As the UK is yet again able to take its future into its own hands, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative appears to be emerging as the leading framework set to define the country’s future engagement with the rest of the world.
Although the phrase has recently become more pervasively used in the public domain, it still remains stubbornly ambiguous to many observers on the both sides of the Atlantic.
In order to fully grasp the post-Brexit narrative of Britain—which is crucial to make conscious strategic decisions in an increasingly complex and interconnected world—we should turn to its inception by the British government and its subsequent conceptualization by a number of high government officials as well as through the government’s policies concerning the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, alongside the historical and intellectual origins of Britain’s ‘Global’ thinking.
Setting the governmental agenda for ‘Global Britain’
The phrase ‘Global Britain’ was coined shortly after the historic Brexit referendum, when Prime Minister Theresa May first outlined her vision for the country in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 2 October 2016 and called for “truly global Britain.”
May concluded that “Brexit should not just prompt us to think about our new relationship with the European Union,” but also “make us think of Global Britain, a country with the self-confidence and the freedom to look beyond the continent of Europe and to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world.” She believed that Brexit “was a vote for Britain to stand tall, to believe in ourselves, to forge an ambitious and optimistic new role in the world.”
Interestingly, in the same year on 2 December, PM Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, gave his first major speech at Chatham House tellingly titled Global Britain: UK Foreign Policy in the Era of Brexit, in which he affirmed the government’s intention to pursue a “truly global foreign policy.”
Ever since that time Theresa May has been referring to ‘Global Britain’ in a similar manner in her major speeches, including the January 2017 Lancaster House speech and her speech to the US Republican Party Conference in Philadelphia the same month. May also referred to ‘Global Britain’ in her addresses to the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the UN General Assembly 2017 in New York.
A month later, in a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 2017, Boris Johnson restated his belief in the ‘Global Britain’ brand by expressing the following words:
“We are big enough to do amazing things. We have the ability to project force 7,000 miles, to use our permanent membership of the UN security council to mobilise a collective response to the crisis in North Korea. We contribute 25 % of European aid spending and yet no one seriously complains that we have a sinister national agenda and that is why the phrase global Britain makes sense because if you said Global China or Global Russia or even alas Global America it would not have quite the same flavour.”
Crucially, it is important to mention that at the centre of the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, free trade is its core element—something clearly visible both in Theresa May’s October 2016 speech to the Conservative Party Conference and at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, where she expressed the hope that the UK “will step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world.”
Furthermore, Boris Johnson described the UK’s role of an advocate for global free trade as the country’s “historic post-Brexit function” in his Chatham House speech in 2016. Yet, by that time many, like Professor Richard G. Whitman from the University of Kent, have argued that “we know little more than Global Britain means Global Britain.”
PM Boris Johnson’s announcement in 2020 to increase defence spending by £16.5 billion ($23 billion) over the next four years—dubbed as “the biggest spending boost since the Cold War” and said to be aiming at catching President Joe Biden’s attention—was a strong message in the direction the ‘Global Britain’ policy narrative has been turning towards.
Simultaneously, in 2020 the UK’s foreign aid budget was announced to be cut by £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion), so that in 2021 the UK will not meet the UN-recommended target of spending 0.7 % (decreased to 0.5 %) of its Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the first time since 2013—steps said to be taken in line with the government’s attempt to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic.
With the commitment to retain the target enshrined in law by the Coalition Government in 2015 and the Conservative Party’s manifesto of 2019, the cut—which was met with strong condemnation both by David Cameron and Tony Blair, who warned the decision would jeopardise Britain’s ‘soft power’ status—resulted in Foreign Office minister James Cleverly’s pledge at the March 2021 UN virtual conference to donate £87 million ($120 million) to Yemen relief efforts in the coming year, which is less than half of the £196.6 million donated in 2020 and around 40 % of the £214 million total donations made in 2020-2021.
Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs, described the UK government’s decision as an attempt to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen” and warned of a long-term damage to the country’s reputation—bearing in mind that British MPs were prevented from having a vote on PM Johnson’s controversial move, which is why he is said to be running the risk of setting an illegal budget.
At the same time the UK government continues to be deeply involved in the Yemen conflict by remaining the leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Once the ban on weapons sales to the Gulf country was lifted London authorised the export of £1.4 billion-worth ($1.9 billion) weaponry to the Saudis between July and September last year, refusing to follow the U.S. moral lead in this regard.
Taking this into consideration it is difficult to imagine how to quote Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, “Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good”—the very slogan repeated by Raab in January last year as part of his three pillars defining the “truly global Britain.”
The organisation argued that in order to be “taken seriously as a future partner, the UK must tread carefully and intentionally remedy the historic power imbalances institutionalised in the UN and Bretton Woods institutions” in its contacts with the Commonwealth and the Global South, warning that “‘Global Britain’ could too easily be (mis)interpreted as ‘Empire 2.0’” if it fails to carry out deliberate action.
September that year, Tradecraft Exchange published a research paper which argued that in prioritising trade negotiations with richer nations, Britain risks falling short on its commitments to tackle global poverty and climate change. Moreover, with the UK engaging in striking trade deals with poorer nations like in the recent case of Kenya, it is evidently doing this to their detriment.
That same month, the UK government decided to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and establish the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The newly published policy paper is said to be the blueprint for the work of this new department.
The document states that “the UK is one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments… where we can have the greatest life-changing impact in the long term.”
It goes on to state that Britain will “maintain our commitment to Africa,” particularly emphasizing importance of its partners in East Africa and Nigeria, “while increasing development efforts in the Indo-Pacific.” Sadly, the very pledge stands in stark contrast to the recent government leaks concerning plans to cut aid to Nigeria by 59 %, South Sudan by 59%, Somalia by 60%, not to mention the DRC (60%), Syria (67%), and Libya (63%).
While the UK’s International Development Committee chair, Sarah Champion MP, commented that “the Integrated Review appears to be more centred towards rubbing shoulders with trading partners than creating a level playing field for the global community to prosper”.
On that note, it is fair to say that the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy puts much less emphasis on development than it does on the other parts constituting its title, while revealing “the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.”
Integrated Review: The Unfortunate Triumph of Form over Strategic Substance
The review published in early March this year, dubbed as “the most radical reassessment of our place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, is said to be “an attempt to put meat on the bones of the ‘Global Britain’ concept,” as Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), argues.
“This was something the Tories banged on about a lot, this was something that Brexit was supposed to be all about, but no one has any idea what it means,” Pantucci added.
The 100-page document—visibly inspired by the Policy Exchange’s Making Global Britain Work (July 24, 2019) and A Very British Tilt (November 22, 2020)—sets a vision for “Global Britain”, in which the country is “tilting” towards the Indo-Pacific region to become a bigger player there, as the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” moves eastwards towards countries such as China, India and Japan.
“The Indo-Pacific is this incredible hub and so is somewhere the UK is looking to have a larger say in […] Where navies go, trade goes, and where trade goes, navies go,” Adm. Tony Radakin, explained.
It is important to note that a similar narrative was seen in the past. The former First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir Philip Jones, argued in his speech delivered at the 2017 DSEI Maritime Conference that “the Asia-Pacific region contains two of the three largest economies in the world and five of the largest 16. If the U.K. does wish to forge new global trading partnerships, this is somewhere we need to be.”
Sir Jones also stated that the new aircraft-carriers, including HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will enable the country to resume its old role in Asia and the Pacific, which was abandoned in 1971 after the UK’s withdrawal of forces from Singapore.
As Richard Reeve already observed in his article, “Global Britain’s post-Brexit identity is a return to neo-mercantilist maritime control,” which is driven by the need to secure new trade and arms deals by establishing a strong ‘Global Britain’ brand through the Royal Navy and aligning the country’s objectives and alliances with those of the U.S.
Reeve warned that such a strategy risks the UK’s involvement “in a potentially very hot Korea-US conflict” and even more dangerous “creeping cold war” between the U.S. and China. Both are burdened with the high risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange.
Furthermore, he reminded his readers of “the UK’s doomed inter-war Singapore Strategy and of the Imperial Russian Navy in 1905,” notably after the Commons Defence Committee was presented that month with evidence that new carriers are unlikely to be able to operate within range of China.
At the time, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s pledge made at the Lowy Institute’s lecture in July 2017 outlined that one of the first tasks of the new carriers will be to conduct freedom of navigation operations around Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea.
Most recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnsons planned dispatch of an aircraft carrier group to the Indo-Pacific in order to face-off China, is viewed by some as a defeatist delusion suggesting “that the best thing we can do is ingratiate ourselves with the Americans,” as senior policy fellow Nick Witney (ECFR) suggests.
Mr Witney, like Professor Anatol Lieven, believes that such strategic theatrics could result in the same disastrous outcome as the invasion of Iraq.
Without the ability to bring substantive change to the table as far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, the UK is said to be “risking of reminding the Chinese of how we treated them in the nineteenth-century Opium Wars,” as argued by Professor Lieven in his recent article.
As far as the British public’s opinion is concerned in their perception of deploying security resources to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, the British Foreign Policy Group’s recent report suggests that only 18% of respondents would be comfortable with this move, while 45 % of them do not want the UK to be drawn into conflicts. Another 35 % believe that the country’s track record of involvement abroad is bad.
Unfortunately, the government’s Integrated Review call to increase the number of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260, which some perceive as violating international law and breaching Article 60 of the NPT, risks the possibility of creating another conflict according to Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University.
“At the NPT Review Conference this August, HMG will have to explain its reversal on nuclear warhead numbers not just to Russia or China but to a sceptical international community,” Sir Adam Thomson, director of the ELN and former diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to NATO between 2014 and 2016, rightly observed, also wondering how this corresponds with the UK’s commitment to the world without nuclear weapons.
Dominic Raab recently announced that he will “rally NATO allies to face down the threat from Russia and ensure it faces real world consequences for hostile activity”–potentially go to the detrimental to U.S. efforts in attempting to “chart a new course” for Moscow, as discussed by David Keene and Dan Negre–despite being more nuanced with respect to China.
As Jo Johnson, the former universities minister and the prime minister’s brother argues, the reason for this ambiguous approach to the Middle Kingdom by the Johnson government is the Conservative Party’s problem with Sinophobia, which is said to be the new Euroscepticism.
“It’s the new political machismo, but it would be economic madness to decouple from China and incredibly destructive of this idea of Global Britain, because there are many countries […] across the Global South who are increasingly interdependent with China. There won’t be a global Britain if we are not engaging with China, and all the other countries enmeshed with it,” Johnson believes.
“The reality is that if we follow a hard Brexit with Chexit [decoupling with China], then Global Britain is going to be an aeroplane that has dropped both engines,” he added.
In fact, it is really difficult to imagine the government succeeding in accomplishing all of these competing goals in a situation where the national debt has already exceeded £2 trillion (and growing), with the pandemic adding an extra burden to the country’s economic condition, which is said to be ‘heading for a new era of austerity.’
Interestingly, ahead of the review last year, security experts giving evidence to the UK lawmakers warned there was often a gap between the ambitions of a wide-ranging policy review and the resources allocated to meet them.
‘Global Britain’: Old Wine in a New Bottle
The mentioned analysis of ‘Global Britain,’ however, would not be full without paying attention to historical and intellectual influences related to the term and associated topics.
“Global Britain,” writes Oliver Turner in his 2019 peer-reviewed article stresses that it “is more than a notion, an idea, or a vision for UK international engagement, and more than the foreign policy blueprint it purports to provide. It is an autobiographical narrative about what Britain is and what it envisions the world and its actors to be.”
Turner informs that the significance of this distinction lies in the fact that narratives seldom stand alone and are often “written to construct particular realities and shape policy choice.”
The academic argues that “Global Britain is principally authored as a ‘painkiller’ in anticipation of domestic trauma following the loss of EU membership, just as the British Commonwealth once was to assuage the loss of empire.” In order to be marketable, Turner believes, it requires “pre-existing knowledges of past imperial ‘successes’ and accepting images of empire among the British public.”
The said narrative has significant consequences, as the ‘Global Britain’ advocates tend to selectively exploit the past to imagine the future and effectively turn history into a “proxy for ideology,” as Robert Saunders from Queen Mary University of London argues.
He further mentions, one of the most famous figures of the British right, Enoch Powell, who argued that “all history is myth” in a sense that “the stories told about the past carried political meanings.”
Saunders continues, believing that the post-war Britain suffered from a special kind of myth known as “the myth of empire,” which caused “grave psychological damage” to the British people.
This manifested itself in a dual way: first, as “a pervasive sense of decline that had sapped the British of self-confidence” and second, “as a longing for empire-substitutes, such as the Commonwealth or the European Community.”
Professor Paul Gilroy (UCL) made similar observation in his book arguing that after the end of World War II, British life has been “dominated by an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, […] the end of the empire and consequent loss of imperial prestige.”
This constant fear of reconciling with the past has managed to produce an extremely unbalanced identity of the nation burdened with a distorted vision of its country, called by Sathnam Sanghera in his latest book titled Empireland, which “recast a coercive military empire as a champion of “free trade”; and, in so doing, established entrepreneurialism, rather than empire, as the golden thread connecting past and present,” as Dr Saunder’s put it.
What is noticeable about the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, in the mentioned sense, is that it takes out the empire—one whose reach stretched from Africa and the Americas to Asia and Australasia, and also Europe if we count the colonisation of Ireland—from the equation leading to its status of “the world’s largest and most powerful trading nation,” as former international trade secretary Dr Liam Fox put it during his Free Trade speech in 2016.
Hence, when advocates of ‘Global Britain’ romanticize the vision of Britain trading across the Commonwealth—which they tend to describe as an association of “some of the world’s oldest and most resilient friendships”—they tend to forget to tell the complete story in what particular circumstances those very “friendships” were established and further sustained through “imperialism of free trade,” as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson explained in their peer-reviewed article of the same title published in The Economic History Review 1953.
To illustrate this in greater detail, it is best to turn to Shashi Tharoor’s insights provided in his book, where he says the following:
“Free trade was, of course, suited to the British as a slogan, since they were the best equipped to profit from it in the nineteenth century, and their guns and laws could always stifle what little competition the indigenes could attempt to mount. A globalization of equals could well have been worth celebrating, but the globalization of Empire was conducted by and above all for the colonizers, and not in the interests of the colonized.”
In other words, what ‘Global Britain’ advocates are doing is “use ‘trade’ as a euphemism for ‘empire’,” as Dr Robert Saunders argues.
What is also significant about the group is the attachment to the idea of ‘Anglosphere,’ which has its intellectual roots in the late 19th century’s Victorian discourses about “Greater Britain.”
Resurrected after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mythology of the “English-speaking peoples’” union served as a counter, and culturally more “natural,” narrative to the one embracing UK’s membership in the EU, as well as the British very own attempt to make sense of the post-Cold War moment.
Furthermore, as Professor Duncan Bell from University of Cambridge argues in his excellent article published in 2017 in the Prospect magazine, “dreams of deep Anglosphere integration, and of political unification, are symptomatic expressions of colonial nostalgia, underwritten by fears about Britain’s declining status.”
Importantly, it was British historian Robert Conquest who most comprehensively articulated—and inspired politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who referred to his idea of the broader alliance between the “English-speaking peoples” in her speech to the English-Speaking Union in December 1999 in New York—the idea of Anglosphere.
What is interesting about Conquest’s “bold charge that existing international bodies had failed,” as Professor Bell mentioned, is its similarity to the current language used by Brexiteers (and Trump supporters).
Echoing the famous historian’s concern, Theresa May told the audience at the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere—you don’t understand what citizenship means.”
The statement with a clear aim to rejuvenate patriotism after the Brexit referendum, which should be understood in the broader context of growing tendency among the Conservative Party voters to lean towards anti-globalism (as it was confirmed in the already mentioned BFPG’s survey published this year), has its roots in the Victorian era, namely in the ‘civic imperialism.’
As Duncan Bell argues in his book, civic imperialism “placed duty, individual and communal virtue, patriotism, disdain of luxury, and the privileging of the common good, at the centre of the political universe.” Bell also continues that “empire and liberty, it was argued, were intimately connected.”
What is visible here is that “the image of 19th century Britain has so far appeared to play an outsized role” in ‘Global Britain’ narrative, as Harvard University’s research paper published this year and titled Finding ‘Global Britain’: political slogan to hard economic policy choices observes.
Since the “conditions which allowed the UK to dominate global industrial production, such as a large lead in industrial productivity and the coercive power of the British Empire, no longer apply,” as the paper concludes, it is still safe to argue, repeating Dean Acheson, that Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role.”
Trapped in hubris, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative seems to be missing the true security challenges while pursuing its “quest for a unique role” in the world, which, like Christopher Hill wrote, is “like the pursuit of the Holy Grail” and can be “a fatal distraction to politicians with responsibilities,” who may find the levelling-up agenda more vital than the search for the long-lost imperial grandeur.
With a clear collapse in trust in the government in terms of its willingness to act in the British public’s interest when foreign policy decisions are concerned, the possible overload of ‘Global Britain’s’ often competing agendas run the high risk of not only turning into nemesis for Britain itself, but the U.S. and the very ‘special relationship’ which London is so desperately trying to preserve.
From our partner RIAC
The Leaders of the Western World Meet
The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom. Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India. There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto. Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.
Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon. St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year. It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.
France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada. What do the rich talk about? Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans. Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem. As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.
The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26 in Glasgow later this year in November. Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general. The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth. And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.
The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries. Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax. There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.
America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism. But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy: China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger. In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible. He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.
Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic. India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia. A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions. On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.
It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.
Revisiting the Bosnian War
Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.
The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.
The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till 1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.
While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.
The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’. The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.
While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.
As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.
In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.
The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.
Greece And Yugoslavia: A Brief History Of Lasting Partitions
Prior to the 1992-1995 Balkan war, the European Community delegated the British and Portugese diplomats, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, to design a suitable scheme for ethno-religious partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in February 1992 they launched the Lisbon Conference, with the aim of separating Bosnian ethno-religious communities and isolating them into distinct territories. This was the initiation of the process of partition, adopted in all subsequent plans to end the war in Bosnia. However, such a concept was stipulated by Carrington and Cutileiro as the only available when there was no war to end, indeed, no war in sight; and, curiously, it has remained the only concept that the European Community, and then the European Union, has ever tried to apply to Bosnia.
Contrary to the foundations of political theory, sovereignty of the Bosnian state was thus divided, and its parts were transferred to the three ethno-religious communities. The Carrington-Cutileiro maps were tailored to determine the territorial reach of each of these communities. What remained to be done afterwards was their actual physical separation, and that could only be performed by ethnic cleansing, that is, by war and genocide. For, ethno-religiously homogenous territories, as envisaged by Carrington and Cutileiro, could only be created by a mass slaughter and mass expulsion of those who did not fit the prescribed model of ethno-religious homogeneity. The European Community thus created a recipe for the war in Bosnia and for the perpetual post-war instability in the Balkans. Yet, ever since the war broke out, the European diplomatic circles have never ceased claiming that this ‘chaos’ was created by ‘the wild Balkan tribes’, who ‘had always slaughtered each other’. There was also an alternative narrative, disseminated from the same sources, that Russia promoted the programme of ‘Greater Serbia’, which eventually produced the bloodshed in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Facts on the ground, however, do not support either of these narratives. All these ‘tribes’ had peacefully lived for centuries under the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, until nationalist ideas were imported into Serbia and Greece at the beginning of the 19th century. On the other hand, Russia’s influence in the Balkans could never compete with the influence of the Anglo-French axis. The latter’s influence was originally implemented through the channels of Serbian and Greek nationalisms, constructed on the anti-Ottoman/anti-Islamic and anti-Habsburg/anti-Catholic grounds, in accordance with strategic interests of the two West European powers to dismantle the declining empires and transform them into a number of puppet nation-states. In these geopolitical shifts, nationalist ideologies in the Balkans utilized religious identities as the most efficient tool for mobilization of the targeted populations and creation of mutually exclusive and implacable national identities.
The pivotal among these nationalist ideologies has been the Serb one, built on the grounds of Orthodox Christianity, with its permanent anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic agenda. The existence and expansion of Serbia was always explicitly backed by London and Paris – from a semi-autonomous principality within the Ottoman territory in the 1830s and the creation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882, through the 1912-13 Balkan wars and World War I, to its expansion into other South Slavic territories in the form of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), promoted at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.
Eventually, the Serbian elites – supported by the Anglo-French axis, again – used the dissolution of the communist Yugoslavia as an opportunity for implementation of the 19th-century ‘Greater Serbia’ programme, that is, Serbia’s expansion in all the Yugoslav territories populated by the Orthodox Christians. However, this time ‘Greater Serbia’ was used as a catalyst in a bigger geopolicial reshuffling advocated by the UK and France – the simultaneous implementation of four ethnnically homogenous greater-state projects, including ‘Greater Serbia’ (transferring the Orthodox-populated parts of Bosnia, plus Montenegro and the northern part of Kosovo, to Serbia), ‘Greater Croatia’ (transferring the Catholic-populated parts of Bosnia to Croatia), ‘Greater Albania’ (transferring the Albanian-populated parts of Kosovo and Macedonia to Albania) and ‘Greater Bulgaria’ (transferring the Slavic parts of Macedonia to Bulgaria).
Since 1990s, ethno-religious nationalisms in the Balkans have served only this geopolitical purpose – creation of ethno-religiously homogenous ‘greater’ states, including the disappearance of Bosnia and Macedonia, whose multi-religious and multi-ethnic structure has been labelled by the British foreign policy elites as “the last remnant of the Ottoman Empire“ that needs to be eliminated for good. The only major foreign power that has opposed these geopolitical redesigns is the US, which has advocated the policy of inviolability of the former Yugoslav republics’ borders. Yet, the US has never adopted a consistent policy of nation-building for Bosnia and Macedonia, which would be the only one that could efficiently counter the doctrine of ethno-religious homogeneity promoted by the UK and France and supported by most EU countries.
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