NATO and Bosnia-Herzegovina: A Test of Multilateral Diplomacy

By Edina Becirevic, 19th March 2010



1. The decision by NATO in December 2009 to deny Bosnia-Herzegovina entry to the Membership Action Plan (MAP) was an error that has heartened forces in the country that favour its dissolution, while demoralising supporters of reform and integration.

2. The US has made constitutional reform a precondition for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s entry to the MAP, but this merely provides an incentive to those Serb-nationalist opposed to both NATO membership and constitutional reform to engage in further obstruction.

3. Denial of MAP status to Bosnia-Herzegovina destabilises not only Bosnia-Herzegovina, but the whole of the Western Balkans.

4. Bosnia-Herzegovina should consequently be granted MAP status at the next NATO summit at April 2010 in Tallinn.

NATO’s rejection of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s application for the MAP (Membership Action Plan) was the last in a series of disappointments for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2009. The Alliance’s decision, along with the European Union’s refusal to approve visa-free travel for Bosnians, best illustrates how international community decision-makers have misunderstood the process of disintegration in the country and misjudge the correct way to cope with it.

The European Commission’s decision of July 2009 to leave out Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania from the list of the countries eligible for visa liberalization, while allowing in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, played into the hands of those who feed their rhetoric with allegations of an anti-Islamic climate in Europe.

An analysis by the Oxford Analytica magazine notes that the no-visa regime for Serbia was a reward to voters who cast their ballot for pro-Western President Boris Tadic. While the standards for Bosnia-Herzegovina remained high, Europe turned a blind eye to the long list of requirements Serbia has not met, including the fact that top war-crimes suspect Ratko Mladic is still evading capture and extradition to the Hague tribunal with the help of Serbia’s persistently nationalist intelligence structures.

Faced with the paradox that Mladic no longer needs a visa for the EU, whereas the survivors of his killing campaign are still condemned to a ghettoized existence outside the door of Europe, citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot help but interpret the motion as ‘double standards’.

European circles dismiss the argument and charge Bosniak political elites with fueling ungrounded feelings of victimization. Reacting to a sarcastic question by a reporter on the ‘visa liberalization for Mladic’, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn coolly answered that ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina wasted too much time on nationalistic discourse instead of remaining focused on how to meet the preconditions for joining European integrations.’

It was actually the predominant nationalist discourse that triumphed over the decision, but Olli Rehn and other European officials did not recognize it. The conventional ‘carrot and stick’ diplomacy failed to meet its purpose this time: the principle of reward and punishment was pointless because it was applied with regard to a generalized ‘nationalist rhetoric’ and the condemnation of ‘nationalistic leaders’ rather than by naming those who were to blame.  The acknowledgment came only later in a report of the European Commission that noted it was the misuse of ‘entity voting’ by the majority of parliamentarians from Republika Srpska that blocked the reforms laws needed for the liberalization of the visa regime. It is bitter irony that these politicians and many of their voters already have or can acquire Serbian passports, and travel freely to Brussels.

The decision to deny Bosnia-Herzegovina MAP status in December 2009 was influenced by the same misunderstanding of the purpose of ‘carrot and stick’ in the Bosnian context, but it came as even more of a surprise since Sarajevo decided to apply only once after getting encouraging signals from Brussels. Specifically, although Bosnia-Herzegovina has been moving towards MAP for two years already, definite encouragements from Brussels, and in particular from American diplomats, came only in mid-2009, leading Zeljko Komsic, chairman of the Bosnian Presidency, to submit an official application on October 2, 2009.

The first serious test of new US President Barrack Obama’s doctrine of multilateral diplomacy appeared in parallel with Bosnia’s application for the MAP, a test that appeared in the form of a American-European initiative for talks on constitutional changes: the initiative was also planned as an attempt to implement the rhetoric of US Vice-President Joseph Biden who in his visit in mid-May 2009 proclaimed loud and clear America’s support to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans.

It is undoubtedly very hard to reconcile the interests of political elites in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nevertheless, even without this complicating factor, the negotiations at the Butmir base were the professional and personal failure of the two main negotiators, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt , because they were poorly prepared in the first place. The two failed rounds of talks only further alienated Bosnia’s already divided political leaders and highlighted the need for a much more serious approach to multilateral endeavors by international negotiators.

Once negotiations were announced, public expectations were so high that diplomatic circles were soon comparing Steinberg with Richard Holbrooke, and Butmir with Dayton. The course of negotiations proved however that such comparisons were unfounded. Looking back, Richard Holbrooke can be blamed for many things, but at least he did his homework, thoroughly preparing the Dayton negotiations himself,  and not counting on Carl Bildt.

The fiasco in Butmir was mirrored in the change of America’s attitude towards Bosnia-Herzegovina’s application for MAP, and diplomatic sources refer to the failed MAP application as a story ‘about James Steinberg’s hurt pride’.

The Brussels meeting on December 3-4, which discussed the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina more vehemently than anyone expected, was in itself controversial in many aspects. Americans, advocating NATO enlargement till then, argued against it along with the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium. The so-called friendly countries, Norway, Spain, Albania, Italy, Rumania, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Luxembourg, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Turkey, argued that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be accorded MAP unconditionally and regardless of constitutional changes, on the grounds that MAP does not imply NATO membership, but more “time in the NATO lobby”, time that a state is given to  get finally prepared. America’s stubborn insistence on constitutional reforms was especially baffling, given that up to now not a single state in the history of NATO has been faced with such a long list of requirements.  It is interesting to note that part of Serbia’s pro-NATO military diplomacy was lobbying for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s speedier Euro-Atlantic course, because, as  they explained to an American delegation, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s faster movement towards the Alliance would also make things easier for Serbia’s pro-NATO faction.

Continued instability in the Western Balkans is only one of the consequences of Bosnia-Herzegovina being denied the MAP. In addition to other negative effects, the speculation that NATO would close its door altogether on Bosnia-Herzegovina provided Milorad Dodik, premier of Republika Srpska, the opportunity to introduce the topic of a referendum on NATO membership in his election campaign.

The reform of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s army has been assessed as a major contribution to the country’s integration. ‘All the major elements of the defense reform were actually rounded off by the end of the last year. And that completion was successful judging by all relevant assessments. That’s NATO’s official assessment.’ says Dr. Selmo Cikotic, Bosnian defense minister.

It is common knowledge that the states lacking extensive foreign policies try to compensate it through their activism in international organizations, and  that is what Bosnia-Herzegovina appears to have been doing as well. The defense reform carried out through NATO proved that foreign policy could be a crucial factor in state-building, and although faced with turbulences on the domestic political scene, the country’s military diplomacy managed to attain praiseworthy results. Bosnia-Herzegovina regularly participates in international peace operations and the experiences of soldiers coming from different ethnic groups – who were shooting at each other only fourteen years ago – testify that group solidarity is growing. Such solidarity, exceeding ethnic borders, is crucial for the development of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It’s a pity that American decision-makers did not realize that according Bosnia-Herzegovina MAP status would symbolically blow wind into the sails of the armed forces and everybody else working towards the country’s integration, while disappointing those gloating over the opportunities for disintegration.

The decision can be reversed at the next meeting of NATO foreign ministers in April 2010 in Tallinn. But judging by the signals coming from American diplomatic circles, it will take time and a ‘face-saving’ solution to overcome America’s hurt pride, and allow it avoid acknowledging that the Brussels decision of December 2009 was wrong.

Edina Becirevic is  Assistant Professor at the University of Sarajevo and President of the Atlantic Initiative. This article was originally published by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.