The Lost Hour of Europe?

An Autopsy of the Failed Yugoslav Experiment

Balkans warprints
The Lost Hour of Europe? : An Autopsy of the Failed Yugoslav Experiment - Christina Balis


The beginning of this century's last decade was marked by euphoric prophecies of a "new world order" and by optimistic theses such as Francis Fukuyama' s "End of History." However, as one approaches the end of this century, little of that rhetoric appears realistic ... An old disorder seems to shape today's agenda, while historical ghosts have returned to haunt the leaders of a continent still struggling with a bitter past.

The Yugoslav conflict, the "third Balkan war" in a mere century, was not just the most brutal expression of violence on the European continent since the end of the Second World War; it was also the most grandiose single failure of the new "European order." It dangerously shook the very fundamentals of Europe's unique edifice and cast a dark shadow over the plans and visions of its optimistic architects. A great number of accounts have been written already of Yugoslavia's destruction and on Europe's 'failure' to contain (much less to deter) the atrocities that were committed. Few statements have been so widely quoted and cynically commented on as the triumphant announcement of Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jacques Poos, who in 1991 declared:

This is the hour of Europe ... if one problem can be solved by the Europeans, it is the Yugoslav problem. This is a European country and it is not up to the Americans. It is not up to anyone else.1

Referring to Mr. Poos' declaration that the "hour of Europe" had come, one commentator suggested a more fitting slogan - "For Whom the Bell Tolls"2 - in light of some of the most infamous massacres in Srebenica and Vukovar. What Warren Christopher termed "the problem from Hell,"3 demanding, according to Lord Owen, "solutions born in hell,"4 sounds like a false echo to the enthusiasts' initial claim of "European solutions for European problems."

As with so many other ethnic or civil conflicts, history cannot be ignored. Yugoslavia is a region of enormous historic complexity that presents profound difficulties to scholars and policy-makers alike. Tito, the authoritarian leader of former Yugoslavia, legitimized his country's independence from the Soviet Union. He benefitted politically, as well economically, from the existing bipolarity by following a successful policy of non­alignment during the Cold War. However, this 'anti-polar' policy contained the seeds of future tensions. Tito's death in 1980 and the discrediting of his "brotherhood and unity" mantra were followed by the disappearance of the Eastern threat, further eroding the country's fragile sense of nationhood. The gradual deterioration of the Yugoslav economy and the cessation of external economic assistance after the end of the Cold War opened a Pandora's box of previously suppressed problems. The situation was then adroitly exploited by nationalist leaders such as the Serbian President, Milosevic, and his Croatian counterpart, Tudjman.

No satisfactory answer has been given to the question whether Yugoslavia's dissolution and plunge into a brutal war were inevitable. Even more difficult is any attempt at determining when the die was cast. Was it when Tito died in 1980? After the Slovenian plebiscite in the fall of 1990? When Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence in the summer of 1991? Or was it when the European powers recognized their independence at the beginning of 1992?

Europe has not managed to escape the debate unscathed. The critics' arguments are so numerous as to render any effort of establishing some universal and objective truth an almost impossible task. It is true that Europe was just emerging from a long Cold War and was desperately looking at the time for a way to repair its tarnished image after the Gulf War. Its rush into the Balkans was an incoherent and hastily contrived response, which lacked any real understanding of the problem and reflected "a pedagogical rather than a political approach."5 European leaders concentrated their efforts on limiting, rather than ending the war, even though there were considerable doubts over the appropriateness of peacekeeping in an area where there was no peace to keep.

A commonly held view is that the Yugoslav crisis was "the wrong crisis [one of disintegration in an integrating Europe] at the wrong time [when it had to cope in Europe with the aftermath of Germany's unification and dramatic changes in the Soviet Union and in the Middle East with Iraq] and in the wrong place [the Balkans, which had ceased to be a region of high strategic importance]."6 This may have been a defensible position for the United States to hold, reluctant as it was to become embroiled in another European conflict, but it was certainly not the European impression of the situation. For European leaders, it was the right crisis (one that reflected the new realities of the post-Cold war period) at the right time (just after the first serious discussion of the new concept of a political union) and in the right place (precisely in Europe's backyard).

One commentator remarked in December 1991 that "Yugoslavia has become a test for Europe which Europe cannot pass, with consequences yet unknown."7 In 1999, one can say with confidence that Europe has failed this test-with dramatic implications. It was a mishandled experiment, but one that has the potential to provide answers for the future. Yugoslavia cannot be reborn or restored; an autopsy is the only process available to establish whether misguided policies or fatal omissions on Europe's part were to blame. The Balkans are not going to disappear from Europe's agenda in the near future, and the current conflict over Kosovo offers little optimism for any immediate peaceful resolution in the region.

Eight Causes of Failure:


When the Yugoslav crisis erupted, Europe was in search of its identity and was I attempting to define a new common foreign policy. The then-EC was just emerging from discussions at the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) in Maastricht at which a commitment had been made to create a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Such events were taking place amid a general economic slowdown and new geopolitical realities. The Community had to cope with an enlarged Germany afterthe dramatic events of 1989-90 and increasing German monetary dominance. All these incidents certainly affected the cohesion of European policy, but it should be noted that they did not have a profound influence on the context in which the tragedy unfolded.


The Balkans have always been regarded as Europe's tinderbox, containing tremendous ethnic and nationalist forces. The new Balkan war of the 1990s was, probably even more than its predecessors, an intractable combination of nationalist rhetoric, social grievances, economic disasters and political opportunism. It seems as if the 'evils' of the two competing socio-political systems had befallen the once favored protege of a bipolar world. Entering the stage, the EC was faced with two irreversible facts: the unwillingness of the warring parties to enter into any sort of peace negotiations and their refusal to perceive the Community as a neutral body. It was only when the belligerents, realizing the futility of further military action, decided to take their places at the negotiating table that light became dimly visible at the end of the tunnel. Impartiality was never fully achieved (with the exception of some first UN initiatives), but the new willingness of all players to accept some concessions combined with the presence of a credible military force backed by assertive diplomacy was instrumental in the final signing of the Dayton accords.


Europe's over-ambitious and naive attitude has been pointedly termed the "Sinatra doctrine,'8 "we' 11 do it our way." This was Europe's clear message to its Atlantic partner. But in the absence of a clear plan and with no realistic balance between aims and ambitions, the EC was itself venturing into uncharted waters. It had neither a solution to offer nor the necessary means to impose one. Its hope of acquiring both was, at best, precarious and wishful thinking.


Two flaws can be discerned in the ways in which members of the new "Concert of Europe sought to use history to understand contemporary events: the misapplication of the past and the misinterpretation of the present.9 Ignoring the alarm bells warning of mounting crisis in 1989-90, European leaders felt they could solve the various disputes--operating as they did with a one-dimensional perspective and an agnostic, though assertive, rhetoric.

What was required from the very beginning and what was lacking, until events had overtaken any remaining chance of political negotiations, was "a realism that confronts hard choices about hard conditions"10rather than the "antiseptic diplomacy" pursued in practice. The European approach should have been one that combined simultaneously technical knowledge, diplomatic dexterity and judicial impartiality, qualities which were never present in sufficient quantities.

The "historical inevitability" of the Yugoslav wars has been most often justified by two theories, one external -the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union - and one internal - the presence of "ancient ethnic hatreds."11 US Secretary of State Baker has referred to the European tendency to become "prisoners of their own history, falling back on alliances that had been developed decades or even centuries before."12

This confusion about the past and the role of historical grievances was further aggravated by the adoption of policies that failed to grasp the situation's complexity. A historical approach is imperative in order to reinforce some basic understanding about the motives behind the acts of the warring parties, but it should not amount to a justification for nurturing special historical sensitivities. For those seeking independence, there were perfectly rational and legitimate reasons for their acts: it was not merely the result of some "ill-defined Balkan temperament, a south Slavic predisposition ... toward fratricide."13 This misinterpretation of the nature of the Yugoslav crisis, a crisis which had its real origins in the breakdown of political and civil order against an unstable international background, became the quicksand in which Western intervention foundered.14

Lastly, Europe tended to define the real nature of the war in overly simplistic terms. Owen had characterized the Yugoslav conflict as both a "civil war" and a "war of aggression."15 But for most European countries this view was too complex. For the British it was a civil war rooted in bitter history, whereas for the Germans it was clearly a war of aggression. The first approach seemed to offer a justification for Serbian brutality, whereas the second view was flawed by its lack of impartiality, and in its arrogant assertion that Europe could act as the legitimate arbiter in a conflict whose origins were as subjective as one's interpretation of history.


In addition to its distorted historical perspective and its failure to understand the main influences at work, the EC failed to set out its principles and to identify its specific "vital interests." Principles such as liberal democracy, respect for borders, national self­ determination, non-aggression and the protection of human rights became entangled in a murky web of declarations, statements and initiatives with no real strategy at their core.

Initially facing a dilemma between supporting the nascent democracies and encouraging separatism, the Community adopted a disastrous "wait and see" policy. It also refused to confront overtly and in a transparent way the fundamental question of self ­determination. Although it did later acknowledge the disintegration of Yugoslavia, it refused to apply the same thinking to the controversial issue of the republics' internal frontiers.16 The relevance and applicability of such principles became even more obscure afterwards with the involvement of the UN, NATO and the US. Today, a much more pressing question remains unanswered. After its painful Yugoslav experience, can Europe discern its priorities and special interests in the face of new challenges?


The existence of "interblocking", rather than "interlocking," institutions17 has often been cited as a main reason for the Community's inability to act effectively, especially in the area of decision-making and consensus-building. In addition, the organizational structure of the EC presidency, a rotating position whose occupant changed every six months, meant that it could not present a suitably coherent face to the outside world.

The "troika system" of cooperation between the previous, current and future holders of the presidency did offer some advantages during the crisis by providing the Commission with the de facto capacity to act on foreign policy issues, while partly correcting the flaws of the rotating system. However, not even such an arrangement could remain uncontaminated by the strong national attitudes of its partners. Consequently, when the situation became so complex and intractable that the initial bout of hyperactivity was suddenly overtaken by a mute passivity, the absence of an institution capable of taking decisive action led to the "ostrich syndrome," or "the paradoxical spectacle of the Twelve foretelling doom but keeping their heads firmly buried in the sand."18

The third point to be made here, reinforcing the lack of an effective representative European body and the failure to establish crucial independent institutions, relates to the (still) non-existent EC/EU security architecture. The intervention of the European Community in the Yugoslav crisis was based on "pre-Maastricht EPC machinery" with some ad hoc measures but no established and proven mechanism. Illustrative of this is the degree of naivete and immaturity which the EC demonstrated in its effort to secure the first dozen ceasefires.

Nonetheless, many have argued that even with an effective CFSP in place the Community's performance throughout the conflict would not have been much different. "The real issue," argue Nicoll and Salmon, "is not institutional, whether to have joint integrated commands or corps, the lead played by NATO, WEU or EU, but whether there is an emergent identification of common political and security interests that guarantees unity."19 This argument brings us back to the issue of "vital interests" and the effect these have on the emergence of a strong "political will." In the words of two political scientists, "institutional engineering cannot replace policy or substitute for a clear strategy" and "errors in European policies are better explained by the chosen political solutions."20


The Yugoslav wars bore no resemblance to the Gulf War. The countries involved were faced by another Lebanon and not a second Operation Desert Storm. Four conditions were necessary to ensure the success of the 1990 operation: a powerful moral incentive, strategic importance, a positive chance of success on an open desert battlefield and strong public support. In the case of Yugoslavia, only the moral outcry was capable of inducing unanimous agreement.

It has been argued that the WEU had neither the capacity nor the will to intervene successfully in Yugoslavia. But, even in the presence of the former, the WEU could not in itself have generated the required political consensus. The formal acts of recognition of Croatian and of Bosnian independence, stripped of any tangible support, could neither secure true independence nor guarantee territorial integrity. The same passive attitude was adopted towards the Serbian proclamation in April 1992 of a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that was to include Serbia proper and Montenegro, an act that met with only diplomatic disapproval. It is both ironic and painful to recall that the one thing which truly united the Western countries was their lack of political will to accept the risks of major military intervention.


By the beginning of the summer of 1992, the Community had lost its chance to fulfill a leadership role. Instead of playing the much-needed role of "deus ex machina" it had clearly become a "machina sine deo,"21 and the European powers were content to assign responsibility for leadership first to the UN and then to the US and NATO.

The ad hoc emergence of a leader would have required the assertive initiative of one of the EU' s more strong-willed members, willing to take over on the task of breaking the norms of traditional consensual decision-making. Bonn's cavalier behavior towards its partners in the last quarter of 1991 seemed, at the time, the strongest indication of such an intention. However, this proved to be a misleading signal. German foreign policy vacillated greatly during the course of the conflict: essentially inconspicuous in the first phase, turning surprisingly assertive during the dramatic months preceding recognition, then lapsing largely into inactivity. This oscillation between "activism and impotence" underlines the traditional German approach towards foreign policy issues, based as it is on the two concepts of "civilian power" and "multilateralism."22

France, with its active policy and strong commitment in terms of troops, was the other potential candidate for a leadership role. Yet it became more interested in playing the "big power" than in assuming the role of a firm leader in charge of what appeared to be an uncoordinated reluctant flock of bureaucrats. Like Bonn, Paris was advocating its own version of multilateralism, but it did so for completely different reasons.

Thus, by deciding to ignore the more sensitive issues that required coalition consensus, Europe opted for policies of the lowest - and least controversial - common denominator. This approach was soon reversed when each European state found itself competing individually within other multinational institutions for effective participation. Their subsequent willingness to follow "one voice" was surprisingly strong compared to the preceding cacophony within the European Concert.

The solution to Europe's "leadership deficit" is not an obvious one. Brenner suggests two prerequisites: "common recognition that conducting foreign policy is different from harmonizing domestic policy" and "a declining regard for nationalist trappings, for the principle of sovereign independence and for relying on national means to provide for security."23These conditions, however, simply emphasize two issues that are not new in the European landscape: the idea of acquis communautaire and the controversial question of "sovereignty." Europe is in need of a vision that is not restricted to intangible concepts, but which provides for substantial and effective policies; otherwise, "leadership" will, like so many other terms, be assigned an empty meaning within the already extensive European political vocabulary.

Explaining Failure and Success

When asked why Europe failed, Michael Steiner, the international community's Deputy High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, conceded that its unfounded optimism had led its leaders to believe that "we had overcome the era when wars were thought of as solutions. .. The Gulf War was understood as something that was possible only outside civilized Europe."24 This was a view reflected in what the Germans called "Europaische Friedensordnung", or a "European peace order."25

Moreover the European nations' divergent interests created a dangerously confused mixture of national attitudes. France pursued contradictory aims: promoting the EU's common foreign policy while favoring national goals. British policy was one of "pusillanimous realism,"26 and the Germans followed a flawed approach of creating a political order in the Balkans that no one was willing or able to protect. This mixture of conflicting policies and narrow interests doomed any chance of shaping a common European policy.

Such incompatibility in national policies led to inevitable frictions. Notable examples include: President Mitterrand's unannounced trip to Sarajevo in 1992, the Greek veto overrecognition of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, disagreements regarding sanctions on Serbia and the arms embargo on the whole of the former Yugoslavia, and the lack of a unanimous commitment to the enforcement of the Adriatic blockade.

Some critics have gone even so far as to accuse the EC not only of mismanaging itself, but of mismanaging others as well. "At the root of American failure was West European failure. Had the Europeans confronted the problem when the United States alerted them, had they acted more cohesively, had they been more willing to sacrifice, the United States could have joined them in a better, if not entirely successful, strategy."27

In defense of Europe, one can single out some small individual achievements, such as the role played by the organization for European Political Cooperation (EPC) in the initial stages of the Yugoslav crisis. The Community did also shoulder a big part of the burden by providing humanitarian assistance and relief for refugees, while contributing substantially in military terms to the UN. Still, the EPC relied merely on ad hoc initiatives rather than on established institutional mechanisms. Moreover, it always faced substantial national reluctance to provide military contributions. Douglas Hurd's characterization of a 'frustrated Europe' - a feeling equally shared by other players as well as most observers - seems the most appropriate one.28


The question of whether EU succeeded or failed is of little relevance for an assessment of its capacity to deal with such situations in the future. In the words of a European diplomat, the current focus should be on "whether [Europe] had the means of fulfilling its ambitions, and if not, whether it prefers to give itself the means or abandon its ambitions."29

An answer is still needed to the endless "federal problem", since a truly European foreign policy cannot be simply an addition to existing national policies.30 Three controversial issues remain and need to be given special attention: consensus-building (the question of sovereignty), leadership (the issue of credibility), and defense provision (the idea of the legitimate use of force).


Carl Bildt pointed out that it is harder to achieve political consensus than it is to rectify institutional shortcomings: according to him, while Washington has to compete among "institutional views", Europe needs to coordinate "national views."31 What is required is a clear definition of the decision-making process and the areas where qualified majority voting is to be applied, subject to previous acceptance of the principle by all member states. A clarification of the political acquis, an issue that was not adequately covered by the limited scope of reforms undertaken by the Treaty of Amsterdam, is an inescapable precondition for debate over further enlargement.32 A coherent national policy can only be formed on the basis of a common perception of what constitutes "vital interests." When these have been clarified on a national level, an attempt to implement throughout the EU via genuine political cooperation should be considered the next priority. Such processes will not always lead to common action, but it is not necessarily desirable that they should, since, even more than monetary policy, foreign and defense policy still remains "the raison d'etre of an independent nation-state."33 In this regard it is unrealistic and even dangerous to exaggerate the need for an all-inclusive foreign policy doctrine.


The second issue, relating to Europe's presence on the international stage, provides a long awaited answer to Kissinger's frustrated question about Europe's spokesman. Brenner makes an interesting analogy between Europe's performance in Yugoslavia and America's experience in its march to becoming a global power. The idea that Europe's "debut performance" in the Yugoslavian crisis was the result of mere inexperience which might in the future be resolved through direct confrontation with post-Cold War realities, can only be supported if the "leadership void" is successfully filled. For the Commission to take up this role, it would have to be granted executive powers similar to those it already enjoys on civilian matters. However, this seems very unlikely to occur, given the still unresolved issue of sovereignty. Whether Germany, France, the United Kingdom or any combination of the three should take the lead is open to debate.


The defense issue, although a separate problem from that posed by the question of leadership, should be seen in the same light, if a coherent Common Foreign and Security Policy is to be put into place in the foreseeable future. A successful CSFP would strike a balance between political leadership and military command and allow the allocation of different responsibilities among the European allies. Such a concept might attempt to solve the "capabilities-expectations gap"34 as illustrated in the endless debate between "the ends of integration and the means of defense provision."35 According to Gow, two important developments originated in Europe's involvement in the Balkan conflict: "Yugoslavia was an opportunity for Germany to begin its transformation from humble penitent to responsible giant in the framework of European policy," and "France and the UK, traditionally distrustful of each other […] began to form an axis for military-political policy and activity in the European context."36 Germany's transformation is already visible in the new, more assertive government of Chancellor Schroeder, which lacks the burden of a history carried on the shoulders of previous governments. The Franco-British cooperation and recent talks about Europe's defense capabilities which culminated in the December 1998 signing of a "Joint Declaration on European Defense" are the most reassuring signs of the potential for creating a common European defense arm. However, the remark made by Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eysken during the Gulf crisis about the EC being "an economic giant, political dwarf and military worm"37 does not seem likely to lose its relevance in the near future.

The most pressing questions about the ability of the EU member states to act in concert remain. Europe can no longer shrink from its responsibilities before possible future threats to continental peace. It must dare to go a step further and give a qualified statement of intent, backed by determined action, first to itself and then to its transatlantic partner. The US for its part, even if it appears likely to lose its role of the "indispensable nation" at times of great European euphoria, is and should remain part of any future European order." The future system will include as much 'European power' as Europeans will be able to produce and demonstrate,"38 but only as much continental peace as a united transatlantic partnership can provide. Nothing underscores this fact more dramatically than the current developments in southern Yugoslavia.

This decade began with what Richard Holbrooke described as "the greatest collective security failure of the West since the 1930s" and may well close with a reemergence of the chaos of the 1940s. Despite its economic achievements and the successful launch of the Euro, the 1990s were not Europe's decade, and it remains to be seen whether its performance will improve before the end of the "American Century."


Christina Balis, from Athens, Greece, is a graduate of Middlessex University, London, with a BA in European Business Administration. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in International Relations and Conflict Management at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS.