The Death of Dayton

Patrice C. McMahon, Jon Western
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
September/October 2009
Council on Foreign Relations
After 14 years of intense international efforts to stabilize and rebuild Bosnia, the country now stands on the brink of collapse. For the first time since November 1995 -- when the Dayton accord ended three and a half years of bloody ethnic strife -- Bosnians are once again talking about the potential for war. Bosnia was once the poster child for international reconstruction efforts. It was routinely touted by U.S. and European leaders as proof that under the right conditions the international community could successfully rebuild conflict-ridden countries. The 1995 Dayton peace agreement divided Bosnia into two semi-independent entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, inhabited mainly by Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (Serb Republic, or RS), each with its own government, controlling taxation, educational policy, and even foreign policy. Soon after the war's end, the country was flooded with attention and over $14 billion in international aid, making it a laboratory for what was arguably the most extensive and innovative democratization experiment in history. By the end of 1996, 17 different foreign governments, 18 UN agencies, 27 intergovernmental organizations, and about 200 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) -- not to mention tens of thousands of troops from across the globe -- were involved in reconstruction efforts. On a per capita basis, the reconstruction of Bosnia -- with less than four million citizens -- made the post-World War II rebuilding of Germany and Japan look modest. As successful as Dayton was at ending the violence, it also sowed the seeds of instability by creating a decentralized political system that undermined the state's authority. In the past three years, ethnic nationalist rhetoric from leaders of the country's three constituent ethnic groups -- Muslims, Croats, and Serbs -- has intensified, bringing reform to a standstill. The economy has stalled, unemployment is over 27 percent, about 25 percent of the population lives in poverty, and Bosnia remains near the bottom of World Bank rankings for business development.
Political Geography
Bosnia, Herzegovina