US intervention: playing the Bosnian card against an emerging German sphere of influence

During 1991 the United States’s declaratory policy was one of supporting Yugoslav unity. But in reality the US stood back from the Yugoslav crisis, simply watching the chaotic manoeuvrings of the European powers on the issue. The US no longer had any significant national interest in Yugoslavia. But it was pre-occupied by one overriding European policy issue: ensuring that Western Europe remained firmly subordinated to the Atlantic Alliance under US leadership. And this was viewed by the Bush administration as a serious problem as a result of fundamental features of the Soviet collapse. First, NATO – the military cornerstone of the Alliance – had lost its rationale and there were moves in Western Europe (and the USSR) to build a new security order in Europe that would tend to undermine US leadership.

Secondly, the new United Germany, liberated from US tutelage, seemed to be building a new political bloc with France through the Maastricht Treaty with its stress on a Common Foreign and Security Policy leading towards ‘a common defence’. This seemed to be more than words since Germany and France were in the process of building a joint military corps, the so-called ‘Euro-Corps’ outside the NATO framework – a move that profoundly disturbed Washington and London. And thirdly, Germany’s drive in relation to Yugoslavia seemed to be geared not simply to domestic German constituencies, but to the construction of a German sphere of influence in Central Europe, involving Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia and perhaps later drawing in Czechoslovakia and eventually and most crucially Poland. This seemed to be the only explanation for the extraordinary assertive unilateralism of Genscher and Kohl, running roughshod over their EC partners in December 1991 and sending a signal to the whole of Europe that Bonn had become the place where the shape of the new Europe was being decided.

This was not acceptable to the Bush administration. As Eagleburger explained, Germany “was getting out ahead of the US” with its Croatian drive. In other words the US interpretation of Genscher’s drive to break up Yugoslavia was far from being that it was just a sop to Catholic domestic constituencies and the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In response to this challenge, the US administration decided to take over the political lead in the Yugoslav crisis.

But just as Germany’s various declared universalist norms and goals were in the service of not of the Yugoslav people but of German political influence, so the United States was not, of course, entering the Yugoslav theatre to calm the storms of war and provide new security for Yugoslavia’s terrified peoples. Quite the reverse. The Bush administration was entering the scene to push Germany and the European Union aside but it was going to do so by laying the basis for a new and much more savage Yugoslav war.

Washington’s chosen instrument for taking the lead was that of encouraging the Bosnian government to go for independence and therefore for a Bosnian war. Bosnian independence was opposed by the German government and the EC. They aimed to try to hold the rest of Yugoslavia together. The US administration decided to put a stop to that by launching a drive for Bosnian independence which got underway in January 1992 just as the EC was following Germany’s lead in recognising Croatia and Slovenia.

Germany had turned the internal Yugoslav crisis into its own problem definition: Europe must defend independent Croatia against Serbian/Yugoslav aggression. Now Washington would provide a new problem definition: Europe and the world must defend an Independent Bosnia against Serbian/Yugoslav aggression and, perhaps, if tactically useful, against Croatian aggression as well. Thus did the US enunciate the great norm that would eventually provide it with European leadership: self-determination for the Bosnian nation and defence of its independence against aggression.
Bosnia: A state without a nation

There was a factual problem with the American line: there was no Bosnian nation in a political sense or in a Yugoslav constitutional sense. There were, instead, three nations in Bosnia, none of which had a majority of the population. As of the 1981 Census Bosnia contained the following main national groups:

Muslims: 1,629,000
Serbs: 1,320,000
Croatians: 758,000
Yugoslavs: 326,000
Bosnians: 0

It was evident from voting results that the majority of Bosnia’s own population was not going to respect the authority of an independent Bosnian state. (The Croatian nationalist leaders had supported Bosnian independence but only to facilitate Bosnia’s being carved up). And it was equally obvious that large parts of that population would go to war rather than accept the state. The American government knew this perfectly well. So by pushing the Izetbegovic government to launch a drive for independence, the Bush administration was pushing for war.

Peter Gowan

The Twisted Road to Kosovo (1999)