Emerging from the margins

Constructing creative and useful approaches to both former Ottoman peripheries – the Balkans and the Middle East – requires shedding tattered notions of Western “leadership” and recognizing opportunities inherent in the acknowledgement of one’s own limits.

By David B. Kanin

The terms “Balkan” and “Middle East” connote the great unsettled peripheries of the Ottoman Empire. The two regions have many differences, but they share in common a struggle to deal with the coercive utopias of serial — and distinct— “Wests.” Since the Napoleonic era various regal, totalitarian, or democratic configurations have imposed power and teleologies while extracting resources from one area and occupying them both. Peoples in these volatile places have fought over identities (“ethnic”-“civic” divide in southeastern Europe, family/tribal, national—Arab, Persian/Iranian, Kurdish—and religious loyalties in Western Asia and North Africa). Balkan actors argue over the overlapping legacies of wars fought since the 1870s. The ongoing upheaval in the Middle East is at least as much about dismantling the settlement of World War I as it is about the West’s imagined dichotomy between autocracy and democracy.

There is an inverse relationship between the decibel levels in Western rhetoric and the actual existence of Euro-American strategies to deal with either region. Vice-regal insistence on various behaviors or constitutional reform largely reflect the internationals’ frustration with Balkan notables’ ability to manipulate, obfuscate, and avoid the outsiders’ demands.

This is nothing compared to the messy Western stance in the Middle East. Of course, no government or official should be faulted for failing to anticipate that the self-immolation of a despondent individual in Tunisia would lead to the collapse of long-serving dictators and of the comfortable stability enjoyed by Western governments that for decades ignored contradictions between their human rights sermons and realpolitik practices.

There is no excuse, however, for Euro-American performances regarding Egypt. As that crisis built the Europeans regressed to sermon-mongering. Washington vacillated between support for Mubarak (when he appeared strong enough to survive) and expressions of shock that repression was going on reminiscent of Claude Rains’ attitude toward gambling in “Casablanca.” Then, Air Marshall Sarkozy spearheaded a poorly conceived bombing campaign against Libya, a player much less important to the internationals’ interests than Egypt and much less dangerous than Yemen. The US, meanwhile, launched the raid against Bin Laden that reduced the pressure on Washington to construct a strategy to deal with cascading changes elsewhere. At present, there exists no approach in any Western capital aimed at such problems as the well thought-through effort by militants to establish Islamist Emirates on both sides of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. For the first time, al-Qa’ida affiliated killers have a real shot at establishing a strategic capability to stand astride a significant waterway.

Nothing this breathtaking is going on in the Balkans, but there the post-Yugoslav settlement imposed by Western force and ideological teleology is fraying and, eventually, could come apart.

  • Fifteen years after the Dayton Agreement the major communities in Bosnia remain largely separate and partly hostile — there is no sign of that changing in the foreseeable future. This belies the official and academic myth that a Bosnian civic culture flourished before the wars of the 1990s, was thwarted by a few elite nationalists, and since has been enabled by essential Western leadership. The necessary, important arrests of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic serve the needs of justice but do nothing to bring closure to disputes about collective identity. Milorad Dodik and Valentin Inzko both climbed down in the latest referendum flap, but EU “Foreign Minister” Ashton’s positive optic masks continued international uncertainty over how to deal with the failure of the Bosnian state.
  • The independence of Kosovo/a remains congenitally incomplete. Partition will stay on the table whether the West likes it or not, but its Serbian proponents eventually will realize the discussion is going to include the Presevo Valley — whether they like it or not.
  • Macedonian Slavs and Albanians recognize the discussion about Kosovo/a underscores the continued fragility of their country’s existence. It would mark a major setback if perhaps the only shard of former Yugoslavia not defined by a military decision succumbs to conflict (ignore the usual declarative nonsense that “there are no military solutions in the Balkans”).
  • Serbia, like other post-Yugoslav entities south of the Sava, yearns for inclusion in the EU, but the dangers inherent in its stance on Kosovo/a and Belgrade’s ambiguous relationship with the Republika Srpska would not go away even if that magical event eventually takes place.
  • Hans Dietrich Genscher’s preferences of 1991 have been realized — Slovenia and Croatia successfully escaped the Balkans. They can claim never to have been anything other than “Central European.” However, the legacy of the former’s cynical — and under-analyzed — contribution to the demise of Yugoslavia and the latter’s role in amassing debts it insisted others must pay continue to contribute to the troubles of their former Yugoslav partners.

The evolving role of the successor to the Ottoman state illustrates changing power relationships in both former imperial peripheries. The AKP’s tous azimouth diplomatic offensive had its origins in the 1990s-era pan-Turanian policies of Turgut Ozal. That initiative was premature, but anticipated the increasingly active stance of Turkey’s current crop of highly competent leaders. The diminishing clout and legitimacy of Western policies, the flowering of Agency among many voices in the Muslim world, and simmering frustrations in a Balkan region that has imploded with the failure of each security cap imposed by Western and Soviet actors since 1878 create room for the kind of creative diplomacy Ankara has to offer.

  • Of course, the extent to which skillful Turkish regional policies and cultivation of Ottoman nostalgia contribute usefully to the security of troubled countries along Turkey’s various borders remains open to question.

Going forward, problems related to conflict, cooperation, politics, law, and religion will be grappled with by Balkan and Middle Eastern peoples in the context of diminishing inputs from the West. It is unclear what institutional and coercive systems will replace the current tendency in Tunisia and Egypt for disputes to be settled largely by dueling street demonstrations. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s absence from recent protests is one indication of a possible Army-Brotherhood alliance that could moot such Western- and NGO-influenced norms as constitutions, political parties, and elections.

The West may yet gain a sort of military victory in Libya. Nevertheless — as in Kosova/o after 1999 — without a strategy more sophisticated than invocation of Democracy, these outsiders may find themselves again ill-equipped to manage conditions once the shooting stops. In both regions, Western norms are irrelevant to family-based and informal economic and social relationships central to communal existence (we tend to under-characterize these phenomena as “corruption.”)

Meanwhile, the outcome of the struggle between an Alawi regime and a Sunni majority in Syria will say a lot about Iran’s regional influence and the existential, to-the-death scorpions’ dance between Israel and the Palestinians. There is not and never was any “two-state solution,” and would not be one even if some day there is a two-state agreement — too many spoilers on all sides.

Western planners would do well to scale back the overly ambitious rhetoric that has engendered disappointment in efforts to force the creation of a settled, civic condition in the former Ottoman peripheries. Regarding the Balkans, the Euro-Americans should be grateful that no protagonist wants a new war . The most useful international input would be policies designed to help keep the place quiet while enabling the locals to take responsibility for forging future agreements or conducting future squabbles — no matter US or EU preferences.

Residual dangers in the Balkans pale beside the enormous social, resource-based, and security tectonics emanating from the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. Constructing creative and useful approaches to both former Ottoman peripheries would require shedding tattered notions of Western “leadership” and recognizing opportunities inherent in the acknowledgement of one’s own limits. A smarter, ”weaker” West might just discover the benefits of residual influence once it finally drops pretensions to an imperial pride of place.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

To read other articles by David for TransConflict, please click here.

If you are interested in supporting the work of TransConflict, please click here. To keep up-to-date with the work of TransConflict, please click here.

Email