War in the Balkans is widely thought to be atavistic, the product of a perverse time warp that unloads fourteenth-century hatreds at the edge of the Europe of Maastricht, high-speed trains and the Single Market. Its cruelty is imputed to impulses beyond modern grasp or response. This is mystification by history.

The situation in Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe is the result of perfectly understandable forces and events of recent times: nineteenth-century romanticism, the emergence of the modern nation state after the French Revolution, the collapse of Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. Yugoslavia itself did not exist until 1918. Its supposedly primordial hatreds are a twentieth-century phenomenon.

The forces at work in contemporary ethnic war are neither ancient for the most part, nor incomprehensible. They are a modern affair, and a great deal could be done to contain their atrocious consequences. The most important step would be for NATO to guarantee against forcible change of those political frontiers in Eastern, East-Central and Balkan Europe that have not yet been violated but are threatened because of ethnic claims and rivalries. This guarantee would have to come from NATO, as the United Nations has lost its military credibility in the course of the Yugoslav affair. Such a guarantee would be politically difficult to organize but is militarily feasible. NATO is the true Great Power in Europe today. If this is not done, ethnic conflict risks dominating the course of events in the eastern half of Europe and the former Soviet Union for years to come, with serious jeopardy to the narrow but crucial gains that European (and Western) political civilization has made since 1945.

Already the sanctions broken in the Yugoslav war, the thresholds of law and international convention breached, the conventions of civilized political conduct violated, and the precedents of atrocity thus far set, have undermined that qualified confidence in the future of international relations that seemed to be justified by communism's collapse, political union in Europe, and the achievements of Western political cooperation. It was possible to believe that a new form of international order and cooperation might be extended eastward in Europe, eventually to incorporate the former Soviet Union itself. Instead, the assumption that atrocity is natural to the Balkans has rationalized the United States' and the West's acquiescence in aggressive war and their indirect collaboration in Yugoslavia's ethnic cleansing over the past two years. U.N. humanitarian interventions have in practice facilitated ethnic purge, and the Vance-Owen plan, meant to bring peace to Yugoslavia, would only ratify ethnic cleansing's outcome. New ethnic violence is thus invited elsewhere, outside the former Yugoslavia and inside Serbia itself, where the party that now holds 30 percent of the parliamentary seats demands the expulsion of all the Hungarians, Croatians, Slovenes, Muslim Albanians and Slovaks still inside Serbia's borders. More than 100,000 non-Serbs have already left the province of Vojvodina, largely populated by Hungarians. Hungary itself consequently risks becoming involved in the conflict, as does Albania, which is rightly concerned with the fate of the Muslim minority inside Serbia and Montenegro.


The ethnic state is a product of the political imagination; it does not exist in reality. Ethnic nationalism is the product of a certain idea of the nation that originated in German romanticism and the German cultural and intellectual reaction to the universalizing ideas of the French Enlightenment and Revolution and other revolutionary wars. Romanticism glorified native earth, instinct, the priority of emotion over abstraction and thought, and hence the unity of "race" and state. It has, on the other hand, been the distinctive quality of the liberal democracies that they respect a principle of citizenship that is indifferent to "race." The two contemporary liberal states of which this is not true are Germany and Japan, and the drama of twentieth-century history for each has been closely connected to their traditional conceptions of themselves as racially exclusive. (Germany even now is altering its law of citizenship, in order to move away from the presumption that a German "race" exists.) Lord Acton, the great nineteenth-century liberal historian, wrote that by "attacking nationality in Russia, by delivering it in Italy, by governing in defiance of it in Germany and Spain," France's Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies had "called a new power into existence." Those conquered resisted the foreigner's rule, whatever his claim to be a liberator. "The protest against the domination of race over race ... grew into a condemnation of every state that included different races, and finally became the complete and consistent theory, that the state and the nation must be co-extensive." Thus did the ethnic state originate. The principle of universal national self-determination is, Acton concluded, "a retrograde step in history."

No nation in Europe is ethnically pure. All are intermixtures of successive migrations of peoples. The nineteenth-century idea of the ethnic state was nonetheless made the basis of the First World War settlements in East-Central and Southeastern Europe and was enshrined in the U.N. Charter in 1945. The right to self-determination of the ethnic nation has been a principle of American foreign policy (if often observed in the breach) since 1917.

The ethnic definition of citizenship makes citizenship a matter of nature itself, of "race." Serbia's war to create a Greater Serbia is a logical application of the ethnic principle. All Serbs outside Serbia's borders have to be brought into a single state. Until then, the Serbian nation is persecuted and oppressed, threatened (to use the vocabulary current today in Belgrade) with "extermination." It equally follows from this principle that Hungarians outside Hungary cannot be allowed to rest until they are reunited with the Hungarians of Hungary proper-which is impossible other than at the expense of four other nations that consider the regions populated by these Hungarians as historically their own, and whose own populations in those regions would in some new, if hypothetical, "greater" Hungary naturally become in their turn national minorities (and no doubt irredentists).

The idea of the ethnic nation thus is a permanent provocation to war. It is an idea that makes spies and prospective insurgents of those who have the misfortune to live outside the shifting frontiers identified with their nationality, inviting their persecution by the people among whom they live, and rationalizing national expansion by the governments to which they are ethnically attached.

The ethnic state's contradictory and potentially catastrophic consequences manifested themselves in the 1930s, were suppressed by Stalin and by the Cold War, and now are liberated-if that is the word-by the Cold War's end. They are the reality of contemporary Southeastern Europe and the Soviet successor states. However, the international community is not helpless before the consequences of this idea. The West's passivity and incompetence in dealing with the Yugoslav crisis, hardly inevitable, has been the result of choices made by Western governments.

Yugoslavia's "ethnic war" is waged among three communities possessing no distinct physical characteristics or separate anthropological or "racial" origins. They are the same people. They have distinct histories, which is another matter. Moreover, these histories overlap; they are not exclusive. The notion of an exclusive, and exclusionary, ethnic existence for each of the Yugoslav peoples is an invention. Hungary is the principal state in southeastern Europe that can make a serious claim to be a "race." The Hungarians are a central Asian people who arrived in this region in the ninth century, and whose Finno-Ugric language is linked to Finnish and Estonian and has nothing to do with the languages of Hungary's neighbors.

The Albanians are a non-Slav people speaking an Indo-European language. The Romanians speak a Latin language dating from their incorporation into the Roman empire. Here and elsewhere the original populations have subsequently absorbed other migrant peoples: Goths, Huns, Avars and others. The Romanians' claim that they are a Roman nation, reemerging, as R. W. Seton-Watson put it, "after a thousand years of silence," requires the most serious qualification. Modern Macedonians are Slavs, not the Macedonians of antiquity-as the Greek government, which opposes Macedonia's recognition as "Macedonia," has recently gone to intemperate efforts to explain. The idea that the origins of modern Greece itself lie in Attic Greece is the invention of wishful Greek intellectuals in the nineteenth century and of romantic English Hellenophiles.

Yugoslavs, Czechs, Slovaks, modern Macedonians and Bulgarians, on the other hand, all are Slavic peoples, whose difference from the Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, etc., is largely a function of the period of their migration into the areas where they now live. The "South Slavs"-Serbs, Croatians and Bosnian Muslims-are all the same people, speaking the same language, although the Serbs write it in the Cyrillic alphabet and the Croatians in the Latin. They are physically indistinguishable. They became separated because in the early Middle Ages larger events put them into different historical camps, when Christianity divided between Rome and Constantinople over the momentous issue of the day: whether the Third Entity of the Holy Trinity "proceeded" or "went forth" from both Father and Son, as a phenomenon of love rather than generation, or from the Father alone, as the Eastern bishops seemed to defend. The Serbs found themselves under Byzantine jurisdiction and the Croats under that of Rome.

What today are the Bosnians were on the eastern side of this divide, and Bosnia's Muslims are generally thought to have at that time been believers in the Bogomil heresy, a dualism or Manicheanism that said that all material creation is evil, and which was linked to the Albigensian or Cathar heresy in southern France. When Bosnia-Herzegovina was overrun by the Muslim Turks in the fifteenth century, these Bogomils are presumed to have concluded that, as the Orthodox Church had persecuted them, it was safer to make allies of the Moslem conquerors, which was also a sound career move, placing them in the ruling camp. Orthodox Christianity survived chiefly in the countryside, among Serbian peasants, while the Islamic converts became prosperous and urbanized, as they have remained to the present day. There is a marked element of class war in today's "ethnic" war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Yugoslavia's then is a war of histories, not ethnicity-unless, of course, the term ethnicity is considered to incorporate history as well, which would seem to rob it of its utility. But while each of the camps in today's war includes people who think they are avenging events from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries (from the battle of Kosovo to the Serbian military settlements' loss of privileges under Austrian rule), the political struggle between Serbs and Croatians is mainly an affair of the twentieth century, and their military conflict began only in 1941. There is no ancient and irrational conflict between them that exempts them from responsibility for their actions or from accountability to the norms of modern international law.

Since their liberation from the Ottoman Empire early in the nineteenth century, the Serbs have tried to unite the South Slavs, claiming primacy among them as the largest of them and the first to win modern independence. However, the Serb minority inside Hapsburg Hungary cooperated politically with the Croatians until the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then, in 1917, Serbia was chiefly responsible for the creation of Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of the South Slavs, under a Serbian monarch. The French historian of Yugoslavia, Paul Garde, says,

The first real manifestation of hostility dates from 1902, when the Serbs, proud of the renaissance of their people, began to contest the separate existence of a distinct Croatian nation, and a Serbian journalist in Zagreb, Nikola Stojanovic, published an article with the provocative title, 'Either Your Destruction or Ours,' which caused anti-Serbian riots. Nevertheless ... the gulf did not really open until 1918, when to their mutual unhappiness, the two people were united in a single state, the Yugoslav monarchy, where one of them, the Serbs, exercised an absolute domination, and the other was treated as a negligible entity. All the rest has come from that.

The struggle in Yugoslavia has today also become a war of political values, which is the particular reason why it is of importance to the future of neighboring regions. The government of Bosnia- Herzegovina in Sarajevo is formally committed to the principles of the nonethnic, secular democratic state, in which all of the communities of the former Yugoslavia could continue to live in association, as they did under Tito. The Bosnian people have, as the novelist Miroslav Karaulac bitterly remarks, "acquired the fatal habit of living together, a quality which the various armies now fighting one another are, by means of a bloodbath, attempting to correct."

The Serbian nationalists who are chiefly, although by no means exclusively, responsible for the war, deny the possibility of living together, insisting that historical fatality makes coexistence impossible. Yet coexistence was the reality of Yugoslavia from 1917 until 1991, with the exception of the four Second World War years, which saw a genocidal assault upon the Serbs by Croatia's fascist collaborationist wartime government-one cause of the atrocities practiced by Serbs in recent months. The Serbian nationalists and irredentists have spent the past 18 months working to turn their assertion of the impossibility of coexistence into fact, and for practical purposes have now undoubtedly succeeded. Hannah Arendt observed 50 years ago in connection with Stalinism and Nazism that it is quite possible, through lies accompanied by violence, to manufacture fact.


The response of the international community to the Yugoslav war has been a timid and unsuccessful effort to find a negotiated solution while halting the fighting and atrocities. In the course of this, the U.N. Security Council and the European Community have for practical purposes accepted the results of Serbian and Croatian aggression and "ethnic cleansing" as faits accomplis. The International Court of Justice at The Hague, the highest instance of international law, has declined to accept the Bosnian government's complaint of international aggression. The United Nations and the European Community have proposed to enforce Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnic partition by means of a reinforced military intervention to impose observance of the Vance-Owen plan-should that plan ever actually be accepted.

The international significance of these policies lies chiefly in the influence they will have upon the other territorially irreconcilable ethnic claims being made elsewhere. Tension exists between Hungary and several of its neighbors with Hungarian minorities. Hungary's present borders are those of the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, which partitioned Austria-Hungary in order to create the new ethnic states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and to reward Romania for having fought on the Allied side in the First World War-as well as for having invaded Hungary in 1919 to overthrow the communist seizure of power there, led by Béla Kun.

There were, until recent events in Vojvodina, 350,000 Hungarians inside Serbia, two million in Romania, 600,000 in Slovakia, and 170,000 in Ukraine. The Hungarians in Serbia now experience the apparent overture to active ethnic cleansing. There are serious difficulties between Hungarians in Romanian Transylvania and the Romanian authorities, particularly those at the local level. Hungary's concern to defend these Hungarians abroad is usually interpreted in the other countries as a potential threat to their territorial integrity. This can scarcely be thought surprising when the Prime Minister of Hungary, Jozsef Antall, a Christian Democrat with the reputation and record of a moderate, claims that he is "prime minister in the soul of fifteen million Hungarians"-there being only 10.5 million Hungarians inside Hungary. In January the Hungarian minister of defense, Lajos Für, declared that "fifteen million Hungarians have their eyes fixed on us. We must prove ourselves worthy of this historic challenge."

The implication is that the Hungarians of Romanian Transylvania, of Vojvodina in Serbia, and those in southern Slovakia and Ukraine are not unqualifiedly the citizens of the countries in which they live, but "in their soul" give their allegiance to the prime minister of Hungary. Equally implicit in the Hungarian officials' statements is that someday Hungary will have to do something about this situation of Hungarians abroad. The Hungarians have refused thus far to include an engagement of mutual respect for the existing frontier in a projected new treaty with Romania. The danger in all of this is obvious. There is serious risk in the deteriorating and persecuted condition of the Albanian majority in the province of Kosovo in Serbia, and in Sanjak, near Montenegro, provoking instability on the Albanian and Macedonian borders of the new, truncated Yugoslavia, with Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey all interested parties.

Any new attempt to find solutions based on the principle of ethnic self-determination is likely to prove as vain, if not destructive, as it has been in the past. The insecurity of ethnic minorities and majorities cannot be eliminated by redrafting maps, as in the Vance-Owen plan, since no map can satisfactorily separate the nationalities of the region and satisfy their ambitions and historical claims. These are the reasons why the Vance-Owen plan could only intensify insecurities and perpetuate the intellectual, political and moral corruption of national revanchism and ethnic revindication. No attempt to rework the territorial divisions of the region on ethnic lines or to put minorities under U.N. protection can be expected to work other than through internationally imposed population transfers of an utterly unacceptable scale and nature.

The Vance-Owen plan would not even make peace in Bosnia, since the Bosnian Serbs consider themselves cheated by its terms, and remain determined eventually to link the newly designated Serbian cantons with Serbia proper, so as to create a Greater Serbia. The other communities rightly regard themselves victimized by the Serbs and will await their opportunity for revenge. It is at best a plan for an armistice, during which the United Nations will attempt to protect the Bosnian Serbs against their victims, and at the same time prevent them from extending their holdings. This military assignment is far more daunting and open-ended than a direct military intervention to halt the aggression would have been two years ago, or even in summer 1992. A military intervention to impose the Vance-Owen settlement upon a population that is virtually unanimous in rejecting it is a task without practical limits or a reasonable prospect of success.


Small wars in the Balkans do not directly threaten the West's security today because Great Power Europe is not, as it was in 1914, a tinderbox awaiting a light. The danger that comes from successful aggression and ethnic purge in Yugoslavia is primarily moral and political, since these events contradict the reign of order and legality produced in Western Europe, and among the democracies as a whole, since the end of the Second World War. An effective international guarantee of existing frontiers in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, so as to deprive transnational ethnic rivalry of its political and military explosiveness, could provide one substantial form of defense against the spread of violence and disorder. Such a guarantee would undoubtedly have to be implemented by NATO, itself a model of multinational cooperation among nations whose history until 1945 was of hatreds and war. This guarantee would give the governments of Eastern Europe the assurance, warning and relief of knowing that the Western powers have collectively undertaken to prevent any new frontier change in the region that has not been peacefully negotiated by the interested parties and condoned by international consensus.

The guarantee would have to be credible. Any violation or threat to a frontier should produce a NATO deployment in the threatened country in support of its territorial defense. The NATO force must be given a mandate to fight if necessary. There would also have to be diplomatic intervention and generally a more activist and interventionist Western policy in defense of national minority rights in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The precedents and legal basis for this already exist in the institutions of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe. They are not yet effectively used.

It is a policy on which agreement seems achievable, reuniting the Western powers divided by the Yugoslav tragedy, by giving them a common positive program. It is capable of recovering for the West moral as well as political ground lost by their fiasco in Yugoslavia. It could lay a base of stability for the construction in Eastern Europe of interstate relations of security and confidence, freed of the threat of transnational ethnic claims, offering the possibility for a peaceful clarification and improvement of the status of ethnic minorities, and perhaps opening the way to an eventual mutual security arrangement among the East European governments themselves, possibly in a new association with NATO.

One speaks of such a new association with reference to Southeastern and Eastern Europe alone, and not the Soviet successor states, because political realism, a sense of what is attainable, so dictates. The ethnic conflicts of the ex-Soviet states are beyond the competence of the Western powers to influence constructively (rather than destructively), and for the most part are beyond their practical reach. The West effectively has already decided to make no attempt to interfere in conflicts in the ex-Soviet Confederation of Independent States, other than, probably, the case of an attempt by Russia to reincorporate the Baltic nations. There is little the West can actually do about the outcome of struggles between Azeris and Armenians, Tajik Muslims and National Communists, the peoples of Ingushetia and Northern Ossetia, and those of Southern Ossetia and Georgians. These also may reasonably, if cruelly, be judged to be of slight consequence to the West, except as they may destabilize Russia's recovery.

The Balkan and East European situations are different. An enlarged Balkan war, potentially involving Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, or Hungary, a candidate for European Community membership, or Bulgaria, could not be without serious consequences for Germany, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Russia, which has historical and emotional links to Bulgaria and Serbia-therefore affecting the security of the United States as well.


Nothing rationalizes the horrors inflicted on and by the peoples of former Yugoslavia during the past 18 months. Certainly history does not justify them. These atrocities have been possible only by a deliberate submission by the individuals involved to a collective nihilism of essentially ideological origin. This fact is apparent in the chronic drunkenness of militiamen who live with the knowledge that they have murdered and raped their neighbors and friends. It is evident in the lies coolly spoken by the Bosnian Serb physicians and university professors who, from their headquarters in the hills over Sarajevo, direct their campaign of ethnic purification. For all of them the passage to a radiant future (or a radiant past, as it has been better put) passes through a darkened tunnel of repudiation of what they have been until now, as citizens of the Yugoslav state that existed since 1918 and as professionals and intellectuals, men and women. They are deep in this tunnel now, and many are frightened to emerge. It is visible in their faces.

The same thing can certainly happen elsewhere, as it has happened before-and not that long ago. The West has managed to survive the totalitarian experience and the horrors then committed, constructing a novel community of liberal states that has seemed to contain in it a promise of expansion from its Atlantic and West European core, so as to bring other states into a moral as well as political community in which war has been ruled out as an agency of national interest. What has gone on in Yugoslavia constitutes a savage challenge to this order. If events in Yugoslavia are allowed to set the precedent for the conduct of other peoples caught up in the passionate fictions of ethnicity, the consequences will be very bad for everyone. This does not have to be so. But there is little evidence yet of a Western willingness to do the practical things that might prevent so dark an outcome.

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