Triumph of principle, patience and persistence

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer places NATO's achievements in Bosnia and Herzegovina in historical perspective.

(© NATO)

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Edmund Burke

On December 2, NATO will conclude its Stabilisation Force (SFOR) mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Alliance's first peacekeeping operation, which started in late 1995, will have come to a successful end. Supported by NATO, the European Union will launch a mission of its own. An important chapter in the history of the Balkans - and that of NATO - will be closed.

It has been quite a few years since our newspapers and television news bulletins were dominated by outbursts of violence from the Balkans. It might be easy to forget how bad it was. But we must not forget. That was a terrible time, for the people of the region and for the entire Euro-Atlantic community.

The violent collapse of Yugoslavia threatened to undermine many of the gains we had made with the peaceful end of the Cold War. More than 200,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were driven from their homes. The stability of neighbouring countries was put at risk. And the longer the international community hesitated to take decisive action, the greater the strains on relations between countries all across Europe.

But there was another threat as well. A threat to our values, to our ethics, to our sense of ourselves. To have turned our backs on the Balkans would have been to betray those values. Had the richest and most powerful countries in the world failed to act, it would have been an historic failure, and a deep shame. For all these reasons, it became increasingly clear that not taking action was not an option. Not for the international community at large. And not for NATO.

When the question of NATO intervention was still under discussion, many analysts were sceptical about what the Alliance would be able to achieve. NATO was entering a "Balkan quagmire" from which there was no way out, the sceptics argued. The Alliance would try in vain to defuse the "Balkan powder keg", since instability in the Balkans was endemic. And military intervention could never resolve the "Balkan imbroglio", they claimed, because the causes were supposedly hundreds of years of "ethnic hatred".

There is a proverb that says that those who claim "it can't be done" should at least not disturb those who are already doing it. The Alliance did intervene in the Balkans. At first by supporting, and then enforcing, a weapons embargo and a no-fly zone. When these steps did not produce the desired results, NATO went further. In the summer of 1995, the judicious use of air power finally brought the warring parties to the negotiating table. The result was the Dayton Peace Agreement and a new lease of life for a new country.

But history shows that the end of war does not necessarily mean the beginning of peace. Bosnia and Herzegovina needed enduring security if it was to get back on its feet. And it needed the assistance of other international actors, including the European Union and the United Nations, to help rebuild its economy, its government, its judiciary, police forces and all the other elements of a normal, self-sustaining country.

NATO provided the platform for that, too. Allies sent in 60,000 troops to keep the peace, with a clear message that we would tolerate no more fighting. This Implementation Force was a coalition without historical precedent. By uniting all the major nations in the Euro-Atlantic area behind a common strategy, the Alliance managed to break the fateful cycle by which great powers supported traditional client states in the Balkans. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Balkan crisis had led to a World War. At the end of that same century, all the major powers were united on the same side - the side of peace. And by creating a safe environment for other institutions to come in and do their job, NATO also laid the groundwork for bringing Bosnia and Herzegovina back into the European mainstream.

By confronting a major challenge head-on the Alliance was able to make progress few believed possible at the time

Progress over the past years has been amazing. Sarajevo, the capital, has become a normal city again. People can move freely anywhere in the country, and the different ethnic groups have realised they must work together. Political differences are being settled peacefully. And the country has made clear its aspiration to join NATO's Partnership for Peace programme and one day to become a full member of both the Alliance and the European Union. This is a huge success - a success that is based on the lesson that indifference is not a strategy. The only sensible strategy is engagement.

That lesson is still being applied. This means that although SFOR will end, NATO will stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even after the European Union deploys, NATO will remain engaged in the country and committed to its long-term future. The Alliance will retain a military headquarters in Sarajevo. While the European Union will be responsible for ensuring day-to-day security, NATO will focus on defence reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina and preparing the country initially for membership of the Partnership for Peace and eventually of the Alliance itself. The NATO headquarters, which will be headed by a one-star US general with a staff of around 150, will also work on counter-terrorism, apprehending war-crimes suspects and intelligence-gathering. In short, engagement remains our strategy.

It is important to note that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made great progress in defence reform in the recent past. When hostilities ended in 1995, the country's security establishment consisted of three rival armed forces - an absurdity that needed to be rectified. Today, thanks to the close cooperation between NATO and other international organisations, together with the national authorities, the country's defence structures have been thoroughly reformed, and a single state-level Defence Ministry has been created. Again, the logic of sustained engagement has borne fruit.

As NATO's engagement with Bosnia and Herzegovina changes in the months and years ahead, the Alliance will work together with the national authorities to maintain the pace of reform. In addition to seeing through its defence-reform programme, Bosnia and Herzegovina must demonstrate that it is cooperating to the best of its ability with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, before it is able to join the Partnership for Peace. Once Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Serbia and Montenegro, have joined that Partnership programme, all countries of the Balkans would be in a structured security relationship with NATO. This would be a major boon for Euro-Atlantic security at large - which is why we want to hasten the day.

The success of NATO's mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina is testimony to the wisdom of taking a long-term perspective with regard to peacekeeping and reconstruction. With patience and persistence, we can succeed. And it is precisely this patience and persistence that we need to finish the job that is still unfinished elsewhere in the Balkans - above all in Kosovo. Clearly, Kosovo is a unique challenge, as the unrest of last March dramatically reminded us. As a result, any comparison with NATO's role in Bosnia and Herzegovina must not be overstated. But Bosnia and Herzegovina does offer some broad lessons that are relevant to Kosovo as well.

One key lesson is not to put oneself under artificial time pressure. One must stay as long as it takes to create a self-sustaining peace. Clearly, one must exercise great care to prevent a culture of international dependency. In the end, true progress will only come if the war-torn societies "own" the process of reconstruction and reconciliation. But this "ownership" will only be exercised if the different political groups or ethnic factions are confronted with an international community that does not let them off the hook. The international community, including NATO, must make it clear that it is simply not an option to wait for the disappearance of the foreign presence in order to revert to previous patterns of behaviour.

Another lesson is that NATO must be more than a provider of military services. The Alliance should play a security-political role commensurate with its military importance, and this role should be based upon more profound, and more sustained political dialogue among the Allies. NATO's South East Europe Initiative and the way in which the Alliance has facilitated regional security cooperation are signs that this broader political role is both feasible and yields tangible results.

The most important lesson of all is the need for transatlantic cooperation. NATO's intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina was preceded by considerable transatlantic debate about the proper course to take. In the end, Europe and North America decided to act together. By confronting a major challenge head-on the Alliance was able to make progress few believed possible at the time. Transatlantic unity was the key for success. Today, as NATO is taking on even more ambitious - and dangerous - missions in other parts of the world, this is a central lesson that we must never forget.

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