Two days after U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis submitted his resignation letter to Donald Trump stressing disagreements on the question of the value of multilateralism and alliances, another champion of multilateralism passed away. Paddy Ashdown, a member of the House of Lords and former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, was buried on January 10 in his village in Somerset.
His life’s work was the product of a unique combination of virtues. He was a Royal Marine who turned himself into a political leader, a skillful strategist who oversaw the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the violent conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996, an avid reader appreciative of the importance of lessons from history, and a charismatic politician eager to connect to ordinary people. Despite his qualities, he never became a member of the cabinet, let alone Prime Minister. Had he done so, one assumes, he would not have been afraid to take hard decisions. It is for this trait above all that Lord Ashdown is still cherished by many Bosnians.
Yet Ashdown’s approach to state-building in Bosnia has also been heavily criticized. One of the most common criticisms was that he acted like a colonial viceroy—ruling with an iron fist, imposing laws, and sacking officials without accountability. The criticisms often invoked Ashdown’s own background: that he was born in Delhi, India, into an Irish family with a history of service in British colonial administration.
It’s true that Ashdown took advantage of the tools at hand to fulfill his mandate. His critics asserted he abused the so-called Bonn Powers, which did indeed give him wide latitude over imposing legislation and firing officials. But one of the least appreciated aspects of Ashdown’s time in Bosnia is that he achieved progress on building the Bosnian state structures not by imposition, but by the skillful exercise of power. Exploring this misunderstood facet of his role yield important insights for international strategy—in the Western Balkans and beyond.
When Ashdown arrived in Bosnia in 2002 as High Representative, the country’s central government had no source of direct income, and had three de facto armies, intelligence, and customs services. The extreme fragmentation of government in a country with a population the size of Berlin was the result of an imperfect agreement devised to end a violent conflict above all else. The wartime politicians exploited the mistrust inherited from the conflict to deepen the cleavages between three main religious communities—Bosnian Croat (Catholic), Bosnian Serb (Orthodox) and Bosniaks (Muslim)—to justify a heavy devolution of competences. In practice, the devolution produced three sub-states within a state, with multiple layers of government, and muddled division of responsibilities among them. The political leadership of predominantly Bosnian-Serb entity “Republika Srpska” (RS), carved out through ethnic cleansing during the war, was constantly threatening secession and seeking to preserve maximum autonomy without oversight. To a much lesser extent, similar dynamics played out in the so-called “Herzeg-Bosna” territory, dominated by Bosnian Croats. This fragmentation facilitated a lucrative smuggling trade, pursued by networks of war profiteers who were linked to wartime political leaders.
It was precisely this aspect of the Dayton Peace Agreement that Ashdown sought to mend. By the time Ashdown arrived in Bosnia, his predecessors had done much to re-establish government’s control over secessionist territories. Bosnia had a single flag, a national anthem, a common passport, a single market, country-wide currency, and uniform license plates. Previous High Representatives did this mostly by using the aforementioned Bonn Powers to unilaterally impose laws and institutions, and in case of local obstruction, remove predominantly low-ranking officials.1 His predecessor’s efforts, however, didn’t significantly disturb the networks of organized crime, and their affiliated high-level politicians. And, ironically, it was these very politicians who were in a position to challenge the legitimacy of these imposed measures—through attacks in the media, through legal challenges, and through obstruction.2
Ashdown was a skilful politician and a military strategist; he was aware that key Bosnian structures had to have domestic legitimacy if they were to persist. He also knew that political power was, as Hans Morgenthau described it, a “psychological relation” between those exercising control and those over whom it is exercised, and that legitimacy is an important aspect of this relation. He arrived in Bosnia with a real strategy for how to use available leverage to move secessionist politicians to actively embrace reforms strengthening Bosnia’s central state structures. Short-cuts through mere imposition were self-defeating in the long run. He also knew how to set the tone when talking in public about politics, subtly defining legitimacy in such a way that local political leaders had to conform to in order to remain in power.
A key initiative of Ashdown’s was to always insist on domestic participation in the adoption of measures building the new state institutions. His agenda focused on centralizing government functions in strategic sectors—customs, military, intelligence—and in parallel, breaking up the networks linking ethno-political oligarchs to war criminals and smuggling networks. Using his personal connections with Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for External Relations and Lord Robertson, NATO Secretary General, Ashdown purposefully created an overlap between “his” agenda and Bosnia’s EU/NATO accession process. He announced that he would not impose any measures that were required for the EU or NATO integration. While he did impose decisions and laws in other areas, he insisted that key reforms had to be adopted by the several levels of government foreseen by the Dayton agreement. Given the previous resistance of nationalist parties to less demanding reforms, it was almost certain that local politicians would use numerous parliamentary and governmental vetoes and procedural roadblocks to block Ashdown’s agenda. A few factors contributed to his ability to overcome resistance.
The first was the aforementioned overlap between the Office of the High Representative (OHR) agenda and EU conditionality: his state-building objectives became conditions for EU membership. Ashdown’s approach differed from that of his predecessors insofar as it cleverly avoided the top-down approach. Instead of imposing measures, he used the Bonn Powers to establish reform commissions in which the reforms would be negotiated. He laid down the principles for the reforms, provided clear benchmarks for compliance, and set specific deadlines for domestic actors. His team closely monitored political negotiations, identifying obstructive parties, and alerting the European Commission and Member States when things were not progressing.
Importantly, Ashdown was the first High Representative to be “double-hatted”, serving not just as the High Representative, but also as the EU Special Representative. This “double identity” allowed him to influence and promote EU policy while relying on non-EU channels for political support. His ability to use the available leverage by pulling all the available multilateral resources in one direction helped him overcome domestic political roadblocks. The reforms promoted under the EU agenda were indirectly supported through the threat of sanctions targeting political leaders enmeshed in a corrupt system of patronage existing between government officials and criminal networks. In the course of security sector reforms, a high number of politicians implicated in criminal activities were sanctioned and removed from their positions. During 2003 and 2004, Ashdown imposed numerous decisions blocking individual or party accounts, and ordered special audits of fraudulent public enterprises and banks suspected of financing war criminals. Jointly with the United States and the EU, he imposed visa bans for and froze the assets of large number of government officials implicated in crime and corruption.
This is precisely the aspect of Ashdown’s strategy for which he has been most heavily criticized. His detractors have nevertheless often failed to effectively recognize how difficult it was—and still remains—to mobilize the necessary political support to impact the behavior of local politician deeply tied to informal criminal networks. Getting the United States and the European Council to support reforms required skillful political lobbying, persuasion, focus and persistence. Many have tried to do this, but few have succeeded. Supporting local actors in adopting reforms while ensuring that the reforms do not produce violent reactions by politicians and their criminal networks is no easy task.
Furthermore, Ashdown well was aware of regional linkages, and that dealing with obstruction in Bosnia required exercising leverage over the leadership in Belgrade and Zagreb. Convincing the leadership in Belgarde, Zagreb, Banja Luka, Mostar and Sarajevo that he would be able to secure political and military backing to implement his measures in case of defiance required a tactician’s sense and skills of persuasion that not many officials possess.
And while Ashdown’s approach had its shortcomings on balance, the outcomes were more positive than negative. For the first time since the end of the war, politicians voted to adopt significant reform legislation, making a 180-degree turn away from their previous commitment to obstruction. The tone of politics changed as well, with fewer and fewer politicians deigning to outright deny the legitimacy of the Bosnian central state. Public appeals to secessionism were no longer accepted in the mainstream. Several leaders also acknowledged the occurrence of war crimes associated with their political and military networks, such as the Srebrenica genocide.
Ashdown was not merely skillful at pushing through reforms. He was also a deft operator when it came to legitimizing his interventions. There were significant normative and practical constraints to the use of the Bonn Powers for removals of local leaders: because they were democratically elected, because their strategies of obstruction were often underpinned by democratic procedures embedded in the Dayton constitution, and because political masters in key capitals generally like to avoid the use of controversial measures which invite local defiance.
The ability of Ashdown to legitimize his interventions relied on two key factors. Given that the EU integration was the only policy objective supported by all constituent groups in Bosnia, the EU “standards” provided an effective tool to legitimize reform proposals, even if the international actors had to stretch their meaning. The policies being promoted as “EU standards” in Bosnia were often of Ashdown’s own making, and did not always replicate the EU approach to constitutional issues in other divided states.
For instance, the EU officials approached the security sector reform very differently during Ashdown’ time in Bosnia and during the negotiations on the Annan Plan in Cyprus, both of which took place during the first half of the 2000’s. In 2001, the President of the European Commission Romano Prodi addressed the parliamentary assembly of the Republic of Cyprus, stating how “the European Union never seeks to determine the constitutional arrangements or the security arrangements of its member states. Such matters are up to them.”3 By contrast, the External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten and Javier Solana, close associates of Ashdown, supported the centralization of the security structures in Bosnia. Unlike in Cyprus, where kin states—Turkey and Greece—played too powerful a role in blocking a constructive solution of the conflict, in Bosnia, Ashdown and the EU officials insisted on Bosnia’s leaders doing the necessary reforms, and with the exception of the police reform, attained results.
Using the EU to further legitimize his Dayton state-building objectives was not without risk: local politicians could have challenged the EU measures promoted in Bosnia on the grounds that other divided states such as Cyprus had not been exposed to such a demanding state-building program. But the conflict background mattered in this respect. The existence of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the past complicity of political leadership of RS in war crimes, and the evidence of breaches of international law during the post-conflict period constituted the basis for the EU and Ashdown insisting on certain models of reform in Bosnia. The same elements also provided the basis for the large number of sanctions and removals carried out throughout 2004 and 2005.
Ashdown’s motto was, “Every crisis is an opportunity,” and he knew how to use the crises to advance his reform agenda.
Another under-appreciated aspect of his approach was the ability to put together the types of operations required to uncover “the crises,” given that many of the civilian and military agencies on the ground were at best non-cooperative and at worst hostile to each other. Ashdown’s contribution lay in the ability to pull together all resources and instruments—civilian and military—towards exposing evidence of the implication of government officials, state-run companies, and security forces in financing and sheltering ICTY fugitives. At his initiative, the NATO and later EUFOR troops, together with the chief ICTY prosecutor Carla del Ponte, Western intelligence agencies, and the representatives of the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury, conducted joint intelligence operations and financial audits that would reveal a number of scandals involving the breaches of international law and obstruction of Bosnia’s international obligations by wartime politicians and their networks.4
This was his card in the legitimacy battle: expose the evidence of criminality and the failure of existing institutional structures, then offer EU and NATO reforms as a solution. The evidence from the raids and intelligence operations was generally published after the local officials failed to comply with security sector reforms promoted by the OHR and EU, making the link between the sanctions and compliance implicit and sending clear signals that further penalties would be forthcoming in case of obstruction.
Another important aspect of Ashdown’s achievement in Bosnia was his ability to mobilize the required political support in the United States as well as in EU capitals. Many factors aligned in his favor. For one, Bosnia certainly ranked higher on the list of foreign policy priorities of decision makers in Washington, London, and Berlin than it does today. But it was also a time when much of the attention went to the Iraq war, and Ashdown had to work overtime to get the attention and backing of American and European decision-makers.
He carried out his mandate in an unorthodox manner, relying on multilateral channels and not always sticking strictly to EU procedures. He used informal channels to set the agenda, to obtain necessary political support, and to overcome the problems of coordination between different international agencies his predecessors faced. In particular, he relied heavily on the Quint, an informal forum involving the United States and the four big EU member states (Germany, UK, France and Italy), to lobby for the political support for many of his measures.5 The Quint was the key channel where the coordination between key EU member states and the United States would take place before certain initiatives would be presented to the European Council in Brussels. The European Council’s endorsement of controversial sanctions undertaken in 2004, when Ashdown removed over 40 RS government officials, seems to have been secured through this channel.
The use of informal channels also helped Ashdown override some of the objections of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), whose membership included Russia, to his decisions as the High Representative. Good relations with key decision makers that Ashdown nurtured also mattered: he had a direct phone line to Colin Powell and he capitalized on U.S. counter-terrorism interests to mobilize support for security sector reform. As mentioned above, he relied on personal relations to Lord Robertson, Javier Solana and Chris Patten to shape the NATO and EU agenda and secure prompt interventions from relevant officials. Being of a military background, he maintained close links to the NATO military commander and later the commander of EUFOR troops, whose support was crucial in intelligence operations revealing ICTY-related and other scandals.
Ashdown knew that he could not execute his agenda alone, and that the multilateral presence on the ground, as many obstacles as it sometimes created, provided him with an invaluable amount of civilian and military instruments which needed to be used properly. And yet skill was far more instrumental than the objective size of the multilateral commitment. Measured by active cooperation—say, the rate at which parliament adopted reform laws—the international community achieved were more with 7,000 troops on the ground during Ashdown’s mandate than with 32,000 troops that were there prior to his arrival. These achievements illustrate that achieving certain policy goals—even something as potentially kinetic as preventing secession—is more dependent on the credibility of threats than on the size of the forces at one’s disposal.
Some of the limits of Ashdown’s approach were obvious already during his tenure. Despite his success in obtaining political agreements and establishing new state-level institutions in key sectors, he failed to address some of the core systemic weaknesses of Bosnia’s administration. Insufficient time and resources were devoted to monitor the implementation of the reforms adopted. As a result, the ruling parties continued dividing the key managerial appointments amongst themselves, which automatically meant that lower levels of appointments would be based on political allegiance as well. The failure to tackle core governance problems allowed the ruling parties to continue rent-seeking at all level of government. The new agencies being established under international tutelage were being politicized.
Similar problems occurred in the judiciary sector after Ashdown’s departure. Despite a sweeping judicial reform undertaken during his mandate that included an internationally-vetted process of reappointment of judges and prosecutors, many indictments for corruption and economic crime did not get successfully adjudicated.
Following Ashdown’s departure, a markedly different approach was taken by the OHR/EUSR, the EU, as well as the United States to deal with political obstruction. The new approach reflected an overall disengagement of international actors, driven by a shift of political priorities and supported by a notion that Bosnia was ready for transition from “Bonn to Brussels.” The problem, however, was that neither Bosnia nor “Brussels” were really ready. Despite the large number of new state institutions established, the underlying institutional weaknesses persisted and Bosnia’s administration remained highly corrupt and politicized. At the same time, an important element changed in favor of the RS with the ascendance of Milorad Dodik, a man who did not have the same war-crime record as the SDS.
Dodik openly announced his ambition to reverse the balance of legitimacy in RS’s favor, as he stated that “the authorities in Srpska must be quickly consolidated and must try to secure new legitimacy with the international community in the coming four months. Dodik’s lack of war-crime record put him in a stronger position to challenge the external reforms.6 However, what ultimately allowed him to proceed with obstruction-as-usual was the dwindling ability and willingness of international actors to use the instruments of hard power after Ashdown’s departure. Being caught by surprise, the international community had no clear strategy for how to deal with renewed obstruction, and was unprepared to confront the anti-Dayton rhetoric and obstruction in various state institutions. And Ashdown’s successors were less adept at leveraging available resources, even as Bosnia received less and less attention from the PIC capitals from 2006 onwards.
So what are some of the takeaways from Ashdown’s story in Bosnia? To what extent can they be useful for diplomats and politicians who still grapple with unresolved conflicts in the Western Balkans, and beyond the region?
Perhaps the key lesson is that while the approach Ashdown pursued in Bosnia is necessary to create conditions for peace and institution building, it is not sufficient. Ashdown successes lay in a successful exercise of political power—which indeed should not be confused with either the exercise of military power, or of crude imposition of preferences. He continued Richard Holbrooke’s approach to pursuing a regional strategy, which accounted for the role of players in Zagreb and Belgrade in fueling Bosnian conflict. He managed to generate an unprecedented level of international unity needed to implement measures often considered controversial yet wholly necessary to deal with the challenging circumstances on the ground, including widespread criminality and corruption.
How the results of such strategy will unfold over the medium and long term varies greatly depending on the context of the specific conflict, as well as the level of international focus and commitment. The universal problem with external approaches to state-building is that the key ingredient for success—focus, political attention, and unity among decision-makers in the broader international community—is a scarce commodity.
Yet it is precisely due to dwindling political attention that outsourcing the task of combating political obstacles to a capable and empowered envoy becomes even more important. As the current EU Special Representative prepares to leave Bosnia, appointing a good strategist with access to decision-makers in both Washington and other EU capitals is crucial in order to forestall the return of the worst kind of political obstruction that threatened Bosnia’s very existence at the end of the 1990s.7
In addition, greater attention must be paid to creating conditions on the ground that allow the new institutions to be sustainable. This requires, among other things, recognizing, supporting, and where necessary protecting, local officials, activists, and journalists committed to the rule of law, transparency and accountability. It is often these people who are under immense pressure for promoting the values we preach.
Ashdown himself had a keen interest in making the lessons from Bosnia useful beyond the borders of the Western Balkans. In his view, the messiness of post-conflict interventions such as in Iraq were not inevitable. “It didn’t have to be like this,” he would say, noting that we had to learn from the past and replicate successes rather than repeat failures. One can assume that Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president at the time, blocked Ashdown’s appointment as the UN Special Envoy in Afghanistan, partly because he did not want his approach to Bosnia to be replicated in his own country.
Like General Mattis, Ashdown believed in necessity of multilateralism and working with allies. As he was fond of saying, “If the international community is united, there is absolutely nothing we cannot do in the Balkans. If the international community is divided, there is absolutely nothing we can do in the Balkans.” Obviously, this statement applies well beyond the Western Balkans’ borders.
1. Only three high ranking politicians were removed between 1996 and 2002.
2. A number of decisions forming new institutions were challenged before Bosnia’s Constitutional Court. On March 23rd, 2001, twenty-five representatives of the National Assembly of Republika Srpska submitted a request to the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina to evaluate the constitutionality of the Law on the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been imposed by the High Representative.
3. Hannay, Sir David. Cyprus: The Search for A Solution. London: I.B.Tauris, 2005.
4. Examples abound: a NATO raid on the state-owned armaments company Orao in Republika Srpska revealed evidence that the company was supplying spare parts to the Iraqi air force, in breach of the UN Security Council resolution 661. This scandal provided Ashdown with an opportunity to initiate the reform of the defense sector. He argued that the lack of central control over security sector undermined the ability of the Bosnian government to respect its international obligations.Another SFOR raid conducted on RS defense facilities in Han Pijesak in December 2004 revealed that the ICTY indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic had been on the payroll of the RS Ministry of Defense, hidden in the Han Pijesak military compound until 2002. In response to these events Ashdown imposed a decision to abolish the entity armed forces and the Ministries of Defense. He also made an explicit link between the unreformed security structures in the RS and the continued ability of the war criminals to evade arrest.
5. Officially, the EUSR reported to the High Representative for the CFSP / Secretary-General of the Council, Javier Solana.Furthermore, the EUSR was required to meet with the Council’s Political and Security Committee (PSC) on a regular basis and the PSC was to provide the EUSR with political guidance. In practice, however, Ashdown’s interaction with the PIC SB and the Quint was much more intense. The number of meetings is illustrative: the High Representative would meet the PIC SB on a weekly basis. In addition there were regular meetings with the Quint in Sarajevo. By contrast, Ashdown would meet the Political and Security Committee of the Council only once every three months.
6. Since 2006, Dodik’s legitimacy has dwindled due to his obstruction, denial of war crimes, corruption and secessionism. The United States currently maintains sanctions on Milorad Dodik.
7. The recommendation for a political EUSR has been made by Bodo Weber in a Democratization Policy Council paper published on 26 April 2018.