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Reading between the lines

The end of sovereignty?

Dave Chandler looks at some lessons learned in the Bosnian conflict

  • 'The warrior's honor: ethnic war and the modern conscience' by Michael Ignatieff, Chatto & Windus, £10.99 pbk

  • 'The fragmentation of Yugoslavia: nationalism in a multinational state', by Aleksandar Pavkovic, Macmillan, £42 hbk

  • 'Divide and fall?: Bosnia in the annals of partition', by Radha Kumar, Verso, £14 hbk

In 1991 there were no foreign troops in the Balkans; today NATO and United Nations troops are encamped in southern Hungary, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania, and have an indeflnite mandate to remain in Bosnia. The UN high administrator for Bosnia has assumed legislative, executive and judicial powers over the new state, and can dismiss elected representatives and impose legislation against the will of elected governments at state, entity and municipal levels. Now there are growing calls for wider international mandates to be extended to Serbia's troubled province of Kosovo without restrictive UN Security Council resolutions. The books reviewed here all attempt to address this transformation of traditional norms of international relations and to analyse the ever-expanding role of the international community in the Balkans.

Michael Ignatieff's collection of essays, The Warrior's Honor, highlights the misanthropy inherent in what he calls today's 'moral internationalism' which is built on the fear of human evil. By contrast, says Ignatieff, the universalistic ideology of international relations in the past at least paid lip service to humanity's capacity for good. The redeflnition of conflict as a series of crimes against humanity carried out in a struggle between abusers and their victims has created a narrow moral framework for understanding the world.

In the book's central essay Ignatieff examines how the old-fashioned universality of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stands in direct contrast to the 'moral internationalism' of groups like Human Rights Watch and Médècins sans Frontières. Since the founding of the ICRC in 1863, the organisation has upheld the doctrine of neutrality and a universal approach to war with every combatant and prisoner treated equally.

In the 1990s this approach has been out of line with the new moralistic view of international relations; in the Bosnian conflict, for example, many argued that intervention could not be impartial between Serbs and Muslims. This contrast, for Ignatieff, was epitomised by the ITN news pictures of Trnopolje which, in the eyes of the world, turned a transit camp into a death camp, while 'the Red Cross delegates on the scene watched the ensuing media circus with disbelief' (pp136-7). Alone among international humanitarian organisations, the ICRC refused to compromise its neutrality by giving evidence to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. It was also the only such organisation providing assistance to the 200 000 Krajina Serbs who were driven from Croatia in 1995, in the war's biggest single act of 'ethnic cleansing'.

Radha Kumar's Divide and Fall? puts the new interventionist capacity of major powers in the broader historical context of overcoming the negative legacy of imperialism. The international institutional arrangements established at the end of the Second World War, and preserved unchanged during the Cold War, were shaped by the postcolonial experience, privileging state sovereignty and limiting the rights of great powers to intervene. For Kumar, Bosnia has been an experimental ground for rewriting the rule book and for testing the new post-Cold War possibilities that have opened up for international peacekeeping interventions. She notes that this involvement has proved so attractive that it has been difflcult 'to walk away from', so that 'each half-hearted intervention, however delusory, led to an expansion rather than curtailment of involvement' (p37).

Through a comparative study of the politics of partition, Kumar illustrates the international policy shift that has taken place in Bosnia. She divides international policymaking on Bosnia into three periods: 'divide and rule' from the recognition of Bosnia in 1992, where the international community is alleged to have followed a traditional peacekeeping approach of neutrality while the Bosnian factions sought to divide the state; 'divide and quit' from mid-1994 onwards, where Bosnia was divided on the international community's terms, and where there was a 'move away from letting domestic actors set the terms of negotiation and a move towards enlarging the role of European institutions'(p72); and 'divide and fall?' after the Dayton peace agreement, when what looked like a temporary international administration over a divided state turned into an indeflnite external administration over a marginally more united one. This third stage in Kumar's view demonstrates the overcoming of the colonial legacy, so that partition is no longer seen as 'the lesser evil' to external administrations. This, Kumar thinks, has facilitated a new positive role for the international community, going beyond securing the peace to overcoming ethnic divisions through long-term regulation.

Kumar's history does not only rewrite the experience of international involvement in the fragmentation of Yugoslavia, but also revises the colonial experience itself. In her reading the emphasis is on how premature and enforced colonial withdrawal allowed ethnic divisions to re-emerge, rather than on how domination by foreign powers created or institutionalised ethnic segmentation.

Aleksandar Pavkovic´'s Fragmentation of Yugoslavia rightly questions the view that international peacekeeping in the Balkans has curbed ethnic rivalry or nationalist competition. He does not shirk from emphasising the importance of ethnic nationalist ideologies in the region, and begins by charting the rise of the national myths of Balkan groups such as the Croats, Serbs and Albanians and the conflicting nature of their territorial claims. He also explains the limitations of Tito's promotion of Yugoslavism in the 1950s, and how these national myths were used by the different elites in the Yugoslav republics in the 1970s and 1980s, as they fought over dwindling state resources. However, Pavkovic´ makes it clear that ethnic segmentation and conflicting nationalist ideologies were not enough to explain why the attempt to resolve the divisions between the Yugoslav republics ended in war. The military solution only became attractive, or even possible, once the international community entered the equation.

Us and european pressure which insisted that the Yugoslav state could not resort to force to defend its territorial integrity flrst put to question Yugoslav sovereignty, and encouraged fragmentation. In 1991 the European Union took over from the Yugoslav government as conflict mediator, proposed dividing Yugoslavia along existing republic borders, and offered little possibility of arbitration over disputed regions. It was this internationally imposed solution that undermined the possibility of a negotiated compromise or even the peaceful alteration of republic borders, which were originally drawn on the basis of preventing separation rather than to facilitate it.

Kumar welcomes the current indefinite extensions to the international community mandates in Bosnia as a commitment to challenge ethnic nationalism. There is little evidence that this is the case. Enforcing international policy through imposing legislation over the heads of elected representatives has done little to dampen tensions and insecurities in the region. With Bosnian institutions having no real authority, fear that externally decided policies will question entity borders or existing rights to land, homes and employment has led to high levels of support for nationalist parties and the marginalisation of political alternatives.

As Pavkovic´ suggests, international regulation has enforced rather than mitigated the importance of nationalism. The same point is made by Ignatieff who forcefully argues that the causative order of Balkan conflict has been, firstly, the collapse or weakening of states in the region, which then made interethnic accommodation more difficult and in turn fuelled nationalist fears and ethnic tensions.

Free the UK 59 million

  • 'Bring home the revolution: How Britain can live the American dream' by Jonathan Freedland, Fourth Estate, £14.99 hbk

British society already buys into the highs as well as the lows of US popular culture; now Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland wants us to import the best of America's political culture, too. 'In the 1990s', he notes, 'we Brits all too often play Alfred to America's Batman...He is a muscled man of action; we are wrinkled and decrepit'. Freedland's message to Britain is Go West Old Man, and embrace the democratic dynamism of the more youthful USA-a 'creed' which, he argues, had its roots in the British radicalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before it was exported to revolutionary America. So the task now for British progressives is to bring our lost revolution back home.

For Freedland the key difference in the two political cultures appears simple enough. In Britain sovereignty remains in the hands of the Crown and its ministers, and power flows from the top of society downwards. In America, by contrast, sovereignty is invested in the people-or 'We the People' as the opening phrase of the US constitution famously has it-and power flows from the bottom up. This is essentially why, suggests Freedland, Americans can live the dream of freedom and social mobility, while stagnating Britain remains repressed and class-bound.

Drawing on stories gathered during four years as a US correspondent, Freedland evokes the undeniable energy of American society in fast and entertaining style. His polemical point is well made. British radicals could learn a lot about the importance of individual freedom and liberty from the US culture that they often love to sneer at. Nowhere is this clearer than on the key issue of free speech, a right that is enshrined in the US constitution but, Freedland notes, is restricted by almost 50 different statutes in the UK. The libel case that ITN is bringing against this magazine could never come to court under America's more liberal laws.

True, Freedland is sometimes in danger of over-selling the virtues of what he calls 'Americanism', and of confusing the democratic self-flattery of the US system with the reality of how the country is run. The concept of bottom-up power, for example, is not much in evidence behind the closed doors of the National Security Council, the Pentagon or the headquarters of the CIA. The book is perhaps at its worst when it strays into the banal nineties-speak of 'civic society'. (Is a proposed law to make a Californian farming town put chat-friendly front porches on its houses really a way to rebuild community spirit?)

For all that, Freedland's call for 'British radicals' to 'immerse themselves' in 'libertarian and anti-authoritarian thought' comes as welcome relief as we labour under the intrusive Clinton-Blair regime. His proposals to abolish the monarchy and establish a British republic, complete with US-style elected judges and officials, are also refreshingly to the point.

Where Freedland surely goes astray is in trying to sell his proposals as part of an old British tradition of liberalism, stretching back beyond the American revolution and epitomised by the likes of Thomas Paine. He sees this as a way of getting around his audience's anti-American prejudices. Perhaps; but it also seems to avoid tackling the real reasons why freedom is increasingly out of fashion today on both sides of the Atlantic.

There is always a problem with trying to deal with today's social issues by reference to the past (as with Freedland's repetition of the rather tired notion that racism in modern America is a product of slavery, which was abolished before the oldest person in the USA today was born). Suggesting that one reason why the British should embrace liberty is because Tom Paine was born in Norwich seems likely to cut little ice at the end of the nervous nineties.

In these insecure and mistrustful times, dominated by the religion of risk-avoidance and the victim culture, many are more willing than ever before to invite the authorities to infringe their personal freedoms in the cause of safety. This is as true of the USA as it is of the UK, as evidenced by the willingness of modern Americans to take each other to court (which Freedland mistakes for a positive expression of rights), and the latest discussion about introducing victims' rights into the US constitution (which would seriously jeopardise many of the American freedoms that Freedland rightly treasures).

To be effective, the case for freedom today needs to be made more in opposition to the unfree spirit of our age than by invoking the spirits of freedom past.

Mick Hume

Studied ignorance

  • 'Educational research - a critique' by James Tooley and Doug Darby, Ofsted, £n/a

At the 1996 annual lecture of the Teacher Training Agency, the leading Cambridge professor David Hargreaves argued that a high proportion of educational research was 'frankly second-rate'. Last year, James Tooley at Newcastle University and Doug Darby at Manchester University were commissioned by the Office for Standards in Education to investigate this claim. And indeed their work, published as Educational Research-A Critique, paints a convincing picture of alarmingly poor standards in educational research.

In their investigation Tooley and Darby took a representative sample of 264 papers from the four most highly respected education journals. After an initial analysis, and a further more detailed dissection of 41 papers, they concluded that 63 per cent of the works they had studied were of a dangerously low standard.

With empirical studies, they found that researchers' findings were often based on biased examinations of the data. Alternatively, academics would often make sweeping generalisations, going far beyond the evidence presented. In some papers a single source of information was considered sufficient, and in many reports highly dubious sampling methods were employed, often without justification.

Tooley and Darby also found serious faults with many non-empirical studies. Blatantly contradictory arguments were sometimes made and concepts were frequently used in a careless manner. In other papers there was evidence that researchers had not even bothered to refer to the original texts or had uncritically accepted the pronouncements of supposedly profound postmodern thinkers. They also found that few papers had been critically examined by other researchers. The consequence of this, they argue, is that educational theory never really moves forward, as research is rarely independently assessed or scrutinised.

In their conclusions, Tooley and Darby suggest that standards might improve if professional bodies such as the British Educational Research Association developed voluntary codes of practice. They also propose that the Higher Education Funding Council of England, the primary funder of educational research, could usefully start to fund larger, higher quality research projects, and begin to assess academics in terms of the quality, as opposed to the quantity, of their publications. Their conclusions, however, seem misplaced in as much as they seek institutional solutions to the problems presented. It seems more likely that a critical culture will only emerge if individual members of the educational research community start to take collective responsibility for standards.

Toby Marshall


  • 'Spectres of capitalism: a critique of current intellectual fashions' by Samir Amin, Monthly Review Press, $16 pbk

  • 'The cultural turn: selected writings on the postmodern 1983-1998' by Frederic Jameson, Verso, £11 pbk

  • 'The origins of postmodernity' by Perry Anderson, Verso, £11 pbk

These three books are all critical attacks on postmodernism from a radical left perspective. Samir Amin and Perry Anderson both have a reputation on the left stretching back to the sixties, when Anderson was editing the New Left Review and Amin was writing anti-colonialist works like The Arab State. Frederic Jameson, by contrast, made his reputation in the eighties with the essays reproduced here from the New Left Review, that identified postmodernism as 'the cultural logic of late capitalism'. Jameson pointed out the isometric relationship between the postmodern idea that everything is image and illusion, and a consumer-oriented and speculation-driven capitalism. Anderson's book is a companion to Jameson's, that traces the develop- ment of the idea of the end of the modern, re-raising Terry Eagleton's challenge that this is an ideology of despair and defeat (see Illusions of Postmodernism). Amin is, if anything, even more bullish, arguing that what postmodernists reject in modernism is 'that human beings make their own history'.

These are three well-argued and convincing books, but a sneaking suspicion remains that the authors are more culpable for the ideas that they are criticising than they let on. Anderson intriguingly recalls his own reactions to the social conflicts of the sixties, remembering that then he expected to see a return to a classical Marxism, concerned with class struggle, and the eclipse of the cultural preoccupations of 'Western Marxism'. As he says, the opposite turned out to be true: the left became more preoccupied with cultural matters and less with the struggle for power. But didn't the New Left Review have something to do with that turn? The NLR diligently serviced the 'cultural turn', throughout the seventies and eighties, not least with Frederic Jameson's eloquent articles. Samir Amin, too, excludes his own embrace of the 'cultural revolution' of the sixties from the general trend towards identity politics, and away from the conflict between capital and labour.

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

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