Perspectives - 'International Community' and the Limits of External Intervention

Introductory note


For a long time now, the active presence of the so-called international community has been inextricably interwoven with the life of each contemporary nation. One way or another, they participate in the international markets; they are exposed to cultural influences, and if they are lucky, they actively contribute to such exchanges; they are parties to a plethora of international treaties, agreements and other arrangements; they are also members of various international associations, ranging from 'extensive' ones like the UN, to 'intensive' ones like the EU.

When countries undergo deep systemic changes to their political, economic, and/or ideological orders, their (inter)dependence with the international environment may become much more intensive. That is, of course, what happened to almost all post-communist countries a quarter of a century ago. The drive to use internationally established models in developing systems of political pluralism and democracy and solutions for a workable rule of law, as well as the general opening which comes with the ideal of freedom, led to a deliberate openness to foreign influences. The ideological decline from the ancien régime was no less important, brought about by the uncritical adoption of a sort of free-market fundamentalism and abandonment of the tenets of the welfare state, distorted as it might have been under the non-democratic regimes.

However, the impact which the 'international community' has had, and has been asked to exercise, in the countries which underwent various kinds of violent transition was of a special kind. Slovenia and Croatia depended on international actors to negotiate the cessation of military violence; furthermore, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the rump Yugoslavia (subsequently, Serbia) had to accept a prolonged presence of UN troops to maintain the status quo; even when the military occupation of major parts of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina by the Yugoslav/Serbian and Croatian para/military troops was put to an end through military operations, the support and tacit approval of the international community was decisive. Kosovo underwent a direct military intervention from outside, while Macedonia managed to avoid military conflicts throughout the 90-ies thanks to the international monitoring mission under the auspices of the UN. Again, after the military operations, the continued, politically produced ethnic tensions were kept at a low intensity level by internationally brokered arrangements between parties to the conflict, such as the Dayton and Ohrid agreements, which pacified the relations, but perpetuated the structures built from the conflict, which has kept the respective countries dependent on a long-term international presence and occasional interventions.

Even on the eve of a post-conflict normalisation, the only prospect for the countries in question is joining the EU, where international integration appears not just as a subject of change, but also as its means. These changes, driven by the conditionality of accession to the EU, have occurred in legislation and institutional arrangements. What they have achieved could be summarised as improvements on the formal level, but without a change in the power relations between the societies and their states. Therein lie the crucial limits of any international intervention: It can change the rules of the game, it can partly assist in their implementation, but it cannot empower local players.

That is why the external intervening factors (the so-called international community) can to some extent further the rule of law, but not democracy, understood as the self-government of the people, because the people or demos is in reality the society, with all its inequalities of wealth and power, which may or may not have developed productive relations that make it autonomous and powerful enough to counter the political structure in the democratic game. It has long been established that there is a discrepancy between the fostering of emerging democracies as envisaged by various actors (both political and academic) on the international level – international here being coextensive with "the developed democracies" – and the reality on the ground, where the many social and political factors that are together considered to constitute 'democracy' display apparently intractable undemocratic characteristics. They stem not only from ill-conceived international actions, but first and foremost from the power and weaknesses of the societies themselves.

When facing the limits of their capacity for intervention, the international agents may insist on conditionality and principles, or they may become implicated in local political games and compromises. Or they could look further to broaden their scope of potential partners and go beyond deals with national elites, opening more space for active civic participation. Such processes are perhaps just starting in countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.

The articles collected in this issue of Perspectives tell different stories about the current challenges of international intervention in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia.