It’s been almost a quarter century since the Dayton peace accords ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which approximately 100,000 people were killed. The agreement mandated that a “safe and secure environment” be maintained in the country. NATO first shouldered that responsibility; later, at the end of 2004, the European Union took it on. Over the next decade and a half, implementation of the peace accords stalled. Yet the EU’s force, initially 7,000 strong, withered to an institutional fig leaf of 600 troops, a shockingly small presence that advertises the EU’s lack of resolve. This force can’t defend itself against mounting security threats, much less fulfill the mandate of the Dayton accords.

Weakness invites challenge, particularly in the Balkans. Illiberal actors such as China, the Gulf states, Turkey, and Russia have all rushed in to fill the vacuum left by Western listlessness. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serb-majority entity, Republika Srpska (RS), has fallen under Moscow’s influence to an even greater extent than neighboring Serbia, reinvigorating the Bosnian Serb secessionist movement. Without a liberal, countervailing force to restrain them, Bosnia’s unaccountable leaders grow ever bolder in their ethnic brinkmanship, making renewed conflict more likely and the potential consequences more dire. Bosnia is experiencing a failure of deterrence that only liberal democratic powers have the ability to redress.


Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, now chairing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, has long advocated for the country’s dissolution so the RS can either become an independent state or unify with Serbia. Bosnian Croat leaders openly support him, and NATO-member Croatia does so tacitly, since its ruling party expects to benefit politically from renewed ethnonational strife. Russia’s deepening engagement in the region has only strengthened Dodik’s hand. After he applauded Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 as an expression of “self-determination,” the Russian ambassador rewarded him with a visit. Later, he told Serbia’s then prime minister and now President Aleksandar Vucic that he had Russian support for an independence bid. Vucic refused to back him, presumably because he feared backlash from Western powers, but the two leaders have since grown closer. In May 2014, the RS officially changed its policy on the European Union Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) from support for the mission to calling for its withdrawal.

The United States has become a dangerously unreliable leader in the Balkans.

There have been other worrying signs that Bosnia and Herzegovina is on the road to violent dissolution. The RS National Assembly recently drew up plans to establish a 1,000-member auxiliary police unit that many feared could become a de facto RS army, separate from the national armed forces. RS lawmakers backed away from the plan late last month after coming under intense domestic and international pressure, only to turn around and announce a new gendarmerie that is sure to be just as divisive. (The country’s Bosniak-majority federal units predictably responded by planning to muster their own reserve police force.) RS authorities have also cultivated the loyalty of Bosnian Serb-majority infantry units within the country’s armed forces, which are still not completely integrated more than a decade after the war. A joint exercise between troops from one such infantry unit and the thoroughly politicized RS police in May was a troubling escalation in Dodik’s efforts to stoke secessionist fervor.  

Should a new round of armed violence threaten Bosnia, EUFOR will not be able to prevent or respond to it. Nearly a decade ago, EU military commanders assessed that a brigade—about 5,000 troops—would be required for EUFOR to meet its responsibilities. The main reason the force has failed to maintain that number is lack of will on the part of Europe. Bureaucratic EU institutions, and most EU member states, are unwilling even to admit there is a security issue in Bosnia, let alone to address it. The United Kingdom, typically inclined toward greater realism on the matter, has a contingent of troops on call to reinforce EUFOR. But the still unresolved Brexit mess has made London less assertive in Europe. So long as its relationship with the EU remains unclear, the United Kingdom is unlikely to intervene in the Balkans. 

As European resolve to continue peacekeeping in Bosnia diminishes, the United States has also become a dangerously unreliable leader in the Balkans. The Trump administration, which seems to practice its own form of Balkan politics at home, has actively stoked tensions in the region, both by pushing a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo that would effectively partition the latter—whetting the appetites of all those with unfulfilled agendas—and with its overall nationalist ethos. Given that in the event of a crisis, U.S. forces in Italy are supposed to provide backup to both EUFOR and NATO’s force in Kosovo, the U.S. administration’s apparent lack of commitment to the region—and the departure of its last internationalist, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis—has worrying implications for Bosnia’s stability.


With the United States and Europe unwilling or unable to step up, maintaining peace in Bosnia may fall to two liberal democratic allies already involved: Japan and Canada. As G-7 members, both sit on the body that oversees implementation of the Dayton peace accords. Japan’s ambassadors in recent years have been refreshingly frank about political corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the inefficacy of EU policy there. Canada, although it closed its embassy in Sarajevo ten years ago as part of a broader shift of diplomatic resources to the Asia-Pacific region, has emerged as a leading power promoting liberal democratic values on the international stage in this era of populist retrenchment. Together, these two countries could help restore a credible deterrent to renewed conflict in Bosnia—and by doing so, spark the EU to reassess its policy toward the region, as it should have done long ago. 

Japan and Canada both have long histories of contributing forces abroad. Credited with having midwifed the United Nations’ first peacekeeping mission in response to the 1956 Suez crisis, Canada has since contributed to blue helmet missions in the Middle East, Africa, and Haiti. More recently, it deployed troops to the Baltics to deter Russian aggression following the seizure of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Japan, restricted by Article 9 of its constitution, which outlaws war as a means to settling the country’s international disputes, only began participating in peacekeeping operations in 1991. Since then, it has contributed to international surveillance and anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa, peacekeeping operations in East Timor, and even the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Still, despite proclaiming itself a “proactive contributor to peace” and promoting an increasingly assertive foreign and security policy, Japan has refrained from contributing to missions with high potential for hostilities, such as the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and limited its deployments to small numbers of officers.

Japan and Canada can make an enormous difference at relatively little cost.

In Bosnia, Japan and Canada can make an enormous difference at relatively little cost. By deploying a few hundred soldiers each, the two countries could prevent Bosnia from descending into violence. For example, they could secure Brcko, a city in the northeast of Bosnia that separates the eastern and western halves of the RS and is governed, under the terms of the Dayton accords, as its own district. Recognizing the city’s strategic importance, the United States stationed a significant force near Brcko until it withdrew in 2004. A deterrent force placed there today would deal a major blow to Dodik’s secessionist ambitions and reduce the potential for future conflict. Moreover, if Japan and Canada offered troop contingents to bolster EUFOR and called for others to do the same, EU and NATO allies might be roused to send troops as well.


The United States, long the anchor of the liberal democratic order, has come unmoored under the administration of President Donald Trump. Both Japan and Canada have found this development unsettling, as evidenced by the inability of prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Justin Trudeau to hide their frustration when Trump rejected hitherto standard declarations at the G-7 summit last year. Ottawa has responded to the loss of a predictable North American partner by deepening its ties with Berlin and Paris. Working with Japan to ensure an international peace agreement would strengthen Canada’s liberal foreign policy project.

For Tokyo, leading in the Balkans would underscore its commitment to a rules-based world at a time of national foreign-policy reassessment. By offering to deploy, in short order, hundreds of soldiers to support an EU mission under European command (though with the United Nations’ imprimatur), Japan and Canada could strengthen ties among allies that historically have been more connected to the United States than to one another. With a potential second term for Trump on the horizon, Canada, Japan, and the European Union ought to make such a plan a priority.

That the people of Bosnia must once more look beyond Europe’s shores for allies who are willing to deter or react to a potential conflict is a sad testament to our times. But by demonstrating international, liberal, democratic solidarity on this issue, Japan and Canada can maintain the peace in Bosnia that was so costly to establish nearly 25 years ago.

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  • KURT BASSUENER is co-founder of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think tank. A Fulbright scholar, he is currently completing his Ph.D. at the University of St. Andrews.
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