The Dayton Accords were an example of American diplomacy at its best. Richard Holbrooke’s negotiating team, dispatched by President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher, ended a war that claimed close to 100,000 lives and displaced nearly a quarter million people. The peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina has now held for more than 15 years. President Clinton’s courageous decision to deploy 20,000 American troops to help enforce the agreement — despite substantial congressional and public opposition — has withstood the test of time.
The Dayton agreement was a landmark in the history of the Balkans, where ethnic and religious rivalries had sparked conflicts going back many generations. The Accords have not erased all bitterness or fully healed all scars, but contentious issues today are settled in public debate, at the ballot box, and in the courts. For the people of Bosnia, Dayton has made the difference between life under the rule of law and trying to survive with no rules at all.
The significance of Dayton, however, extends beyond the text of the agreement itself and even the region to which it applies. Rather, it reflected a conscious decision by the Clinton Administration to redefine the nature of American leadership in light of the Cold War’s end and the rise of new perils. This was not, at the time, an easy decision to make. The end of the superpower rivalry caused many to favor a drastic reduction in America’s overseas engagement. For decades, U.S. foreign policy had been shaped as a competition with the Soviets; but now, if the competition was over, why not relax and devote all our efforts and resources to problems at home?
In an address to the nation, President Clinton discussed this question at the time of the Dayton Accords:
With the Cold War over, some people now question the need for our continued active leadership in the world. They believe that, much like after World War I, America can now step back from the responsibilities of leadership. They argue that...the time has come now to leave to others the hard work of leadership beyond our borders. I strongly disagree.
As the Cold War gives way to the global village, our leadership is needed more than ever because problems that start beyond our borders can quickly become problems within them. We’re all vulnerable to the organized forces of intolerance and destruction, terrorism, ethnic, religious, and regional rivalries, the spread of organized crime and weapons of mass destruction, and drug trafficking. Just as surely as fascism and communism, these forces also threaten freedom and democracy, peace, and prosperity. And they too demand American leadership.
The Dayton agreement ended a terrible conflict, illustrated the ongoing value of our NATO alliance, facilitated bold steps toward a Europe whole and free, and showed the effectiveness that diplomacy — when backed by the threat of force — can have on behalf of a just cause. The pact also enhanced international legal remedies against ethnic cleansing, rape and other violations of humanitarian law. Finally, it sent a message to the world that the United States would remain a source of inspiration and strength to those fighting for freedom and dignity across the globe.
Secretary Christopher, Richard Holbrooke, and their team deserve to be honored for the skill they exhibited in forging an agreement that put an end to what was, in Holbrooke’s words, "the greatest collective security failure of the West [in Europe] since the 1930s."
As we look back with admiration at the Dayton agreement and its framers, we should also remember the profound impact that President Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans continues to have on America’s approach to leadership in the 21st century.