Support for international interventions around the world is more often driven by the relative success of the most recent experience of intervention, rather than on the merits and context of each specific case, according to Gerald Knaus. With the current debate about NATO's intervention in Libya in the news, Knaus evaluated the methods recently employed to assess and plan interventions, and offered his own framework for how to conduct international interventions, based on lessons learned in the ongoing intervention in Bosnia.

Knaus traced the history of interventions, beginning with the state-building euphoria that followed the transition to democracy of formerly communist East Europe; followed by the scarring experience of US Blackhawks in Somalia, which reduce tolerance for casualties. That intervention led to what Knaus called, the "futility school" of thought, whose adherents believe that cultural differences and local contexts are insurmountable barriers to externally imposed change.

Later, the relative success of the "Lift and Strike" policy in Bosnia and Kosovo became a narrative that "we can do anything," according to Knaus, and led the overconfidence and hubris that preceded the U.S.-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Knaus described the creation of what he called the "planning school," which offered a guide to nation-building based on the number of soldiers and resources needed to secure. This school of thought based their criticism of the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan on the amount of soldiers on the ground and the insufficient resources allocated to these projects, based on the quantity needed to stabilize Bosnia.

Knaus argued that Bosnia was a poor comparison for Iraq and Afghanistan because when external forces came to Bosnia, the Serbs were on the brink of losing Banja Luka and the Croats had already met their objectives. The fighting in Bosnia, he argued, was very nearly resolved before foreign troops entered, which was not the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, the number of troops was not the decisive factor in external influence in Bosnia: it was only after most of the soldiers left Bosnia that external influence increased. Knaus asserted that it was not resources, but the strategies for co-opting spoilers that made the difference.

Another school of thought, the so-called "liberal imperialists," encompasses those who hope to achieve open liberal democracies, but rely on emergency powers to prepare the country for a democratic future. Knaus notes that this category is imperial, because the ongoing 'emergency' means that external forces will never be able to leave. In Bosnia, the High Representative's Bonn Powers (which allows him to dismiss elected officials and impose legislation) were initially used to ensure that troublesome leaders would not have access to power. In the case of Paddy Ashdown, however, it became clear that the external forces could not get rid of parties or leaders that did not support the international agenda. Today, Knaus said, the Bonn Powers can hardly be used at all without undermining the project of building the rule of law and EU integration.

Knaus presented a different school of thought—principled incrementalism—which stands in opposition to the futility school, which sees 15 years of Bosnian intervention as a failure. Rather, Knaus's analysis focuses on the positive changes that have taken place over the period of intervention, which was achieved by adhering to certain principles, including the right of return for displaced persons; human rights; the delegitimization of the use of force through the trials in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY); and the integrity of the Bosnian state. The achievements of the intervention were realized through an incremental policy that involved learning on the ground, finding allies, making deals with spoilers, holding elections and supporting democratic institutions. Through trial and error, an adherence to principles and the good luck that both Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic did not retain their control over Croatia and Serbia, respectively, Bosnian politics have changed dramatically. Today, Bosnians will not kill other Bosnians to achieve political ends, but are working within institutions. The current crisis, according to Knaus, is a crisis within the international community, which has lost its vision for Bosnia and the narrative of its continued transformation. In his comments, James O'Brien asserted that principles—especially justice—should not be seen as a luxury, but as a tool for realism in an intervention. The international community's focus on justice allowed it to achieve the most transforming objective in Bosnia: delegitimizing violence.

Written by Nida Gelazis.
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, European Studies


  • Nida Gelazis

    Former Senior Associate
  • Gerald Knaus

    Founding Chairman, ESI, and Associate Fellow, Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
  • James C. O'Brien

    Principal, Albright Stonebridge Group
  • Daniel Serwer

    Visiting Scholar in Conflict Management and Senior Fellow in the Center for Trans-Atlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University