Wars and Peace: the Lessons of the Balkans

Replay the keynote speech and read the summary below



"Wars and Peace: the Lessons of the Balkans"

A keynote speech by Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister, Sweden; former UN Special Envoy for the Balkans

Chaired by: Liz Alderman, The New York Times. | Student Greeter: Moritz Bender, PSIA student, Master in International Public Management


The nature of conflicts has rapidly evolved in the recent decades. How can the international community be prepared for effective conflict prevention when tensions arise? Can international accords help resolve already escalated conflicts in order to rebuild lasting institutions? What is the ability of actors such as the EU, the United States, and the United Nations negotiate and build peace? Student greeter Moritz Bender and panel chair Liz Alderman raised such questions and put them into perspective with the speaker’s experience in geopolitics and negotiation.

Geopolitical lessons from the Balkan war

Carl Bildt, sharing his experience in mediation in the 1990s Balkan war, underlined the unpreparedness of the international community to respond to such events. Firstly, most actors were intellectually unprepared for the nature of this conflict, which was rather similar to pre-1945 conflicts than to Cold War ones. Security elites had concentrated on issues of espionage and nuclear threats, but had not foreseen a much bloodier war. Moreover, the world and the United States in particular had focused on the demise of the USSR, the fate of nuclear weapons in now independent states, and the German reunification.

The former Prime Minister identified the importance of analyzing the cultural and historical backgrounds in conflict-affected areas before bilateral and multilateral cooperation or military action can take place. “Nations exist both in space and time,” he declared. In the case of the Balkan war, little attention had been given to Bosnia before a violent conflict erupted, while “Bosnia was, in some way, a Yugoslavia miniature” with all ethnic and religious tensions ready to ignite. Peace was further delayed by the lack of international consensus: it was only in 1995 that the cooperation with Russia was decisive in obtaining peace in Bosnia through the Dayton Accords. 

On the question of the failure of the UN’s ‘safe zone’ in Srebrenica, Bildt replied that “the international community was promising something that it was unwilling or unable to provide on the ground.” The time taken by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to condemn different leaders can be explained by both the usual time necessary for judicial matters and the new notion of individual responsibility, which the court aimed to implement. Accountability was also pursued with a particular emphasis on gender crimes such as rapes, which were an integral part of the war. This resulted in fair but extremely drawn out and expensive trials, which “lost part of the meaning they were supposed to have when they were set up.”

The post-Ottoman situation

Bildt argued that ethnic mosaics that have rendered the conflict-resolution processes all the more difficult in the Balkans are at least partly the result of the region’s Ottoman past. Indeed, the Ottoman empire, whether by retreating or collapsing, left multiethnic areas where clear borders were difficult to draw. But the Balkans are not alone in this situation. Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Greece, Cyprus, and Iraq all share the same nature to varying degrees: their tensions are complex, history-rooted, and require much attention and long-term management on the part of the international community.

On whether he thinks that the MENA region is today’s Balkans in the 90s, the speaker explained that in a way, post-Ottoman problems are still present in the Middle East: the Balfour declaration and its consequences on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the tensions in Syria among religious denominations and particularly with Kurds in the north, the conflict between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)... But new factors have also emerged in the MENA region, such as the inability of state-led economies to provide opportunities to the youth, thereby putting an economic pressure on governments to deliver.

New players: China and the EU

Since the war, news players have arisen in the Balkans. China in particular has taken a so-called aggressive investment approach in the region. For instance, Montenegro has preferred to obtain Chinese funds for building its highway rather than to accept the EU’s or World Bank’s offers. This comes with consequences: while Western actors had studied Montenegro’s ability to pay back its loans, Montenegro finds itself struggling to pay back its Chinese debtor.

The European Union is thus an active political, economic and military actor in Eastern Europe. Bildt sees the European Eastern Partnership as “a way to answer some of the needs that are expressed by some countries between Europe and Russia.” Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have already signed comprehensive agreements with the EU. Brexit, however, weakens the prospects of a strong Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) capable of exerting critical influence abroad since France and the UK are the two main military and diplomatic powers in Europe. As a conclusion, Bildt explained: “the military is just an instrument, the important thing is to get the policies right.” With thorough understanding of a conflict and political willingness to act, difficult crises can be solved.


(c) An article written by Emylie Bobbi, PSIA student in the Dual Degree program with MGIMO, 2021


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