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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .


The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention
Steven L. Burg and Paul S. Shoup

Armonk, NY and London: ME Sharpe, 1999
504pp. Index. Biblio. Pb.: 15.95; ISBN 1-56324-309-1.



Steven Burg and Paul Shoup established their credentials as experts on Yugoslavia long before that country imploded in 1991. They have collaboratively crafted a finely detailed account of how the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav crisis played out in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), focusing on the period between end-1990 (the republic's first competitive elections) and end-1995 (the Dayton Peace Agreement).

This is a solid, serious book. Unlike the legions of sensation-seekers and/or self-appointed moral crusaders who have produced tendentious tracts on the Bosnian tragedy, Burg and Shoup do not seek to deny or caricature, but rather engage and explore, the many complexities of the land called Bosnia-Herzegovina and the conflict that tore it apart between 1992 and 1995. That, perhaps, is the singular achievement of their effort.

The book consists of eight chapters. Chapter 1 summarily sets out the complicated moral and practical issues surrounding international intervention in the Bosnian war. Chapter 2 is a fine survey of the competing, indeed intermingled traditions of conflict and coexistence in Bosnia's modern political history, and covers events until early 1991. The organization of the book thereafter (Chs. 3-7) follows a chronological pattern, covering in the process a cataclysm of events from the outbreak of war in Croatia (second half of 1991) and the failed Lisbon talks on Bosnia's future (March 1992) to the denouement at Dayton, Ohio in late 1995. The intervening material includes a detailed narrative of the war in various regions and localities of BiH, and careful assessments of international diplomatic efforts to end the war mounted at various points in time. The authors deserve credit for their carefully considered and convincing evaluations of such hotly debated peace proposals as the Vance-Owen plan (1993). The final chapter discusses the difficulties of effective international intervention at various points in the Bosnian conflict and contains interesting if brief reflections on the fractured country's post-Dayton future.

Throughout the book, Burg and Shoup demonstrate a keen understanding of the historical and institutional contexts of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as the positions and agendas of the contending factions (and various sub-factions thereof). A relatively minor trade-off of this depth and solidity is a style of presentation that is overly dense at times, and masses of detail (sometimes simply summarizing conflicting claims made by propagandistic sources representing the perspectives of the warring factions) which could be confusing to any but the most attentive and advanced readers. This book, 500 pages in length, could have been significantly shorter without any significant loss of substance or analytical insight. Occasionally, one also gets the impression from the text that the authors, despite their undoubted expertise and formidable research, have not spent substantial time on the ground in either wartime or post-war Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Burg and Shoup's approach to the engagement of the "international community" with the Bosnian war is, however, exceptionally clear-eyed. In particular, United States policy towards the post-Yugoslav crises in Bosnia and Croatia consistently emerges in a rather poor light in this work written by two American scholars. The irony, of course, is that no international strategy to end the Bosnian war could succeed until it integrated a credible threat of punitive force (against non-compliance) with a fair approach to the demands and fears of all three combatants, i.e., including the Bosnian Serbs. As Burg and Shoup argue, "that integration appears not to have been achieved until 1995, when the chief proponent of use of force-the United States-became convinced of the need for a realistic political settlement that addressed Serb interests" (p. 262). That intervention ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it came too late for countless innocent people caught up in its maelstrom, and has left as its legacy a broken country suspended in a strange limbo between de jure union and de facto partition. Five years on, despite a major post-conflict statebuilding intervention by Western countries and international agencies, Bosnia-Herzegovina's post-Yugoslav future is still tenuous in almost every sense.


Dr. Sumantra Bose
London School of Economics and Political Science




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