repeated, not particularly against me or Vance, but against the 12 Community nations that had seriously looked at this problem and formed a broad consensus across their own political parties on this question. We were heading for a fairly big crunch in early February until the Clinton administration listened and shifted course when the facts became clearer.

Q: Does the United States have any interests in the former Yugoslavia now that the Cold War is over?

A: Yes, but U.S. interests are multifaceted. You cannot be involved in Europe, as you are through the North Atlantic Treaty and other institutions, and simply walk away from the Balkans. Conflict here still has the potential to involve two countries that matter a great deal to America: Greece and Turkey. Turkey is a country which has become vital to you as a nato ally on the threshold of Asia; witness its crucial role in the Gulf War. Were the Bosnian violence to spill over into Serbia's province of Kosovo, Turkey would become almost directly involved. Greece is a country which, because of immigration patterns, has a very deep link into U.S. culture. It is a part of Europe where the United States has long felt it had a stake, and in whose security you have been intimately involved since 1947. Let us not forget that Greece fought a bitter civil war for three years after the end of World War II.

Also, ethnic cleansing has created one of the biggest moral problems for the world since the Holocaust. Our collective shame about our handling of the Jews' plight means that you, as the world's leader, and your values-based foreign policy, are now engaged in safeguarding Muslims--rightly and inevitable so.

One of the fundamental weaknesses of America's criticism of Europe at the start of this year, however, was that you were employing your high moral standard on the basis of absolutely zero involvement. When you had the opportunity, at the start, in 1991 to go in, guns blazing, and to take a dominant military role, you declined to do so, saying it was Europe's problem. The European Community has already shouldered the biggest burden. It has done so in terms of refugees, humanitarian aid and military forces committed to the United Nations, with lives lost. I'm speaking in advance of knowing how we will sort out any nato involvement, but while I believe American ground troops should be involved in implementing a peace settlement, the bulk of any force must be European, West, East, North and South.

Q: How does the peace plan affect the Serbian province of Kosovo, with its Albanian majority?

A: With the Serbians arguing for autonomy within Bosnia-Herzegovina and within Croatia,it becomes that much harder for Belgrade to argue against the Albanians who live in Kosovo from having a somewhat similar degree of autonomy. I don't say that means they will not resist autonomy. It just becomes that much harder to do so. President Bush's letter to Slobodan Milosevic, warning him not to make a military move on Kosovo, reaffirmed by the new Clinton administration, is a very important deterrent and a useful element of continuity across U.S. administrations.

We are trying to build a philosophy in our conference that national minorities in the former Yugoslavia are entitled to a very substantial measure of autonomy. But it has to be clearly understood that Kosovo is part of Serbia, and must be dealt with as part of Serbia. The challenge is to design a genuine autonomy that does not feed secession but staves it off. We must restore soon a proper educational system which the Kosovo Albanians can trust, one not dominated by the Serbians. That is the first area where I think we have to see concrete progress.

The problem in Kosovo is that the situation can suddenly be inflamed without any conscious decision by Belgrade. There is so much dry tinder lying around to fuel secessionist temperament.

What is at issue for many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo is secession, not autonomy. And this is a very delicate issue. In my own country politicians within the same party can differ as to whether to deal with Scottish nationalism by devolution, or by resisting all forms of devolution. Some say local autonomy helps diffuse secessionist pressures. Others claim it feeds the fires of separatism.

Q: What do you envisage happening if the diplomatic settlement breaks down?

A: We have had to face the situation that if there is no international will to take up arms, it reduces our diplomatic room for maneuver. We must all live with the consequences of taking the diplomatic peace path, but we have not been without international pressure. We have not been negotiating without any arm-twisting capacity. Economic sanctions have been in effect all through and, in the early months of September and October, the sanctions were biting very hard in Belgrade and people queued right around the block to fill up with petrol. Sadly, the sanctions were evaded.

Moreover, there have been two threshold decisions. The first was President Bush's decision in October to be ready to enforce a no-fly ban. And the second was President Clinton's February 1993 decision, with some qualifications, that if a peace settlement could be negotiated that was acceptable to all parties, the United States would be ready to be part of an implementation arrangement to be underwritten primarily by nato, on behalf of the United Nations, but along with other countries including the Russian Federation.

What we all need now is a comprehensive settlement--a peace package that can be agreed to by the Security Council even if we only get two of the three parties to sign up. We can increase sanctions and perhaps then tilt the balance of force by the use of air power to pressure the other party, in this case the Bosnian Serbs, to sign up. It is best done by splitting the Serbs--with Belgrade pressuring the Bosnian Serbs.

I don't hold the view of the Pentagon and the British Ministry of Defense that we cannot use air power without also putting in large national ground forces. In Bosnia, you have got ground forces. There are three of them fighting it out. It would have been very dangerous to tilt the balance of force on the ground in favor of any party without first having some of the parties signed up for a peace settlement. That would be using military force in a vacuum and giving license to one side to do what they will. Tipping the balance to force a recalcitrant party to accept a just and equitable peace package is, in my view, wholly legitimate diplomacy.

Q: Assuming a peace accord, how much stress would be on the Russians to have nato as the enforcement arm, perhaps taking military action against the Serbians, who are viewed by some Russian nationalists as allies?

A: We know that President Boris Yeltsin has been under a great deal of pressure from nationalist elements within the Russian parliament over his Yugoslav diplomacy. Nevertheless, he has stuck to his principles and played an active, constructive part in the diplomacy of the Security Council and our conference. The Russians have seen the dangers of nationalism spreading across disputed boundaries. There are many similarities in the former Soviet Union to what has happened in the former Yugoslavia.

Now that the Americans have asserted their right as a conference participant to play an active role, we have a balance in the relationship with, on the one side, the Russians, who are traditionally arms suppliers to and allies of the Serbs, and the United States, now casting itself as the friend of the Bosnian Muslims.

Once having established that pattern, it would seem to be very unlikely that you could have a peacekeeping force in which both of those countries did not play an active role.

Q: Are you satisfied that Europe now has the mechanisms for dealing with such phenomena as Serbian aggression, which could well crop up again in a couple of years?

A: No, but I think we've learned certain lessons. There was a strange initial reluctance within the Community to involve the United Nations. There was a feeling that Europe could do it all on its own. We put people into white uniforms and called them the ec monitors, and some even thought that Europe could replace the United Nations in the peacekeeping role. But the United Nations has over the years painfully developed a sophisticated concept of neutral peacekeeping. There are lots of difficult disciplines involved. That is why it was right last September to combine the ec's process in a joint ec-U.N. conference. At first Europe wanted to stand on its own feet--Yugoslavia was the virility symbol of the Euro-federalists. This was going to be the time when Europe emerged with a single foreign policy and therefore it unwisely shut out an America only too happy to be shut out. I'm not a Euro-federalist, though I'm a strong believer in the European Community.

Q: Given the hatred and the bloodshed of the past two years and the historic ethnic enmities, is it realistic to hope these groups will lie down together and live in peace?

A: I think it's realistic because these people are of the same ethnic stock. I believe some political leaders in the Balkans are not authentically speaking for all their people. There are still very strong elements of moderation within Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many people there still see themselves as European and even now don't think of themselves as Muslim, Croat or Serb; some deliberately and proudly call themselves just Bosnians. That sentiment is reflected in the degree of intermarriage. It's reflected in the fact that, even now, you can go to Sarajevo under bombardment and see Muslims, Serbs and Croats living together in the same streets and apartments. Throughout Yugoslavia people are still all mixed in together and, in many cases, living peaceably.

Remember that there was a terrible massacre of the Serbians by the Germans, and by some Croatians and Muslims, in the 1940s, and yet they did all eventually come back and live together. Now the Serbian political leaders are reminding every Serb of all those past misdeeds to justify new ones. But there's the younger generation that wants to think differently and wants peace. Perhaps I am too optimistic about this, but I do believe that, given time, we can actually get these three nations or constituent peoples working together again. It will be easier to do so under the provincial structure which we have designed where the elements of nationhood that really matter are protected--their culture, education and religion; at least they all speak basically the same language. This is the rationale of ensuring that most of the provinces will have a clear majority for one of the national peoples.

Q: Even with constitutional human rights provisions in the peace documents, doesn't a cultural shift away from conquest toward trading states have to occur?

A: I agree with that. One of the most important things we have on our agenda is to have a conference of the former Yugoslav states--an economic conference, with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The new countries in the former Yugoslavia are going to have to get advice on how to develop their industry and stabilize their currencies.

Their communications are interrelated, their economies are interrelated. The countries are going to have to think economically together. Trade will bring them together along railway lines and roads that bear no relation to their new national boundaries. It is perfectly possible that we may have some common market coming out of this whole arrangement.

As I see it, the future of Bosnia will be settled by whether or not Serbs and Muslims start to trade with each other freely during the period of demilitarization under U.N. auspices.

Another area where the European institutions have a new role to play is in human rights. I went to Strasbourg and argued for a new status for countries that are waiting to be admitted into the Council of Europe. They would become part of a new category, which would allow them to be associated with the European Court of Human Rights. I hope Bosnia becomes the first.

The European Community is very powerful, trading-wise. Now we have not always used that economic power in a broad manner. In fact we've acted rather selfishly. And that's certainly been the case in dealing with Poland and some of the newer democratic countries. We have got to learn that we cannot adopt such selfish trading policies in the wider European community.

The important and interesting thing about Yugoslavia is that millions of Europeans identify with Yugoslavia as tourists. This is not "a faraway country of which we know nothing."

Europe has got to think in terms of buttressing these new former communist countries. They are very fragile states. They need training, economic links and human rights underpinnings from the European Community and the Council of Europe. If we can achieve this in the former Yugoslavia, it could also be very helpful in other new countries from the former Soviet Union and Soviet empire.

Q: Do you think there's any kind of key criterion we should use to determine which groups in Europe and the former Soviet Union should get self-determination and which will just have to live as minorities within larger groups?

A: Self-determination is a qualified right. It is a qualified right in the U.N. Charter, and it has been a qualified right through most of international diplomacy. We have to remember there are other international criteria as well--sovereignty, territorial integrity and human rights, to name only three. I do not think the only thing that should qualify is your capacity to fight for self-determination. One has to take account of history and circumstance. It is a subjective judgment. I do not think there is a general principle or doctrine which one can apply as to when self-determination becomes the overriding principle. General principles sound wonderful but solutions lie in the details.

Q: Is your "freelance'' diplomacy, more than that of diplomats representing individual governments, the wave of the future?

A: Yes, I think so, though Cyrus Vance does represent the United Nations as I do the European Community. We have to be careful to deliver our respective organizations. Vance has been able to bring the U.N. along in part because of his deep involvement in ex-Yugoslavia since October 1992, and a longstanding friendship with the secretary general. And I've been able to deliver the European Community because of constant communication. In retrospect, though, we should have communicated more with the United States.

The European Community, which is not known for its unanimity under pressure, has remained very robust, even when it came to the question of confronting the Clinton administration. It took a very firm view in the full knowledge that we were coming to the United Nations against the background of an American administration that appeared very unresponsive and even hostile to our package.

I am not as freelance as you might think. I communicate frequently with the president of the ec, and I can communicate frequently with the 12 capitals almost instantaneously through telegrams. The ec can sack me, but it is difficult. And, frankly, our freedom has been one of the more attractive parts of the job--but it is only a certain degree of freedom. I cannot abuse it. At the end of the day, the ec can easily just cut off my legs. And I have to judge how far I can go all the time. But I am not a diplomat, in case you haven't noticed!

Q: What do you think of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic?

A: Everybody will have their different views about Milosevic, and a lot of it depends on whether you have been scarred in past encounters. I have been fortunate in that my own working relationship with him has been only over the last six months and it has been, at least so far, over Bosnia and Croatia. When we visited Belgrade, Vance and I always sought him out, even when he was electorally unpopular, because we could see he was potentially a very powerful figure. We naturally treat him warily, but also as if he is somebody who is ready to play a constructive role. I think that Milosevic is the most important figure in the whole region. The question is, will he stand up to the likes of Seselj and Arkan or go with them further down the path of repression? I sense a realistic politician who will distance himself from them. It seemed to me unrealistic to expect him to have helped the peace process in December, which would only have benefited the then Milan Panic government in Yugoslavia. We sensed we had to wait until the elections had been held before we could get a constructive response on Bosnia from Milosevic. He has been more helpful since then in the Geneva process. Now we must persuade him to play a role in forcing the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan. The choice is Milosevic's; on what he decides hangs the fate of the Balkans.

I don't see a future for the Serbian nation, as represented within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, cut off, isolated in Europe, with their economy limping along. There is a better scenario for the Serbian people in Europe whether they be in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia or in the new country of Macedonia.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now