Posted by Derek Chollet
The discussion here and elsewhere on the future of humanitarian intervention, muscular Wilsonianism, and the use of force serves as a reminder of the role that the 1990s debate about Bosnia played in shaping much of the current thinking – and rethinking – about these questions. Which also gives reason to remember an important anniversary: 10 years ago today, American negotiators were holed up behind a high-barbed wire fence on a secluded Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio, in the midst of an intense effort to end the Bosnian war. The story of how the U.S. got to this point – three years of dithering and indecision as Bosnia bled, followed by five months of diplomacy to end the war capped by the Dayton Peace Accords – is an important one to draw lessons from.
I try to tell this story – and draw some lessons for today – in a new book I have written about the Dayton peace process (shameless, I know). Let me take this chance to develop briefly some ideas about why I think Dayton mattered – and what this means for today.
Dayton’s core accomplishment is what it did for Bosnia: it ended a war and gave hope to millions who suffered immense hardship. But it did more than that. Dayton brought to an end one of the most difficult periods in the history of U.S.-European relations, helping define a new purpose for the Transatlantic Alliance and organizations like NATO, and ultimately, restored the credibility of the United States in the world.
The Dayton agreement was also a turning point for American foreign policy. The course the U.S. chose fit within a well-established American diplomatic tradition: a policy that challenged the status quo and reflected an all-or-nothing approach driven less by concerns about niceties or allied consensus than by getting something done.
This mattered for America’s global standing; it mattered for President Bill Clinton personally. After years of disappointment in foreign policy – from their inability to solve Bosnia, to the “black hawk down” disaster in Somalia, the chaos of Haiti, and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda – Clinton and his team emerged from Dayton with greater command, confidence, and global respect. In less than six months during 1995, Clinton had taken charge of the Transatlantic Alliance, pushed NATO to use overwhelming military force, risked America’s prestige on a bold diplomatic gamble, and placed 20,000 American military men and women on the ground in a dangerous environment to enforce the agreement.
The Bosnia experience has taught many lessons, but the most important one is this: when it comes to solving global problems, American leadership remains indispensable. America’s failure to lead during the early 1990’s contributed to the international community’s inability to solve the Bosnia’s crisis; but its bold action in 1995 stopped the war.
And here’s what progressives today need to remember: this approach included allies, but in the end it was largely unilateral, rejecting the United Nations and keeping our friends at long-arms-length (during the negotiations in Dayton, the Europeans were largely reduced to being spectators). The United States acted first and consulted later. And it was not only truly maximalist in means, but in ends: rather than simply seek a cease-fire between the parties (as most Europeans wanted), the United States sought to create the contours of a new Bosnian democratic state.
Perhaps it is fitting that the best description of this comes from the top European involved in these negotiations, Sweden’s former Prime Minister, Carl Bildt. The “simple and fundamental fact” of the history made in Dayton, Bildt recalls, is that the “United States was the only player who possessed the ability to employ power as a political instrument and, when forced into action, was also willing to do so.” This lesson from Dayton is sometimes easy to overlook today, ten years later, when many around the world are questioning the purpose of U.S. leadership, chafing at the exercise of American power, or claiming that American assertiveness is something new.