Western intervention in the Balkans: the strategic use of emotion in conflict

  • Spring 2012
Roger Petersen

Roger Petersen received the ASN (Association for the Study of Nationalities) 2012 Joseph Rothschild Prize for Western Intervention in the Balkans

By Roger Petersen
May 1, 2012

An excerpt from the book, reprinted with permission from Cambridge University Press.


AT ITS BROADEST LEVEL, this book concentrates on explaining variation in the success or failure of Western intervention in the Balkans from the collapse of communism up to the summer of 2008. With the formation of a strongly pro-EU government in Serbia in the summer of 2008, significant opposition to incorporation into Western institutions and the Western economy disappeared from the region. Not to exaggerate, but in an important sense one type of history had ended in the Balkans. Across this poor and corrupt region, nearly all looked to embrace the democracy and capitalism of the European Union and the United States. No party or leader could offer a coherent alternative. This transformation was perhaps inevitable. The combined gross domestic product of the entire Western Balkans (usually defined as the former Yugoslavia minus Slovenia but plus Albania) was dwarfed by that of its Western neighbors. In an era of globalization, these poor states could not advance outside of Europe's orbit. To be sure, significant conflicts and disputes still color the Western Balkan terrain, especially in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Macedonia. This book will chronicle the ways those conflicts are still being contested. Yet the era of massive violence and isolation appears to be over.

Roger Petersen

Western Intervention in the Balkans,by Roger Petersen, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science at MIT.

Although the progression of regional history was likely to reach this stage, there were a few bumps along the way. In what amounted to the bloodiest fighting in Europe since the Second World War, the Bosnian war resulted in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. Fifteen years after the Dayton Accords, progress toward the reconstruction of a functioning central state has been uneven. In Kosovo, the Milosevic regime drove over 800,000 Albanians out of their homes. In response, NATO conducted its first armed action, dropping over 26,000 bombs during a period of seventy-eight days to drive Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo.1The war not only changed NATO's mission, but also challenged sovereignty norms as a basic principle of the international order. Albanian guerrilla groups escalated violence in Kosovo in 1998, southern Serbia in 2000, and Macedonia in 2001. As late as 2008, radical nationalists in Serbia drew huge vote shares while their followers and sympathizers set fire to the US and other foreign embassies.

Within the course of this drama, the United States and Europe made decisions about whether to intervene and how. The nature of intervention has taken a myriad of forms—informal pressure, sanctions, bombings, etc. In the years following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the United Nations conducted eight peacekeeping missions in the region, NATO carried out four different operations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) worked on several assignments across the Western Balkans. Interventions took their most manifest form in brokered agreements among parties in conflict. In almost every corner of the region, the West has been involved in making these deals. In Bosnia, the Clinton Administration negotiated the 1995 Dayton Accord with special annexes for the cities of Brcko and Mostar; in Macedonia, the West mediated the Ohrid Accord and has continued to serve as arbiter in its evolving implementation; in Eastern Slavonia, the West instituted the Basic Agreement; in southern Serbia, the United States brokered the Konculj agreement; in Montenegro, the West negotiated the Belgrade Agreement and was involved in the Tuzi or Ulcinj accord; in Kosovo, the United Nations' Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) instituted a policy of standards before status, then one of standards with status, and then transferred power to the European Union and yet another form of supervised governance in the form of the Ahtisaari Plan. The West also invested enormous resources in attempting to make these brokered agreements work. The United States spent 22 billion dollars from 1992 to 2003; the European Union spent 33 billion euros just between 2001 and 2005.2

The Western-brokered accords just mentioned are a primary empirical focus of this book. In each case, an accord illustrates Western goals and provides criteria for judging whether these goals were successfully reached.

Taken as a whole, these accords also illustrate the Western philosophy toward intervention. I will argue that both Western intervention practice and the social science that evaluates it are driven by a narrow sense of human nature. More specifically, individuals are seen as responding to short-term, largely economic incentives and disincentives, or perhaps to physical threats. Correspondingly, policies are formed along the lines of narrowly conceived "sticks and carrots."3 In the words of an American military colonel serving in Iraq, "With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them." In another similar vein, interveners apply the logic of rational choice game theory, especially in the form of the "prisoners' dilemma," to the conflicts they find themselves in. As with sticks and carrots, the goal is to raise the value of rewards, or to structure penalties in such a way that the relationships among the parties in the conflict can rapidly evolve toward a new "equilibrium" with higher mutual payoffs. In an important sense, this book is an evaluation of this philosophy and the practice that follows from it.

The Western Balkans is a critical case for the study of intervention. Most factors have theoretically lined up to support successful intervention—both carrots and sticks have been abundant. In Bosnia, fourteen years after the Dayton Accords, the international community had poured more money into Bosnia per capita than into any recipient of the Marshall Plan. Under the so-called Bonn powers, international administrators could easily remove uncooperative local political actors, even from positions to which they were democratically elected. The International Criminal Tribunal has tried dozens of war criminals at the Hague. Massive security forces have kept the peace. NGOs have worked to create a strong narrative that places the blame on manipulative elites. Critically, the European Union holds out the promise of membership in exchange for compliance to its wishes. Yet the hope of developing effective central governments made only halting progress. In 2009, Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accord, was warning about Bosnia's possible collapse.4 In Kosovo, the program of "standards before status" failed to create a functioning multiethnic society or to prevent massive riots in March of 2004, despite having poured enormous resources into a small state of two million people. The West was pouring money into Kosovo at a rate twenty-five times greater than into Afghanistan and had helped fund troop levels at a rate fifty times greater.5 Some regions in Bosnia, and arguably Macedonia, have seen more success. What explains this variation? The set of accords mentioned form a substantial field of variation from which to examine potential answers to this question.



In terms of the substantive agenda just described, this book is a straightforward social scientific work. I develop and examine hypotheses that explain observed variation in the success or failure of Western intervention policy in one universe of cases, the Western Balkans. At the same time, the book deviates greatly from standard practice and the conventional wisdom in political science. This deviation stems from the discrepancy that I observed over the course of several years of fieldwork in the Balkans between what actors do and the theoretical model of their behavior that underlies Western models of intervention and reconstruction. The individuals I observed had lived through violence and some of them had committed it. Many fled their homes in fear. Some would seek revenge. These individuals often hold deep historically based prejudices; they often cannot value the lives of ethnically distinct others. Many became used to being on top of the political and social hierarchy and had a hard time accustoming themselves to new political realities. In other words, the people I have observed have been through some powerful experiences. These experiences have left a residue. For those who have lived in the conflict regions of the Balkans, the residue of their experience is often as real as the guns and money that form the basis of Western social science accounts. The question is how this powerful but amorphous residue can be incorporated into social science.

The most basic underlying proposition of this book can be simply stated: broad human experiences leave residues that affect the path of conflict. This statement will undoubtedly seem banal to many readers. In fact, it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of US political science as it stood in the early twenty-first century. The view that broad human experience shapes the outbreak and course of conflict has been under consistent assault for much of the post-Cold War era. The current thinking comes in many different forms, and consumers of the literature will recognize the slogans and catchwords of specific versions: greed over grievance, insurgency as technology, elite manipulation, and thugs. Violence is often viewed as a matter of very small numbers of actors, either elites or criminals, making rational decisions to initiate and sustain violence to achieve narrow ends. Despite diversity in details, each of these views holds in common the idea that the daily life of members of large communities is largely irrelevant to understanding conflict.

I believe this view is wrong. The reason for the existence of this view may be that a fundamental goal of social science is to make complicated matters easier to comprehend. In the pursuit of parsimony, simplifying assumptions are necessary. Given the biases of Western society and academia, methods in the study of conflict have been based, either explicitly or implicitly, on the assumption of narrowly rational actors.6 Perhaps unsurprisingly, both the Western practitioners of intervention and the scholars who study political violence are driven by the same assumptions. Both sometimes fail in their respective endeavors, I argue, because of the overly narrow view of human nature reflected in their practices and methods.



1 More than 38,400 sorties dropped 26,614 bombs. Iain King and Whit Mason, Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), p. 2.

2 Elizabeth Pond, Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style(Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 2006), p. 278.

3 Dexter Filkins quoting Colonel Sassaman in the New York Times, December 7, 2003, "Tough New Tactics by U.S. Tighten Grip on Iraq Towns."

4 Richard Holbrooke and Paddy Ashdown, "A Bosnian Powder Keg," London Guardian, October 22, 2009. Ashdown was writing as a former UN High Representative to Bosnia.

5 King and Mason, Peace at Any Price, p. 21.

6 On this point, see Chaim Kaufmann, "Rational Choice and Progress in the Study of Ethnic Conflict: A Review Essay," Security Studies 14 (2005): 178–207.