The Perils of Moral Equivalence in Foreign Policy

While I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2016, Radovan Karadzic was found guilty of crimes against humanity by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Karadzic had served as President of the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina during that country’s war (1992-95). The Bosnia experience spotlights the perils of moral equivalence in foreign policy.

Moral equivalence suggests that no moral difference exists between the actions or tactics of all sides in a conflict. For example, apologists


José Azel, U. of Miami, January 7

for terrorist groups in the Middle East suggest a moral equivalence between terrorists and the Israeli military.

The logic of moral equivalence is that no party in a conflict is worse than the other. This view underlies the foreign policy doctrine of the Obama administration in the Middle East and elsewhere, and was evident in the President’s visit to Cuba.

For most of the Bosnian War, the international community regarded aggressors and victims with moral equivalence.  The result was the genocidal ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosniak civilians that claimed over 200,000 lives and the rape of 20,000 women.

Following World War II communist leader Josip Tito ruled Yugoslavia, which included the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.   Yugoslavia had always been home to a very diverse population. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the population was primarily made up of Muslim Bosniaks (44 percent), Orthodox Serbs (32.5 percent), and Catholic Croats (17 percent).

After Tito’s death in 1980, tensions emerged among the republics that made up Yugoslavia. By 1991, the country had disintegrated and war ensued. As communist ideology lost its potency, ethnicity and religious affiliations experience a renaissance.

The aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia represents one of the greatest tragedies of recent times. It is also one of the least understood. Anthropology Professor Roland Alum reminds us of the inherent complexity: “Religion —as a belief system— interacts with virtually every socio-cultural manifestation, such as family, politics, law, economics, clothing, health, and diet…” 

When Bosnia-Herzegovina sought independence from Yugoslavia, forces within the country had a different idea.  The Bosnian Serbs proclaimed a separate republic, and the Bosnian Croats also had their own agenda.

At the outset of the war, Serb (Orthodox) forces attacked the Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat (Catholic) civilian populations in Bosnia. Later, the Croat forces shifted from defense, to capturing territory from the Bosniaks. At this point two Christianities were engaged in ethnic cleansing their Muslim countrymen.

All sides committed war crimes, and thus supporters of moral equivalence claim that one party in a conflict is not worse than the other.

But the doctrine of moral equivalence, often disguised as a doctrine of neutrality or fairness, is anything but fair or neutral. According to a Bosnia War report by the United Nations, the Serbian forces were responsible for ninety percent of the war crimes. Croatian forces were responsible for six percent, and Bosniak forces for four percent.

When oppressors and oppressed are treated with moral equivalence the stage is set for unexpected consequences that may turn tragic. Throughout this conflict, the international community was ineffective in peacekeeping efforts in a war of neighbor against neighbor.

In July 1995, a battalion of United Nations Dutch peacekeepers handed over the town of Srebrenica to the Serbian forces. It is estimated that over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed in the following days by the Bosnian Serbs.

Eventually, the United States and NATO acted decisively and the Bosnian War came to a quick end with the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995.

But the moral damage continues to this day. To accommodate the ethnic and religious divisions of the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina has had to implement the world’s most complicated system of government.

I will spare the reader the details of the incomprehensive governmental structure. It is only necessary to note that the system is headed by a directly elected tripartite Presidency -- three presidents-- one Bosniak, one Serb, one Croat.

This three-member body serves as the head of state for a four year term, but the presidency rotates every eight months. That is, the country has a new president from a different ethnic-religious background every eight months.

When I asked my translator in Bosnia what each president did during his eight-month turn. Her succinct response was insightful. “They drink coffee,” she replied.

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This article was originally published in English in the PanAm Post and in Spanish in El Nuevo Herald.