I have been working on reading American author Taylor Branch’s nearly 3000-page trilogy of the history of the civil rights movement in the United States during the Martin Luther King Jr. era for 3 years now. It’s one of those works of research and prose that can be so daunting in its scope, that it is better to come back to it for small visits. There is always something I learn about that period in the still ongoing struggle for a more equal society, about the power of visionary leadership, and about the seeds that must be planted to nurture a political culture that can contribute to progress on the famed long arc of history that idealists hope bends towards justice.
It’s this vision of a more just democratic social contract that I know motivates so many people to work in BiH (or any number places around the world) to work on issues related to rights (human rights, minority rights, women’s rights, etc.), freedoms (of the press, assembly, thought, belief, etc.) and a more accountable society (independent judicial systems, anti-corruption, etc.). So many people have been doing so much work for so many years in BiH, it can be easy to forget that while for some people this work is just a job and paycheck, many are really motivated by an interest in supporting a political culture that will bring people closer to a new social contract, one that offers hope and a reason to stay, rather than to join the lines of people seeking to, finally, emigrate.
There was a time when people working on these issues could reasonably believe that their colleagues and supporters within embassies, the EU, and other institutions were on their side, and shared their understanding of the need to contribute to and be a living example of a political culture that reflects the aspirations of a future in trans-Atlantic and values-based organizations, such as the European Union. However, while it has been harder and harder over the past years to believe this, it seems that the door on this perhaps always naively idealistic vision of partnership is now closed.
Ambassador Gabriel Escobar’s recent comment, “The civic concept for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) can only be discussed after it becomes a member of the European Union(EU), and until then the Dayton Agreement is the framework which will be used,” was a crystallization of the fact that the US has now definitely turned its back on the notion that democratic rights and values matter.
I read these words with a deeply troubled sense of what this represents.
First, I hoped that this was an example of a tired diplomat misspeaking, and misrepresenting US policy, a “gaffe” that while unfortunate, could happen to anybody. However if this was the case then there should have been a US policy clarification and correction. And this did not happen.
Second, I thought about what this meant in terms of the way the Dayton Agreement is understood – and it has always been subject to interpretation by anyone and everyone (and their lawyers). My study of the agreement, and my film looking at the Dayton Agreement, consistently confirms that while the deal was always viewed as a vital step in ending the killing, it was understood that it contained the seeds of evolution towards a social contract that would enable BiH’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
This was not an ungrounded assumption – the fact that the Dayton constitution included aspirational elements such as the right to return (Annex 7), and even the preservation of national monuments (Annex 8) demonstrates this. For those purported “Dayton originalists” (to borrow a term from the US legal culture) who claim that interpretations of Dayton have “gone too far,” I would argue that these two annexes, aimed at beginning to reverse the human and cultural impact of the war, were a clear indication of the aspirational and values-based vision the agreement reflected at the time. Now, we know that through the “pick and choose” approach of Dayton implementation, these priorities have been obstructed and ignored (as have so many of the human rights elements), but the agreement itself was not a purely cynical construct.
This leads to my third thought, that Escobar’s comment is a clear signal of the total collapse of democratic self-confidence in the US, and in the west in general, both at home and abroad. Since the financial crisis of 2008, we’ve seen the degradation of political and societal culture in the west, punctuated by key points such as Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the violent January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capital. And just as our policymakers have become more cynical and transactional in their own approach to domestic politics, so has this cynicism pervaded foreign policy. And this has not gone unnoticed by illiberals around the world; it is not a coincidence that the west’s democratic self-confidence has eroded at the same time as illiberal self-confidence has risen, in places like China, Russia, and Brazil, but also among illiberal leaders in the west, most visibly Hungary’s recently reelected Viktor Orban. The consolidating moral, financial, and political ties and relationships among illiberals around the world in the service of less tolerant, less accountable, and less equitable agendas will be the defining trend of the next generation. France’s upcoming elections mark another junction, as even if Emmanuel Macron secures a win, he will also feel compelled to shift further to the right.
So Escobar’s comment – whether US policy or his own mistake or his own deeply held belief – reflects these trends and the result of a lack of self-confident vision, and its impact at the microcosmic level on Bosnia and Herzegovina. He said out loud that people in BiH deserve and must live in a second-tier “democratic” system in which one’s assumed ethno-national affiliation is the primary or even sole socio-political factor, and that the US would not only accept but support this outcome. Coming at a time when the world is watching Russia’s violent aggression against the people of Ukraine, it is discomforting to consider that if this is indeed policy, it will support Moscow’s own geopolitical interests in BiH and the region. The notion that a country designed and optimized for “non-civic” anti-democratic practice could ever become a member of the EU – and eventually become civic – is laughable. It serves as a condemnation of the people of BiH to the very status quo that has inspired so many to leave.
The book I noted at the start of this essay is looking up at me from its spot on a table, as ever. And it also flashed me back to a time when American engagement in BiH and the region reflected a different and more aspirational political culture. Does anyone remember when Martin Luther King III visited BiH in 2009, going to Stolac, Banja Luka, Tuzla, etc., to send a message of tolerance, using his family name and history to plant seeds for the next generation of rights defenders in this country? That kind of engagement and message reflected perhaps the last embers of democratic self-confidence, while the new approach sends a very different message of how the US assesses countries and the people in them, and of how the US and its representatives may engage in an increasingly illiberal world.