A Balkan question in search of an answer

August 4, 1995

As fighting in the former Yugoslavia escalates, The THES asked leading academics the following questions: 1. What action do you think Britain and the UN should take next? 2. Is the present attitude of western governments morally equivalent to the appeasement of Hitler in 1938/39?

Bosnia has become a byword for tragedy. Millions of ordinary Bosnians have lost land and loved ones, hope and happiness. And when the Serbian general, Ratko Mladic, walked into Srebrenica last month, so shattering the illusion of UN-defended safe havens, the international community lost much credibility and all honour.

Since then, there has been talk and more talk. Ultimatums, air strikes, massive military intervention, complete withdrawal - all these have been discussed. But there remains a vacuum of decisive action. What is to be done? We have asked leading academics for their views.

It is perhaps surprising that academics have not been more outspoken on the Bosnian question. Norman Stone, Oxford's professor of modern history, told The THES: "To their shame, academics have been all too silent on the Bosnian question. It's shocking." He compares the silence on Bosnia with the outcry over Vietnam, when university campuses across Britain and the United States were filled with protesting professors.

Our survey shows that academics nevertheless have a great deal to say. Opinions differ wildly. But a consensus suggests that, if they were running the country today, the academics surveyed here would back air strikes, certainly reinforce the UN, and possibly intervene militarily.

Another feature of the current debate on Bosnia - and one which perhaps highlights the fact that it has been dominated by politicians rather than professors - is the tendency towards simplistic soundbites. Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The THES: "There has been far too much sloganeering, moralistic posturing, and breast-beating on this topic, in my opinion; that's easy, useful proposals are hard."

To put Bosnia in some sort of comparative historical context, we therefore asked the academics to judge the actions of today's politicians alongside those in the Chamberlain government towards Hitler in 1938-39. Is it appeasement? The answers are much less clear cut, more complex, although there is a general feeling that the actions are incomparable. It may take another 50 years - if ever - before the question can be answered with crystal clarity.

SIMON TARGETT The racial state of Dr Karadzic is easily the nearest thing to the Third Reich that we have witnessed in Europe since 1945. A Balkan question in search of an answer As fighting in the former Yugoslavia escalates, The THES asked leading academics the following questions: 1. What action do you think Britain and the UN should take next?

2. Is the present attitude of western governments morally equivalent to the appeasement of Hitler in 1938/39?

Correlli Barnett. Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

"They should fix a public deadline when they say to both warring factions: 'Here is the suggested peace settlement, here is the map. Sign it by the given date, and if not we will pull all of our forces out.' That date must be soon, before this winter sets in. Do what Mountbatten did to the Congress Party and the Muslim League in 1947, instead of just going on and on with a tricky military intervention which is neither one thing nor another.

"First, I don't think morality has anything to do with international relations. It is strategy that's important. Strategy has to do with your interests . Second, there is no parallel between Bosnia and our attitudes to that and the 1930s. On the map, Bosnia in 1995 is at the fringes, whereas Czechoslovakia was at the centre. Ethnic cleansing. . . is not like the Holocaust, which was a planned, ideological attempt to exterminate a people. What's going on in Bosnia are old fashioned massacres of the kind that have been going on in the Balkans for 800 years."

Vernon Bogdanor. Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford.

"We should end the arms embargo, withdraw the United Nations and Unprofor troops, and let the Bosnians defend themselves. If necessary, Britain and the US should bomb Serbian weapons dumps.

"Serbia is not as dangerous as Hitler's Germany. The situation is more like the attitude to Mussolini in Abyssinia, which was a failure to uphold collective security. The supine attitude towards Mussolini gave encouragement to other dictators. Morality does come into foreign policy; morality and self interest are linked. Security must be upheld. In that sense there are similarities to the situation in Iraq. I wonder, if Bosnia had a lot of oil, would we have taken the same attitude?" Peter Frank. Professor of Russian politics, Essex University.

"There has been a lack of clarity among governments of east and west. They haven't decided whether they are peace-keeping or peace-making - and possibly haven't been helped by the fact that there is no way of conveying the meaning "peacekeeping" in the Russian language. There have been too many cooks stirring the pot and it is never quite clear who is taking decisions. The policy change allowing Nato commanders to take more decisions suggests that at least this problem is being addressed. Peace-keeping and peace-making are more different than they sound, with immense logistical implications. Peace-keeping implies that there is a peace to be kept, and as soon as the peace breaks down the dilemma is whether or not to try to switch to peace-making. If the western governments and the UN choose not to in Bosnia the consequences will be terrible - but doing so will mean a much greater commitment in human, logistical and cost terms.

"While it is very tempting to draw comparisons with appeasement the current situation is quite different. Serbia is not a great power, this is essentially what used to be called 'a local war'."

Celia Hawkesworth. Senior lecturer in Serb and Croat studies, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

"The remaining safe havens should be give genuine protection and we should lift the siege of Sarajevo - which is certainly not impossible - and ensure that Bihac is properly protected.

"To continue to negotiate with people whose policy is essentially fascist is akin to appeasement - I don't know how else to describe it."

Paul Addison. Lecturer in history, Edinburgh University.

"Having given a half commitment to the safe areas, they really ought to strengthen the troops to keep those safe areas and force the Bosnian Serbs into negotiation.

"Provided we don't equate the threat posed by Serbia with the threat posed by Nazi Germany. One could argue that it's Hitler within a Balkan context."

A British academic born in Croatia.

"I think that the business of taking sides has gone beyond the moral level. Something needs to happen, whether arming the Bosnians or doing something about the Serbs, and I suppose that the first option would suit the west better. Bob Dole's attitude reminds me of Joseph Kennedy's before America joined the second world war, the attitude that the Americans should stay away. Ten out of ten for Clinton if he wants to veto that line.

"Saddam Hussein is quite a nice guy compared to Ratko Mladic. Radavan Karadic and Mladic are bastards at the level of Hitler. That's not to do with my being a Croat, but with them taking every opportunity to make territorial gains. There's only one way to go, and that is to blow them out of the water, although I don't know how. I think that the situation is comparable to what Hitler did to the Austrians in 1938."

John Allcock. Head of the centre for South East European Studies, Bradford University.

"The current UN mandate is more of a help than a hindrance while the arms embargo has been a disaster - it only made sense on the assumption that the west would play a much more active role in preventing conflict. To have any chance of succeeding, a solution has to be recognised by those involved - something imposed from the outside simply won't stick. The best chance is to give support to forces who support a multi-ethnic state, and the principal force here is the Bosnian Croat Federation. To allow the Bosnian Serbs to win would be a disaster.

"Attempts to understand the situation are bedevilled by references to the past. The Bosnian Serbs have certainly taken part in some ghastly activities, but Karadzic is not going to end up ruling Europe."

Norman Stone. Professor of modern history, Oxford University.

"They should begin by lifting the arms embargo. I think Margaret Thatcher is absolutely right on this one. They should then carry out strategic air strikes in order to stop the immediate atrocities going on. And then they should disengage. It was nutty to go into Bosnia in the first place.

"The modern politicians are worse. In the 1930s, it wasn't clear that the atrocities were going on. Today, it is all too clear that the atrocities are going on. In the 1930s, one of the big reasons for Munich was that the defences were not ready, whereas today the defences have been ready for several years. Also, in the 1930s there was an enemy worth taking seriously, whereas today the UN is facing a Balkan riff raff."

Akbar Ahmed. Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

"If the UN and the US really believe the values they have been preaching to the Third World - notions about justice, compassion, civilisation - then this is the time to prove it. Otherwise, it will be seen as so much empty rhetoric and they will never be believed again.

"Yes. We have, in many senses, the same situation as in the 1930s, with a powerful and aggressive majority inflicting violence, rape and murder on the basis of ethnic and religious difference. In the 1930s, it was argued that no one really knew about the horrible things done to the Jews. The difference now is that we are seeing the atrocities on television every day. There is a sense that people in the west are suffering from passion fatigue."

Steven Lukes. Professor of political and social theory, European University Institute, Florence

"I'm in favour of military intervention. The suffering of the Bosnian Muslims is our concern. The UN has shown itself to be incompetent and quite incapable of taking action. It therefore falls upon the shoulders of individual neighbouring countries to act, and in this case the neighbouring countries are European. Too many people have been evading the issue and exhibiting hypocrisy by supposing that the victim has to be 100 per cent pure and by arguing that because atrocities have been committed on both sides there is an equivalence and so nothing needs to be done. But it is clear that the Bosnian Serbs have been committing genocide.

"In thousands of ways, it is different. But on the central question of appeasement, then yes there is a moral equivalence. The issues at stake today are just as important as those in the 1930s. I am reminded of Edmund Burke's observation: "For evil to triumph requires only that good men do nothing". This is what we have been seeing in Bosnia. People have been pretending, making bombastic noises, knowing that nothing is going to be done, knowing that there is no collective will. This could have drastic consequences for the long-term relationship between the Christian and Muslim worlds."

Andrea Dworkin. Author of Letters from a War Zone.

"The UN should get out - yesterday. Action should be taken under Nato. It should be military and committed to victory. Its purpose should be to defeat Serb aggression and to destroy the current fascist Serbian outlaw government. There should be zero tolerance for ethnic cleansing and for rape as a strategy of aggression. The UN should devote itself to organising a war-crimes trial along the Nuremberg model; and drafting international legislation that anathematises sexual abuse. Genocide itself needs to be the top priority of international law. The UN needs to become a working forum for finding ways to prevent and stop genocide, with Nato and other military alliances doing the fighting. Britain and other European countries should take in Bosnian refugees, especially displaced Muslims, women and children. The US, Israel and Turkey should immediately arm the Bosnians. Frankly, if we collected all the guns teenagers have in urban areas in the US and sent them to Bosnia, the quality of life in both countries would improve.

"It's not morally equivalent, but it's a first cousin. We see what is being done; we know what is being done; and in terms of atrocity I'm not sure that the cut-off date of 1939 makes any sense. We didn't see what was happening in the Lodz ghetto on television; we didn't see Auschwitz later. But what if we had? Would we have done more? Governments then and now appear to be consistent in doing as little as possible. But now we all know - not just an elite within government. The same judgement is happening now, the same disregard, the same slovenly rationalisations, a polite bigotry that makes Muslim lives this time worth nothing. I tried to watch David Frost interview Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on public television recently; but I couldn't watch. I kept seeing Hitler in the posh chair in the posh room exuding the psychopathic pheronome for charm. I could see Hitler explaining to a credulous US audience how the Germans had suffered because the Jews had taken everything from them. Then I assume, Mr Frost would have asked his next question, couched in the neutral 'Some people say. . .'. This is the first event of the new Europe: a union, a community. Just as toleration and protection of slavery poisoned our civic well, so continuing European tolerance for ethnic cleansing and rape will destory your future before it happens: your brave new world is running rancid. Bosnia is the first day of the rest of your lives. Don't let the bad guys win. We did, which is why all those teenagers have guns 200 years later."

Brendan Simms. Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

"The west should now take the decision it shirked three years ago, which is to offer political and military support to the principal victims of this war: the Muslims, loyal Croats and loyal Serbs represented by the Bosnian government. If - for reasons of domestic opinion - we are not prepared to deploy ground troops, we should assist the Bosnians with air power and heavy weapons. This policy was originally suggested by the Americans and rejected by the British and French on the grounds that lifting the arms embargo would only "prolong the agony" and "escalate the fighting". That was in May 1993. In August 1995 the agony still continues and the Serbs have pressed their advantage against poorly-equipped Bosnian garrisons at Zepa, Srebenica and elsewhere. Serb offensives, apparently, constitute no significant threat to the national interest, but the arming of the Bosnian government is an "escalation" to be fought tooth and nail. It would be difficult to find a more grotesque example of the Foreign Office "Newworldorderspeak" spawned by the Bosnian war. We should now admit that the Americans were right and we were wrong.

"It is true that the Serbs have no plan for world domination. It is also true that "ethnic cleansing" is not - yet - equivalent to the systematic extermination of millions of Jews and gypsies during the holocaust. On the other hand ethnic cleansing undoubtedly amounts to genocide as defined by the UN Convention on Genocide.The racial state of Dr Karadzic is easily the nearest thing to the Third Reich that we have witnessed in Europe since 1945."

Robert O'Neill. Chichele professor of war studies, Oxford University.

"There are two top priority goals. Firstly to apply more pressure to the Bosnian Serbs both through air attacks and reinforcement of the UN ground force. The Bosnian Serbs are not an enormously powerful force. They are tightly stretched at present, especially after the successful Croatian offensive towards Knin. They can still be forced to the conference table by determined action this summer, but it will need stronger and more offensive action by Unprofor and Nato than at present. Such a result would be of the greatest importance, for it would obviate the prospect of a much expanded war in the Balkans. Secondly, to lay the foundations for successful political and military containment of an expanded war should the first objective not be achieved. This will require planning for wider military commitments by as many Nato members as possible, including the US; full exploration of contingencies with the Russians and the development of plans for as much co-operation with them as possible; and extensive liaison with all the governments on the periphery of the immediate conflict - Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

"There is no equivalent of Hitler on the European scene today. The British and French governments are showing caution out of awareness of public unwillingness to accept high casualties and costs. Chamberlain acted partly out of fear, knowing that the Germans were far advanced on Britain and France in their rearmament. Recent defence reviews have severely undercut Britain's ability to defend its own and wider interests, but John Major does not have to fear Serbian bombs on London in the next few months. But he and Tony Blair have to give thought to putting resources back into the defence sector as anarchy becomes a more menacing prospect on the international scene."

Eric Hobsbawm. Emeritus professor of history, Birkbeck College, London University "Whatever the final decision is, it is essential to see that Sarejevo is defended.

"I don't think that there is any similarity between the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s and the position taken by the west in Bosnia. That's not to say that the approach to Bosnia is morally satisfactory. But the European Union and Nato have proved themselves utterly incapable of making a policy. In the 1930s, a policy was clearly visible but some chose not to carry it out. Today, no clear policy is possible because there is no international system for developing one. The three forums are no good: the UN depends on the security council, the European Union is totally incapable of making a policy, and the United States has shown itself unwilling to get involved. Nato, de facto, doesn't matter because it does exactly what the United States tells it to do."

Mary Midgley. Former senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

"My impression is that we should have opposed the break up of Yugoslavia. But the thing has developed by stages each requiring a different response. As to whether we should militarily respond to the Serbs, that's a technical military question that is very hard to answer from outside. But I certainly think that withdrawing and lifting the embargo on the Bosnian government can only lead to an escalation in the fighting.

"Hitler was a much clearer case. From the time when the Nazis entered government it was clear that they were monstrous. By 1939 we had to fight them. I remember all this, I saw it from the start. They simply had to be opposed. I don't think Yugoslavia is quite like that."

David Cesarani. Professor of Jewish studies, Manchester University (from October)

"Historical analogies are tricky. The era of appeasement in Bosnia was 1992. The UN should then have inserted peace-keeping troops into the emerging state to reassure all its inhabitants that a multi-ethnic policy was viable. Instead, it permitted the authoritarian regime in Belgrade to arm a rebellion driven by an ideology of ethnic purity. Worse, it validated the subsequent ethnic cleansing by advocating partition on ethnic lines.

"The ethnic cleansing of 1992/95 resembles events in 1939/45, but with vital differences. It occurs under the noses of Red Cross officials and CNN cameras. This has created public outrage, but governments have deflected it with equally tele-visual, if meaningless, gestures. Perversely, politicians seem unwilling to employ professional soldiers to do their real job. They fail to explain that it is our national interest and a just cause to defend the territorial integrity of European states and human rights. Obscenely, they kow-tow to Kremlin leaders who could teach the Serbs something about ethnic cleansing. We are told that UN forces in Bosnia have to be impartial. But the UN War Crimes Tribunal has belatedly pressed charges of genocide against Karadic and Mladic. How is it possible to be impartial in a conflict between one side which stands accused of genocide and another side which is its victim? It is time to arm the Bosnian government forces and, if necessary, fight next to them for the principle of a democratic, pluralist state and against a criminal ideology of ethnic purity."

Noam Chomsky. Professor of linguistics, MIT

"There has been far too much sloganeering, moralistic posturing and breast-beating on this topic. . . That's easy. Useful proposals are hard - they also weren't all that easy in 1938/39. In my opinion it doesn't make a great deal of sense to evaluate decisions taken then on the basis of information and understanding not seriously available at the time. There are plenty of complexities even if we do. We may ask why the constant question is (rightly) the abandonment of democratic Czechoslovakia to fascist terror, but not (equally rightly) the abandonment of democratic Spain to the same fate.

"And on Bosnia, we may ask why the Iranian offer to intervene with force is (rightly) not taken seriously, whereas the prospect of other nations intervening that hardly have a better historical record in that game is taken very seriously. And why Bosnia (horrifying enough) is the constant focus of attention (as it should be), but a series of other recent and current cases, some of them as bad or worse, are not, even though there atrocities could quite easily be mitigated or ended, not by intervention, sanctions or even threat, but simply by withdrawing our participation."

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Professor of humanities, Emory University, Atlanta

"I do not think that any outsiders will be able to 'solve' the conflicts that rage in Bosnia, but Britain (Nato) and the UN should lift the arms embargo. Experience elsewhere in the world should have taught us that intense ethnic conflicts follow their own imperative and may well proliferate as the global economy and the multinational corporations continue to gain in power and influence. In principle, the re-establishment of the UN's authority as a 'peace-keeper' should require that we retaliate sharply against all attacks on members of the UN's mission. In practice, however, appropriate retaliation, which would almost necessarily entail bombing the Bosnian Serbs, would almost inevitably necessitate some bombing of Serb civilians. Presumably the Serbs are counting on our unwillingness to pay that price. But unless we call their bluff in this respect, we will remain impotent and risk further deterioration of UN authority. Permitting the Muslims to purchase arms to defend themselves at least saves us from total complicity in what is beginning to look like the attempted slaughter of an entire population.

"No, because the world situation has changed dramatically. It is likely that the Serbs (both those in Bosnia and those in Serbia) do aspire to reunify much of the old Yugoslavia under Serbian control, but there is no reason to believe that they aspire to the domination of all Europe, which Hitler manifestly did. The main problem today is the decimation of a population. The last time the Balkans moved to the centre of European politics, the 'great' powers intervened decisively. But that was 1914 and the issues were clearly geopolitical, not ethnic. Perhaps the great difficulty of the Bosnian situation is that it does not obviously impinge upon the western powers' national interests, and in the post-cold war world, we do not have clear guidelines for international action driven primarily by moral or humanitarian considerations."

Baroness Warnock. Former mistress of Girton College, Cambridge

"I know there are horrors on both sides but I think the actual shelling of the towns should have been stopped. I think a military response would have been justified because of the barbarity of the behaviour. And though that would have made it look as if right was entirely on the side of Bosnia, which it certainly isn't, there are certain outrages which the UN ought to be able to stop and it can't. If the UN doesn't take positive action then that is the end of the UN. After this futility of hanging around . . . it could be revealed as totally pointless.

"There are enormous differences between what the fascist regimes were aiming to do in the 1930s and the situation in Yugoslavia today. I don't think the obligation to step in in Czechoslovakia in 1938/39 is really the same as the obligation to intervene in Yugoslavia now. The nature of the threat and the promises given make it all totally different."

Interviews by John Bosnall, Sian Griffiths, Gerard Kelly, Huw Richards, Simon Targett.

A Bosnian prisoner awaits his fate in a Serbian detention camp, 1992

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments