The Foreign Service Journal, October 2019

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2019 63 Learning from the Balkans FromWar to Peace in the Balkans, the Middle East and Ukraine Daniel Serwer, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, $31/hardcover, free as an open- access e-book at Amazon and other outlets. Reviewed by Harry Kopp “Learn from history,” we are told, even as fewer and fewer students devote themselves to the subject. The State Department’s frequent promises “to produce timely lessons-learned analysis” remain largely aspirational. The flower children of yore are now on Medicare and Metamucil, but in matters of foreign policy, it still too often seems that each day is the first day of the rest of our lives. Daniel Serwer, a former Foreign Service officer and current professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, rows against this current. In his latest book, he gives us a close analysis of war, peace and political evolution in the Balkans after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 100 pages. In scarcely 50 pages more, he draws lessons from the Balkan experience and considers how they might apply in the Middle East and Ukraine. He is doing the work that others call for, but rarely perform. American involvement in the Balkan mess came slowly and late. After all, Serwer writes, the Balkans “were small places that did not threaten U.S. national security or offer significant economic interests.” But the 1990s were a “unipo- lar moment,” when American power was uncontested. In those circumstances, an accumulation of secondary interests— maintaining NATO’s credibility and political unity, preventing refugee flows that might radicalize European Muslims, responding to U.S. domestic pressures— was sufficient to bring about diplomatic and military intervention, first in Bosnia in 1995 and then in Kosovo in 1999. It is no easy task for the writer or the reader to follow events in the seven countries that emerged from Yugo- slavia in war and tumult (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedo- nia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia). Names and places that dominated the news 25 years ago are already unfamiliar. But repeating themes create a narrative, and the accumulation of facts leads to some surpris- ing conclusions. The most important of these is Serwer’s conten- tion, backed by solid historic evidence, that “the [ethnic] intolerance required to produce the wars of the 1990s [was] not indigenous, natural or ancient.” Ethnic wars and ethnic cleansing were real, of course, but they were the product of poi- sonous leadership, not poisoned hearts. Division was a path to power for dema- gogic politicians, who insisted on “the classic Balkans question: Why should I live as a minority in your country when you can live as a minority in mine?” Serwer contends that the Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995 were largely a victory for the most important ethnic demagogue, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic left Dayton with 49 percent of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, territory that had been controlled by his enemy, the Bosnian-Croat Federation. “All armies and ethnic nationalists on the verge of defeat should have the good fortune to be hauled off to ‘Dayton,’” says Serwer. Lessons Lessons drawn from history come with a warning. Policies are complex, outcomes ambiguous and analo- gies imperfect. Looking backward, analysts and policymakers can pick and choose, indulging their preconceptions. Hence, as Serwer says, “lessons learned are often lessons preferred.” But there are les- sons, nonetheless. • Ethnic boundaries are nearly impossible to draw. In the Balkans, after years of warfare and ethnic conflict, borders remain where they were in Socialist Yugoslavia. “If you open the question of borders in one country,” says Serwer, “you are bound to cause questioning of borders in other countries in the region and pos- sibly beyond.” What was true in Bosnia and Kosovo is true in Iraq and Syria, and even in Iran, which Serwer points out is only 60 percent Persian. Once raised, the Balkans question—Why should I live as a minority in your country when you can live as a minority in mine?—has no clear answer. • “Neighborhoods matter,” Serwer says. The pull of Europe—the European Union and NATO—influenced Balkan behavior and continues to do so. The Middle East, however, has no “nearby, attractive, pluralistic, democratic model, current or historical. …The Middle East needs a set of norms” to reduce the BOOKS Division was a path to power for demagogic politicians.