During the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, the embattled Bosnian Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, visited Washington. He was looking for assistance. At that time, a UN-mandated arms embargo on all belligerents in the former Yugoslavia assured Serbian military dominance against outgunned Bosnians.
Izetbegovic heard words of sympathy from official Washington, yet was offered no concrete help against Serb aggression. Dispirited, he met with a number of scholars and journalists at a Washington think tank. After describing the plight of his people and emphasizing that the Bosnian Muslims had met all European Union requirements for recognition of their independence, he first sighed and then burst out with a cri de coeur that was a searing commentary on many elegant theories of international relations.
“Imagine,” Izetbegovic said, “that everything in Bosnia would be the same, except that we would not be Muslims but Nordic Protestants. Public opinion in Scandinavian countries would surely put pressure on their governments to send us arms or even help us with volunteers; perhaps U.S. senators from Minnesota and Wisconsin would lobby for U.S. involvement. Our problem is that we, Bosnian Slav Muslims, do not have any kin in the world, so it is not in anyone’s interests to help us, either from strategic or solidarity considerations.”
Noting that many of those present were Jewish (after all, Jews were prominent in calls for aid to Bosnian Muslims and later Kosovo Albanians), he added wistfully, “And if there would have been five million Bosnian Muslims in the U.S., American policy would certainly be different.”
Izetbegovic put his finger on an aspect of modern history that many prefer to overlook: for a national movement to be successful, it needs geopolitical allies. National movements that lack them—for reasons of history, geography, or consanguinity—usually fail. Those allies are usually imperial powers, and so every war for national liberation is intertwined with realpolitik, a reality that usually makes the spokespeople of national movements uneasy, and makes the proponents of the right to national self-determination squirm. Yet it is undeniable.
One has only to look at the history of European nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When Europeans recall the Greek national struggle of the 1820s, they think of the romantic, valiant (and unnecessary) death of Byron at Missolonghi. But there was more involved. Without British and Russian diplomatic support for Greek independence from the Ottomans (in the geopolitical context of “The Eastern Question”), Greek highlanders and Albanian-speaking seafarers from the island of Hydra would have been crushed. The same applies to the emergence of independent Serbia in later decades; public support in Britain as well as in Russia was later important in both cases. These were Christians fighting against Muslim Turks, which sugg...
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