Peace and justice are big words we carve into stone. But they sound abstract, removed from the very human qualities that actually determine whether those who make war will agree to peace. There is perhaps no field where the human factor is of greater consequence than in diplomacy — the forging of peace. It is human qualities that determine whether that peace will bring justice.
One of the things I discovered in my years with Richard Holbrooke, and especially during the Dayton peace talks, is that leaders who wage wars are disconnected from their people. It is not those who are getting shot, raped and driven from their homes who negotiate the peace. These leaders proclaim the importance of honor and the righting of historical injustices, but above all they want to hold on to power.
At Dayton, Richard and his team faced leaders of movements — warlords — for whom governance, providing their people with a better future, was not very important. How do you persuade such leaders to give up land or riches or power, when war is much more familiar than an uncertain peace? That is where the very human art of diplomacy takes the stage.
Richard compared it to jazz. You improvise, you make it up as you go along, always paying very close attention to the man across the table, playing to his weaknesses, quickly rewarding his good behavior, attuned to him, even as you pound the table to get his attention.
The negotiator must always stay two moves ahead on the diplomatic chessboard. Diplomacy at this level is a high-risk operation; it involves outmaneuvering the wiliest survivors on the planet. There is nothing abstract about it. Those who engage in it must be prepared to lay everything on the line. That is what I observed in Dayton, Ohio where the Bosnian War was ended in 1995.
Sixteen years ago genocide raged in Europe. Men and boys were forced onto buses that carried them to firing squads and unmarked graves. The women they left behind were often raped, while snipers picked off civilians en route to work and to outdoor markets. All this was happening in Europe the day before yesterday.
The antagonists were not strangers from across the sea, but former neighbors, former classmates, colleagues who spoke the same language and had just months earlier been citizens of the same country, Yugoslavia.
Millions of those former citizens became refugees, fleeing the murderers and ethnic cleansers, streaming across borders into Switzerland, France and Germany. In 1995, in the Balkans, “never again” became “here we go again.”
Sixteen years later, most of us barely look back at the war which Richard called “the greatest collective failure of the West since the 1930s.” As much a humanitarian as a diplomatic crisis, the Bosnian War was the first real test of the post-Cold War order.
As one who was privileged to be present during the negotiations that ended that war, let me assure you there was nothing inevitable about the success of those peace talks. On the contrary, there were many times when failure seemed all but assured.
How did Sarajevo turn from a war zone into today’s tourist destination? What are the lessons we can draw from that peace?
The history of the Balkan Wars and the peace talks which ended them is a personal story for me. The year 1995, when the war became too murderous for the world to ignore any longer, was the year I married Richard Holbrooke.
While both the United States and Europe initially saw the Balkan Wars as a European problem, belatedly and very reluctantly, Washington intervened and ultimately ended the war.
The war shadowed every single day of our first year of marriage. In retrospect, I would not trade a single day of that turbulent year, and the chance to observe history from such close range and even, occasionally, to play my small part for peace.
I knew my life would never be the same when, on our way to our Budapest wedding in May 1995, Richard was on the phone urging colleagues in Washington to start the bombing. Those were not necessarily the words a bride longs to hear. Neither was Richard a bellicose man: forceful, yes. Determined, absolutely. He was a hardheaded idealist, convinced that perpetrators of genocide respond only to the language of power.
Four years of half-hearted diplomatic efforts and pinprick-bombing strikes had failed to budge the Bosnian Serbs who held Sarajevo in a chokehold. The majority of Americans opposed involvement in another European war. Even Henry Kissinger, the ultimate realpolitician, opposed U.S. involvement, while former secretary of state James Baker proclaimed, “We don’t have a dog in [the Balkan] fight.” Many Europeans and Americans rationalized their inaction with talk of “clash of civizations” and “ancient ethnic hatreds” at the root of this blood spilling. It was just the Balkans being Balkan.
Richard felt that American values — and thus American interests — were at stake. He did not feel that all sides to this conflict were equally guilty. There was a clear aggressor in Belgrade and in Pale. But that did not mean that the other two parties, the Croats and the Muslims, were innocent victims.
Richard did not believe that war — any war — was inevitable. Slobodan Milosevic had lit the flame of the Balkan fire, but then he had plenty of help spreading it.
The first moral dilemma Richard and his fellow negotiators faced was dealing with such criminals. “I felt like washing my hands every time I came out of a meeting with Milosevic,” Richard used to say. But the choice was made to save lives and secure peace, and that meant sitting down, for weeks on end, with some of Europe’s worst criminals.
Here is how Richard resolved the moral dilemma of talking to indicted criminals: he refused to include Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the evil twin leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, already indicted war criminals. He told Milosevic (not indicted until 1999) that he would have to represent his Bosnian Serb cohorts at Dayton.
In his own account of the Dayton process, “To End a War,” Richard wrote that he was inspired by two of my books: “Wallenberg,” the tale of the Swedish hero who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust — and who negotiated with Adolf Eichmann — and my book on Folke Bernadotte, who sat down with Heinrich Himmler to get permission to enter Nazi camps.
At the same time, Richard and his team were determined that human rights would be on the agenda, as much as land swaps, the return of refugees and free elections.
Two things happened during that summer we got married which helped turn collective failure into collective success. The Bosnian Serbs’ utter contempt for the “international community” was never more flagrant than in July, when General Ratko Mladic and his militia took 30 Dutch U.N. peacekeepers hostage and massacred thousands of Muslims who had already surrendered their town of Srebrenica. But Richard’s call to use air power to stop the Bosnian Serbs was rejected by both the Pentagon and the Western European nations.
Then on Aug. 19 my telephone rang at an hour that never brings good news. It was the State Department operations center informing me that my husband of six weeks and his small negotiating team had been in an accident on Mount Igman, the treacherous road that leads down to Sarajevo. It was not yet clear, the operator informed me, how serious the injuries were.
The next call was from my husband. He was not hurt, but three of his five colleagues were killed when their armored personnel carrier tumbled off the poorly maintained road. Richard and his military aide, General Wesley Clark, ran down Mount Igman to retrieve their colleagues, trapped inside a burning Humvee, while in the background Serb gunners pounded away.
Richard asked me to meet him at Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, where he was headed with his comrades’ remains. He had spent that night on a military plane with his knees pressed against his friends’ flag-draped coffins. Observing him and President Clinton and his war cabinet go through the sad rituals of farewell and burial, I knew ending the Balkan War had become personal for them. After the funeral in Arlington, Richard turned right around and resumed the shuttle diplomacy between Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo, more determined than ever.
Now, finally, after Srebrenica, after the tragic accident on Mount Igman, NATO began to pound the Serb forces hard. That, combined with relentless diplomacy, got the warring parties to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, chosen for its isolation and security. Milosevic, who dreamed of New York’s bright lights, was disappointed by the drab barracks, which were to be home to all warring parties, plus the European and American negotiators, for the next three weeks.
The Europeans weren’t happy that the talks would be on American soil, but Richard felt it was the best way to show the parties that America was fully engaged. Having the active support of our allies was paramount, but somebody had to be in charge. America had to play that role for the negotiations to be credible.
Early on, Richard summoned the Clinton administration’s top human rights official, John Shattuck, to join the talks. This was a breakthrough in modern diplomacy, an acknowledgment that human rights violations are key to both the outbreak and the resolution of conflict.
All parties had to agree to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Refusing to negotiate with Karadzic and Mladic, and ultimately arresting Karadzic and putting him in the dock in The Hague did more than hold war criminals to account — it lifted the notion of the collective guilt of the Bosnian Serb people.
Kati Marton, the author of seven books, most recently Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America.