The last war of the 20th century - chapter 4
March 11, 2008 10:00| by Jan Marijnissen and Karel Glastra
Foreign Policy for Beginners
"One of the most basic principles for making and keeping peace within and between nations, is that in political, military, moral, and spiritual confrontations, there should be an honest attempt at the reconciliation of differences before resorting to combat."
Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States
With both arms outstretched he comes running up to us. The honourable Lord Carrington greets us as if we were old acquaintances. 'I am so very sorry!' He takes the hand of each of us. 'I do hope I didn't keep you waiting.' We don't bother to say that we had only just arrived and that we were, if anything, five minutes early.
'Please, do come in!' he says, before either of us has said a word. And hand in hand we enter the hall of his country house, 'Bledlow Manor', a hall from a movie, as would later be our impression, also, of the gardens. And just like everything else in this country house, it is too beautiful, too eccentric, too English to be true: the butler, the two rough-haired dachshunds, the painted hunting tableaux on the walls, the framed 1902 act hanging in the toilet in which it can be read that 'the Lord de Carrington hath the right to agriculture and fisheries', and the black and white portraits of the members of the royal family on a small table on the landing at the top of the shining, broad staircase which leads from the middle of the hall to the first floor.
It is a curious setting indeed in which to discuss the bloodiest war which Europe has seen since 1945
The conversation actually took place in the spacious study of the former secretary general of NATO; the old Etonian; the former High Commissioner of the United Kingdom in Australia; the man who began his political career as a parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and went on to be First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Defence, Minister of Energy, and Minister of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Lord Carrington is the man who resigned as Foreign Minister in the Thatcher government because the security services for which he was in that capacity responsible had not seen the Falklands War coming. Since then in the Netherlands this has been known as the Carrington doctrine - the idea that a member of the cabinet should resign if major mistakes have been made by bodies under his or her authority, whether or not the minister had personally knowledge of these mistakes at the time. Carrington is also the man who, when he and Margaret Thatcher were once about to receive the head of an overseas government, passed a note to the Iron Lady in which he had scribbled, 'The poor chap has come 600 miles, do let him say something.'
This man, with his impressive record of service, is undoubtedly the person to shed light on the role of 'the international community' in the Yugoslav conflict. He was after all the one who at the beginning of the '90s was asked to look for a solution to the threatening collapse of the federal state of Yugoslavia. This mission failed miserably, but it is the conviction of many, not least Lord Carrington himself, that this was not his fault, but rather to be blamed on the whims of the then German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
When we had installed ourselves around the coffee table and the butler had brought coffee and the dachshunds had found a place on their master's lap, we asked Lord Carrington to go back to the year 1991, the year which ended with a meeting which turned out to be the starting shot in a war which almost ten years later has still not blown itself out.
At the time, how did you see the situation and the different parties to the conflict?
Lord Carrington: 'What was expected from me was that I would have a constitutional conference on Yugoslavia. The European Union was afraid that Yugoslavia would blow violently apart and that this violence would spill over to other parts of Europe. I said that I would do this provided that there was no fighting. I was not prepared to have a conference when there was a war going on, because then there's no point in it. Of course I knew then that it would be frightfully difficult, but I had nevertheless the impression that a proposal would be possible that would be acceptable to all parties. What was clear to me was that it would have to be presented in such a way that each of the six Yugoslav republics would be able to choose for itself the extent to which it would remain linked to the whole. It was perfectly clear that within the republics there were different ways of thinking. Slovenia, for example, would be quite prepared to make agreements on matters such as common infrastructure, railways, that sort of thing, but beyond that they wanted, above all, independence. While in, for example, Montenegro, they still had a feeling in favour of a federation. In other words, I proposed a sort of Yugoslavia á-la-carte. We did get somewhere with this line, but unfortunately we would never know whether Milosevic, who as the leader of the Serbs was of course the most important man, would ever agree to it.
What was your impression of Milosevic and the other Yugoslav leaders?
Carrington: 'My impression of all of them was that they were all ex-communists who had been part of the federalist government. When Marxism died, when Tito died, they all became nationalists and stopped being communists. They were all the same kind of people. Tito had, thanks to the fact that he was a Croat who had fought in the war alongside Serbs on the side of the Partisans, bound both the Croats and the Serbs to him. Moreover, he had been a very tough leader. But these people absolutely did not have his qualities. I had for example no high opinion of Franjo Tudjman, the Croat leader. If he said one thing, he did another. Milosovic was also difficult, in the sense that he wasn't very helpful in achieving our goals, but if he said he would do something, then he'd do it. With him we always knew where we were, and with Tudjman never.'
Nevertheless you say that you had the feeling that progress was being made?
Carrington: 'Certainly. The possibility of a Yugoslavia á la carte was real, but everything fell apart when the Germans stated that the independence of Croatia and Slovenia would be recognised before the rest of the division was settled. Then it became impossible to come up with a common solution.'
Do you have any idea why the Germans insisted on this?
Carrington: 'Actually you'd have to ask the Germans that. But a number of factors which played a role are well known. There were at the time around 800,000 Croats living in Germany. That was undoubtedly significant. And the Germans did, as is well known, during the Second World War, create the independent state of Croatia. They had always retained a sympathy for the Croats. And that also certainly played a role.'
The meeting at which the Germans enforced their will, one which would eventually prove decisive to the fate of Croatia and Slovenia, and millions of Yugoslavs along with them, took place on 16th December 1991. Chaired by the Netherlands during its six-month spell in the European Community presidency, the meeting brought together Foreign Ministers from European Community member states, the intention being to take a number of initial steps on the way to a community foreign policy. Lord Carrington was not himself present at the meeting, but was later thoroughly briefed as to what had occurred. And he had tried beforehand to prevent what did in the end happen, the hasty and unilateral recognition of the two dissident republics.
Carrington: 'At the beginning of the meeting the Germans in fact stood alone. But with the exception of the Netherlands nobody really dared to stick their necks out to turn the matter around. And I think that the reason was that just before that it had been decided in Maastricht that we'd have a common European foreign and defence policy. It would of course have been extremely painful if two weeks later at the first meeting no common standpoint had been possible on the most important question. And so they took the stupid decision to let the Germans have their way. Despite the fact that I'd already warned them, if you do that, then you'll soon all be in Bosnia. Because it was by then crystal clear that Izetbegovich, the Bosnian leader, had no interest in being left behind with Milosevic if Croatia and Slovenia were to leave the federation. And the Bosnian Serbs for their part had via a referendum already let it be known that they did not want an independent Bosnia. In other words, Izetbegovich knew that there would be war in Bosnia. And anyone could have known that. Just as it was certain that war would break out in Croatia. Which is just what happened precisely two days later.'
So what you're saying actually is that the European Community member states were prepared to risk war for the simple reason that Germany harboured sympathies for Croatia and because the other countries did not have the courage to contradict the Germans, for the sake of this brittle European unity. That's a really dreadful conclusion, isn't it?
Carrington: 'Of course you have to be very careful about claiming that this war would not have occurred without this stupid decision. In the end we have to deal with exceptionally unpredictable people. But the decision certainly hastened the war, and removed the possibility of our coming to a peaceful solution. Whether that would have happened, we'll never know.'
But in view of the risks, and of Germany's isolated position, how do you explain the fact that the other European countries swung round, and in a single night?
Carrington: 'Don't mistake Genscher's stature. He was an unusually dominant person, and furthermore he had been minister for foreign affairs for many years. Most of the other ministers at the meeting were newcomers, or relative newcomers. Moreover, they all had their own objections to the German position, rather than a single common objection. The only one who really did his best was your own foreign minister Hans van den Broek - and that didn't earn him any thanks from the Germans!
Look, I don't have much sympathy for any of the Yugoslav parties. But it's unfair to lay the blame for the catastrophe wholly on the Serbs, as so many now do. Because it was Tudjman who declared his country's independence, with its own constitution, without first making any arrangements for the 600,000 Serbs in Croatia. And these Serbs still remembered what had happened to their fathers and forefathers last time Croatia was independent, when 400,000 Serbs were killed. So they didn't feel safe, and that is understandable. Consequently they of course reacted in a horrible manner. But that does not alter the fact that the Croats should never have done what they did. And that the European Community should never have supported them in that.'
A few days later we spoke to Hans van den Broek, Dutch Foreign Minister in the 1980s and after that EU Commissioner responsible for external affairs. We caught up with him in a much more prosaic setting: a small meeting room in the national parliament building in The Hague. (Jan Marijnissen and Hans van den Broek, conversing together? This led to a number of raised eyebrows from passers-by, and Mr Van den Broek to say 'No, the Christian Democrats and the SP are not in negotiation') Van den Broek broadly confirmed Lord Carrington's account, but added a number of brief remarks.
The first: 'I remember that I was visiting Gorbachev with the European troika in Moscow in the time when we were extremely concerned about Moscow's actions in relation to the Baltic republics. The Danes argued at the time within the EC not to work against the independence struggles of the Baltic republics, to undo Russia's annexation and recognise these republics. When we talked about this in Union circles the German side warned that we shouldn't push this too hard, not because the Germans didn't want to put the Soviet Union's back up, but actually because they expected it to set off a chain reaction in the Balkan independence struggles. But just a few months afterwards, in 1991, the German standpoint was reversed and we began to notice that Germany was setting itself up as the great supporter of recognition of Croatian and Slovenian independence. By which what I'm saying is that the Union originally and for a long time was apprehensive about a confrontation in the Balkans, especially given the historic instability of the region itself.'
What is your explanation for the German about face?
Van den Broek: 'I think that you have to look for that in developments within Germany itself, primarily you have to think about German reunification, the fall of the Wall, and the right to self-determination that the East Germans had already taken advantage of. The feelings unleashed in Germany by this were now translated to the Balkans. Amongst the Germans there gradually developed the idea that the Croats - with whom Nazi Germany had had close links - should be accorded the right to self-determination, because they were oppressed by the Serbs, who had a majority position in a unified Yugoslavia. So as I said, the rest of the Union thought differently about this and I can imagine what Carrington told you. Because his big problem in the second half of 1991 at that conference was that the recognition of these two republics deprived him of an important instrument in his attempts at mediation. The Netherlands was in the chair during this 16th December meeting, and I want to disabuse you of the impression that Germany was worthy of serious reproach. You have to put this into perspective. In December 1991 a third of the Croatian territory was occupied by the Yugoslav army, which the Croats had already walked out of. It began then to look increasingly like an occupation. But as long as Croatia formed part of the Yugoslav Republic, tensions between Serbs and Croats were a purely domestic matter, in which outsiders couldn't interfere. The Germans reasoned that the recognition of Croatia would make it possible to intervene, because then it would become a conflict between two states. On this we, the other European countries, had little to say in opposition.'
But according to Lord Carrington the Croats weren't a jot better than the Serbs, and Tudjman was even worse than Milosevic.
Van den Broek: 'I don't agree with that either. I think that Milosevic was very much the main guilty party. Afterwards I said that we were obliged from the beginning to take sides against the Serbs, because it was precisely our failure to take a clear position which rendered us powerless.'
The direct consequence of the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia by the member states of the European Community was the outbreak of war between Serbia and Croatia. On that most experts have since agreed. But soon afterwards Bosnia-Herzegovina was also transformed into a battlefield. And who bears the greatest responsibility for that is somewhat less clear.
On 22nd December 1994 Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was a guest on the CNN programme Larry King Live. The war in Bosnia was at the time temporarily suspended by a cease-fire negotiated through the mediation of former American President Jimmy Carter. Larry King asked his guest the following question: 'Why wasn't what Carter did yesterday not done four years earlier? Nobody wants to die, so way are we killing each other?'
Milosevic's answer: 'That is due to the process of Bosnia-Herzegovina's detachment from Yugoslavia. I had just begun to explain to you that it might be good for your programme if you consulted the archives. I still remember very well a meeting in The Hague. Carrington was in the chair. That's all minuted. We heard a report from José Cutileiro, the Portuguese ambassador who led the first conference on Bosnia. He told the plenary meeting that he had made good progress. Immediately after that we listened to an interruption from Mr Izetbegovic, who demanded the immediate recognition of an independent state. At this point I intervened myself, pointing out the big differences between the report from the head of the conference, Cutileiro, and Izetbegovic's demands. Why should we poison the positive development reported by Cutileiro through a premature recognition which was going to cause big problems? That was all tied up. Nobody wanted to listen. We have seen how after that the war broke out. The Serbs did not want to become second class citizens in a Muslim state inflicted on them. That they could not accept. That was the problem. But the other party did not want a solution to that problem to be brought about by the peaceful process begun by the European Community. They started a war. That war was forced on the Serbs.'
We asked Lord Carrington what he thought of Milosevic's statements and without hesitation he said that 'there's an element of truth in these words. Cutileiro had, long before the real horrors broke out, negotiated an agreement which appeared broadly to be what was arranged under the Dayton accords - except that Cutileiro arranged things better, and sooner, so that it would have been easier to enforce. . All parties could find something in it, except the Americans, who told Izetbegovic that he shouldn't accept it, because it would be a recognition of ethnic cleansing in territorial terms by force. That's what the Americans said, I've seen the text with my own eyes. And as a consequence of that Izetbegovic then rejected the agreement.'
Why did the Americans do that?
Carrington: 'Because of the American syndrome of poor little Bosnia, the underdog which had to pander to the whims of big Serbia and Croatia - which is of course a very one-sided interpretation. Nobody had any sympathy for the Serbs, even if hundreds of thousands of Serbs were chased out of Krajina. That was done by the Croats, with the support of the Americans, and therefore was evidently not so awful. A double standard was applied throughout the entire Yugoslav conflict. And there was so much ignorance. The Americans in particular had to start with absolutely no idea what was really going on.'
Is that exceptional or is it rather the rule in foreign policy, that on such doubtful grounds such far-reaching decisions are taken?
Carrington: 'It's certainly not exceptional. Everybody made a mess of it. The Americans, the European Union and the United Nations. And nobody came out with any credit at all. If you look at the wider issues. Whether you look at Kosovo or East Timor or Somalia. The problem with all that is the instantaneous news, all the misery and starvation you see on television and then the great cry that something must be done. And so governments get forced into doing things because of public opinion. And the public opinion only wants things to be done as long as it doesn't inconvenience them. I do see how difficult it was to do nothing, but if you look at it totally in the abstract, if we had done nothing at all, what would have happened is exactly what will happen now. Serbia is going to want part of Bosnia, and Croatia is going to want a part of Bosnia. Both Milosovic and Tuzman said to me separately 'we agree'. I don't underestimate the difficulties that governments have with doing nothing.'
So you think actually that all of this Western intervention has been in vain?
Carrington: 'If you will allow me to be cynical for a moment, have you noticed the international community concerning itself very much with the Chechens. It is almost identical, they were all refugees, a rebel movement that wanted independence. As in East Timor, it was exactly the same kind of circumstances, but you have different reactions to it. You can bomb Belgrade, but you are not going to bomb Moscow without the Russians doing something with their army. In a way you have to react sensibly to it. What you must not do is preach all the time about ethnic cleansing and humanitarian intervention.'
But the fact that you can't send bombers over Chechenya says nothing about the legitimacy of bombing Kosovo.
Carrington: 'But I wouldn't say that we are going to have humanitarian wars now as Cook said the other day. That the rights of people are more important then the rights of governments. The same way you are not going to bomb Jakarta because if you bomb Jakarta the very fragile Indonesian country would disintegrate, and you would have a great power vacuum in South East Asia. You would have all the problems of a country which is taking steps towards a democracy.
Then you don't believe in an ethical foreign policy such as Tony Blair's government has said that it wants to conduct?
Carrington: 'To begin with I find it disturbing if someone says "this government is going to conduct an ethical foreign policy." Because what you are actually saying is that all others haven't, which is not true. Part of it is a genuine feeling that there was nastiness happening in Kosovo because there obviously was. As in East Timor, or Eritrea and Congo, which you hear nothing about. It is also selective. We were all ethical in the context of what was practical. I believe in doing good where that is possible. I don't believe in acting everywhere in the world where from an ethical standpoint it would be defensible to do so. It's simply not possible. And often counterproductive.
Including in ?
Carrington: 'Yes. The bombing of the Serbs was counterproductive. From the beginning I predicted that the situation for the Kosovars would deteriorate, and that's what happened. They were driven en masse from their own country. Of course there were refugees before that, but not hundreds of thousands of them. I think the whole thing was a wrong decision.'
We brought this conversation later to Hans van den Broek's attention. At this point the views of the two former Foreign Ministers, each of whom described the other as 'my friend' parted company definitively.
Hans van den Broek: 'Kosovo is for me an obvious proof of the following: that as a politician, even if you want to, you can't turn away on the basis of an argument that the parties involved must themselves find a solution.
'In July 1991, when I went with Lubbers to the G7 summit in London, we were in the presidency of the European Community, and representing therefore the European lobby with regard to Yugoslavia. In the evening there was a big banquet, and who was standing there by the entrance? Margaret Thatcher, who we both knew reasonably well. She took my hand and said: 'Friend, let them fight it out.' A year and a half later fiery articles appeared in the papers, written by this same Thatcher, the tenor of which was that we couldn't let this go on in our neighbourhood, that European interests were at stake. Thatcher had in the meantime ceased to be the head of government, but her standpoint was somewhat transformed. So I don't want to give a categorical yes or no to humanitarian military interventions, but I resist total passivity. Because you can't say that you can let them fight it out amongst themselves without that simply meaning that the right of the strongest prevails. And as to what happens if the right of the strongest prevails, history has shown us too many examples.'
As far as Hans van den Broek is concerned there was no doubt that the Serbs were the biggest wrongdoers in the conflict and that their leader, Milosevic, must be held responsible for his misdeeds. But what was Lord Carrington's view of the charges against the Serbian President brought before the Yugoslav Tribunal?
Carrington: 'There was a lot of bad publicity on the horrors of the Serbs. War is a pretty nasty business. When at the end of it all you start making judgements about people's behaviour you are bound to be a little selective, not even on purpose, but you are bound to do so. Even I am bound to do so. But it is ridiculous to say Milosovic is a war criminal. Where do you stop? Izbegovic is just as much a war criminal, and if Tuzman wasn't dying he would be one also. And Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher. We are getting out of control by saying so.'
In the former coach house of Bledlow Manor, which now serves as a garage, Lord Carrington has covered two walls with plaques and certificates. 'From the City of San Francisco to the Honourable Lord Carrington, Secretary General of NATO' reads one inscription on a copper plaque, typical of dozens which surround it. We don't dare to ask His Lordship if the place which he has given over to these memorabilia says something about the value he places on them. But it would of course be remiss of us were we not to talk to the man who was once the most powerful in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation about the new role which NATO had planned for itself. In the former Yugoslavia, NATO had acted for the first time outside the territory of its member states. The first time was at the request of and in agreement with the UN and the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The second, in Kosovo, it was wholly off its own bat.
What do you think of the new NATO strategy?
Carrington: When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War was over and Central Europe became part of the West, we were faced with a difficulty. First because of the fall, the system collapsed totally. Second, how do you show the Bulgarians and so on that we want them to be part of Europe and that we love them deeply? What would have been sensible - although I admit it was very difficult - would have been to accelerate their membership of the European Union, because that would have given them the security and the financial and economical stability. Instead of which we enlarged NATO. And I don't know how far we enlarge it, but by enlarging it we make it unreliable. And if we enlarge it into the Baltic States for example, they are going to attack not one of us but all of us. Are we willing to go to a nuclear war because of Latvia? We are not going to. So the thing becomes implausible. What we should have done was to have kept NATO the way it was and give it a much more political role in the maintenance of relations between America and Europe. Because NATO is the only stage on which the Americans have direct involvement with Europe. And at the moment we simply need the Americans. There's a lot of talk at present about a European armed force, but this wouldn't be able to start very much without the Americans. Or do you think there is even one government of a European country which would be prepared to raise its defence spending so drastically that we could effectively close the gap with America? Of course not. And there is no other form in Europe in which the US can discuss things. NATO is the only one. And it has never been used because the French are so jealous of the American dominance and they did not want it to happen. But it is a great pity.
'So I'm a supporter of NATO as an instrument for preserving good transatlantic relations, and an opponent of the idea that NATO should serve to accelerate European unification. Because the way in which we are now going will lead to the Russians seeing the alliance increasingly as a threat, certainly after what happened in Kosovo. Because let's be honest, we did not treat the Russians fairly. That the Kosovo war came to an end had a great deal more to do with the Russians than with the success of the NATO bombings. If the Russians hadn't put Milosevic under so much pressure, things could have turned out very differently, and we didn't demonstrate sufficiently that we valued this.'
What could be the consequences of that failure?
Carrington: 'I think they'll be even more suspicious of NATO and the expansion of NATO will make them even more uncooperative. Five years ago I spoke in Moscow with the foreign minister. He told me that in his view 'the enlarging of NATO is a hostile act.' And I replied 'you know perfectly well that's untrue, that fifteen Western European and North American countries would never agree on aggression against the Soviet Union, that's rubbish.' And he said 'I know that is rubbish, but the difficulty is that the people in Russia make a point about the enlarging of NATO and it means us having to make the point also.'
There doesn't seem to be much left of the optimism of the early '90s, when the Cold War had just ended.
Carrington: 'Everybody thought the UN was going to solve everything because now you didn't have the two super powers you'd never get a veto in the Security Council any more, so the UN became the means whereby you got world peace. And it hasn't happened because everybody became very selfish. Why should Brazilians interfere with what is happening in East Timor? You see the difficulties about getting a UN peace force in East Timor. Why should we worry? If there were still a question of two super powers, we would all worry very much. Nothing works quite so well to bind nations together as fear. At the time of the Cold War everyone was concerned about Africa, because the Russians were afraid that the Americans would expand their sphere of influence, and the Americans were afraid that the Russians would start a world revolution there. The unpleasant conclusion that we can draw from this is that if the Cold War had not ended there would have been no war in the Gulf and Yugoslavia would not have collapsed. Because everyone would have been much too frightened that a Third World War was about to start. And so the world didn't become safer, but less safe.'
But we can nevertheless assume that you would not want to go back to that Cold War?
Carrington: 'Of course not. That the Wall has fallen, that the eastern European dictatorships have ended, that the world no longer has to live with the threat of a nuclear war which would have destroyed everything, all of that is to the good. But we should certainly be looking for new common goals. Because all these fine words about an ethical foreign policy, about humanitarian interventions, and wars for human rights, can't disguise the fact that in reality it's self-interest that rules.'