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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 war.


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 of Bosnia.

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 propaganda campaign.

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 where possible.
  • 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.
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.

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

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