What does the West want?
Peace, of course, the governments intervening in the former Yugoslavia
would say. Rob Knight finds that it is not so straightforward
This year, the Western powers seem to have found it harder and harder to
agree on a united approach to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. When
David Owen and Cyrus Vance put forward their plan for a peace deal between
the warring factions, president Clinton's advisers treated it as an appeasement
of Serbian aggression. Then US officials and German government ministers
suggested, against opposition from Britain and others, that the UN arms
embargo be lifted so that the Bosnian Muslims could be armed.
Since the Yugoslav civil war began in 1991 there has been a continuous debate
in the West about how to respond, with different powers proposing different
solutions. Meanwhile there has also been a steady escalation in the war,
to the point where it could become a wider Balkan conflict, dragging in
Greece and Turkey.
Many observers say that the reason for the escalation is that the West has
not intervened decisively enough. But a brief survey of the role of the
main Western powers suggests that Western intervention itself has made the
war worse. Each Western power has its own agenda in relation to Yugoslavia.
The conflict arising among them has been the main factor escalating the
American foreign policy is motivated by the desire to maintain its status
as the leading world power. As the country with the most to lose from any
reorganisation of the world order, the USA's first instinct is always to
keep things as they are. So when the conflict in Yugoslavia began, the Americans
argued for maintaining the unity of the country. However, since Germany
asserted its authority in the region, by unilaterally recognising the breakaway
republics of Croatia and Slovenia at the start of 1992, US policy has been
dictated by the attempt to keep Germany in its place. The Americans have
consistently argued that whatever Germany and Europe are doing in Yugoslavia,
it is not enough.
The USA first tried to seize back the initiative from Germany by forcing
through the West's recognition of Bosnian independence in the spring of
1992. This provocative act, which directly sparked off the war in Bosnia,
was carried out after even US diplomats said it would be like pouring petrol
on the flames. The USA has since tried to take the initiative away from
Europe by dictating the terms of any settlement in Bosnia. It criticised
the original Vance/Owen plan as a sell-out to the Serbs, and encouraged
the Bosnian Muslims to carry on fighting.
The USA certainly doesn't want to be drawn into a messy ground war. But
as it has stepped up its intervention in a bid to stay at the head of the
Western Alliance, it has heightened tensions and intensified conflicts within
the former Yugoslavia.
- Most significant contribution to escalating the conflict: the recognition
Germany has played a more independent role in Yugoslavia than in any foreign
policy issue since 1945. Its recognition of Croatia and Slovenia raised
the civil war to its current intensity and made any peaceful resolution
more unlikely. It is an open secret that Germany has been arming the Croats,
making it possible for them to launch their offensive against Serbian areas
in Croatia in January.
Germany's role reflects its emergence as the main power in Europe. Because
the Germans do not want to break with their past good relations with the
Americans, they have tried to get the USA and other European powers to agree
with what they are doing. Nevertheless Germany's active intervention is
forcing the other powers to respond, and so constantly raising the stakes.
- Most significant contribution to escalating the conflict: recognition
of Croatia and Slovenia.
As the weakest of the big Western powers, Britain is very ambivalent towards
the Yugoslav conflict. On the one hand, it fears anything which might accelerate
the reorganisation of the world order and relegate it from the top table.
So it shared America's initial desire to keep Yugoslavia in one piece, and
has argued against more forceful Western intervention. On the other hand,
Britain cannot afford to be left behind the rest of the Western powers.
Since failing to stop Germany recognising Croatia, Britain has sought to
show that it is still a major player by sending in troops and despatching
an armada to Yugoslavia
The more Britain has to resort to military intervention the more strain
it puts on the budget, at a time when the recession exercises severe restraints
on military spending. However, since military strength is Britain's last
remaining claim to Great Power status, it has no choice. Hence the February
decision to reverse some of the planned post-Cold War cuts in troop numbers.
- Most significant contribution to the conflict: hard one this, as Britain
is a minor player. Toss up between David Owen, the Ark Royal, and the anti-Serb
France is also concerned that it might lose its seat at the top table. In
the past it has relied upon its role as a proxy for Germany. Now Germany
is standing on its own feet, France fears that its international position
will be undermined. Like Britain, it is compelled to show its military strength
Apart from the main players, just about every Western nation and Russia
has got involved. This is not because of concern for Yugoslavia, but because
in a changing world everybody wants to be where the action is, for fear
of being discounted in whatever final arrangements emerge from the chaos.
- Most significant contribution: Francois Mitterrand starting the trend
for flak-jacketed politicians to helicopter into the war zone and stir things
up on primetime TV.
In addition to their individual agendas, all Western nations have common
concerns about the Yugoslav conflict. They fear that they will not be able
to maintain a joint approach to the war. In the uncertain post-Cold War
world, all are afraid of the consequences of a breakdown of international
agreements. Yugoslavia, like the Gatt talks, has become a testing ground
for Western cooperation.
Each Western power pursues its own agenda, but at the same time tries to
accommodate those of its allies. This creates a dynamic towards greater
intervention. For example, Germany pursues a more expansionist foreign policy
by recognising Croatia and Slovenia. America responds, not by challenging
Germany directly, but by accepting the recognition of Croatia, then trying
to take back the initiative by recognising Bosnia - in poker terms, see you
and raise you.
Other nations then make their bids for influence, a few thousand soldiers
here, a relief convoy there, and finally a peace plan. At this point the
USA steps in again to raise the stakes by calling for the arming of the
Bosnian Muslims. And so it goes on. At every stage there is an escalation
of the conflict. While the West plays its power games, Yugoslavia burns.
Paradoxically, the West also fears the instability created by the war, hence
the attempts at imposing a settlement. Nevertheless the dynamic towards
greater Western intervention is bringing closer a more general Balkan war.
The Yugoslav war takes place against the background of an unstable world
order, a world in transition. The resulting instability and insecurity affects
every nation, informing discussions about world trade, the future composition
of the UN security council or intervention in the third world. The tension
between the Western powers' desire for cooperation, and the need to pursue
their own interests, explains why there is such a confused character to
international relations today.
A conflict like that in Yugoslavia brings the tensions to the fore. The
Western powers have to respond, but in responding they bring out their differences
of interest. Each then tries to impose its own agenda, while trying to minimise
disagreements. The effect is always to increase Western interference, and
so raise the stakes in the war.
The tragedy of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia is that they have become
the pawns in a Great Power game which threatens to destroy them.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993