Swanee Hunt definitely does not believe the West performed a “model intervention” in Bosnia.

Hunt’s life path took many unusual turns before leading her to a point where she felt inspired to write a book on the Bosnian wars. The last of 14 children born to the audacious American oilman H. L. Hunt, with her sister Helen she founded the Hunt Alternatives Fund, a private foundation active in helping youth and women’s initiatives. The fund later spun off something called the Institute for Inclusive Security, one of whose major goals is to raise the participation of women in resolving conflicts. Along the way she earned a handful of degrees and now directs a program on women in public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, a breeding ground for statespeople and diplomats.

Hunt served as the U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997 and in that post moderated talks and forums on the wars in the Balkans. In 2005 she published a book about the peace-building efforts of Bosnian women, This Was Not Our War. Her new book Worlds Apart, just out from Duke University Press, attempts to extrapolate the lessons of Bosnia to a global scale.

Amusing anecdotes litter the book. Hunt recounts with relish the defense she mounted against the seductions of the suave Bosniak leader Haris Silajdzic. When she asked the chief mufti of Bosnia if he had any special requests for his upcoming visit to her Vienna residence for talks on religious dialogue in his country, he said that he did: “libraries … and McDonald’s.”

Balkan hands will probably not learn much from Hunt’s book that they have not read in other studies, and seasoned readers of political memoirs (admittedly, I am not one) may find the author’s tone a bit cloying. She paints herself as the innocent abroad, an idealist forever running up against the misguided policies of world-weary, ignorant, or plain stupid people whether in the States or Europe. When she writes that for her, being a dilettante among professional Balkan hands allowed her to see both sides of disputed questions, I was unconvinced, if sympathetic.

The saving grace is that she attempts to form a coherent response to this tissue of half-truths and myths about the Balkans that she believes lay behind many of the fatal mistakes America and her allies made during the Bosnian wars. Vice-President Al Gore unwittingly clued her in to the dangers of half-baked Balkanology when he recommended she read Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, the travel book that had just been published to great acclaim. Like many other Western writers on the Balkans, Kaplan blithely accepted all the stereotypes handed down through the years, Hunt writes, quoting a line from the book: “Here [in the Balkans] men have been isolated by poverty and ethnic rivalry, dooming them to hate.”

Yet when Western policymakers applied a more nuanced approach they bent over backward to be “neutral” even when they knew it was wrong, Hunt says.

“So in our efforts to be enlightened, open, and self-critical, we are tempted to declare ourselves ‘neutral.’ But neutrality and fairness are not interchangeable. Neutrality means not taking sides; fairness, although it includes impartiality, requires justice. The international community often stumbles over this distinction, as if afraid to take a stand.”

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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