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War and Peace in Bosnia

In the 25 years since the Dayton Agreement, Bosnia has avoided a return to war, even as it has fallen short of the hoped-for political reconstruction and reconciliation. The task now is to support a new generation of leaders who are ready to move on, while never forgetting the two most important lessons of the past.

STOCKHOLM – At a US Air Force base in Ohio 25 years ago, the European continent’s most devastating war since 1945 came to an end with the Dayton Agreement. After three and a half years, the war in Bosnia had taken more than 100,000 lives, wrought immense destruction, and displaced millions from their homes. “It may not be a just peace, but it is more just than a continuation of war,” the Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegović observed. “In the situation as it is, and in the world as it is, a better peace could not have been achieved.”

Too true. Together with the American and Russian negotiators, Richard Holbrooke and Igor Ivanov, I experienced the ups and downs of those 21 days in Dayton firsthand as the European Union’s co-chair of the peace talks. I then spent the next few years in Sarajevo, trying to guide the implementation of the agreement’s first steps. I learned that it is far easier to start a war than to build a peace. The Bosnian conflict had been a perfect illustration of this fundamental historic truth. When Yugoslavia started to fall apart in 1991, few people suspected that we were heading for a decade of bloody conflicts from Slovenia (briefly) in the North to Macedonia in the South.

As for the Dayton Agreement, it was really a compilation of multiple peace plans that different constellations of international actors had tried to implement in prior years. The reason we succeeded in November 1995 was that all the key international actors – the EU, the United States, and Russia – were finally on the same page. Previously, there had always been a temptation for one player or another to prolong the conflict in the hope of forcing a better deal.