Summary of "Case Study: Lessons of Preventative Diplomacy in Yugoslavia"

Summary of

Case Study: Lessons of Preventative Diplomacy in Yugoslavia

By Saadia Touval

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium 

Saadia Touval, "Case Study: Lessons of Preventative Diplomacy in Yugoslavia," in Managing Global Chaos, eds. Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson and Pamela Aall, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996) pp. 403-418.

Touval describes the failure of diplomatic attempts to prevent war and maintain a unified Yugoslavia. He argues that these efforts at preventative diplomacy lacked clarity and credibility. Based on his analysis of the Yugoslavian case, Touval draws five lessons for future attempts at preventative diplomacy.

Yugoslavia and the Failure of Preventative Diplomacy

Western nations have long recognized the nationalist tensions within Yugoslavia. During the Cold War era, the West saw Yugoslavia as an ally in preventing Soviet expansion. For this reason, western diplomatic efforts maintained a sharp focus on maintaining a unified Yugoslavia. Under Tito's rule, nationalist tendencies were repressed and unity maintained.

As expected, those nationalist tensions resurfaced with Tito's death in 1980. Croatian, Muslim and Serbian factions began to agitate for secession. By this time the Cold War was ending, and western priorities were changing. While the western nations still wanted a unified Yugoslavia, they were also increasingly concerned with promoting democratization and economic reforms. Western nations perceived these goal as compatible. Democracy, it was thought, would "redress human rights, alleviate ethnic tensions, and keep the country united."[p. 405] Ironically, democratic and economic reforms appear to have fueled the conflict. Economic reforms resulted in short-term hardships. The frustration and dissatisfaction caused by economic hardships was in turn exploited by faction leaders and used to fuel nationalistic fervor. Democratic reforms allowed the widespread electoral victory of candidates running on extremist nationalist platforms.

By 1990, the breakup of Yugoslavia seemed inevitable. In December 1990 Slovenia voted to secede at the end of June 1991, unless some confederacy agreement could be reached in the interim. Western nations still hoped that open warfare could be avoided, and a negotiated separation achieved. Unfortunately, western diplomatic efforts to prevent war failed.

Touval argues that western preventative diplomacy failed in Yugoslavia for two main reasons. First, the western nations did not project clear goals for Yugoslavia. The West's message was ambiguous, and Touval argues that this ambiguity "stemmed from the West's definition of goals in terms of broad values, some of which were contradictory in the context of time and place."[p. 406] In the current Yugoslavian context, democratization was allowing people to vote to secede, and break up the nation. Maintaining Yugoslavian unity required repressing nationalist views, which would be both anti-democratic and would likely entail further violations of human rights.

Second, Touval argues that western diplomatic effort lacked credible leverage. Western nations attempted to enforce their goals via economic incentives and threats. Economic incentives were practically the only tool available at the time. However, economic pressure was not effective. Withholding economic assistance contributed to the popular frustrations which were in turn exploited to fuel nationalist sentiments. The ambiguity of western goals made it unclear under what conditions aid would be given or withheld. The credibility of economic threats was further undermined by political divisions within the European community. "Finally," Touval notes, "economic punishments (or rewards) were not well attuned to the psychology of the nationalist leaders."[p. 407] The factions were primarily concerned with issues of physical security and group identity. Economic prosperity was of only secondary concern. Touval suggests two reasons why the western nations did not attempt mediation of the conflict. One, mediation would have implied tacit acceptance of Croatia and Slovenia as sovereign powers. Two, mediation would have constituted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Moreover, Touval argues that even had it been attempted, mediation would have likely been unsuccessful. Neutral, non-intrusive mediation would have simply been perceived as further western equivocation and ambiguity, hence encouraging the various sides to intensify their positions. Directed mediation in which the mediating party suggests a settlement relies on credible threats and promises. However the West at that time lacked credible, effective leverage.

Lessons for Preventative Diplomacy

Touval draws five lessons for future attempts at preventative diplomacy from the Yugoslavian case. First, the international community must prioritize its goals. By demanding both democratization and unity, the West presented Yugoslavia with a confusing and contradictory mandate. The West's demands would have been clearer had they ranked the importance of these goals.

Second, the international community should avoid presenting vague, equivocal or ambiguous goals. They should "refrain from reciting broad values and instead define in concrete terms what they expect from the disputants."[p. 414] Touval concedes that this may be difficult. Generally it is easier to generate international agreement on basic values than on specific proposals. However, goals must be clear to be credible. The Yugoslavian case also shows that economic threats and incentives are likely to be ineffective in cases of ethnic conflict. Group identity, historic grievances, and physical security issues tend to overshadow economic concerns in such situations. Economic incentives have little relevance to the disputants' concerns, and so produce little leverage.

The Yugoslavian conflict reveals an even more basic lesson about timing. Touval argues the ethnic conflicts are an exception to the conventional wisdom, which says that conflicts are easier to prevent than end. Unlike many other types of conflict, in ethnic conflicts the participants tend to become fully committed to their positions very early on. What is worse, Touval suggests, is that early preventive interventions are "likely to be launched at a highly inauspicious moment after the parties have committed themselves to their goals, but before they have reached a hurting stalemate that might dispose them to rethink their policies."[p. 415]

Finally, Touval notes that nations are often unwilling to commit themselves, their resources, and possibly their citizen's lives to preventing foreign conflicts. Yet without such commitment, diplomatic threats and incentives lack force and credibility. For preventive diplomacy to be effective, it must be backed by the strong commitment of the intervening nations.