Bosnia and Beyond

The world doesn’t seem to appreciate what is at stake in Bosnia. We are aware of the human suffering, we are outraged at the atrocities, we are humiliated by the inability of both the United Nations and the European Community to prevent violence. But we do not quite understand the implications of our failure to intervene militarily. If we did, we would have intervened long ago.

What is happening in Bosnia demonstrates, once again, that borders can be changed by force and that this will be accepted internationally as a fait accompli. Of course there is nothing new in this. It only shows all the more clearly that we have not succeeded in establishing a new world order capable of upholding the rule of law, of protecting human rights and resolving conflicts peacefully.

Events in Bosnia have also shown that there is hardly any limit to the brutality that can be employed in the service of a national goal; indeed, that brutality against a civilian population is an effective instrument of national policy. That is a much graver matter. Brutality has always existed but continuing to tolerate it after it has been exposed can only weaken future attempts to resist it.

The unspeakable brutality that we have witnessed in Bosnia is not simply the byproduct of mindless aggression; it has been committed in the name of a doctrine, the doctrine of the ethnic state. That is where the danger lies. Ethnic states leave no room for people with different ethnic identities, and “ethnic cleansing” can turn ethnic identity into a matter of life and death. If it prevails in the many parts of the world which are susceptible to it, our entire civilization could be endangered. I realize these are large statements, but I believe they are justified.

This is not the first time that civilization has been threatened by a doctrine. Communism posed such a threat and, before that, National Socialism. Indeed, almost any doctrine can become a threat to civilization if it is taken seriously enough, and if it can gather sufficient force. In the Middle Ages, people went to war over the doctrine of transubstantiation.

A sense of ethnic identity has been a powerful force throughout history, and has played an important part in the formation of the modern state. As a historical force it has been rivaled only by religion, especially if we include communism as a secular religion. There is nothing inherently evil in having a sense of ethnic identity. On the contrary, it is an important element in holding a nation together, and the coexistence of a great many different nations, languages, and cultures has given civilization the diversity it needs to be productive and creative. But when ethnic identity is turned into a doctrine of exclusion it becomes harmful. When it is used as the criterion of citizenship it infringes on human rights; and when it is used as a justification for destroying rival ethnic groups it becomes a danger to civilization …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.