In Other Words

Unraveling Europe’s Raj

Journal of Democracy Vol. 14, No. 3, July 2003, Washington, D.C. Terrorist attacks and instability in Iraq offer new fodder for a long-running debate: Can outsiders build democracy in war-torn societies? Answers are often caricatured in a predictable manner: Yes, say the optimists — spreading the gospel of democracy is a noble purpose, and any ...

Journal of Democracy
Vol. 14, No. 3, July 2003, Washington, D.C.

Terrorist attacks and instability in Iraq offer new fodder for a long-running debate: Can outsiders build democracy in war-torn societies? Answers are often caricatured in a predictable manner: Yes, say the optimists — spreading the gospel of democracy is a noble purpose, and any social engineering challenges can be overcome with vision, patience, and adequate resources. No, retort the skeptics — cultures of violence and mistrust run deep, and trying to transplant alien beliefs into infertile soil is a waste of time and money.

The real debate is seldom so straightforward. When it comes to the military component of nation building, for example, ideological differences all but disappear. Witness Bosnia. After Serbian forces overran the United Nations’ so-called safe area of Srebrenica and massacred thousands of Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) in July 1995, few questioned the military provisions of the subsequent 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which sent approximately 60,000 NATO troops to Bosnia to prevent any resumption of hostilities. Clearly, the majority of Bosnians — whether Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks — craved an end to the mass murder of civilians, and observers acknowledged the need for a robust international military presence to deter and disarm the powerful spoilers. Even today, liberals and conservatives show remarkable consensus on the success of NATO’s mission.

They saved their disagreements for Dayton’s civilian component, which created the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to oversee far-reaching economic, judicial, and governmental reforms. The OHR, which originated from a one-year "transitional" administration, now has remarkable executive authority to govern the country. Since 1998, successive high representatives have used their powers to dismiss Bosnian government officials they consider obstructive; they can also impose legislation directly without reference to Bosnia’s fractious parliamentarians. In the name of an ideal end-state of democracy, democratic process has been suspended.

Gerald Knaus and Felix Martin of the European Stability Initiative weigh in on this paradox in their article "Travails of the European Raj," appearing in the quarterly Journal of Democracy. Knaus and Martin claim that the OHR compromises Bosnian sovereignty and operates with no accountability as a virtual protectorate. The authors assert that international officials in Bosnia resemble British administrators in colonial India, with their vast ambition and conviction that they know better than the "subject people." This broadside, buttressed by a discussion of 19th-century utilitarian philosophy, is the basis for the article’s headline-grabbing title. The piece goaded a heated ohr response. In a radio interview, the current high representative, Paddy Ashdown, dismissed the criticisms as "intellectually and factually unsustainable" and dubbed the comparison with colonial India "preposterous."

Yet, for all the controversy, much of what Knaus and Martin argue simply replicates — with less empirical or theoretical grounding — the earlier work of scholars such as David Chandler, whose book Bosnia: Faking Democracy after Dayton, details how democratization efforts have limited accountability and autonomy. Moreover, Knaus and Martin have chosen to ignore voices from Bosnian media and academia that have urged the OHR to act decisively. The article parades populism when it insists that "the ordinary citizens of Bosnia" should determine their own fate, but, other than quoting a couple of prominent (and self-interested) politicians who have criticized the international presence, the authors give local people little voice.

Beyond its calculated rhetoric, "Travails of the European Raj" demonstrates how the ideological battle lines have shifted on democracy assistance. Knaus and Martin accuse the OHR of "liberal imperialism," especially in its dismissal of elected Bosnian officials. They propose a rigorous review of former OHR dismissals, to be conducted jointly by international officials and Bosnians. By handing power to Bosnians, this proposal might appeal to conservatives seeking disengagement. However, the authors’ call for international participation in the review represents a more liberal position of re-engagement, since it would demand further international investment of time and money.

The proposal is also vulnerable to the label of "liberal imperialism" that the authors pin on the OHR, for it represents Knaus and Martin’s conviction that more engineering — of their own design — is the answer to Bosnia’s problems. The article and the exchanges it has elicited reveal the ironies and difficulties inherent in the democratization debate in Bosnia — eight years and 17 billion euros later. It also underscores that anyone expecting rapid solutions in Iraq will be disappointed.

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