The Complacent Democracies

The display of disorder and impotence provided by the international community in its failure to deal with the Yugoslav war has a larger meaning that must be confronted.

What has been demonstrated is a fundamental inability of governments responsive to popular opinion to deal with problems whose consequences lie in the future. There will be no new international order, no new European order that requires enforcement, because no willingness exists to enforce order. Even when there is wide international agreement over what that order should be, as in the case of Yugoslavia, it will not be imposed against significant opposition.

This has been true in Yugoslavia from the start. Security Council resolutions a year and a half ago, which ordered troops withdrawn from conquered regions of Croatia and the return of both sides’ refugees, were never enforced. Why? This would have been resisted. The United Nations’ humanitarian convoys progress, when they progress, by negotiation and bribery. When they are attacked, the United Nations withdraws. Nothing has ever been done in Yugoslavia that did not have the consent of whatever combatant controlled the territory.

The new UN-proclaimed “safe havens” for Muslims in Bosnia have no actual military protection and will not be given it. When UN forces are present in such a “safe haven,” they have no authority to fight other than in their own defense. The United States has offered air strikes—but not to protect the Muslims in these havens, only to protect the UN soldiers who are not protecting the Muslims. The situation would be farcical were it not laden with tragedy.

The Security Council ordered aggressive action in Somalia to punish those responsible for the deaths of twenty-three or more Pakistani soldiers on UN service. The principle at stake is no different from that in Yugoslavia, but the responsible Somalian warlord is a bandit with limited military resources. There seemed little risk in taking him on. A comparable episode in Yugoslavia would have had no sequel.

There is no will to act in Yugoslavia because to do so would be dangerous. Had the Western powers wished to halt or punish aggression, the resources could easily have been found to do this. NATO is on the scene, with an overwhelmingly military force, and is eager for a post-cold war mission to justify its existence. The Gulf War armada could have been reconstituted if the West had thought aggression in Europe comparable to aggression in Kuwait.

This was not the judgment. Not one government in Western Europe or North America, or among the non-Western powers who have interested themselves in the affair, including the Muslim Turks and Arabs, has been willing to propose serious sacrifice, or even to accept the risk of such sacrifice, to change the course of events in Yugoslavia. Proximity, shared political values, evident implication in the consequences, religious or historical attachment, all have been ignored.

Moreover, this outcome probably correctly reflects public opinion in these countries. In any case it has been the politically safe…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.