The Less you know: «Foreign Affairs» stakes somebody else’s claim to the Balkans


chaplin-giphyNobody knows what to expect in international policy from the incoming Trump administration (there! I said it!), least of all the people involved in it or the profoundly ignorant Mr Trump himself. There have been early indications that the incoming US president wants to align foreign policy with Russia and to provoke an entirely unwanted confrontation with China, and he seems to have developed a fondness for death squads in the Philippines. As far as the Balkans are concerned, we don’t know much, except for a weird incident during the campaign when a minor out of work actor faked an interview with a Serbian magazine that had Trump echoing many of the sophisticated and refined views of Vojislav Šešelj. The most we can say so far is that Mr Trump’s recruitment of a team of far rightists, sabre-rattlers and Russian agents indicates a change of international policy orientation will probably be under way. But nobody can project with any precision what the character of that change will be – which means the policy press is bound to be filled with suggestions from people looking to fill some ears of appointed officials and some pockets  of their own.

So in steps one Mr Timothy Less   (No, you haven’t heard of him, and yes, there’s a reason for that), with a contribution to Foreign Affairs magazine titled «Dysfunction in the Balkans.»  He wants Western policymakers to «radically change their approach» to the region, and has some radical ideas. Shall we read the article together? Oh, let’s.

The author starts off with a list of factual claims about the situation. In the first paragraph (NB: the quotations below are just about the whole text of the first paragraph) he claims:

  1. «In Bosnia, the weakest state in the region, both Serbs and Croats are mounting a concerted challenge to the Dayton peace accords” – This state may or may not be “the weakest,” but while the activities of nationalist parties-in-power can be interpreted as a “challenge to the Dayton peace accords,” the people mounting the challenge do not admit to this. Rather they are happy to interpret Dayton selectively to extract advantage from it. Mounting a challenge would require proposing an alternative, which would require capable and responsible politicians, which these folks are not.
  2. “In Macedonia, political figures from the large Albanian minority are calling for the federalization of the state along ethnic lines” – This is not a resolution proposed by any party in Macedonia. All of them benefit from a powersharing agreement reached in Ohrid in 2001 (here it is) which provides considerable political and material advantages and opportunities for profitable dealmaking for parties representing (sort of) both major ethnic groups.
  3. “In Kosovo, the Serb minority is insisting on the creation of a network of self-governing enclaves” – The creation of self-governing enclaves was agreed between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo in Bruxelles in 2013 (here’s the text). Its implementation has been obstructed, but the initiative does not come from “the Serb minority,” which is as marginal to the activity of one government as it is to the other.
  4. “In Serbia’s Presevo Valley, Albanians are agitating for greater autonomy” – If the existence of a proposal that has little support and is headed nowhere is “agitating,” then maybe they are. “Cogitating” would be a more suitable word.
  5. “In Montenegro, Albanians have demanded a self-governing entity” – This is not a demand articulated by any ethnic Albanian party in Montenegro with any measurable degree of meaningful support.
  6. “And in Kosovo and Albania, where Albanians have their independence, nationalists are pushing for a unified Albanian state” – This is not the position of the government of Albania or Kosovo, or of any relevant political actors in either of those two states.

So that’s the first paragraph, designed to create an empirical framework that is based on six false claims and no true ones. As the author himself puts it, “sound and fury.” But not to drag out the counting of factual inaccuracies – there are loads of them, and any decently informed person who has read the article has already noticed them. What is the point of making these claims? Mr Less wants to argue that there is massive “dissatisfaction with the multiethnic status quo” and that the best way to approach this is to “recognize the legitimacy of these demands,” whether they actually exist or not. If you were cynical (You are, aren’t you? I knew it.) you might say that the article is an effort to latch on to the bigotry and xenophobia that have become dominant in global politics and harness them to a specific Balkans-focused agenda. What agenda would this be?

The first major argument is that multi-ethnic communities are by definition nonviable. As the author puts it, “multiethnicity in the region is a beautiful idea and a miserable reality,” which imposes “forcible coexistence for the sake of an abstract ideological goal.” Multiethnic communities, in his view, “cut across the most basic interests of the emerging minority groups” (NB: Mr Less has the interesting habit of using the word “minority” when he means “majority”). And he develops the further hypothesis that multiethnicity is an import product in the Balkans, cooked up by European policymakers who were guided by “an ideological conviction that nationalism was the source of instability in Europe.”

Now, anybody with even a passing knowledge of Balkan history knows that these claims are silly. Multiethnicity is not an abstract idea shipped over from Washington or Brussels but is the fundamental characteristic of all Balkan societies and cultures, and the basic source of their richness, productivity and strength. But this perhaps matters very little. As another Westerner with pro-Nazi sympathies, Henry Ford, put it, history is bunk.” The article is intended to make policy proposals, and policy proposals are not about what happened in the past but about what the author wants to happen in the future. So let’s have a look at what he wants to happen.

Fundamentally, the author suggests that policy to date has lacked “pragmatism” in failing to recognise “the underlying source of instability in the Balkans: the mismatch of political and national boundaries.” And so he wants to encourage “border changes in the region,” arguing that Washington should support the internal fragmentation of multiethnic states where minorities demand it.” What sorts of border changes does he have in mind? He helpfully provides some examples:

“Serbia would have to let go of Kosovo, minus the north, but the compensation would be the realization of a Serbian nation-state in the territory where Serbs predominate. Albanians would similarly have to give up northern Kosovo. More problematic, Bosniaks and Macedonians would need to accept the loss of territory to which they are sentimentally attached and without any significant territorial compensation.”

So basically he is arguing that Washington and Brussels should adopt as their own the maximal demands of nationalist whack jobs in the region and dedicate themselves to establishing Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia, and Greater Albania. But heaven forbid the author should be unreasonable. He recognises that “There is no question that undoing the existing settlement would be complicated,” and “Inevitably, there would be difficulties and risks.” These are deliciously understated ways of acknowledging the concrete risk of genocide. He does not see the creation of monoethnic populations as falling within the capacity of regional militaries, paramilitaries and goon squads, however. He proposes that “Washington and others may also have to deploy peacekeepers to uphold the borders of the expanded Albanian, Croatian, and Serbian states.” As indeed they would.

The author describes his proposal as “A radical new approach.” It is certainly radical, but it is hardly new. The use of force to create ethnically homogeneous political communities is at least as as old as the states that emerged out of the wreckage of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires from 1878 onward. It was a basic element of the policy of Nazi occupation in the region, enthusiastically carried out by their local partners in the Ustaša and Četnik movements who knew a homology of interest when they saw one. In their worse moments the Communists were not loath to take it on, imagining they could eliminate a source of conflict by expelling ethnic Italians and Germans. And of course it was the basic policy goal of ethnonationalist warlords in the 1990s, who made an effort to implement it through forced expulsion, sexual violence, intimidation, imprisonment, destruction of cultural and religious property, and genocide.

We can perhaps say two things about this radical old approach. One is that every time anybody tries to implement it the consequences are horrific, because the only way that “political and national boundaries” can be made to match is through the exercise of large-scale violence. The other is that in spite of the numbers of victims produced, none of these orgies of depravity have ever achieved their stated goal. Either you know it is an awful idea or you don’t. Mr Less is absolutely correct in recognising that the current fashion is not to know this.

The proposal is offered in the spirit of an observation that “the debate on the Balkans has been dominated for far too long by Western diplomats and academics” and other people who actually know and understand things. What can we make of it? If we understand to whom the article is directed and why, there is a message here: expect more Less. Be wrong. Be dangerous. Be deadly. These are apparently ideas whose time has, once again, come.