Aspen, Colorado, August 24, 1999

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott
Address at the Aspen Institute,

The Balkan Question and the European Answer

Thank you Elmer [Johnson] for that introduction, and thanks, too, for taking on the presidency of the Aspen Institute, which has done so much over the years to encourage discussion on the world's toughest problems. In that spirit, I'd like to talk to you this evening about the Balkans, about why that corner of Europe has been so troubled and what's at stake there for Americans as well as Europeans.

Let me start with a set of questions. They go to the heart of what's happening today in Bosnia and Kosovo, but they also resonate through history and around the world. These are questions that have never been answered with total clarity and permanence either in theory or in practice. Moreover, the attempt to answer them has been over the centuries more or less a constant source of war.

The questions are these: What exactly is a nation? What is a state? When does a nation become a state, and what allows it to survive as such? What are the economies of scale, the natural boundaries that make a piece of real estate viable as a sovereign country? What, indeed, is sovereignty, and what are its limits? At issue here is not just geography but also anthropology -- that is, the mystery of human behavior. How similar -- and in what ways similar -- must the inhabitants of a certain territory be to feel that they have a common identity, a common destiny and, often, a common vulnerability?

There is, of course, an American answer to this cluster of questions, and it goes like this: A state should let its people choose their leaders through elections, it should derive strength and cohesion from the diversity of its population, and it should protect the rights of minorities, especially those of the ultimate minority -- the individual citizen. In short, to be successful and strong, to survive and prosper, a state should be a liberal democracy. Of course, we Americans have had plenty of arguments among ourselves about what that phrase -- liberal democracy -- actually means. Yet the pursuit of that ideal has been at the core not just of our domestic politics but of our foreign policy as well.

The U.S. has promoted and defended democracy in other lands not so much out of missionary zeal as out of self-interest. We have conducted our diplomacy, and sometimes our military exertions as well, on the premise that the way foreign leaders behave within their own borders has a direct bearing on the way they will behave toward other countries, including our own. States that protect the rights of minorities on their own territory are more likely to respect the independence of other nations. Conversely, a regime that relies on force in dealing with its own people is predisposed to commit aggression against its neighbors, and that, in turn, may require the military intervention of the United States.

It has been in response to that sort of threat that we have sent American troops across the Atlantic five times in eight decades: twice in world wars, once in the cold war, and twice more since the end of the Cold War, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo. In a sense it's appropriate that Europe has been the principal testing ground for the proposition that the defense of American strategic interests requires the defense of American political values -- and vice versa. Europe, after all, is the birthplace of the Enlightenment and thus a critical source of much of our own political culture. But Europe also has been the scene of a protracted and often harrowing struggle between the forces of liberalism and tyranny.

In much of central and eastern Europe, until very recently, tyranny has had the upper hand in that struggle. That has been especially true in the Balkans. The people of that region began this century in the twilight of imperialism. The more empire faltered, the more its rulers resorted to repression, and the more their subjects sought to assert national identity as a prelude to nationhood itself. Nationalism, in other words, was synonymous with liberation.

The Serbs were the prime example. They broke free of Ottoman rule in 1878 and established their own state. In the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, Serbia went to war against the Ottoman empire in its decrepitude. Then, a year later, a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, struck a blow against the other imperial power in the region, the Habsburgs. What started as the third Balkan war quickly escalated into the World War I, which was also the first of the five times that the U.S. dispatched troops to Europe.

Two catch phrases emerged from that manifestation of America's emergence as a world power: One was the vow to "make the world safe for democracy," and the other was the conviction that a stable, democratic peace should be based on "self-determination" for the nations liberated from imperialism. Those mottoes -- indelibly and rightly associated with Woodrow Wilson -- have generated quite a bit of controversy over the years, both in the U.S. and around the world.

They have recently figured prominently in the debate over America's intervention in the fourth Balkan war of this century -- the one that began with the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 and that ended a little over two months ago on June 10th, when NATO formally suspended its bombing campaign. "Making the world safe for democracy" is simplistic, of course, as all slogans are; but it actually stands up pretty well, as long as we understood what it does -- and doesn't -- mean. It doesn't mean that Uncle Sam dons a suit of armor, grabs a lance, and sallies forth to slay every anti-democratic dragon in sight; it doesn't mean resorting to force to impose liberal democracy on everyone everywhere. But here's what it does mean: it means we have, at certain key times and places, been willing and able to oppose, deter and, if necessary, defeat anti-democratic regimes when they have threatened other states that were trying to establish themselves on the principles of liberal democracy. That has been a consistent theme in America's commitment to the security of Europe from World War One right through our current engagement in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Now let me turn to that other highly charged watchword of Wilsonianism: "self-determination." How to translate that phrase into practice -- and into peace -- was one of the challenges at Versailles 80 years ago, just as it was at Rambouillet 6 months ago, and just as it is in Sarajevo and Pristina today. At Versailles, self-determination meant the dismantlement of empire and the formation of a whole cluster of new nation-states.

Nation-states have been a venerable fixture in Europe since the mid-17th century, when the Treaty of Westphalia broke up the Holy Roman Empire and established a country called France for the French and a country called Sweden for the Swedes. In theory at least, a nation-state is as homogenous and harmonious as an empire is heterogeneous and roiling with frustrated national aspirations. However, a pure nation-state doesn't exist in nature, since the ethnographic map never coincides with the political one. That is especially true in the Balkans.

Partly for that reason, the map-makers at Versailles created a single home for three groups of so-called South Slavs: the Serbs, the Croats, and the Slovenes. The very inclusiveness of Yugoslavia might, over time, have made it an improvement on the older, Westphalian generation of mono-ethnic nation-states. However, that was not to be because of what was happening elsewhere on the continent.

During a formative period in Yugoslavia's development, Europe as a whole resembled a musty, sprawling laboratory in the basement of a gothic castle, where mad scientists were experimenting with competing yet similar political monstrosities -- two in particular: fascism and communism. Both were dictatorial in their internal order and predatory in their external behavior. Both required the armed intervention of the United States. And both took a heavy toll on Yugoslavia as it defined for itself those problematic words "nation" and "state."

Yugoslavia suffered a double dose of fascism under to the Nazi occupation and the Ustashe reign in Croatia. Then, with no time to recover from those horrors, it fell under communism. As result, Yugoslavia entered the second half of the century without any ideology for binding together its constituent nationalities beyond an authoritarian and artificial one that was imposed, and strictly enforced, by the central government.

When my wife Brooke and I lived in Belgrade in the early '70s, we often heard it said that Yugoslavia consisted of six republics, five nationalities, four languages, three religions, two alphabets and one Tito. When it lost that last, unifying attribute in 1980, things fell apart; the center would not hold. Communism, already desiccated and discredited, gave way to the most malignant species of nationalism; party hacks who were good at mouthing the internationalist slogans about the solidarity of the working class morphed, almost overnight, into hate-mongering jingoists.

Serbia, while by no means the only offender in this regard, was the best armed and, therefore, the most offensive. Its leaders mobilized their kinsmen in neighboring lands on behalf of the dream of Greater Serbia, which, of course, was a nightmare for everyone else in the region. Within its own borders, the Serbian regime repressed and often killed non-Serbs, especially Kosovo Albanians. Irredentism abroad and ethnic cleansing at home were part and parcel of the same policy: the drive to define and expand Serbian statehood in terms of Serb nationality.

Thus an evil -- and that's the only word for it -- that we thought had been expunged by the middle of the century made a stunning comeback at the end. The international response to that comeback was not as timely as any of us would have wished. But when it came, it was, at least, not too late. This time, thanks to the revolution in global communications, it was much harder to avert our gaze from what Chamberlain and others had dismissed in 1938 as trouble in "faraway countries" of which "we know nothing."

This time we knew a lot about the trouble in question, and we knew that such trouble tends first to fester, then to escalate in ferocity and scope until only forceful intervention will bring it to a halt. Also, unlike in the 1930s, this time the transatlantic community had both the political will and the military means to meet the challenge before it got completely out of hand. The institutional mechanisms were NATO, the OSCE, the EU, and the UN. These organizations, all of which came into being after -- and because of -- World War II, have different but overlapping memberships, and they have different but mutually reinforcing missions. In Europe at least, they have been able to make common cause in enforcing a vital principle: National leaderships must not be allowed to define national interests or national identity in a way that leads to crimes against humanity and threats to international peace.

That principle was applied, belatedly but nonetheless decisively, in the way that we, and others, stepped in and ended the fourth Balkan war. Now we're deep into the no less difficult task of imposing a Balkan peace. It involves dealing, day-in and day-out, with die-hards and vengeance-seekers in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. It also involves working to establish in both those places the basis for viable political arrangements -- arrangements that take account of the violence and the divisions that have occurred in the recent past, while at the same time guarding against the danger that they will recur.

This means trying to find new answers to those old questions about nationhood, statehood, democracy, and self-determination that have vexed Europe and especially the Balkans for the past hundred years. A few words on what that challenge means in each case. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, our goal is to give all citizens reason to feel that they belong to a single state. That means thwarting those who would like to split Bosnia and Herzegovina into three parts -- in other words, those recidivists, if I can put it that way, who would like to re-fight the war of 1991-95 by other means.

Partition in Bosnia and Herzegovina would be a multiple disaster: It would play right into the hands of advocates of Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia; it would result in a Muslim or Bosniak rump state that would be barely viable economically and existentially insecure, since it would be at the mercy of its larger and exceedingly unfriendly neighbors. That's why we must continue to bolster Sarajevo's role as the capital of the country.

In Kosovo, our task is different in one obvious respect: We have suspended Belgrade's powers as the administering authority over the province. But that does not mean we support Kosovo's independence. Quite the contrary, we feel that secession would give heart to separatists and irredentists of every stripe elsewhere in the region. Most of all, secession would encourage proponents of Greater Albania -- a single state stretching across the Balkan peninsula from Albania proper to northwestern Macedonia, with its own sizable ethnic Albanian population. Greater Albania would be no less anathema to regional peace and stability than Greater Serbia.

In this regard, Macedonia deserves special care and attention. It's a brave, young, independent state that has made a real and promising effort at establishing multi-ethnic democracy and thus, so far, escaping the worst pitfalls of the nation-state. If Kosovo were to become a catalyst for Albanian nationalism throughout the region, Macedonia would probably disappear from the map, and violently so.

So there is a common denominator in our two principal ventures in the Balkans: In both Bosnia and Kosovo, we stepped in not only to stop the slaughter of human beings, but also to stop the violent dismemberment of states. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is reason for cautious optimism. The leaders of all the communities there have subscribed to the basic outlines of a single state. They have started to put in place common institutions that embrace both the Serb entity, Republica Srpska, and the Muslim-Croat one, the Federation. Bosnia and Herzegovina now has a flag, a common currency, a common license plate -- all steps in the right direction, although with a long way to go.

Kosovo is a much harder case and not just because the war there ended only 75 days ago. The overwhelming majority of the ethnic Albanians want out of Yugoslavia, pure and simple. If they were complete masters of their own fate, they would be independent. As it happens, today Kosovo is a ward of the international community. It goes about the business of rebuilding itself under the day-in, day-out protection and supervision of a consortium of global and regional organizations. The ultimate status of Kosovo is a question for the future.

If the people who live there are ever going to settle for some form of self-governing autonomy short of total independence, it will only be if Serbia itself changes profoundly. It will only be if Serbia frees itself from the tyranny and barbarism personified by Milosevic. It will only be if the people of Serbia foster the conditions in which they and the people of Kosovo can, once again, live with each other -- not in the context of the old Yugoslavia but in the context of a new Europe.

That brings me to the good news about European politics in the second half of the 20th century. Since World War II, two trends have reinforced each other. One is that all successful, modern European states -- whether unitary ones like Great Britain, federal ones like Germany, or confederal ones like Switzerland -- have defined statehood in a way that encourages majorities and minorities to prosper together. That's because in those countries, the norms of society, politics, and economics all conspire to make cooperation across ethnic lines itself a norm. The effect is to soften ethnic competition and make it less relevant to everyday life.

The second trend has been the emergence in Western Europe of a concert of liberal democracies under the aegis of the European Union. The treaties of Westphalia and Versailles are giving way to those of Maastricht and Amsterdam. The old system of nation-states -- each sovereign in its exercise of supreme, absolute, and permanent authority -- is giving way to a new system in which nations feel secure enough in their identities and in their neighborhoods to make a virtue out of their dependence on one another.

This means pooling sovereignty in certain areas of governance and in other areas granting greater autonomy to regions. It means simultaneously relinquishing some powers upward and devolving others downward. On those matters where borders have become an obstacle to efficiency and prosperity, such as commercial activity and monetary policy, much of Europe is investing authority in supranational bodies. The euro is only the most dramatic example.

On other matters, where communal identities and sensitivities are at stake, such as language and education, central governments are transferring power to local authorities. For example, there is still a country in Europe today called Spain, but within its borders is an entity that calls itself the state of Catalonia, where Catalan is the official language and Spanish is taught as an elective. The German lander -- from Bavaria to Schleswig-Holstein -- have taken control of affairs that once resided in the national capital. In Britain, the Blair Government has sanctioned the establishment of parliaments in Scotland and Wales, thereby, however paradoxical it may seem, actually making the United Kingdom more united, because the institutions of governance are more accommodating of the national communities that make up the state.

In this fashion, Europe is managing and sublimating the forces that might otherwise trigger civil strife and conflict across borders -- that is, precisely the forces that have so devastated the Balkans and threatened the peace of Europe as a whole. As the most multi-ethnic of the Balkan states, Yugoslavia would have especially benefited from those trends that have characterized West European politics these past several decades: the opening of borders, the opening of societies, the protection of minorities, the empowerment of regions, and the pursuit of trans-national cooperation.

But since Yugoslavia was largely cut off from the European mainstream, its multi-ethnic character became a curse: Deprived of inducements for integration, Yugoslavia fell victim to disintegration. With the end of the fourth Balkan war, now we have an opportunity to bring the fragments of the old Yugoslavia, along with other countries that are emerging from the wreckage of communism, into the orbit of those innovations in national identity and international relations that Western Europe is putting in place. Or, to put the point in Wilsonian terms, we have an opportunity to make the entire continent safe for democracy, thereby creating an environment in which self-determination can flourish without requiring the proliferation of ethnically based micro-states.

Taking advantage of that opportunity is first and foremost a challenge for the Europeans in general and for the European Union in particular. But it is also a challenge for us. Five times in this century the United States has had to help Europe save itself from the consequences of political experiments gone catastrophically awry. Each time our intervention has been crucial; each time it has made possible yet another chance for peace.

Now, finally, there is an experiment underway in the laboratory of European politics that is going right, an experiment that carries with it the promise that the 21st century might truly be an improvement on the 20th, an experiment that coincides with our own political and civic values and therefore with our own vital strategic interests. That's why we must do everything we can to help the Europeans succeed, for our sake as well as their own.