U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Jim O’Brien gave an important speech on Feb. 2 at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Science. In it, he delivered several corrective messages to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political leaders, in particular separatist Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik and his Croat nationalist counterpart – and longtime ally – Dragan Čović.

In his speech, O’Brien employed his presence at the 1995 creation of the governing Dayton Peace Agreement, which includes what became Bosnia’s Constitution, to great effect. His involvement in those negotiations gives him unusual authority to parry Dodik’s perennial false narratives of “original Dayton.” It is precisely black-letter Dayton that stipulates the makeup of the Constitutional Court (with three foreign judges among the nine), the checks inherent in the institution and powers of the international High Representative (Annex 10), and the guarantee for the country’s security and territorial integrity (Annex 1A and Annex 2). “The Constitution affirms that BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina) is one country, with no right of secession or division,” O’Brien noted in the speech. He also pushed back against recent ginned-up demonstrations on the internal boundary between the Republika Srpska and the Bosnian-Croat Federation entities that the Dayton compromise created, protests that sought to twist the boundary into an international delineation, as the marchers exclaimed “The border exists.”

O’Brien pointed out that “this invents an ‘Original Dayton’ that promises to bring back the roadblocks, harassment, and barricades featured in the war in place of the actual Dayton, which removed them. This is laughably bad law but dangerous in reality.”

All of these messages are welcome, especially delivered from his level. However, rather than constituting a thorough reappraisal and recalibration of U.S. policy toward Bosnia and Herzegovina – and indeed the Western Balkan region — the speech reflects the continuation of a managerial mindset that hobbles U.S., European Union, and U.K. policy, rendering it subject to local malign actors (and, by implication, their authoritarian geopolitical allies Russia and China).

To effectuate even the aims that O’Brien sketches in his speech, let alone its wider declared goal of BiH and its neighbors being able to join the EU and NATO, the West needs to confront the protracted failure of its policies to date. The upcoming Feb. 9 meeting between President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz provides an opportunity to begin this long-overdue and increasingly urgent policy overhaul, an issue that deserves time on an agenda that inevitably will be dominated by Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict. The region’s relevance is not tangential; Russia is, after all, eyeing the Western Balkans as another of its playgrounds for malign interference. And it’s notable that O’Brien twice used the word “dangerous” in his speech, and referred to the “arguments that would drag the country back, not to the initial peace, but to the war that preceded it.” His tone of urgency indicates at least a clear understanding that the stakes are high. A shift in Washington and Berlin can catalyze the required transatlantic policy reappraisal where will has hitherto been lacking.

Key Messages to Recalcitrants

First, specifically to Bosnia, O’Brien focused on a few key messages. He enumerated a slew of transgressions by the country’s entrenched ethnonationalists, exemplified by – but not limited to – Dodik and Čović. As leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH) and a member of one of the chambers of Bosnia’s Parliament, Čović openly lusts after what Dodik has – a territorially defined fiefdom – in which he is unambiguously dominant and given even further structural assurances to keep it that way. Working with Dodik, he managed to press their State-level coalition partners the Troika (the Social Democratic Party, People and Justice, and Our Party – SDP, NiP, and NS) to sign on to a proposal to accomplish these aims, known as the Laktaši Agreement after the Dodik hometown where it was negotiated. In exchange, Dodik and Čović agreed to vote for a remaining complement of reforms required to begin accession negotiations with the EU, the target date for which is next month. The United States has thankfully rejected this, though the EU Delegation, the bloc’s representative office in Bosnia, is reportedly enthusiastic, given the opportunity to begin negotiations – and thus belatedly be able to recast a long-failing enlargement policy as regaining “momentum” even in the absence of real, positive reform, and amid evident backsliding.

O’Brien highlights Čović’s withholding of support for the Southern Interconnector pipeline to connect BiH’s gas system to an LNG terminal on the Croatian island of Krk,  a project intended to help free Bosnia from its reliance on Russia for part of its energy supply. The assistant secretary even lamented the continued division of the Bosnian city of Mostar: “The city remains broken, trapped in a divided past.” And yet, part of that division derives from a deal between the Croat nationalist HDZ BiH and Bosniak nationalist SDA in 2020, midwifed by the U.K., the United States, and the EU. That agreement allowed elections in the city to resume after 12 years, but only by essentially re-dividing it between the parties who split it to begin with.

Worse yet, the Mostar deal set the stage for an even bigger error, based on the same misguided hope that accommodating obstructionists could facilitate progress: the October 2022/April2023 “electoral reform,” effectuated by two sets of impositions by the High Representative but clearly driven by U.S. policy. The central idea underlying these moves was a fixation of U.S. diplomats for at least a decade: that Dodik’s separatist ambitions could not be checked without restoring Croat-Bosniak cooperation, which had been established in the 1994 Washington Agreement that created the Federation (and ended the phase of the war that had pitted Croat separatists against Bosnia’s Army). The goal of that cooperation effort was to drive a wedge between Čović and Dodik, ceasing their collaboration to unravel the post-Dayton State. The means of that cooperation effort was to feed Čović’s territorial aspirations of at least a de facto Croat entity while making the whole process appear democratic. This clearly has failed, as the anti-Dayton provisions of their Laktaši proposal underscored.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of O’Brien’s speech is the clinging to the idea that, as he put it, “Dayton is not the problem; the country’s political leaders are the problem.” Actually, the incentive structure engendered by Dayton has molded all the political leaders on the scene today – none were major players in 1995, but they have perpetuated dysfunction and accelerated the downward spiral. The problem is colorfully illustrated by the likes of Dodik, Čović, and a host of others who demonstrate the problem Dayton created — that holding political power is the determinant of so much else and is concomitant with economic power, media influence, etc. They themselves are simply illustrative, not the determining variable in the equation.

Changing Environment

O’Brien rightly states that “following the signing of Dayton, significant, meaningful progress was achieved – from reconstruction of the war-torn country to building of state-level institutions necessary to chart the country’s course towards Euro-Atlantic integration.” But what is unstated here is that, buttressed by hard power and the enforcement provisions in Dayton, the incentives for Bosnia’s political actors were much different circa 2004 from what they are now. Those actors operated in a far more constrained environment, with reasonable fear of being removed from office or banned outright if deemed by the High Representative to be obstacles to peace implementation. A return to violent conflict was unthinkable, in part because the memories were still near, but also because of the presumption that NATO would stop any attempts to initiate one –with lethal force if necessary. Statements such as those regularly uttered by Dodik or Čović today would have been career-ending then. This structural deterrent, a necessary control mechanism to make Dayton work (albeit with constant vigilance), allowed for real progress and engendered optimism in the general public – for a time.

Circa 2005-6, however, the prevailing idea became that EU enlargement would – in High Representative Paddy Ashdown’s own words – replace “the push of Dayton with the pull of Brussels.” Use of enforcement tools integral to Dayton such as the High Representative’s Bonn Powers, but also the deterrent peace enforcement mission taken on by the EU from NATO in late 2004 (EUFOR) was presented as contrary to this process. So these tools withered – and a rules-free environment began to take hold.

This shift, without addressing the factors that impeded progress in the first years after Dayton, meant that reforms and institutions that were beginning to make change and take root were instead aborted before they were sustainably irreversible. The Euro-Atlantic future felt a lot closer in 2004 than it does today. Bosnians now live in a kind of free-range Dayton, absent any reliable control.

American acceptance of an EU regional policy was focused on the inducement of enlargement, to the exclusion of a wider foreign policy toolbox. Over time, BiH’s politicians – and those throughout the region – increasingly exploited the EU’s desperation to demonstrate its self-regarding potency and “transformative power,” effectively inverting the power dynamic. Progress was often declared in the hope that it would ultimately be achieved.

This incentive structure fueled regression and further rent-seeking, as Bosnia’s most recalcitrant political leaders constantly raised the specter of potential “instability,” which they themselves could always generate at will even as they pointed fingers at some, any, “other.” No intellectually honest observer would deduce that Dodik or Čović were supplicants or that the EU was dominant in the relationship. Quite the converse.

This impotence on the part of the United States, the EU, and now the U.K. is self-inflicted. The United States, for its part, has often gritted its teeth, even on occasion differentiating itself significantly from the EU, as with the Laktaši Agreement. But the overarching policy is derivative, a function of the EU policy. American policy is therefore also determined by local actors, rather than regional or geopolitical strategic priorities, let alone values.

Policy Spillover and Regional Destabilization

This ceding of initiative to malign actors in BiH, despite unrivalled Western structural leverage within the Dayton system, has translated to regional destabilization and democratic backsliding in all of BiH’s neighbors, as autocrats saw the weakening of the West’s interest and resolve. In Serbia, this is manifest in its Serbian World (Srpski Svet) irridentist policy toward BiH, Montenegro, Kosovo, and even North Macedonia. In NATO member Montenegro, for example, the West’s protracted accommodationist posture toward authoritarian nationalist President Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia has helped facilitate effective state capture by Serbia and its Orthodox Church. Even EU and NATO member Croatia has weaponized its position in those alliances to support Čović’s goals. And liberal democratic values are on the defensive in both Montenegro and Croatia.

Strong, united Western policy in Bosnia, particularly after NATO’s 1999 intervention against Serbia over its assault on Kosovo, was the linchpin of a policy that reassured citizens regionwide of security and facilitated progress. The absence of such assurances for nearly two decades is central to understanding democratic regression. Furthermore, the constituency-building of Russia, facilitated by Serbia’s regime, has exploited the West’s self-defeating posture.

O’Brien evidently still places great store in regional economic integration and cooperation as a facilitator of deeper change. U.S. Balkan policy has oscillated between political ambition and – when frustrated – trying to change the dynamic with economic instruments; both approaches fail to appreciate the fact that politics and economy are inextricably linked. The political economy of Dayton and its incentives is what has brought us here. Political power in the region’s political systems determines economic outcomes, as well as ensures impunity – that’s why office is sought. This is a political, indeed structural, problem that has to be confronted, not sidestepped.

This persistent view seems to demonstrate a sort of American functionalism — the idea that integration will have network effects that help address otherwise insurmountable issues. The EU’s founding fathers, particularly French political economist Jean Monnet, were adherents of this approach. However, for the overwhelming majority of the Western Balkan region’s political leaders, EU membership is not the top priority – if it is a priority at all. Instead, their primary pursuit is impunity, money, and power in all its forms, right now, with no interest in a social contract that would actually provide for citizens. This is why people are emigrating, not because they want to leave their job as a professor or doctor to work in a nursing home or as a taxi driver in Germany.

Developing Depth and Resilience for Democracy

Given that reality, the potential in Bosnia and the rest of the region is not to be found at the political commanding heights. Rather, it is in long-suffering citizens who will increasingly vote with their feet by leaving the region entirely, after years of protracted indignity and humiliation in a system that treats them as objects rather than agents. O’Brien noted, “By some measures 47% of your population doesn’t live here. There is no greater indictment of political leadership than that.” This accelerating bleed serves to reinforce unresponsive and unaccountable political systems and actors.

A policy strategically devised to develop depth and resilience for democracy in BiH would have to necessarily enforce Dayton, as the applicable law of the land. But it would also acknowledge the aim of building a societal consensus for a democratic system with fundamentally different incentives, not built around the interests of ethnic leaders, as Dayton had to be to end the war. American, EU, and other Western democracies’ policies could actively facilitate the development of this bottom-up pressure – and then be responsive to it. Too often, even when popular input is sought, it comes off as more of a PR prop than as providing guidance for policy response.

It was O’Brien and his negotiator colleagues’ very work at Dayton to ensure that the European Convention for Human Rights was integral to the Constitution that enabled citizens to seek redress for Dayton’s contravention of the Convention. In six cases, most recently last August, the European Court of Human Rights found in favor of the plaintiffs, ruling that BiH’s Constitution should be amended to provide for equality of rights to seek office for individuals beyond the three “constituent peoples” enumerated in the Constitution. Yet enforcing these rulings has not been a U.S. or EU priority, with little leverage applied in that direction – both because the politics seemed too daunting and because more accommodationist avenues, such as oiling the proverbial squeakiest wheels seemed more likely to deliver in the short term.

Potential solutions exist that could be designed based on not only these judgments, but also based on the manifest popular will for dignity and accountability. But absent clarity that Dayton will be enforced scrupulously and that security can be assured, enabling judicial accountability to be pursued, the current crop of apex predators in BiH politics can continue to operate essentially without challenge.

A determined righting of the ship also requires confronting Bosnia’s neighbors for their persistent malfeasance. The hope of employing Croatian and Serbian influence on Croat and Serb nationalists in Bosnia, rather than relying on the tools Dayton provided to address them directly in Bosnia, has had a number of detrimental effects. For one, it undermined the Dayton enforcement mechanisms. The policy also, perversely, amplified the influence that recalcitrant BiH Croat and Serb nationalists have had on policy in Croatia and Serbia, respectively. By allowing leaders in Zagreb and Belgrade to avoid responsibility for what effectively has been their support to Bosnia’s nationalist Croat and Serb hardliners, respectively, nationalist agendas and aspirations have undercut efforts in all three countries to establish and maintain accountable, liberal democracies.  Furthermore, the same abdication of responsibility by the United States and its European allies has created much greener pastures for illiberal geopolitical actors Russia and China to gain influence.

So while O’Brien’s Dayton-restorationist speech constitutes a welcome adjustment, U.S. policy still remains credulous, fatalist, and therefore under-ambitious toward not only BiH but also the region. The underlying presumption is that Bosnia – indeed the whole region – is indelibly and irredeemably tribal, requiring a risk-averse, managerial approach. Gone is any ambition, once common in Washington, to treat Dayton as a transitional arrangement, to drive and facilitate evolution.

What needs to follow is the reinstitution of consequences for the likes of Dodik and Čović, using Dayton instruments, augmented by other tools the United States, the EU, the U.K., and their democratic allies (Canada and Japan, for example) can employ. The aim must not be merely periodically disciplining malefactors with the kind of mild sanctions or other penalties that have been wielded thus far (though EU solidarity would help), but rather creating an environment in which creative alternatives can gain popular traction.

That means restoring credibility to deterrence by demonstrating – not just stating – that Republika Srpska secession is impossible. This requires reinforcing EUFOR to brigade strength and deploying it, inter alia, to Brcko. The upside of doing so is underappreciated; deflating Dodik’s secessionist narrative would likely make him political dead meat in short order. But it would also permit the development of trans-ethnic constituencies that he and his fellow politicians of all stripes seek to prevent.  The justifications for the failed American policy to date – the aim of Croat and Bosniak concord – implicitly leaves Serbs (as well as all those who identify as something other than one of those three ethnic groups) out of the equation. BiH can only progress under a social contract devised by and for all its citizens.

Friday’s summit between President Biden and Chancellor Scholz provides yet another opportunity to revisit a failing transatlantic Balkan policy and begin a strategic recalibration of policy towards the region. While Russia’s war on Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict are likely to be top of mind, the increasingly politically rocky Western Balkan region should get attention, too, in the interest of preventing much worse. Its history and atrocities provide touchstones for reactionaries in Europe and beyond. Both the United States and Germany have made positive policy adjustments following Serbia’s failed (and half-heartedly denied) incursion into Kosovo last September and Vučić’s stacked electoral process last December.

Now is the time to cease tweaking and engage in a collective policy overhaul grounded in the democratic values that must be at the core of comprehensive security. Nowhere else in the world do the United States, the EU, the U.K., and other democracies have more potent structural leverage than the Western Balkans. It is time to stop letting autocrats in the region – and their backers or compatriots in Russia — reap the benefits.

IMAGE: People lay floral tributes on February 5, 2024, at Sarajevo’s main produce market, “Markale,” during a commemoration marking the 30th anniversary of the first of the two “Markale massacres” during the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War. A single mortar shell fired from Bosnian Serb artillery positions onto the market killed 68 civilians and injured 144 on February 5, 1994. (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)