Representatives sign the Balkan Peace Agreement

“The World is Watching” The Dayton Accords

“The World is Watching” The Dayton Accords 800 540

“The World is Watching”

On November 1, 1995 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and then-Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke opened negotiations with the Presidents of Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia for a permanent agreement to end over three years of war that had already claimed over 200,000 lives and forced 2 million from their homes.  Over 300 journalists from around the world thronged the Base’s fence, hoping for photos and a quip from the Americans or the Balkan Presidents: Slobodan Milošević of Serbia, Franjo Tuđman of Croatia, and Alija Izetbegović of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Mary McCarter, a reporter from the local Dayton Daily News, was among them and recalled, “One of the most memorable and shocking things I remember is reporters would be behind the gates…and we could see Serbian President  Slobodan Milošević come out for his morning stroll around the perimeter. I was thinking here it is a beautiful fall day in Dayton, Ohio and this murderous dictator is taking a walk 100 yards away from me.  It was a very strange feeling.”

By 1995, the name of Slobodan Milošević  had become familiar to most Americans. As they watched the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union with the rest of the world, they hoped that democracy would continue to spread throughout Europe in the wake of the Cold War.  The disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991/1992 under pressure from ethnic conflict came as somewhat of a shock to most Americans as well as presidential administrations, as they watched the Serbian President gin up Serbian nationalism in authoritarian speeches reminiscent of Adolf Hitler.  Preoccupied with the 1992 election and the handling of the Soviet collapse, President George H.W. Bush relied on NATO peacekeeping forces to stabilize the region after Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, but Milošević’s rhetoric and the fierce fighting increased horrifically after Bosnia withdrew from the Yugoslav coalition.  Three ethnic groups, Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim fought to expand territorial control over the region and engaged in acts of“ethnic cleansing.” Serbian forces pummeled Yugoslavia’s former capital, Sarajevo (the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics), with shelling and sniper fire killing innocent civilians–all broadcasted into American homes.  Despite concern, however, most Americans did not want to send U.S. military to the region, fearing being dragged into “another Vietnam,” and it was a crisis William Clinton inherited when he won the presidential election in 1992.

In 1993, President Clinton worked quickly to search for a diplomatic solution to end the crisis, instructing Secretary Warren Christopher and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright to shape a more active role with the U.S.’s NATO partners to put more pressure on Milošević in the form of sanctions and military strikes.  Albright was the most vociferous of Clinton’s cabinet members to call for immediate and decisive action to end the violence. A former refugee from Czechoslovakia, Albright had deep ties to the Balkan region; her brother was born in Yugoslavia and her father had served as a diplomat in Belgrade, Serbia. She told Clinton this crisis seriously undermined U.S. authority and credibility throughout the world saying, “When U.S. leadership is being questioned in one area, it affects our leadership in others.”

Clinton’s decisive turning point towards using military force came in July 1995, when the world learned that Serbs had massacred over 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, and called for a NATO conference in London to agree on a common strategy to force Milošević’ to come to the negotiating table.  Clinton also committed 20,000 American troops as part of the 60,000 NATO force. Albright reminded Clinton that the Bosnian conflict would absorb his re-election campaign.

We should recognize that,” she wrote, “notwithstanding our successes in trade, Russia, and the Middle East…our Administration’s stewardship of foreign policy will be measured…by our response to this issue.  That is why we must take the lead in devising a diplomatic and military plan to achieve a durable peace. If we agree that American troops will be in Bosnia sooner or later, why not do it on our terms and our timetable?”

Richard Holbrooke, then-Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, was key to designing a new strategy for the Balkans.  A seasoned diplomat with 30 years of experience, Holbrooke understood that over 30 ceasefires and agreements had failed, and that the U.S. needed to work towards an enduring peace that may be imperfect.  In the fall of 1995, the combination of airstrikes and Holbrooke’s tireless diplomacy brought not only a solid cease-fire between the warring factions, but the three principals in the conflict–Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia–agreed to meet on the U.S.’s terms.  The choice of a U.S. military base in America’s heartland disappointed the Balkan leaders, Milošević in particular who yelled, “I am not a monk! You can’t confine me to a military base!” He also insisted that President Clinton meet with him, but Holbrooke refused, offering that “perhaps” Clinton would come to a signing ceremony.  The fact that Milošević agreed to these terms is indicative of how quickly the effectiveness of the bombing campaign and the application of strong U.S. led diplomacy had been.

Richard Holbrook, then Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasian Affairs uses a map to discuss with his team.

At Wright-Patterson, Holbrooke designed a negotiation strategy to attain agreement on three points:  ending the bloodshed in Bosnia, the safe withdrawal of UN Peacekeeping troops, and defining the borders of Bosnian territory.  To achieve these goals, he utilized a dual method of what he defined as “lock-up” and “step-by-step” diplomacy. The presidents of the three combatant countries were housed close to one another in a compound—facilitating ease of access in informal discussions.  They also had no contact with the press, ensuring that external media speculation would not hinder the negotiation process. Holbrooke built coalitions within the parties and had them agree to small concessions before moving forward to another issue, providing a stepping stone of agreement for each point of contention.  The negotiations lasted 21 days, and every day Daytonians stood vigil outside, holding candlelight vigils. Dayton City Commissioner Matt Joseph said, “People reacted. There was a fire in Bosnia and it was brought to our neighborhood. We took our garden hoses and tried to put it out. We just acted like neighbors. That’s what we do in Dayton.  If they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.”

The final framework was achieved 20 minutes before the talks were scheduled to end, resulting in bringing lasting peace to the region:  a unifying governing structure for Bosnia-Herzegovina, a commitment to free democratic elections with international supervision, and a pledge to allow the international community to monitor compliance, and a commitment to “respect human rights and the rights of refugees and displaced persons.”  Secretary Christopher remarked, “I trust that one day, people will look back on Dayton and say, “This is the place where the fundamental choices were made. This is where the parties chose peace over war, dialogue over destruction, reason over revenge. And this is where each of us accepted the challenge to make those choices meaningful and to make them endure.”

Today, the legacy of this peace lives on in Dayton, Ohio.  The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is awarded annually to authors whose work recognizes the power of the written word to promote peace.  In 2010, after Richard Holbrooke’s sudden death, the City of Dayton constructed a plaza near Richard C. Holbrooke Memorial Bridge. (need to find photo of the plaza and bridge…couldn’t find one on quick search…Dayton Daily News undoubtedly has one)


How was Dayton chosen?  

“Ideally we wanted an area we could seal off from the press and all other outsiders, close enough to Washington so that senior Administration officials could visit, yet sufficiently remote,” to keep the warring factions from interacting with the media.  The Europeans, used to negotiations in more opulent settings, literally had no idea where Dayton was, and expressed open unhappiness…” To End a War, 203-204.


Sources Consulted

Christopher Merrill, Only the Nails Remain:  Scenes from the Balkan Wars (New York:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999).

Derek Chollet, The Road to the Dayton Accords:  A Study of American Statecraft (New York:  Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).

Richard Holbrooke, To End a War (New York:  Random House, 1998).