Still, it was the best we could achieve, and, as the late Richard C. Holbrooke said at the time, the most important thing was to stop the killing.
In retrospect, we can see how some of Bosnia’s difficulties are our own fault. Early on, we had too simply labeled the violence as a clash of ethnic groups, roughly equal in their responsibilities to reconcile, when in fact they had been manipulated toward war primarily by Serbian nationalist leaders. We had ignored Bosnia’s experience before 1992, when its citizens from different ethnic groups were very often friends, colleagues, neighbors and spouses — and even during the war, when there were immeasurable acts of generosity across the ethnic divides. Had we outsiders realized that the violence was not inevitable, and had we been willing to name Serbs as the primary aggressors early in the war, NATO forces could have intervened much earlier and saved tens of thousands of lives.
But we came in late, and by the time we did, hatred and fighting had shaped the political and military balances we had to work with. That produced an agreement that institutionalized ethnicity as the deciding factor in political and social identity. It divided power and representation according to whether citizens were Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats, leaving little room to organize along other lines — for example, gender and level of urbanization.
Today, as set out at Dayton, Bosnia’s presidency is a triumvirate; each of the three members must be identified with one of the so-called constituent peoples. This slows down decision making and excludes minorities, as well as the large number of Bosnians who don’t identify with one of the major groups. In fact, two would-be presidential contenders, a Roma and a Jew, won a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights in 2009 that required constitutional revisions that would give neglected minorities equal opportunities to serve in government. Three years later, that reform is still being debated by Bosnian political leaders, who owe their positions to the status quo.
Dayton also divided the country itself into two separate statelets — a Bosniak-Croat federation and a Serb republic — governed by the same legislature and presidency. At the time, many Bosnian women’s groups, religious leaders, civil society activists and students warned that the arrangement wouldn’t work because the country historically had been integrated. But they weren’t at the negotiating table; only those with the power to fight or to lay down their weapons were invited.
In retrospect, perhaps we could have done better to engage politically unrepresented groups who craved stability, so that they could sit alongside those who knew how to fight.
The compromises at Dayton stopped the killing, but also helped perpetuate the ethnic chauvinism, fear and greed that had set it off. And now, the international community bears some responsibility to keep Bosnia from ever relapsing into violence. We also must help Bosnians fashion a better political system, one that promotes national unity, effective decision making and democratic participation.
Three moves would make a huge difference.
First, the American and European governments must help Bosnia change the Constitution we helped create.
Second, after the Constitution has been revised, the European Union should reward Bosnia by granting it membership. Serbia, after all, was given candidate status — a critical step toward full membership — in March, and Croatia is scheduled to become a full member next year. Europe should also extend more financial and technical assistance to implement the reforms needed to re-establish a pluralistic society and secure candidate status for Bosnia (which the European Union treats as a "potential candidate" for membership).
Third, NATO needs to offer the country a clear path for joining the alliance; it will have an opportunity to do so later this month when NATO holds a summit meeting in Chicago. Many Bosnians of all ethnicities look at membership in NATO as a guarantee of security, prosperity and stability. In addition, the military is the one Bosnian institution in which ethnic differences have mattered least; recently, when Serbian veterans’ benefits were cut, Bosniak veterans raised money to give to the people who once fought against them.
We also need to encourage and support the kind of moderate high-level and grass-roots leaders we overlooked during the negotiations 20 years ago. They are the real heroes of the war — and of the peace.
One such person is Kada Hotic, a leader of Bosnian Muslim survivors of the war. Only last June, she was finally able to bury three small bones — the only remains that could be identified of her son, who died in the infamous massacre of Muslims by Serbian fighters in 1995.
Yet Hotic offers: "Maybe one day we can close the story of war and move toward genuine reconciliation. Everyone has suffered. When those men killed my son, they killed themselves. I forgive them, and so I live."