Clinton and Ashton dangle EU and NATO carrots in Bosnia

Clinton and Ashton dangle EU and NATO carrots in Bosnia

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton just wrapped up an unusual joint trip to Bosnia. At peace for more than 15 years, Bosnia remains politically dysfunctional in many respects. Many of Bosnia’s Serbs remain unconvinced that their interests will be protected in a state in which Muslims are the largest ethnic group. Some of Bosnia’s Croats are also skeptical. Bosnia’s Muslims–who suffered most in the 1992-1995 war–still harbor resentment against communities that, in their view, supported the ethnic cleansing of the country during the conflict.

In their effort to galvanize the unification process, Clinton and Ashton made potential membership in the European Union and NATO a key talking point. With both organizations, Bosnia has been in a kind of membership limbo. The EU designates Bosnia as a "potential candidate" for membership. Similarly, Bosnia is part of NATO’s "Membership Action Plan." But neither organization appears likely to offer full membership until existing members are convinced that Bosnia’s main ethnic and political groups all buy into the  vision of a unified state. 

In Sarajevo, Clinton and Ashton laid it on pretty thick. Ashton warned that Bosnia was in danger of falling behind the rest of the region. Clinton put an even finer point on that argument, contrasting Serbia’s recent progress with Bosnia’s stagnation: “We leave here and go to Belgrade,” she said. “Belgrade is on the path for Serbia to become a member of the E.U…"

Overall, this tactic of using EU and NATO membership as levers to promote domestic reform has been very successful in eastern and central Europe. The lure of membership has promoted a mostly virtuous race to meet their respective standards. But Bosnia may be the strategy’s toughest challenge yet. The West is asking many Bosnians not just to reform, rework, and modernize their laws and institutions, but to change how they conceive of themselves.

What’s more, Western leaders are making that request at a time when some of the shine has come off both organizations: The EU is still limping through the Eurozone crisis, and NATO is on its way to a demoralizing retreat from Afghanistan. Those troubling new dynamics beg the question of whether the once dynamic multilateral duo has got what it takes to solve Bosnia.