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In Defense Of Richard Holbrooke


Critics of Richard Holbrooke and the Dayton Peace Agreement are completely wrong – it was not Dayton that ethnically divided Bosnian politics and society, but rather that Bosnia’s divided society and politics resulted in Dayton.


By Gordon N. Bardos

In one of history’s instructive little coincidences, the day after Richard Holbrooke died, a Council of Europe report accused one of his Kosovo protégés of being the head of a criminal group involved in drug smuggling, sex trafficking, the assassination of political opponents, and human organ harvesting.

It is inevitable that a man whose career spanned crises across continents and decades would be controversial, and diplomatic historians will certainly review and debate many of Holbrooke’s views and decisions for years to come. This debate has already begun amongst Balkan specialists. Specifically, it has now become fashionable to blame Holbrooke for many of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s current problems, allegedly because the agreement he crafted to end the Bosnian civil war, the Dayton Peace Accords, has led to the “ethnification” of Bosnian politics.

On this score, however, Holbrooke’s critics are absolutely wrong.

The reality of Bosnian history is that it was always an “ethnified” society and polity. In Ottoman-era Bosnia, depending on one’s ethno-confessional background there were proscriptions and prohibitions on where and whether a group could build a house of worship, whether one’s testimony was considered valid in court or not, what color clothes one could wear, whether you could own a gun or ride a horse in town, etc., etc. In 19th century Bosnia, singing societies, theater groups, student organizations, rural villages, military formations, urban neighborhoods and even commercial banks were all divided along ethno-confessional lines. Elections in Bosnia, from those held under the Habsburgs in 1911 to those held under the communists in 1990 to those held under NATO today have always essentially been ethnic censuses. Political appointments and positions in Bosnia’s various governments under all these regimes have always strictly followed the ethnic key. Historically, the economic stratification of Bosnian society along ethnic lines was equally dramatic: in 1910, some five decades after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and Tsar Alexander freed the serfs, 90 percent of the landowners with tenant farmers in Bosnia were Muslim (now officially known as Bosniacs), while 90 percent of the tenant farmers were either Croat or Serb Christians.


To most people, such a system of rule sounds more like apartheid South Africa, the pre-Civil War American South, or Germany circa 1934-35 than the harmonious multicultural society popular portrayals of Bosnia’s history suggest. Moreover, it is probably only in our study of the Balkans that people like to claim that history doesn’t matter. Any scholar who would argue that the legacy of slavery or Jim Crow is irrelevant to understanding racial problems in the US today or that the Holocaust is irrelevant to understanding Israeli attitudes would be laughed out of the seminar room, yet in our debates about the Balkans, the region’s problems are commonly reduced to the malevolent influence of a few “ethnic entrepreneurs” in the 1980s and 90s.

That the “ethnification” of Bosnian society happened long before Richard Holbrooke came along is most apparent in the record regarding the most intimate of human relationships — marriage. Despite the myth of high levels of interethnic marriage in Bosnia and Herzegovina frequently expounded in the media, Bosnian social reality has throughout history been quite the opposite. In nineteenth century Bosnia, mixed marriages were completely unheard of. As late as 1988, ninety-three percent of Bosniacs married endogenously, and Croats and Serbs were not much more inclined to marry outside their ethnic groups either. In 2001 in the Herzegovinian town of Mostar, out of 176 recorded marriages, not a single one was between a Croat and a Bosniac.

Clearly, then, Holbrooke’s and Dayton’s critics have the story completely wrong. It was not Dayton that ethnically divided Bosnian politics and society; in reality, it was Bosnia’s divided society and politics that resulted in Dayton. To his credit, what Holbrooke managed to achieve at Dayton was a grand compromise providing each of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s peoples their main strategic requirements: the Bosniacs received their historic goal of having an independent and unified Bosnia, while Croats and Serbs received high levels of ethnic self-government, and loose associations with their neighboring kin-states. Moreover, the ethnic powersharing formulas incorporated into Dayton were neither invented nor imposed by Holbrooke; they completely conformed to centuries of Balkan political culture and tradition, and are perfectly compatible with similar forms of multiethnic democracy practiced in other parts of the world.

Indeed, most of the problems Bosnia currently faces are not due to Dayton, but to the ongoing efforts to create a unitary, centralized state, and to enlist international actors to abrogate the constitutional protections and institutional rights Bosnia’s ethnic communities currently enjoy. Bosnia’s Croats, for instance, are rightfully outraged by the fact that the nominally Croat member of the state presidency was elected without the votes of ninety percent of the Croat electorate in Bosnia, and the leader of the Bosniac Social Democratic Party is now preventing a Croat from becoming the country’s prime minister, despite the fact that according to a principle of rotation in office it is a Croat’s turn to hold the job. It is worth remembering that when Slobodan Milosevic pulled the same stunt in May 1991, it was one of the final nails in Yugoslavia’s coffin. As Holbrooke himself noted one time, “Bosnia is a federal state. It has to be structured as a federal state. You cannot have a unitary government, because then the country would go back into fighting. And that’s the reason that the Dayton agreement has been probably the most successful peace agreement in the world in the last generation, because it recognized the reality.”

In his defense, Holbrooke was probably right to boast about Dayton being the most successful peace agreement of the last generation. It ended 43 months of war and paved the way for what is arguably the most successful refugee return program in history — all at the cost of zero American lives lost to hostile fire. Would that the diplomats who oversaw the Iraq war had managed something like that.

However historians ultimately view Holbrooke’s role in the many events and crises he was involved in, one thing should be clear — the effort he put into negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords in the fall and winter of 1995 were the finest moments of his career. Only a man with the determination and energy of Richard Holbrooke could have performed the incredibly difficult diplomatic feat of keeping the competing interests of Washington, Brussels, Moscow, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Bosnia’s Croats, Muslims and Serbs in check to finally put an end to Europe’s most tragic conflict in the last fifty years. For this, we should give the man his due.

Gordon N. Bardos is the assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

2 thoughts on “In Defense Of Richard Holbrooke

  • March 3, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Many things I don’t agree with in this article.

    Of course the divisions in Bosnia are old and certainly not created by the Dayton Agreement. This does not mean that the pact compiled by Holbrooke is untouchable and should not be reviewed. Its revision should not in any way seen as criticism towards the late US diplomat.

    What I did not like about the agreement was its timing and the purpose.

    The Serbs were well-armed and the UN arms embargo left the poor Bosniacs like sheep in front of wolves. We all know now what happened with the massacres and ethnic cleansing. Never since Holocaust had Europe seen anything like that.

    However, it was only when the Croatian army joined the war and the Serbs were losing the undeserved territories they had captured that the outside world imposed peace. The Serbs were saved from a complete defeat that would have helped build a common state. Instead they were awarded in Dayton with their own state within a state.

    This too was not Holbrooke fault. He did his work as a diplomat, based on the situation on the ground and the will of the world powers. Compiling a compromise that makes sense is one thing. Imposing it and making the parties to sign it is something else.

    If the allies in World War II were forced to stop at the French and Russian borders and sign a peace with Germany leaving in its territory half of Poland, Austria and half of the Czech Republic than Dayton would have had an older cousin.

    I also don’t get the reference to the slavery in America. Yes, the feudal owners in Bosnia were Muslims, but the situation of the Serbian and Croatian villagers cannot be compared with the slaves in America. It is also a poor argument if it is used to justify in any way what happened in Srebrenica and the rest of the country. I am not saying that this is what the author meant to imply, but it is important to clarify any misinterpretation.

  • March 8, 2011 at 12:45 am

    Interestingly, Mr. Bardos selects the data very carefully in order to make his point that Bosnia was always a divided house.

    Bosnia indeed was a nation compiled of various ethnic groups which were for the most part living parallel to each other rather than with each other for a good portion of its history.

    However, I find the pre-war (1992-1995) data he uses to prove his point rather skewed. Mr. Bardos chooses to ignore that close to 40% of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina have identified themselves as Yugoslav toward the end of 1980s and beginning of 1990s. Many ethnic groups, a large percentage of them being of mixed ethnic origin, were actually “hiding” under Yugoslav identity.

    It is no wander that he fails to find marriages between Croats and Muslims in Mostar, since it is precisely in Mostar that a large percentage of Muslims toward the end of the 1980s referred to themselves as Yugoslav.

    As Mr. Bardos knows, a lot of things have happened in racial relations between say 1933 and 1993 in US History. But, for some reason, in his arguments the time in Bosnia stood still from 1934 to 1988, curiously forgetting that Bosnia was not independent during that time, nor was actively building “national identity” if you will.

    Bosnia in particular has a lot to be thankful to Richard Holbrook. Mr. Bardos is right – Richard Holbrook did not create the conflict but cleverly solved, tricked the Balkan hotheads into signing something that will finally put an end to a bloodshed. The solution was supposed to be a temporary one, however,15+ years later, any Bosnian – be it a Serb, a Croat, Bosniak, Roma or a Jew will tell you the same thing – it is not working! A lot of weird clauses in Dayton Peace Accord were supposed to work only if refugees returned to their homes, which as Mr. Bardos knows did not happen. Instead, the country is stuck with a hostile alliance between two entities – one an offensively named, ethnically cleansed, but simple Republika Srpska (Serb Republic), and another one the impossibly complicated, pluralist Federation of BiH that is comprised of 10 cantons, god-only-knows how many municipalities, city governments etc…The country is dysfunctional as a direct result of the Dayton Peace Accord.


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