The Shame of Bosnia

Four justifications are being proposed for intervention in the Yugoslav crisis. The first is humanitarian: to defend convoys and air missions to feed people in besieged cities, evacuate casualties and civilians, rescue prisoners in concentration camps, etc. The second is to seize and punish war criminals. Both justifications are the subject of resolutions to be put before the UN Security Council.

The third is to defend or restore the international frontiers between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina, which have been recognized by the European Community and the United States, but have been overrun, chiefly by the Serbs, to create a “Greater Serbia” that would unite all of the ex-Yugoslav regions in which substantial Serbian populations exist. The fourth is to halt the quasi-genocidal Serbian—and Croatian—campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” of the territories they have seized.

The first objective tends to contradict the third and fourth. To help the besieged without ending the siege is to save victims today who may die tomorrow. Evacuating civilians and prisoners from territory selected by the Serbs for “ethnic cleansing” is to do the Serbs’ work for them at international expense. In circumstances such as these, the second UN objective—punishing war criminals—is mere rhetoric and will never be achieved.

In short, the Western governments continue to search for ways to satisfy an outraged public opinion while avoiding the serious issue posed by this crisis. Once again, as at Munich in 1938, the chief concern of Paris and London—and today of Washington—is not to prevent or reverse aggression, but to find a face-saving way to avoid doing so. We still refuse to deliver arms to the Bosnians, and embargo others from doing so. (One thinks of the British and French ministers in Prague awakening Czechoslovak President Eduard Beneš from his sleep at 2 AM on September 22, 1938, when Hitler had delivered his ultimatum, to tell Beneš that if war broke out the Western powers “would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed.”)

Behind what Serbia is doing is the superficially reasonable, but in practice pernicious, theory that every “nation” should have its own state. This was a product of the nineteenth-century breakdown of the dynastic system. Monarchies in old Europe ruled over different nations, peoples, and religions. Political unrest or rebellion might result from misrule, but not just because the rulers belonged to a different nation or race: that was taken for granted as the way things always had been.

After the French Revolution and Napoleon, people became convinced that they should fight not only for political and religious liberty but also against being governed by foreigners. The great nineteenth-century liberal historian Lord Acton wrote that “protest against the domination of race over race…grew into a condemnation of every state that included different races, and finally became the complete and consistent theory, that the state and the nation must be co-extensive.” He added that this was “a retrograde step in history.”

That the state and nation should coincide is defensible in theory. In practice…

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