Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security

November 17, 2011

With Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security, the philanthropist, academic and former US ambassador to Austria, Swanee Hunt, has made an interesting and somewhat unusual contribution to a diverse field of literature on the Bosnian conflict of 1992-95. Here, she reflects on her experiences in Bosnia to convey her thesis on "inclusive international security": namely, that interventions in conflicts should be governed by the needs of local populations.

It is a point made forcefully, although at times it tends to disappear from view, overwhelmed by detailed anecdotes from Hunt's diplomatic career. She travelled extensively in Bosnia and brings us into the heart of the broken and dissipated communities she visited, including medical charities, women's groups and refugees. The book is narrated through a set of vignettes that tell of Hunt's wartime encounters with Bosnian people and politicians on the inside of the conflict, and policymakers and powerful international actors on the outside. These compelling accounts alternate between inside and outside in an effort to present opposing experiences of the conflict. In doing so, she offers a rich picture of the complexities and peculiarities of Bosnia in both war and peace, and the book's scope is vast.

Hunt, whose concern for the Bosnian population is genuine and moving, presents us with a tempting vision of intervention. The book closes with six lessons that can be applied to other conflicts, and include advice such as "test truisms", "question stereotypes" and "appreciate domestic dynamics". It is a refreshing view on international intervention, especially as Hunt champions stronger roles for women in the process, but the thesis is not without its shortcomings. "Domestic dynamics" are complicated at best, and local populations - whose views are difficult to solicit in wartime - often have competing concerns. Deciding which to prioritise can be a difficult decision for policymakers.

Throughout, she characterises the international community as rather passive, insensitive and callous, and questions the effectiveness of other diplomats and political leaders. Hunt asks, for instance, how Pamela Harriman, the former US ambassador to France, "for all her personal tenacity, could give up on US intervention in the Bosnian conflict. Did she not connect this situation with Britain's hope that America would enter World War II?" At times, her view of the international community seems oversimplified, and it does not take into account the vast network of complicated actors and policies that govern intervention.

While the book is an absorbing read, at times clichés and caricatures creep in: the "bucolic hills of Bosnia" make an appearance, as does a "smoky cafe"; coffee is served in a "tiny Middle Eastern cup"; and a Sarajevo bakery is a "blend of East and West". The Bosnian War is "barbaric, to an extent almost incomprehensible in sophisticated, modern Europe". Former Bosnian prime minister Haris Silajdžic meets with Hunt after what she speculates is a "clandestine arms transaction"; and he is "more than a moody, sultry ladies' man" with "romantic tendencies". Such anecdotes and language rather confuse the reader - is the book a memoir of Hunt's diplomatic career, or an attempt to make a serious point about global security? At times it appears to be both, but the former often detracts from the latter, and both analysis and Hunt's broader point tend to disappear.

Nevertheless, general readers, students and activists will find much of value in a book that is more accessible than most academic works on the conflict. Academics and regional experts may not find much new material, but there are enough details and conversations with senior politicians to warrant reading it purely for the insight it offers into diplomatic and political life of the 1990s, such as the detail that former US vice-president Al Gore recommended Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History as a book that helped to "clarify his thinking".

Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security

By Swanee Hunt. Duke University Press, 296pp, £22.99. ISBN 9780822349754. Published 10 June 2011

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