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Collapsing Pluralism: The Bosnian War Three Decades Later

The US is not Yugoslavia, but its struggles surrounding pluralism, nationalism, and an urban/rural divide parallel those Yugoslavia faced as it descended into chaos.

In Eastern Europe, a region haunted by empire, history drives not only the current struggle in Ukraine, but also in Bosnia. Over 30 years ago in Bosnia (from April 1992 to November 1995), a war broke out that journalist Misha Glenny pronounced “the end of the twentieth century.”[3] A complex history and antagonistic ethnic politics played a central role in both fueling the conflict and preventing intervention. While Yugoslavia remains a unique and tragic case of national dissolution, the contributing factors to its collapse, and the international responses it generated, remain relevant, even pressing issues today. The weaponized deployment — and often distortion — of history, the growing antipathy between city and country, economic downturns that fuel ethnic rivalries and the spread of nationalism, are all central to the story then, and are at play in the current moment.

Yugoslavia, Nationalism, and the Credibility Trap

Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic “is not Hitler, he’s not trying to conquer Europe,” a veteran foreign service official, Jim Hooper, told New York Times journalist Anthony Lewis in 1993. “No, but he’s creating a climate hospitable to extreme nationalism.” For Hooper, Bosnia was “the big picture.”

According to Lewis’ notes, Hooper, the former deputy director of the Office of East Europe and Yugoslavia Affairs in the State Department’s European Bureau (1989-1991), argued that American inaction eroded its international goals of extending democracy and free markets. Serb nationalism threatened to feed the same in Russia, in which if it were to take hold, could result in a potential “disaster … far more dangerous than Soviet communism.” The Soviets might have been expansionist, but “there was an inherent caution.” A Russia with imperialist ambitions, “cannot be a democratic Russia,” he told Lewis.[4]

The truth as then-NYT correspondent Stephen Kinzer conveyed to Lewis in an unpublished 1993 article, was that the conflict stemmed from the intersection of history with modern politics, “Its causes are as remote as the Middle Ages and as recent as the collapse of communism.” The responsible parties? “[N]ot only the reckless Serbs and Croats, but also European and American strategists who had the power but not the vision to prevent it.”[5]

Lewis was considered one of the most prominent voices on the conflict at the time and wrote over 30 columns between December 1991 and December 1993, applying an intense focus on the situation in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia. In nearly all of his pieces, he encouraged U.S. and NATO intervention during both the Bush and Clinton administrations.

For U.S. policymakers and officials encouraging intervention, the “credibility trap” was a popular argument. Then-Senators Joe Biden and Bob Dole advocated for the U.S. to intercede. Time and Newsweek ran stories fretting about presidential and national weakness.[6] By not intervening, they suggested, the U.S., not only lost stature internationally but undermined its efforts to spread democracy and free market capitalism, while emboldening autocrats around the world.