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The Balkans as a laboratory for Euro-Atlantic post-nationalism

Date de publication: 27.06.2012

Hashim Thaci, Bernard Kouchner, General Sir Mike Jackson, Agim Ceku and General Wesley Clark. Kosovo, June 1999

"The Balkans as a laboratory for Euro-Atlantic post-nationalism."


Speech by John Laughland to the conference on European security,


Belgrade, 27 June 2012


It is widely accepted that, throughout history, the Balkans has often been the victim of Great Power intervention. What I would like to show this morning is how the latest intervention in Balkan affairs - that of the last 20 years - is specifically ideological as well as geopolitical and how it is key to understanding the history of the post Cold War period and the developments in world politics - and especially military policy - since then.

I take as my starting point the Maastricht summit, which took place just over 20 years ago, on 9 and 10 December 1991.  The treaty itself was not formally signed until February 1992 but the agreement was reached over the two days after the Belavezha Accords had sounded the death knell of the Soviet Union.  Germany had been reunited the previous year and the Warsaw Pact had been formally dissolved on 1 July.  When European leaders met at Maastricht, therefore, their task was to decide how to fashion the continent anew, the old architecture having comprehensively collapsed.

They took two major decisions.  The first was to abolish the national currencies of the EU and to introduce the euro instead.  The second was to recognise Croatia and Slovenia as independent states, thus ensuring the break-up of Yugoslavia.  Germany was a key actor in both events - and it remains the key actor in the Balkans today, dictating both the terms of the Greek euro bailout and also of Serbia's accession to the EU.

These two decisions were not two separate decisions which happened to be taken at the same time.  They were instead two sides of the same geopolitical and ideological coin.  Indeed, taken together, they encapsulate what I have called "geoideology": that "Westernism" which has been the guiding light of Western policy since the end of the Cold War.[1] 

By "Westernism" I mean the practice of ensuring Western and specifically American hegemony throughout the world by means of supranational organisations, the EU and NATO, which allow the West to present itself as an abstract post-modern, post-national and disembodied "community of values" (especially human rights) and emphatically not as an alliance of powerful states armed with the greatest armies in the history of the world.[2]  Westernism is also the ideology that says that Soviet Communism was a purely Russian imperialist phenomenon and that respect for democracy and human rights necessarily implies a pro-Western and pro-Atlanticist foreign policy.

The two decisions taken at Maastricht express this geo-ideology perfectly.   First, the euro:  ostensibly an economic project which was sold to the public as a means by which to consolidate the single market which was proclaimed achieved in 1992, the euro was in fact explicitly a geopolitical project.  The geopolitical aspect had been made explicit two years previously in a little noticed article written in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by two of Chancellor Kohl's advisers, Michael Mertes and Norbert Prill.[3]The paper is crucial because the two authors, writing in July 1989, clearly knew that the Berlin Wall was about to fall and that Soviet power was about to disappear East of the Elbe. 

Their paper laid out a plan for the future of Europe which took as its assumption the idea that the Warsaw Pact and COMECON were about to collapse.  Fearing the instability which would arise in Eastern Europe as a result, they called for the restructuring of the European continent along a model of four "concentric circles". At the centre of these concentric circles, there was to be a federal European state composed of France, Germany and perhaps the other four founding members of the EU.  In the second circle there would be the remaining members of the EC.  The third circle would be the states of Central and Eastern Europe while the fourth would be the members of the Council of Europe.

How did the authors know that the Cold War division of Europe was about to come to an end?  They knew because Mikhail Gorbachev had told Helmut Kohl this on the occasion of his visit to Bonn a few weeks previously.  Kohl later recounted how he took Gorbachev into the garden of the Chancellor's bungalow overlooking the Rhine and how he told him that, like the river, German unity was unstoppable.  By his silence, Gorbachev let Kohl understand that indeed the USSR would not stop it.[4]

Although they did not use the term, the geopolitical model the two advisers were proposing would be known as Kerneuropa - the hard core.  Germany intended to constitute herself, with her allies, as a new centre of gravity in Europe.  All other European states would gravitate around this new post-national federal state of between two and six states. Indeed all European states would have their geopolitical orientation determined exclusively by their closeness to or distance from this German-dominated "solar system".   The model of concentric circles was not formally adopted but it was informally adopted with the euro, where states revolve even today around the German dominated core.  The latest moves to fiscal union or banking union will also reinforce this model.

The euro was the principal mechanism for ensuring this centripetal force towards the centre: as with the doctrine of "ever closer union", which is formulated in the premables of all the EU treaties, the provisions on the euro provide that all EU states, over time, should adopt the single currency.  It is because a Greek exit from the euro would comprehensively destroy this geopolitical model that the Czech president Vaclav Klaus was right to say in Paris in April, when he was IDC's guest speaker, that he was convinced that European leaders would fight to preserve the euro "at any price - and I mean 'at any price' ".[5]With Germany's dominance of the euro zone today an established fact, we can see now how prescient this paper was.  And, as with NATO enlargement, the euro was conceived precisely as a means by which to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of the Soviet Ordnungsmacht East of the Elbe.

It did not take long for the centripetal force to work.  Indeed it was precisely this perceived force attraction which broke up Yugoslavia.  It led the Slovene communists to adopt "Europe Now!" as their slogan in 1991.  Slovenia's future was "in Europe", they said, not in "the Balkans".  It can be said, therefore, that the break-up of Yugoslavia, effectively decided at Maastricht, was therefore a direct result of the new geopolitical model adopted by the European Community through EMU and the single market.

The project was both geopolitical and ideological in the deepest sense of the world. When he returned from Maastricht, Chancellor Helmut Kohl told the Bundestag:

Der Weg zur europäischen Union ist unumkehrbar.  Die Mitgliedstaaten der Europäischen Gemeinschaft sind jetzt in einer Weise verbunden, die ein Ausbrechen oder einen Rückfall in früheres nationalstaatliches Denken mit all seinen schlimmen Konsequenzen unmöglich macht.[6]

Kohl was saying that not only was the path to European Union irreversible, but also that the Maastricht treaty would mean that "nation-state thinking" would henceforth be impossible. Not only was Germany saying she was no longer nationally-minded; she was claiming, in fact, to be in the very avant-garde of post-nationalism, leading the rest of Europe on the path of no return into the glorious sunlit uplands of political post-modernity.[7]  Indeed, Germans turned the tables on sceptics by accusing them of "old thinking"[8]when they complained that Economic and Monetary Union was, as one British minister put it, "a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe".[9] It is because of this emphasis on new models of thought that I say the project was deeply ideological )- and remains so to this day.

As it happens, the Germans were not alone in calling for "new thinking".  Another world statesman had made a career out of calling for "new thinking" and had written a book which became an international best seller whose subtitle was "New Thinking for Our Country and the World".  I refer of course to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who was the first to call for a "new world order" when he used it in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 7th December 1988.  Gorbachev had argued for the bipolar system to be overcome, for the world economy to be united, for the United Nations to be strengthened and for conflicts to be managed by superpower cooperation.

There was, then, an identity of views in this "new thinking" between Gorbachev, Kohl and George H. W. Bush, who adopted the slogan "new world order" for his own speech to Congress on 11 September 1990.  He used it in the same sense as Gorbachev, to mean that henceforth international law would be enforced by military force, which is what happened when the UN Security Council, unblocked for the first time since its creation by the newly compliant government in Moscow, voted for the first Iraq war in 1991.

Yugoslavia played a key role in all these developments - and this is why the second Maastricht decision, on the recognition of Yugoslavia, was so important.  Just as Slovenia was the first to follow the call to "Europe", so Yugoslavia was to become the anvil on which the post-national "new thinking" was to be forged.  Yugoslavia quickly fulfilled its historic role as a blank slate on which Westerners projected their ideological fantasies.[10] Part of the country - Sarajevo and Bosnia generally - was presented as embodying precisely that cosmopolitan post-modernity which Europe also embraced, while other parts - the Bosnian Serbs and the Serbs generally - were presented as atavistic nationalists, precisely that hideous past on which the new "Europe" was emphatically turning its back.[11] The Bosnian civil war recalled the Spanish Civil War to the extent that it became a cause célèbre for the most progressive celebrity intellectuals.

This fascination translated directly into policy.  The Bosnian war elicited more Security Council resolutions than any other issue in history. This was, of course, the very Security Council which was the principal beneficiary of new power according to the Bush / Gorbachev doctrine of "the new world order".  It was also over Yugoslavia that the first coercive international criminal tribunal was created, in May 1993, setting a trend which has only accelerated since.  It is to be especially noted that the ICTY was created - again by the Security Council - under the Chapter 7 peace-keeping powers of the UN Charter, i.e. those powers in fact intended to legitimise military action.  Law became therefore the continuation of war by other means, while the Security Council was becoming more and more like a world government.

Yugoslavia continued to fulfil this ideological and geopolitical function at the end of the decade.  In 1999, NATO attacked Yugoslavia over Kosovo in the name of "human rights".  NATO used that war and that anniversary to give itself new supra-national i.e. post-national powers:  the New Strategic Concept, adopted for the alliance's 50th anniversary in April 1989, was essentially reaffirmed in the Strategic Concept promulgated at Lisbon in 2010.  According to the new concept, NATO could intervene anywhere in the world to protect human rights, and not just, as before, if one of its member states was attached.  As with the creation of the euro, the pretence was that NATO was not a geopolitical bloc or an alliance of powerful states with the most powerful weaponry in the history of the world.  Instead, NATO's official documentation repeatedly calls it "a community of values".[12]

One of the most important theoreticians of European post-nationalism, the German political scientist Ulrich Beck - who welcomed the Kosovo war as a "post-national war" fought for human rights alone[13] - explained the philosophical and political link between the NATO attack and the euro with stunning clarity in April 1999, as the bombs were falling, when he said,

Kosovo could be our military euro, creating a political and defence identity for the European Union in the same way as the euro is the expression of economic and financial integration.[14] (emphasis added).

This same logic was behind last year's NATO operation against Libya which is the ideological consequence of the Western position during the Yugoslav wars.  One of the most powerful men in modern France is Bernard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher, who encouraged Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene to overthrow Gaddafi.  Lévy has himself said very emphatically, in an interview about his propaganda film Le Serment de Tobrouk, in which he displays himself as the key actor in the Libyan campaign, there was one thing which convinced Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton to intervene in Libya, and that was  "Bosnia". 

What is much more interesting is that all four us had the same reason to be convinced (i.e. of the need to intervene in Libya) - the three heads of state or ministers and me.  What was this same reason?  It was Bosnia.  The secret password, the silent pact which unites those three, the three non-Libyan heroes of the film - Sarkozy, Cameron, Clinton - and me, is the watchword "Never again Srebrenica."[15]

Indeed, President Sarkozy himself said at the United Nations in New York on 20 September 2011, while the campaign was still underway, "Benghazi will not be Srebrenica."[16]

So we can see, therefore, that the schema adopted 20 years ago not only remains in force; it has gathered strength over time.  The intervention in Bosnia was only a partial success for the New World Order; in Libya, victory was total.  That victory, indeed, has sealed the increasingly closeness between NATO and the EU: the attack on Libya was launched in March 2011, just months after NATO's New Strategic Concept of November 2010, and just over a year after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the former European Constitution re-written in treaty form.  NATO and the EU are now so deeply intertwined, institutionally and philosophically, that it is almost impossible to tell one organisation from the other.  Both share post-nationalism as their fundamental ideology, as they insist they are committed to "values" (especially human rights) and not to the defence of states.  Their basic texts are now exercises in mutual aggrandisement and reinforcement:  where the EU proclaims in the Lisbon treaty that its defence policy will "contribute to the vitality of a renewed Atlantic Alliance"[17], NATO eulogises the EU as "a unique and essential partner for NATO."[18] The very notion of "Euro-Atlantic area" and "Euro-Atlantic structures", expressions which are commonly used in the accession countries, emphasises that NATO and the EU are two pillars of the same post-national structure. 

It is post-nationalism which constitutes the backbone of European security today.  But because any denial of the existence and political importance of Europe's historic nations is an unworkable and undemocratic nonsense, which incidentally also enforces the division of the European continent between East and West, I heartily wish for the day when this structure collapses.

[1] See my article The geo-ideology of Westernism, published in Italian, "Geoideologia del Occidentalismo, LIMES (Rome), 3 (2009). Available in English online at

[2] The phrase "community of values" is repeatedly used in NATO's Strategic Concept document, Active Engagement, Modern Defence, Strategic Concept, adopted at the NATO summit in Lisbon, 19 - 20 November 2010.

[3] Mertes & Prill, Das verhängnisvolle Irrtum eines Entweder-Oder: eine Vision für Europa, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 July 1989.

[4] Kohl spoke about this in public statements the following year.  The episode is recounted by Timothy Garton Ash in In Europe's Name, Germany and the Divided Continent,(London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), p. 117 - 118.

[5] Klaus made this remark during the question and answer session after his main speech hosted by IDC on 2 April in Paris.

[6] Speech to the Bundestag, 13 December 1991.

[7] See also Mertes & Prill, op. cit. Politique étrangère 3, 1990, p. 560

[8] See for instance Michael Mertes and Norbert Prill, L'Allemagne unifiée et l'Europe in Politique étrangère 3, 1990 where they denounce "ancienne pensée" ("old thinking").

[9] Nicholas Ridley in The Spectator, 14 July 1990.

[10] The British author Rebecca West makes the point in the introduction to her bibliography that she he omitted reference to many of the standard works on the Balkans because, in her opinion, so many of them are nothing but "propaganda bought and paid for by the great powers".  See Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Bibliographical Note,  (first published 1942, London: Canongate Books 2006, p. 1153).

[11] Noel Malcolm, whose Bosnia: A Short History (London: Macmillan 1994) perhaps falls into the category condemned by Rebecca West - see note 9 above - makes it very clear in the introduction to his book that he wrote it for a political motive, namely to argue against the claim that the war in Bosnia was the result of ancient ethnic hatreds.  By presenting its history as one of ancient inter-ethnic harmony, he wanted to place the blame for the war firmly onto the Yugoslav leadership in Belgrade and on Slobodan Milosevic in particular.

[12] See note 2 above.

[13] Ulrich Beck, Der militärische Pazifismus, Über den postnational Krieg, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 19 April 1999.

[14] Quoted in Roger Cohen, Crisis in the Balkans: The Europeans.  In Uniting over Kosovo, A New Sense of Identity, New York Times, 28 April 1999.

[15] Bernard-Henri Lévy, interview on TV 5 Monde, 5 June 2012, available online at  These remarks come at 04.54 minutes into the video.

[16] Speech in New York,

[17] Lisbon Treaty, Protocol on Permanent Structured Cooperation Established by Artcle 28A of the Treaty on European Union.

[18] NATO's Strategic Concept document, Active Engagement, Modern Defence, Strategic Concept, adopted at the NATO summit in Lisbon, 19 - 20 November 2010, paragraph 32

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