Josip Glaurdić

In Pursuit of Unity: The West and the Breakup of Yugoslavia1





Case study 2


Yugoslavia broke up twenty years ago, but the story of its disintegration and of the international community’s response to the carnage which followed it remains relevant today. Most obviously, the people of Yugoslavia’s successor states still have to live with the consequences of that breakup. Their region has been economically devastated, as well as socially and politically divided. The ties between the republics and peoples of the South Slav union were dramatically severed in a series of conflicts that gave a new and more brutal meaning to the term balkanisation. In order to truly grasp the nature and the repercussions of the conflicts which accompanied Yugoslavia’s breakup, one only needs to look at the ethnic maps of the region before and after the wars. In place of diverse communities, large areas of the former country are now defined by the strictly delineated frontiers of exclusion as between the two constituent parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The significance of the story of Yugoslavia’s breakup, however, extends beyond the borders of its successor states. The Yugoslav crisis marked the beginning of a new era in European affairs in which the European Community – transformed into the European Union by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 – was to have a far greater role in security matters. Yugoslavia was the first true test of the post-Cold War European order – test eagerly handed over to the EC/EU by the administration of George H. W. Bush. ‘It was time to make the Europeans step up to the plate and show that they could act as a unified power,’ US Secretary of State James Baker later claimed.2 Or, as one more cynical observer of US policy at the time explained the decision of the Bush administration to turn Yugoslavia over to the Europeans, ‘Many, if not most, senior and sub-cabinet-level officials argued...that Europe would fail the test, and so would be painfully reminded of its continuing need for a strong American presence.’3

To say that the EC/EU failed the Yugoslav test would be a dramatic understatement. Its failure was demonstrated not only by the humiliating inability of its diplomats and foreign policy makers to halt the process which turned the former Yugoslav region from a front-runner of East European reforms into a dark hole on the map of Europe whose troubles continue to destabilise the continent to this day. The failure of the EC/EU was also demonstrated by the actual manner in which its diplomats and foreign policy makers displayed their futility. With every new violent twist in the crisis they appeared to be more concerned with outmanoeuvring each other than with solving real issues on the ground. At a time when the EC was deepening its integration in much more than economic matters and supposedly becoming a united international actor, the divisions and the diplomatic gamesmanship of its foreign policy makers made their whole involvement appear as if it belonged to the nineteenth and not to the brink of the twenty-first century. Their failures in Yugoslavia were indeed so devastating and so profound that the transformation of the EC/EU into a unified actor capable of any common foreign policy was for years rightly considered to be impossible.

Although Western leaders took their failures from the time of Yugoslavia’s dissolution (1989-1991) to a whole new level during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995), their responses to the Yugoslav crisis marked the beginning of a significant shift in their conceptions of a series of aspects of international security. Yugoslavia’s breakup had great influence on the theory and practice of humanitarian intervention, preventive diplomacy, conflict management, international arbitration, and the role of the United Nations, the EU and NATO in all of that and more. NATO’s 1999 Operation Allied Force which led to the withdrawal of Serbia’s troops from Kosovo, for example, was a direct product of the West’s lessons about the regime of Slobodan Milošević from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And the impact of the success of that operation on Western perceptions of and responses to a number of international crises – from Iraq to Libya – was profound.

The story of Yugoslavia’s breakup also remains relevant today because it sheds a revealing light on a momentous period in the history of Europe. The end of the Cold War was a time when all sources of stability which stemmed from the balance of power between the two blocs rapidly disappeared with dramatic consequences. Whereas Western Europe followed the withdrawal of the Soviet threat with an unprecedented acceleration of integrative efforts, vital East European structures crumbled together with Moscow’s power. The end of the Cold War was ushering in a different era for the continent and the entire world. The EC/EU was supposed to act in unison and to lead Europe toward becoming whole and free. With the successful experience of the Persian Gulf intervention, the United Nations was supposed to no longer be a paralysed guardian of international collective security, and the United States was supposed to lead the global community toward a new order in which aggression would not be tolerated. Great powers were supposed to be willing to take on medium powers in order to protect small powers.4 And yet, at least when it came to Yugoslavia, that was not the case.

So why did the Western powers fail to arrest Yugoslavia’s descent into violence? And why did their diplomatic efforts result in such profound divisions? In order to understand the roots of Western policies toward the breakup of Yugoslavia, we must first reconstruct the decision making process of the Western leaders – to read history forward. And in order to do that, we have to be able to answer two fundamental questions: what did the Western policy makers know about Yugoslavia and when did they know it? Although most official documents from that period are still unavailable to researchers, declassification through various freedom of information acts has enabled us to get a glimpse at what was known about Yugoslavia in Western cabinets at the time. The US Central Intelligence Agency – possibly because it performed remarkably well in estimating the development of the Yugoslav crisis – has thus far been the most forthcoming in this regard. Although Yugoslavia was virtually an open book to Western media which followed its long descent into mayhem in detail, the reports of the CIA from the period give additional weight to our assessment of what was known and when. The analysis of those reports is unequivocal: the White House (and likely all other decision making centres in the West since intelligence was most often pooled and Yugoslavia was thoroughly covered by all intelligence agencies due to its Cold War geopolitical position) had extensive and detailed information on what was taking place in Yugoslavia. And the conclusion of that information was clear: the principal culprit for the destabilisation of the South Slav federation was the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević which first wanted to recentralise Yugoslavia and – once that failed in early 1990 – to build a Greater Serbia on its ruins.

From the very onset of Milošević’s nationalist campaign in the spring of 1987, which was focused on the status of Kosovo, until the beginning of real war in Croatia in the summer of 1991, the CIA provided detailed and most often exceptionally prescient analyses of Yugoslav developments and of the poisonous effects of the actions of Milošević’s regime.5 Its reports from the spring, summer, and fall of 1987, for example, clearly identified Serbia’s leadership under Milošević as the main instigator of tensions in Kosovo which were to be used as a pretext to reassert full control over the province. The reports suggested this policy was fatal for the state of inter-ethnic relations in Kosovo and possibly the whole of Yugoslavia.6 The goal of Milošević’s regime in unleashing Serbian nationalism fomented by the status of Kosovo onto Yugoslavia was, however, not limited to Serbia’s borders. An extensive CIA report from 1 August 1987, for instance, asserted that Yugoslavia still could ‘revert to greater authoritarianism or collapse into instability,’ primarily due to the threat from the centralist camp run by Serbia’s leadership whose ‘hidden agenda’ was to ‘use recentralisation to re-establish its dominance over a unified Yugoslavia.’7 Once Milošević’s regime started a large campaign of mass rallies and demonstrations directed at its opponents within and outside of Serbia (which led The Economist in the fall of 1988 to nickname the Serbian leader ‘Mussovic’8), the CIA was clear that the ultimate goal of that campaign was to ‘produce a Serbian-led national regime dominated by Milošević.’9

The Agency’s most impressive intelligence work arguably came in the fall of 1990 with a sequence of reports which culminated in the now famous National Intelligence Estimate titled ‘Yugoslavia Transformed’.10 According to this NIE, Yugoslavia was to cease to function as a federal state within one year and dissolve within two. ‘No all-Yugoslav political movement has emerged to fill the void left by the collapse of the Titoist vision of a Yugoslav state, and none will.’ This included the Federal Prime Minister Ante Marković, whose reform achievements were seen as ‘mostly illusory’. All alternatives to dissolution, particularly the confederal plan which Slovenia and Croatia were proposing at the time, were to be defeated because of Serbia’s opposition out of its fear of losing influence. In fact, Serbia’s manoeuvring space was so limited that it was to be able to ‘“save” the unity of the Serbian folk only at risk of civil war.’ Such a conflict was seen as particularly likely in Kosovo where there were signs of a developing ‘protracted armed uprising of Albanians.’ Civil war was seen as less likely to develop in the form of open inter-republic warfare, but was still deemed dangerously possible. ‘The most plausible scenario for inter-republic violence,’ according to the CIA, was ‘one in which Serbia, assisted by disaffected Serbian minorities in the other republics, moves to reincorporate disputed territory into a greater Serbia, with [text illegible] and bloody shifts of population. The temptation to engage in such adventures will grow during the period of this Estimate.’

While the declassified CIA reports from this period are highly indicative of the sophistication of intelligence on Yugoslavia available to Western diplomats and foreign policy makers, this of course does not necessarily mean that those reports were read or taken seriously. The issue is, however, that Slobodan Milošević and his associates openly announced their strategic goals both in public as well as in private meetings with their Western interlocutors. Milošević himself, for example, at a luncheon meeting with the Western ambassadors in Belgrade on 16 January 1991 openly and confidently announced Serbia’s plans for a new pan-Serb state on the ruins of Yugoslavia. He asserted that he was ready to let Slovenia go, that Macedonia was still under discussion, but that the Serb-inhabited regions of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were to be part of the new state. His warning to the ambassadors was explicit and clearly implied the use of the Yugoslav Army (JNA), which was already clearly in his camp: ‘If [the new Serb state] is not attainable peacefully, one forces Serbia to use the tools of power which we possess, but [the other republics] do not.’11 Declassified documents of the Foreign Office show that six weeks later Milošević made a similar argument to the British delegation led by the then Minister of State Douglas Hogg.12

Documents of the Western governments from the period after the beginning of real war in Slovenia and Croatia in the summer of 1991, however, are much more difficult to come by. The process of declassification is long, convoluted, and most often unsuccessful. Obviously, the wars and the international diplomatic efforts were thoroughly covered by the Western media so it would be difficult for anyone to argue that the strategic objectives or the methods of the war machine controlled by Milošević’s regime were unclear. If there are any doubts, however, what ought to dispel them is the truly remarkable evidence which surfaced during the trial of Slobodan Milošević in The Hague: more than two hundred intercepts of telephone conversations within Milošević’s inner circle from the period between May 1991 and May 1992.13 The story of how these intercepts were created and eventually used by the Tribunal and released into the public sphere is partly shrouded in mystery. The Counterintelligence Service of the Yugoslav Army, the State Security Service of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and different foreign intelligence services (usually British and American) all feature more or less prominently in the various interpretations of the origin of the intercepts. Whatever the case may be, it is certain that the Tribunal ultimately acquired the intercepts from the British and American governments, though only after a protracted public battle which was particularly heated with the Conservative government of John Major.

No matter which intelligence service created the intercepts, credible press sources suggest that Western intelligence services were in possession of the intercepts virtually as the recorded conversations were taking place. Their ‘contemporaneous intelligence’ in fact ‘convinced them that Milošević’s responsibility for ethnic cleansing and the general conduct of the war in 1991 and ‘92 were direct and clear… It was an elaborate and very systematic series of campaigns, employing a combination of military assets and local paramilitaries.’14 Indeed, the intercepts presented as evidence at The Hague Tribunal substantiate the claims that the mechanism of the Serbian war machine which undoubtedly committed horrendous crimes during the war in Croatia and later Bosnia-Herzegovina was constructed and commanded by Milošević and his closest associates. The analysis of the intercepts also strongly suggests that Milošević’s war machine had a very specific strategic goal crafted by Serbia’s most renowned nationalist ideologues. This goal was ‘the unification of Serbs’ in a new Greater Serbian state that would be built on the ruins of federal Yugoslavia at the expense of both Croatia and of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

What did the Western diplomats and foreign policy makers, therefore, know about Yugoslavia and when did they know it? It seems safe to conclude that they most likely had all the necessary information, and that they had it in real time. The dynamics and the driving forces of Yugoslavia’s steady descent to war were self-evident to anyone paying attention, often openly pre-announced, and accurately analysed by those whose task it was to analyse them. Besides, the Yugoslav crisis evolved over a long period of time and its slide toward extreme violence was gradual. Nothing about its development was either sudden or novel.

And what can we say about the actual responses of Western diplomats and foreign policy makers to the events in Yugoslavia? According to Sir Percy Cradock, who served as the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the foreign policy advisor to the UK prime minister, foreign policy at the time was most profoundly affected by the rapid pace of events in a number of international theatres – from the Persian Gulf to the dissolving Soviet Union and the uniting Germany: ‘Policy recommendations were made by overstretched advisers working at breakneck speed and digested by leaders under even greater stress. This meant a dependence on idées reçues, drafts on a dwindling intellectual capital amassed years before.’15 And according to the then UK ambassador in Belgrade, Sir Peter Hall, this dependence led to his government and the governments of other Western powers basing their Yugoslav policies on the idée reçue that the struggling federation had to remain united.16 Such a position closely mirrored the prevalent fears in Western capitals regarding the consequences of a possible Soviet breakup. As one State Department official told the US congressmen who were eager for the United States to act in favour of Croatia and Slovenia in the summer of 1991, ‘Don’t make a big deal about them. The Serbs are trying to hold the country together... Don’t break up [Yugoslavia] because [people in] the Soviet Union will use it as a model.’ And the consequences of the Soviet Union breaking up could be ‘nuclear.’17 Information which was steadily coming in from Yugoslavia was thus most often not properly responded to simply because it did not fit this framework and because it went against the obvious status quo bias of the policy makers.

The perfect example was the aforementioned National Intelligence Estimate of the CIA. According to the head of the team of analysts who wrote the NIE, Marten van Heuven, ‘nobody was glad to get this predictive assessment’ and, worse, it was actually ‘ignored’.18 The US ambassador in Belgrade Warren Zimmermann and the Director of European Affairs at the National Security Council Robert Hutchings explain the lack of impact of the NIE by blaming the document’s ‘bald assertion that nothing could be done’ and the ‘smug finality with which [its judgments] were rendered.’19 This explanation provided by two important players in the US foreign policy team speaks volumes about the thinking in the Bush administration, particularly because the NIE did not suggest ‘nothing could be done’ – it suggested little could be done to preserve the Yugoslav federation. However, since the Western powers at the time were of the opinion that the support of unity was the only thing worthwhile doing in Yugoslavia, this was exactly the problem with the NIE which rendered the whole document ‘ignorable’ – it was simply telling the US and Western policy makers what they did not want to hear.

Indeed, if there was one overarching feature of Western policy toward Yugoslavia in the run-up to its breakup (and beyond), it was this clear preference for the Yugoslav federation to remain united. The signals which the Yugoslav political protagonists received from their Western counterparts at every point of Yugoslavia’s long crisis were not those of destabilisation of the federation or encouragement for its various parts to pursue independence. On the contrary – the creators of Western policy were virtually unanimous in giving little or no support for the federation’s periphery. What they did do was to repeatedly indicate their strong preference for Yugoslavia’s continued existence and their backing for the foundational pillars of the central government in Belgrade. No one with any influence on Western foreign policy wished to see Yugoslavia disintegrate.

This strong preference for Yugoslavia’s unity took the form of a number of problematic policy choices in the last years of Yugoslavia’s existence. Western governments turned a blind eye to the extremely violent interventions of the police and Army units against the Kosovo Albanians in the late 1980s. They had no reaction when Milošević destroyed Yugoslavia’s constitutional equilibrium by obliterating Kosovo’s and Vojvodina’s autonomies in all but name in February and March of 1989. They took the side of Milošević’s camp in Yugoslavia’s long inter-republican debates on whether to centralise or devolve more power to the republics between 1987 and 1990. They had no reaction to the Belgrade-instigated mutiny of the Krajina Serbs against the Croatian government in August 1990. They outright rejected Slovenia’s and Croatia’s proposal for a Yugoslav confederation in the fall of 1990. And last, but not least, they gave signals of understanding for a possible intervention of the Yugoslav Army. According to highest Yugoslav officials, Western powers signalled they would have no reaction to a JNA intervention against Slovenia in the spring of 1988 and in early December 1989.20 The former UK ambassador in Belgrade, Sir Peter Hall, claims that ‘certainly many people [in the West] would have been vastly relieved if the JNA had proved to be prepared to actually step in for a federal Yugoslavia.’21 Unsurprisingly, once the JNA finally did intervene in Slovenia in June 1991, a number of Western governments offered equivocal responses. Douglas Hurd’s under-secretary, Mark Lennox-Boyd, for example, suggested in the House of Commons ‘that the Yugoslav federal army might have, under the constitution, a role in restoring order if there were widespread civil unrest.’22 All of this was largely the product of that idée reçue that Yugoslavia should be maintained against all odds or reason. It was also, however, the product of an underlying sentiment – that went against the available intelligence – that Yugoslavia’s north-western republics of Slovenia and Croatia (which were clamouring for democracy and devolution, and eventually for independence) were more of a threat to regional stability than Milošević’s Serbia or the JNA.

Since a number of popular accounts of the Yugoslav events particularly single out the newly unified Germany as supposedly expanding the reach of its power to the Balkans and flexing its new foreign policy muscles by inducing Slovenia and Croatia to pursue independence and thus destabilising Yugoslavia, it has to be clearly said that such interpretations are false. Until the breakout of real war in the summer of 1991, German foreign policy makers did not stray from the international consensus on the preservation of Yugoslavia’s unity. Of all the members of the EC, Germany had the strongest and most developed economic and political ties with Yugoslavia, and it was an unofficial sponsor of Yugoslavia’s efforts to deepen its relations with the EC. In the words of Yugoslavia’s last secretary for foreign affairs Budimir Lončar – a man of clearly Yugoslavist orientation – Germany ‘was very interested in seeing that the Yugoslav crisis does not develop into violent conflict. Anticipating the changes in the East, it was interested in Yugoslavia maintaining its leading role, as a frontrunner of better and easier transitions to democracy. That is why Germany supported Yugoslavia energetically.’23 According to intelligence reports available to the Yugoslav leadership in February 1991, Germany’s foreign policy apparatus was unambiguously supportive of Yugoslavia’s unity.24 German foreign policy makers believed Yugoslavia’s continuing existence was essential for regional stability, but they also wished to secure its unity because of their interest in maintaining the unity of the Soviet state. That is why, according to a German diplomat working on Yugoslav affairs in the Auswärtiges Amt at the time, ‘Everything that was happening in Yugoslavia was viewed through Soviet glasses. [Foreign Minister Genscher’s] idea was, “Well, Yugoslavia disintegrating is a bad example for Soviet disintegration, and this was bad for us since we needed a Soviet Union capable of action because we needed to get a deal with them on our unity.” This was widely accepted in the ministry.’25

This connection between the events in the Soviet Union and those in Yugoslavia was indeed of crucial importance for many Western foreign policy makers. Their aforementioned questionable policy choices in Yugoslavia which were rooted in their strong preference for its unity actually closely mirrored their similar policies toward the developments in the USSR. Western responses to reactionary relapses of the Gorbachev regime in a series of violent episodes from the Caucasus to the Baltics in the period between 1989 and 1991 ranged from complete silence to muted ambivalence. James Baker notoriously remarked to his associates ‘We’ve got no dog in this fight,’ when he left Belgrade in June 1991 after his unsuccessful marathon of meetings with the Yugoslav protagonists. His crass remark epitomised his decision to detach America from the Yugoslav crisis. This was, however, not the first time a high official in the Bush administration stated the United States ‘had no dog’ in an East European ‘fight’. The president’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, said the same thing in April 1989 after the Soviet troops violently suppressed Georgian protests in Tbilisi.26 This desire of the Western leaders to discourage possible independence of Soviet republics extended well into the summer of 1991 and beyond – just as it did in the case of Yugoslavia. As President Bush stated in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on 1 August 1991, ‘Freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred.’27

The main conclusion we can draw from the actions of the Western leaders at the time is that the tectonic shifts in the international system did not make them embrace the opportunity to mould the world into something better or more just. The crumbling of the Soviet bloc actually made them concerned for the stability of the European and global security system. The end of the Cold War may have been hailed as a victory of freedom and democracy, but what was in fact desperately craved was stability. President Bush’s talk of the ‘new world order’, which was the dominant narrative of the new international security system at the time, was just that: talk. His administration may have used the rhetoric of Wilson and Carter, but it thought and acted like Nixon.28 This in practice meant that any perceived changes to the status quo were automatically greeted with a knee-jerk negative reaction, especially if they were related to the very existence of states. In the ‘realist’ calculation of the Western policy makers, any challenge to the continuing existence of states like Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union was accelerating uncertainty at a time when, more than anything else, the world needed certainty.

The resulting Western consensus on the need to preserve the Yugoslav federation remained stable until the outbreak of real hostilities in the summer of 1991. Once the images of tanks on the streets, refugee columns, and artillery and aviation attacks on civilian targets poured onto television newscasts, this consensus was gone. Press coverage of the JNA’s botched ten-day intervention in Slovenia and of the subsequent vicious assault of the coalition of JNA and volunteer Serb forces on Croatia’s villages and towns like Vukovar and Dubrovnik led to a dramatic shift of opinion in all Western publics.29 However, whereas the public opinion in the West was now nearly unanimous on the need for a diametrically opposite approach of the Western governments toward Yugoslavia, a real shift of perspective took place over the course of that summer in the foreign policy apparatus of only one major Western power: Germany.

This change in Germany’s view was rooted in the challenge that the Serbian aggression presented to the principled ideas of German foreign policy makers – ideas which helped shift the focus away from Germany’s interests in favour of Yugoslavia’s preservation.30 Indeed, the nature and the aims of the Serbian aggression galvanised some of the most deeply ingrained principled ideas within the German foreign policy community: the idea of peaceful self-determination (which had been the basis for Germany’s reunification), the idea of strong anti-expansionism and anti-irredentism (which stemmed from Germany’s own World War II traumas), and the idea of a strong commitment to the growing capability of European multilateral institutions (which was the foundation of Germany’s post–World War II foreign policy).31 It was Milošević’s challenge to these three principled ideas which shifted the spotlight of German foreign policy makers away from their material interests in the continuing existence of Yugoslavia – and if any country had real material interests in the perpetuation of the Yugoslav federation, it was Germany – to the moral interests of self-determination for Yugoslavia’s republics and Europe’s strong resistance to Serbia’s expansionism. German foreign policy makers were the first who understood the consequences of the available intelligence and the overwhelming evidence of Milošević’s plans. They believed that such open aggression in the heart of Europe should not go unchecked and that the best way to achieve this was by recognising the independence of the Yugoslav republics and thus removing the possible incentive of territorial expansion from the table.

The result of this German shift was a profound split within the Western alliance, which was compounded by the distrust – particularly felt in France and Britain – of the newly reunited Germany. French foreign policy makers were deeply troubled by the pace of Germany’s reunification in 1990 and viewed Germany’s concurrent active participation in and enthusiasm for East European transitions with great concern. Their primary interest was a deepening of West European integration, which was mainly motivated by an effort to further bind Germany.32 The end of the Cold War also had a dramatic effect on the position of Britain in European affairs. As William Wallace has argued, ‘In the Cold War international order, Britain was the pivot of “the West,” the essential partner of the United States in providing security guarantees to a beleaguered Western Europe. In the world which is emerging, its position looks more like that of England under Henry VIII: a kingdom on the edge of a European system, attempting both to play a part in continental politics and to assert its independence of continental constraints.’33 The primary interest of the British foreign policy makers was thus the maintenance of America’s role in European politics and security. The British did not share French enthusiasm for the extension of West European integration into security matters but did share French concerns with the pace of Germany’s reunification. Their reasons for these concerns were, however, different. The British feared that the position of ‘pivot of the West’ and essential European partner of the United States was now going to belong to the united Germany.34 These profound systemic divisions among the three principal European powers led to the advancement of problematic historical comparisons exploited by Milošević’s media machinery and much too easily perpetuated by Western policy makers and diplomats. Germany’s support for Yugoslavia’s north-western republics was, once again particularly in France and Britain, portrayed as grounded in the old regional alliances from the two world wars. French and British foreign policy makers took up these allegations with real enthusiasm and used them both publicly and privately to further the claim that the West now had to fear a rising Germany. ‘The days of the “good Germans” are almost over and… the world must brace itself for the worst,’ complained President Mitterrand at the time.35 Such arguments, coupled with equally prejudicial arguments about the different Yugoslav sides, gave the West’s diplomatic effort a particularly unpalatable image.

This image was, nevertheless, simply a façade for a much more problematic dynamic in the West’s involvement in the crisis. Faced with Germany’s clear policy shift, France and Britain began to adjust their preferences regarding Yugoslavia not based on what was happening on the ground, but based on their preferences regarding Europe and Germany’s role in it. The French and British mistrust of Germany, together with their continuing support for the preservation of (the largest possible) Yugoslavia, thus led to a series of policy choices which gave Milošević’s regime free reign to continue its campaign in Croatia and later Bosnia-Herzegovina. No matter how obvious the activities of the war machine under his direct control throughout the summer and fall of 1991 in Croatia, Milošević was able to count on France and Britain – periodically supported by the Bush administration from the sidelines – to dilute the decisions and declarations of the EC. ‘We had no strategic interest in the Balkans, no commercial interest, no selfish interest at all. We simply wished that quiet should return,’ British foreign minister Douglas Hurd later claimed.36 The actions of France, the UK, and the US, however, led many to believe that their foreign policy makers were convinced that quiet would return only if the stronger side won. As one German diplomat noted of the negotiating strategy used by the proponents of this school of thought during the period: ‘There was always a certain tendency of pressuring the weaker party because the stronger party didn’t budge.’37 The unwillingness of London, Paris, and Washington to punish Serbia for its obvious sponsorship of the violence in Croatia and its intransigence at the negotiating table during the summer and fall of 1991; the constant improvements of the deals Milošević was getting at the Conference on Yugoslavia chaired by Lord Carrington during the critical months of October and November of that year; the institution of the arms embargo (first by the EC in July 1991 and then by the UN in September 1991) on all sides even though it was known that it heavily favoured the Serbs and the JNA – all of this and so much more gave the Western effort an air of appeasement. The same men who preached the liberal gospel of European integration, international cooperation, and a ‘new world order’ in which no aggression would be allowed to stand, behind closed doors argued that ‘only a strong Serbia can ultimately guarantee security in the Balkans.’38

In the end, after more than twenty thousand dead and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes, Germany managed to push the EC to recognise Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence in January 1992. The war in Croatia came to a halt. Yugoslavia was no more. Germany, however, paid a heavy price for its diplomatic activism. It was subsequently shoved aside on practically all matters related to Europe’s policy in the Balkans.39 Some of this had to do with a self-imposed introspection and withdrawal on the part of the German foreign policy makers and diplomats, who were stunned by the level of criticism to which they were subjected. Some of it, on the other hand, had to do with German diplomats literally being cut out of the negotiating process. It is difficult to say whether this resentment toward Germany actually had anything to do with the Yugoslav crisis. Perhaps for those of the more realist inclination, as one European official said to the Daily Telegraph, this had to do with ‘the recognition of Germany as a Superpower.’40 And for the others, who were of a more liberal and Europeanist conviction, this had to do with the fact that Germany seemed to be willing to challenge the EC’s unity in order to pursue what it saw as an effective and just policy. As another European official later lamented, ‘We could not have solved the Yugoslav crisis, but at least we could and should have stayed together… united in unsuccessful policy… in failure, but nonetheless united.’41 The unity of the EC and the perceived strategic benefits of maintaining the unity of Yugoslavia, for many in the Western foreign policy community seemed to be more important than what was actually taking place on the ground.

The catastrophic consequences of that position are arguably the greatest lesson of the whole story of Yugoslavia’s breakup and the West’s responses to it. This lesson appears to be particularly important today, after mixed results in recent (non-)interventions in places like Iraq, Libya, or Syria, and after the strengthening calls in many quarters for a scaled back approach to international intervention. Only two decades ago, in a crisis taking place in the heart of Europe, the knee-jerk reaction of the Western powers was not only to place the perceived larger interests of regional stability ahead of what was happening on the ground, but also to privilege the position of those with the greatest capacity to inflict violence because of their supposed importance for the maintenance of that stability. Indeed, Yugoslavia is the perfect example of what happens if the world’s greatest powers – against available intelligence, no less – choose to maintain regional stability by banking on the local regime with the biggest stick. This tendency and the resulting policies reached their tragic culmination in the genocide in Srebrenica, which finally seemed to mark the shift in Western conceptions of international intervention and regional stability, at least in the Balkans. As one European diplomat put it, ‘We have progressed mainly through failure. It is through demonstrable and rather shameful failures that we get the energy to do something slightly better the next time.’42 The lessons of these shameful failures, however, are still in danger of being forgotten.




Dr Josip Glaurdić is Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia (Yale University Press, 2011).










The relevant resolutions of the Security Council in the autumn of 1991 and by early 1992:




Opinions of the Badinter Commission 1-3:




Opinions of the Badinter Commission, 4-10, EJIL source:


Badinter 4-10 (PDF) >>>









1 This text was first published as “In pursuit of unity: The West and the breakup of Yugoslavia,” RUSI Journal, Vol. 157, No. 1 (2012): 70-77. The author would like to thank the Royal United Services Institute, as well as Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group for their permission to reissue the article here.

2 James Addison Baker with Thomas M. DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace 1989–1992 (New York: Putnam’s, 1995), p. 636–637.

3 John Newhouse, ‘The Diplomatic Round: Dodging the Problem’, New Yorker, 24 August 1992, p. 61.




4 Lawrence Freedman, ‘Why the West Failed’, Foreign Policy, No. 97 (1994–1995), p. 54.




5 All CIA reports referred to here are available in the CIA Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room at

6 CIA, ‘Yugoslavia: Ethnic Tensions Still High in Kosovo’, 20 August 1987, p. 1–4.

7 CIA, ‘Yugoslavia: Prospects for Stability and Economic Recovery – An Intelligence Assessment’, 1 August 1987, p. 2–4, 10.

8 ‘Yugoslavia: Mussovic’, Economist, 8 October 1988, UK Edition, p. 66.

9 CIA, ‘European Brief’, 8 October 1988.

10 CIA, ‘Yugoslavia Transformed’, 1 October 1990, p. 1–23. The findings of the NIE were at the time leaked to the press in David Binder, ‘Evolution in Europe: Yugoslavia Seen Breaking Up Soon’, New York Times, 28 November 1990, p. A7.




11 Based on the report of the Dutch ambassador in Belgrade Jan Fietelaars, as presented in Norbert Both, From Indifference to Entrapment: The Netherlands and the Yugoslav Crisis 1990–1995 (Amsterdam University Press, 2000), p. 74. The German ambassador in Belgrade Hans-Jörg Eiff (in whose house this luncheon took place) confirmed his colleague’s report. Interview with Hans-Jörg Eiff, 8 June 2005.

12 ‘Mr Hogg’s call on Mr Milošević, President of the Republic of Serbia, on 26 February’, 7 March 1991, FCO document ENU 027/3, FOI Reference 0225–10.




13 For a detailed assessment of the intercepts, see Josip Glaurdić, ‘Inside the Serbian War Machine: The Milošević Intercepts, 1991-1992’, East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2009), p. 86–104.




14 Karsten Prager and Massimo Calabresi, ‘Message from Serbia’, Time, 17 July 1995.




15 Percy Cradock, In Pursuit of British Interests: Reflections on Foreign Policy under Margaret Thatcher and John Major (London: J. Murray, 1997), p. 35.

16 Interview with Sir Peter Hall, 22 May 2005.

17 Quoted in Mark Almond, Europe’s Backyard War: The War in the Balkans (London: Heineman, 1994), p. 45.

18 As quoted in Both, op.cit., p. 71.

19 Warren Zimmermann, Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers – America’s Last Ambassador Tells What Happened and Why (New York: Times Books, 1996), p. 84; and Robert L. Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of U.S. Policy in Europe, 1989-1992 (Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997), p. 306.




20 Based on the accounts of the two former presidents of Yugoslavia’s presidency, Raif Dizdarević and Borisav Jović in Raif Dizdarević, Od smrti Tita do smrti Jugoslavije: Svjedočenja (Sarajevo: Svjetlost, 2000), p. 423; and Borisav Jović, Poslednji dani SFRJ: Izvodi iz dnevnika (Belgrade: Politika, 1996), p. 81.

21 Interview with Sir Peter Hall, 22 May 2005.

22 UK House of Commons, ‘Yugoslavia’, Hansard, Vol. 193, Column 1138, 27 June 1991.




23 Interview with Budimir Lončar, 12 May 2006.

24 Jović, op.cit., 269, 272–273.

25 Interview with Gerhard Almer, 2 June 2005. Confirmed in the interview with the Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek, 24 May 2005.




26 Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993), p. 35, 51.

27 Quoted in Beschloss and Talbott, op.cit., 414. Bush’s speech – issued the day after his meeting with Gorbachev, where the Soviet president warned of the Yugoslav scenario playing out in the USSR – angered the Ukrainians and found little support in the United States. The New York Times called the speech ‘Chicken Kiev’.




28 Joseph S. Nye, ‘What New World Order?’ Foreign Affairs, Vol. 71, No. 2 (1992), p. 84.

29 In the September 1991 Eurobarometer survey, for example, citizens of EC states were asked to weigh in on the question of self-determination and democracy versus Yugoslavia’s integrity. Democracy and self-determination won by 68 percent to 19 percent across the EC, with only the Greeks supporting Yugoslavia’s integrity by 39 percent to 36 percent. Yugoslavia’s integrity also handily lost among all the Central and East Europeans, apart from the Romanians. Commission of the European Communities, Eurobarometer: Public Opinion in the European Community, No. 36 (1991), 39–41, A41. With the worst yet to come for Croatia in in the months after this survey, the strength of public support for the independence of the Yugoslav republics was likely even higher during the fall of 1991.

30 For a useful discussion of the interaction between principled ideas and material interests in foreign policy, see Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane, ‘Ideas and Foreign Policy: An Analytical Framework’, in Ideas and Foreign Policy: Beliefs, Institutions and Political Change, ed. Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 16–17.

31 Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye have argued that ‘Germany had become reflexively institutionalist: its institutional ties were viewed as intrinsic to the Germans’ views of themselves.’ Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye, ‘Introduction: The End of the Cold War in Europe’, in After the Cold War: International Institutions and State Strategies in Europe, 1989–1991, ed. Robert O. Keohane, Joseph S. Nye and Stanley Hoffmann (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 10.




32 Ronald Tiersky, ‘France in the New Europe,’ Foreign Affairs, Vol. 71, Vo. 2 (1992), p. 131.

33 William Wallace, ‘British Foreign Policy after the Cold War,’ International Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 3 (1992), p. 424.

34 Christopher Coker, ‘Britain and the New World Order: The Special Relationship in the 1990s,’ International Affairs, Vol. 68, No. 3 (1992), p. 411.




35 Quoted in Hella Pick, ‘A Master Germany Wants to Lose’, Guardian, 10 January 1992, p. 19.




36 Interview with Douglas Hurd, 11 May 2005.

37 Interview with Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, 1 July 2005. Ahrens was the highest ranking German diplomat at the Conference on Yugoslavia chaired by Lord Carrington.




38 Brendan Simms, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (London: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 12.




39 For a comparison among the inputs of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom in Europe’s diplomatic effort in the Balkans which convincingly demonstrates that ‘In reality, Bonn has been a team player, while London and Paris obstructed the peace process’, see Sabrina P. Ramet and Letty Coffin, ‘German Foreign Policy toward the Yugoslav Successor States, 1991–1999’, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 48, No. 1 (2001), p. 48–64.

40 Quoted in Ben Tonra, The Europeanisation of National Foreign Policy: Dutch, Danish, and Irish Policy in the European Union (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001), p. 232.

41 Interview with a former high official in the European Commission, June 2005.




42 Razgovor s Philippe de Schoutheete de Tervarentom, 7. lipnja 2005.











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