How the West has won
Everybody seems to think that the West has failed in Bosnia. In fact
it has achieved an important victory at the expense of all the peoples of
Yugoslavia, argues Joan Phillips
Critics have lambasted the Western powers for their lack of moral fibre
over Bosnia. By signing the Washington agreement, which provides for the
creation of safe havens for the Muslims in Bosnia, the USA, Britain, France
and Italy signalled that they did not intend to defend the integrity of
Bosnia. According to their critics, this was an act of betrayal against
a small state as bad as that at Munich, when Neville Chamberlain acquiesced
to the Nazi carve-up of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
On both occasions, suggested Noel Malcolm in the Sunday Telegraph, appeasement
led to a loss of imperial standing: 'When Mussolini heard of Neville Chamberlain's
decision to kowtow to Hitler at Munich, he remarked: "This is the liquidation
of English prestige." The same could be said today of the prestige
and authority of the United States and Western Europe.' (30 May 1993)
Far from being enfeebled by its intervention in Yugoslavia, however, the
West has been strengthened. What appears to many to have been an embarrassing
failure is in fact a political success.
Of course, individual politicians have not come out of the diplomatic circus
looking very good. Bill Clinton can no longer claim consistency as a virtue,
after US policy on Bosnia changed as fast as Italian governments. First
there was the Vance-Owen plan, which the administration rejected, then supported,
then rejected again. Then there was the proposal for safe havens: on 21
May, Clinton was warning against safe havens; a day later this was US policy.
Clinton may look like an idiot, but there are bigger things at stake than
the personal standing of individual politicians. The moral standing of the
West is what matters more than the popularity ratings of a US president.
The critics of Western policy in Yugoslavia say that the West has lost its
moral authority. In fact, the opposite is true. Many people may be critical
of what the West has done or not done in Yugoslavia, but nobody questions
the West's right to be involved there in the first place. In
fact the predominant criticism of the West is that it is not doing enough
The Western authorities have won because most people now believe that they
are a civilising force in the Balkans. Everybody accepts that it is the
right and the responsibility of the Western powers to sort things out in
Yugoslavia. Indeed the West is seen as having a moral duty to intervene
and impose a solution.
Even the most liberal supporters of intervention accept that the West has
a civilising mission in Yugoslavia. When you strip away all the sugary coating
about humanitarianism from the arguments for intervention, what you are
left with is the old colonial condescension for the natives. The fact that
even erstwhile radicals now share this outlook reveals the extent to which
Western imperialism has been rehabilitated as a progressive force.
Implicit in many of the discussions of the war in Yugoslavia, and sometimes
explicit, is the assumption that the people living there are 'wogs'. Although
usually disguised by diplomatic language, racist explanations for the war
in Yugoslavia are commonplace. We are constantly told that these people
are fired by hatreds that go back centuries, and that is why they are
fighting today. It would appear that people born in the Balkans must
be genetically programmed to slit each other's throats.
The Serbs have been singled out as the most barbaric, bloodthirsty and Balkan
of all the warring 'tribes' in Yugoslavia. But the underlying assumption
is that they are simply the worst of a bad lot. There is an increasing tendency
to depict all the warring parties in Bosnia as uncivilised barbarians. In
June, a few minor incidents set off a major discussion about 'gangs' of
unruly militiamen roaming the mountains of Bosnia and looting Western aid
convoys. Perhaps they were the same 'gangs' that used to go round looting
food aid in Somalia. The effect of such discussions is to suggest that these
are dark and dangerous places which need to be subjected to the civilising
influence of the West.
The message behind the debate about intervention is that people in the Balkans
are incapable of running their own affairs in a civilised fashion. The implication
is that racial differences are at the root of the problem: that these are
less advanced peoples, who need to be guided by the superior wisdom of the
In one form or another, this view is endorsed by both liberal supporters
and conservative opponents of Western military intervention in Bosnia. The
interventionists believe that the Yugoslavs are incapable of sorting out
their own problems and that the West must intervene to separate the warring
factions. The anti-interventionists also believe that the Yugoslavs are
incapable of behaving in a civilised fashion, but draw the conclusion that
the West should avoid getting sucked into the Balkan savagery. The fact
that both sides share the same assumptions about Western superiority and
Eastern inferiority reveals that the Western powers have won the moral argument.
Those who claim that the West has suffered a moral defeat because it has
not backed up its threats with military action miss the point. Their mistake
is to believe that the West intervened in Yugoslavia for principled reasons,
because it supports independence for Bosnia or because it believes in human
That was never what Western intervention was about. The Western powers have
used the conflict in Yugoslavia for their own selfish ends. They
really could not care less about the fate of any of the peoples in the Balkans.
Western politicians are hard-nosed pragmatists who act out of self-interest
and nothing more. It would be a big mistake to think that they were guided
by any principle in their attitude towards the various protagonists in Yugoslavia.
For example, the Western powers never had anything against the Serbs ideologically.
Likewise, they never had any real sympathy for the Croats or Muslims. When
they took sides, it was only because it suited their own strategic purposes.
The truth is that all sides in the Yugoslav conflict have been used
as pawns in a Great Power game. And all of them have paid a high price.
It was an accident of history that the Serbs were singled out as the guilty
party in Yugoslavia. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. When
Germany decided to use the secession of Slovenia and Croatia as the issue
over which to stamp its authority on Europe, it was inevitable that support
for the secessionists would have to be justified at the expense of
Germany first presented the conflict in strong moral and ideological
terms, as one between civilisation and barbarism. But it suited the purposes
of an awful lot of Western politicians to go along with the idea that the
Serbs were the incarnation of evil. For politicians down on their luck at
home, and missing the Cold War bogey of the Red Menace, bashing the Serbs
became a way of bolstering their authority on the world stage.
In order to satisfy the ambitions of power-hungry Western politicians, the
Serbs were turned into a pariah people. In one of the most defamatory media
campaigns of history, they were vilified as apes, barbarians, communists,
fascists, rapists and psychopaths. As Living Marxism pointed out
a year ago, the Serbs have been turned into the 'white niggers' of the New
World Order, cast out of every major world body and brought to their knees
Even those whom the West is supposed to support in Yugoslavia have been
used and abused with consummate cynicism. The Muslims of Bosnia, who were
promised everything they wanted by the West, are the biggest losers. The
Western powers invited the Muslims to apply for independence in December
1991. Led by the USA, they then recognised Bosnia as an independent state,
ignoring the wishes of the substantial Bosnian Serb population, who wanted
to remain in Yugoslavia. Having encouraged the Muslims to go all the way,
the West then abandoned them to their fate. Having been promised the Earth,
or Bosnia anyway, the Muslims have ended up with a few scraps of land, which
go under the euphemism of safe havens.
On the face of it, the Croats have probably fared better than anybody else.
They have won their independence, as well as new territories in Herzegovina.
But they too have paid a high price for the Western-sponsored break-up of
Yugoslavia. They have lost many lives, and, although they may not know it
yet, they have no basis for a viable existence as an independent state.
The Albanians of Kosovo will no doubt be the next to pay the price for the
West's cynical manipulation of the situation in Yugoslavia. Western politicians
are now issuing dire threats about what will happen to the Serbs if they
do anything against the Albanians in Kosovo. The Serbs have been oppressing
the Albanians in Kosovo for considerably longer than a few months; but it
was never before a cause for concern in the chancelleries of the West. Yet
now that bashing the Serbs has become a way to prove how big and tough you
are, Western politicians who probably don't even know where Kosovo is, are
falling over themselves to find human rights abuses there.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993