Issue 63 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 1994 Copyright © International Socialism

The United Nations and the politics of imperialism


A thousand people a day are slaughtered in war racked Angola. The killing in Bosnia-Hercegovina has claimed an estimated 170,000 lives since war began there in 1992.1 'Local' wars, on an equal if not greater scale, are taking place all across the former USSR. Few people who grew up in the Europe of the 1960s, or even the crisis ridden 1970s and 1980s, ever imagined that the continent would see such carnage. With the world in such crisis it is not surprising that millions are looking for solutions. The call for intervention from more stable parts of the system is made by many who simply want to see an end to the killing.

The principle that the rulers of the major powers can act as a 'force for good', in the words of President Clinton, is hardly new. Imperialism has always tried to put on a benevolent public face. Today, however, large sections of the left also echo this sentiment.

This tendency first emerged during the Gulf War in 1990-1 when many veteran opponents of US imperialism supported George Bush, in the name of dealing with the 'New Hitler', Saddam Hussein.2 'Is everything imperialism does negative?' asked former board member of the New Left Review, Fred Halliday. Michael Ignatieff wrote of 'liberal intervention', which could 'protect minorities from majorities... feed the starving and... enforce peace in case of civil strife.'3

The left's enthusiasm for Western intervention has peaked over the war in Bosnia. Martin Shaw, a former revolutionary and peace movement activist, argued that the old consensus around opposition to Western military intervention in the Third World was now wrong as:

Another luminary of the 1980s peace movement, Mary Kaldor, also called for the use of 'military means' to put pressure on the warring parties in Bosnia.5

Others have taken a more principled stand and produced excellent work exposing the role of the West in creating and sustaining the crises which now allegedly can only be sorted out from the West. Yet even among these John Pilger has called for the arming of the Bosnians,6 and Misha Glenny, who has produced excellent arguments for why such a strategy would be a disaster, calls for the creation of UN protected 'safe havens'.7

Desperation underlies these calls. None of the above have made their peace with Western imperialism. Their arguments are attempts to answer real questions, like: couldn't the United Nations be made into a truly democratic body to keep the great powers in check? Doesn't the scale of fratricide in Bosnia rule out a domestic solution? Isn't a country like Cambodia so mangled by imperialism that outside intervention is the only possible hope?

This article outlines the record of recent Western intervention and argues that working class struggle remains key to ending the carnage that blights the world.

'Peacekeeping' in the century of war

The United Nations is the organisation to which many look. Many who agree with Marxists that international capitalist competition is to blame for wars and deprivation conclude that an international regulative body can play a role in alleviating such tensions. Yet the history of such bodies in this century shows this to be false.

The precursor to the United Nations was the League of Nations, set up in 1919 after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty saw the carve up of Europe between the victorious powers and the League was set up to oversee this process. Under the principle of what the US president at the time, Woodrow Wilson, called, 'self determination' whole areas of the world were 'mandated' to dominant League members. Britain, for instance, walked off with most of the Middle East.

Lenin called the League a 'thieves' kitchen'. Where the major powers agreed on subjugating a smaller country, the 'mandate' gave it legal sanction. And where the thieves disagreed, the idea of international supervision went by the board.

For example in 1935 Italy wanted to invade Abyssinia. The British offered to broker a deal giving a rump Abyssinia access to the sea through British Somaliland, on condition that the Abyssinians handed over part of their country to the Italians. The British figured this was the best way to safeguard their possessions in the Horn of Africa. In the event, the Italians took the whole of Abyssinia, no action was taken against them and Abyssinian leader Haile Selassie was expelled from the League8

As the Second World War approached the League became totally irrelevant. As A J P Taylor has written:

The League of Nations was a reflection of the contradictions within capitalism. The system sets the ruling classes of various states at each other's throats--through competition for markets, raw materials and territory--while at the same time calling for co-operation, through trade and joint manoeuvres against third parties. Numerous organisations have been set up--like the European Union, NATO, GATT, and so on--through which the major capitalist powers seek to regulate their relationships. But these bodies, however, can only function effectively for as long as the economic and political impulses towards co-operation are greater than the impulses towards conflict. When that ceases to be the case, the idea that international rules and regulations can make for a more rational and peaceful world falls. It is in this context that the history and role of the United Nations must be understood.

The UN grew out of the plans drawn up by the leaders of Britain, the USSR and the US about how the new world would be organised. It was to be one of a number of devices, including the IMF, World Bank and the Bretton Woods exchange agreement, by which the US would dominate the world. Its set up ensures it stays under the control of the major powers.

The Security Council is at the very centre of the organisation and makes all the important decisions. It was created with five permanent members: the US, the USSR, Britain, France and China. Other countries are allowed on in turn, but have no veto. The veto system operates so that if all five permanent security council members decide on pursuing a joint interest, then action may be taken. If one disagrees--for example arguing that an invasion it has just carried out is justified--then the UN is powerless. This caveat at the heart of the UN ensures it is an organisation dedicated to 'power politics, pure and simple', as the US State Department has said.10

Matters of 'strategic significance' are dealt with by the Security Council and so are subject to the US veto. Latin America, for example, was as a whole deemed 'strategic', leaving the US free to pursue its aims in the region free from UN meddling. Other matters can be dealt with by the broader Trusteeship Council, which does not have a veto system but does have a majority of US allies.11

The one time the Security Council has taken action in conflict with the interests of one of its permanent members was when US troops led the UN forces into a war against Russian backed North Korea in 1950. At the time the USSR was boycotting the UN in protest at the Chinese mandate being held by the deposed Chang Kai-shek, instead of the victorious Communist government in Beijing. Since then the UN has been used either to undermine independence struggles (these have generally been called 'peacekeeping forces') or to passively oversee those conflicts which don't directly concern the major powers ('observer' or 'monitoring' missions).

Africa provides two excellent examples of the first type of intervention. In 1960 the CIA received this telex about the nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba from its station chief in Leopoldville, capital of the newly independent Congo:

The CIA neatly resolved this conundrum by having UN forces stationed in the country kidnap Lumumba and then kill him as 'an urgent and prime objective' in the words of CIA director Allen Dulles.13 Thus, although the UN did not stop the independence of Congo, it did intervene at a crucial moment to make the country safer for imperialism.

A similar operation was carried out in Namibia which had been 'mandated' to South Africa by the League of Nations in 1920. It was not until 1969 that the United Nations revoked the mandate. It then did nothing until the Namibians, through their own efforts, were on the verge of winning independence in the late 1980s. UN forces were sent to oversee a ceasefire between South African forces and SWAPO liberation fighters. Then, with UN forces on the ground, SWAPO fighters were corralled and disarmed while South African forces roamed free. Over 200 SWAPO soldiers were butchered under the noses of the UN forces. Joint UN and South African patrols terrorised the population in the run up to elections.14

Again independence was not stopped, but a section of the liberation movement was wiped out, the terrain for the election was shifted to the right, and the UN helped to establish the fact that the new Namibian government would have to take heed of South African wishes.

The Middle East has provided the most spectacular displays of the UN's 'monitoring' skills. The UN oversaw the expulsion of Palestinians from the new Israeli state in 1948. Its forces were put into the Sinai peninsula after the Israeli invasion of 1956 and were withdrawn just before the 1967 war. The US sponsored a call for Israel to leave the territories which were occupied as a result of that war, but has never acted upon it in the 26 years since. Then, after the 1973 war, Henry Kissinger wanted to put UN troops back into the Sinai as part of a deal which led to the lifting of the Arab oil embargo.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was put in place after the Israeli invasion of 1978. From then until the present day UNIFIL has been mandated to ensure Israeli forces leave Lebanon. They are still there. In one short period, between mid-March and the end of August in 1979, these forces 'observed' 148 Israeli led attacks, involving over 19,000 artillery and mortar rounds. On top of these attacks within the UNIFIL area, Israel launched in Lebanon an additional 13 air raids, 14 naval attacks and other assaults.15 When Israeli forces pushed right up to Beirut in 1982, expelled the Palestine Liberation Organisation and then encouraged the fascist Falange to butcher hundreds at the Sabra and Chatilla camps, the UN forces just melted away.

These are not exceptional instances. Every UN military action since its foundation has followed the same pattern of inaction and treachery.16

In Angola a similar pattern was followed to that in Namibia, with even more spectacularly disastrous consequences. After independence from Portugal in 1975 the US and South Africa backed the opposition National Union for Total Independence (UNITA) under the leadership of Jonas Savimbi with massive military aid against the Russian and Cuban backed MPLA government. The end of the Cold War and the changing situation in southern Africa led to the withdrawal of Cuban troops in the late 1980s, at the same time as South African forces were pulled out after a decisive defeat at Cuito Cuarnevale.

Then small teams of UN forces arrived in the country in 1991, charged with 'monitoring' the withdrawal of foreign troops and the elections. This was in effect a forced recognition of UNITA which had laid the country waste for a decade and a half and was now under severe pressure in the absence of the South Africans. Jonas Savimbi said in October 1992 that if the MPLA won--which it did--he would return to war with 'a level of bloodshed which would reduce Angola to the state of Somalia'." As John Pilger reported:

Savimbi soon used this backing to relaunch what has been described as 'the worst war in the world'. The US recognised the MPLA government in May 1993, but not before a new war was launched which killed a thousand people a day, as 300 UN observers observed.19

A new kind of intervention?

The Cold War, with the US and USSR at loggerheads, meant few imperialist interventions got the backing of the United Nations. As relations have warmed, however, this has changed. Interventions in Iraq, Somalia, Cambodia and Bosnia have all taken place under UN auspices.

The primary reason for this shift is the crisis of Russian power. The break-up of the Eastern bloc and then of the USSR itself vastly reduced the ability of the Russians to intervene on the same global scale as the US. This does not mean Russia has ceased to be a great power. Russia's stance over Bosnia at the start of 1994 shows the country's continued independence and the importance for the UN of keeping them on board. Nevertheless from the late 1980s on, the West, and particularly the US, has been able to use the United Nations flag to cover its interventions. Cambodia, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia are the three main areas of UN intervention and it is these that we should examine in detail.


Cambodia is claimed as a UN success story. As the Financial Times pointed out:

The country has suffered at the hands of the United States since that nation's war against Vietnam. In 1970 the US engineered a military coup, an invasion from South Vietnam and then carried out blanket bombing of the country. The destruction of Cambodia continued even after the Americans had formally signed an agreement with the Vietnamese.21 In one six month period alone the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs were dropped on Cambodia. Between 600,000 and a million people were killed while economically the bombings threw the country centuries backwards.22

Consequently, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge nationalist movement grew through their opposition to US imperialism. According to the CIA Directorate of Operations in the early 1970s, the Khmer Rouge 'are using damage caused by B52 strikes as a main theme of their propaganda.'23 By 1975 the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, had taken power.

Perhaps 2 million people died under this seemingly psychotic government. Pol Pot later tried to explain what happened in terms of an ideology, 'building socialism without a model', on the basis that it was necessary to 'do away with all vestiges of the past'.24 In fact the Khmer Rouge found that in power their brutal policies were not shaped by ideology but flowed from the strategy of national development in the context of a country ruined by US barbarism.

As the horrors of the killing fields took place, none of the major powers took any interest. Millions died but so long as this did not in any way threaten the stability of the world order the major powers were not interested. This changed when Cambodia was invaded by Vietnam in 1978. Hun Sen and other former Khmer Rouge members were appointed leaders of a new government set up by the Vietnamese. Pol Pot now became one of the US's main clients in the region, armed and backed as a force that could destabilise the rule of the never to be forgiven Vietnamese.

Vietnam was already subjected to strict US sanctions. Now Cambodia too was cut off. Instead aid went to the Khmer Rouge controlled camps set up over the Thai border. The UN seat was even awarded to them. The US government did not publicly announce its support. As US national security adviser Zbigneiw Brzezinski said in 1981, 'I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot', who, he said, 'was an abomination. We could never support him. But China could'.25

The major powers played chessboard politics with Cambodia in order to keep this degraded and impoverished corner of the world in just that state. So, when the balance of regional power shifted in the late 1980s, the imperatives of Western intervention changed also. When Vietnam withdrew its troops in 1989, the Khmer Rouge was suddenly in a position to translate its US support into the potential for real victory. This, however, had not been the aim of the exercise and the major powers therefore moved to impose a new settlement on the country.

Secret talks between the US, China, Russia and Vietnam resulted in a 'Peace Plan' agreed at the UN. This led in September 1990 to the formation of a supreme national council, with six members of the Hun Sen government plus six from the opposition coalition. A huge United Nations operation, costing $2 billion and involving 20,000 foreign troops, was launched--the United Nations Transitional Assistance Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), charged with overseeing a 'normalisation' of the situation, including the holding of elections in 1993.

For one brief period the prospect of a UN enforced settlement provoked a flurry of opposition. Popular, grass roots dissent appeared in the press--later to become subject to UNTAC censorship. Returning Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan was forced to flee the country in November 1991 after being attacked by an angry mob soon after his arrival. A month later a series of anti-corruption demonstrations and riots by workers, students and civil servants ended when police opened fire in Phnom Pehn, killing at least eight people and wounding another 20. This repression took place under the noses of United Nations forces.26

The UN stood by and watched as the only hope of an alternative to either the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese installed Hun Sen government was crushed. From then on the UN has overseen a process under which virtually no change has taken place at all. The 'success' in Cambodia was in fact the usual combination of treachery and inactivity.

The UN itself acknowledges the state of affairs. According to an internal UN report, in late 1992 Cambodians were:

The 1993 elections led to the formation of a new government, with the old ruler, Hun Sen, as deputy prime minister and Prince Sihanouk's son, returned from exile with his father, as prime minister. Sihanouk elevated himself to the position of king and quickly clamped down on the opposition press, as it was 'against our custom to criticise the king'.28 Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge remained in control of large areas in the north and west.

We should bear in mind the original justification from many, including much of the left, for intervention in Cambodia--that the only alternative was to leave ordinary people at the mercy of several vicious and discredited groups of rulers. What was the result? At the end of United Nations operations in Cambodia the population was at the mercy of several vicious and discredited groups of rulers.


The American led 'Operation Restore Hope' in Somalia was initiated with the excuse of providing food and peace to a country racked by civil war. This was one of the first ventures under the New World Order proclaimed by US president George Bush after the Gulf War. It was supposed to prove that the US could intervene around the world without becoming bogged down as it had done in Vietnam. A year later these hopes have been shattered.

The US led the UN intervention in the area claiming the clan system and 'tribalism' were causing war and famine, pushing the country to disaster. In fact the backwardness and divisions of the country are an imperialist legacy with clannism repeatedly encouraged over the last century to suit the West's needs.

During the period of classical colonialism at the turn of the century British, French and Italian governments used divide and rule tactics to subdue the region. Later on clans came to be resurrected in the cities by those sections of the new Somali ruling class who wanted to build a base for themselves through the use of patronage. To the poverty stricken new city dweller, association with a clan was often the only hope of gaining access to scarce resources. In this respect modern clannism in Somalia is a mirror of the communalism in India today. And, as in India, the use of the clan system to divide and rule has assumed greater proportions as the country has slipped further into crisis, which was extreme indeed in Somalia.

According to World Bank figures, in 1970 Somalia tied for sixth place among the poorest countries of the world, all of them in sub-Saharan Africa, with a per capita GNP of $80. By 1976 this figure had almost doubled, to $150, but then things went into reverse. After a decade and a half of stagnation and decline, the figure for 1990 was only $120. Under these circumstances, as one local commentator put it:

From the late 1970s onwards the US courted the regime of Mohamed Siad Barré who had come to power in Somalia in 1969 through a military coup. With neighbouring Ethiopia aflame with revolution and the USSR backing the Derg regime there, the US wanted to use Barré to police the region. Military access agreements were signed and the US was in full scale alliance with Barré's barbarous regime. Over the course of the 1980s the US sent Barré about $1 billion worth of arms, while the average annual income of ordinary Somalis was about $170.30 The mildest dissent was met with repression. In July 1989 in Mogadishu 450 demonstrators were shot dead; 100 were shot dead in July 1990 at a football stadium after chanting anti-Barré slogans.

After 1989 the US wound down its backing for the regime. The collapse of Russian power now made Somalia less significant, while the extent of Barré's barbarism began to lose him support in the country and therefore reduce his usefulness to the US.

Barré's terror reached its height in the civil war that started in the north in May 1988. His army killed around 50,000 rebel soldiers and civilians within 19 months. Barré's forces targeted underground water reservoirs which had long been a well developed measure for protecting food production from drought. A very unnatural disaster was in the making. As the human rights organisation Africa Watch put it:

The Western powers pursued two strategies. First, they tried to prop up the existing regime. As well as defending US interests, Barré's regime was also involved, through Italian 'aid' money fraud, with a number of Italian politicians.

The West hoped the Manifesto Group of recent opponents of the regime could be manoeuvered into power, avoiding victory for any of the country's insurgent groups (the Somali National Movement in the north west, which proclaimed an independent Somaliland; the United Somali Congress led by General Aideed; and the Somali Patriotic Movement composed of Ogadenis from the south). In the end these plans came unstuck as Mogadishu rose against Barré in January 1991. Over 20,000 died as his forces unleashed their final terror on Mogadishu itself.32

With Barré gone, the Americans, according to the US ambassador, 'turned out the light, closed the door and forgot about Somalia'.33 However civil war continued with the main line of conflict now shifting to between the two main 'warlords', General Aideed and Ali Mahdi, both members of the United Somali Congress. This fighting, on top of the destruction caused by Barré, plunged the country deeper into famine, which peaked in mid- to late 1992. For two months at the high point of the famine, when 2,000 people were dying each day, the Bush administration withheld all food aid.34

The main factions agreed a ceasefire in March 1992, with the UN agreeing to provide 40 ceasefire monitors. It was not until the worst of the famine was over that the main United States military force arrived. In the summer of 1992 300 people a day were dying of starvation in Baidoa alone. By November that figure was down to 60. Many relief workers in Somalia were against US military intervention. As one report put it, 'It would start another war--even bloodier'.35

The UN were not popular in Somalia. A leaked UN document referred to Somalis as 'enemy forces'.36 When Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali went to Mogadishu in January 1993 he was pelted with stones, and another visit in October was cut short after just two hours cowering in the airport as barricades burned outside.

In contrast to the fears of ordinary people, both the major warlords initially welcomed the American troops in December 1992. US troops meanwhile were forbidden to refer to Aideed as a 'warlord'. In the spring of 1993, however, this changed and the UN envoy in Mogadishu put a $25,000 price on Aideed's head.

As US forces entered Somalia, President Bill Clinton said, 'We were not asked to go to Somalia to establish a protectorate, or a trust relationship, or to run the country', and yet the logic of the US presence and the imposition of a 'settlement' from outside meant they had to do precisely that. The main factions were jostling for power and the UN was bound to be against the faction which stood farthest from its plan for the country.37

Aideed opposed reconciliation with the former Siad Barré loyalists in the Somali National Front, led by Mohamed Siad Hersi 'Morgan', Siad Barré's son in law. Instead Aideed looked for a deal with a part of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF).

This was the background to the murderous exchange between Aideed partisans and Pakistani UN forces which took place on 5 June in Mogadishu. On 13 June between 200 and 300 demonstrators were injured when Pakistani soldiers fired into a crowd demonstrating against the occupation.38 The US now concentrated its efforts hunting down Aideed. Four hundred army rangers and Delta Force commandos were sent in for the task. They failed to do this, but did manage to kill many Somalis--up to 1,500 in the space of a few weeks. In the first few months after their arrival the UN forces were responsible for a third of the people in surgery beds in Mogadishu.

On 12 July up to 100 Somalis died and more than 200 were wounded (most of them women and children) when US forces attacked a compound where a meeting of clan elders was taking place.39 An internal inquiry was launched in the Belgian army which was responsible for hundreds of deaths in Kisimayo. Relief agencies were soon concentrating on sending surgical teams instead of food.

By mid-summer, relief agencies which had been cautious about the arrival of US troops, and had already overseen the dealing with the worst of the famine, now saw their work being destroyed by Operation Restore Hope. For example, the US's June offensive had all but put a stop to Care International's programme which up to then had been feeding 175,000 people.40 The situation was summed up by one US Senator: 'We went to Somalia to keep people from starving to death. Now we are killing women and children'.41

The second effect of UN action was to transform General Aideed into an 'anti-imperialist'. The Financial Times reported:

Meanwhile, cracks were appearing in the West's strategy:

In July the Italian defence minister called on the UN and US to suspend combat operations.

In October 117 out of 133 Norwegian soldiers in Somalia resigned. On 3 October a major battle resulted in the death of 18 American soldiers and as many as 700 Somalis.44 Helicopter gunships deliberately fired missiles at building staircases to prevent occupants from escaping the carnage. In total US troops claimed up to 10,000 casualties between June and October 1993.45

The whiff of Vietnam began to permeate the air. As one commentator said, 'Already, comparisons are being made in the media here [the US] between General Mohammed Farar Aideed... and Ho Chi Minh, the Vietcong master tactician. The sense that his rag-tag, though well armed, urban army could be easy meat for US firepower has been disabused'.46

Under pressure to pull out, the US began secret negotiations with Aideed in October. Having encouraged one side with the manhunt against Aideed, the US now worked to undermine them and boost Aideed again.

By the time the UN withdrew the bulk of its military forces, division and suffering had massively increased, leaving Somalia worse off than before.


Nowhere have the calls for intervention been greater than in relation to former Yugoslavia and Bosnia in particular. Even those deeply suspicious of Western intervention have been drawn to support one side in the conflict, calling for intervention against the other. In these circumstances it is essential to be clear about the roots of the war.

The roots of the conflict in former Yugoslavia have been dealt with in detail before in this journal. However, it is worth sketching them in outline to illustrate the destructiveness of calls for Western intervention, or for taking sides with either the Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian governments.48

Yugoslavia, in its post Second World War form, was positioned between the two superpower blocs. The ruling class that emerged around the League of Communists tried to copy Stalin's 'socialism in one country'--economic development within its borders led by a centralised bureaucratic state. At the same time they tried to solve the national question through a combination of granting equality to most of the population and through deals struck between different elements of the new ruling class.49

With the onset of crisis in the 1970s, however, the old consensus broke down. The Yugoslav rulers looked first to Western economic intervention to save the economy, interspersed with experiments in local economic autonomy. Both of these failed, instead exacerbating regional differences between sections of the ruling class.

When economic crisis peaked in the mid- to late 1980s, Yugoslavia's rulers faced their most serious threat: a wave of massive strikes against a plunge in workers' living standards. A new process then began with each of the leaders from the major national components of Yugoslavia playing the nationalist card to divert their own workers from the real problems they faced. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was first to do this, building a vicious campaign against the ethnically Albanian population of Kosova. He was soon followed, however, by others. They hoped initially to play at nationalism in order to preserve their own rule of a united country.

However, the new ruling class strategy had a logic of its own. Each wave of nationalism was directed against a wave of workers' revolt, it then failed to solve any of the basic problems workers faced, and thus the workers' anger would be ready to break out in more bitter form--to which the ruling class had no answer other than more nationalism.

Two features of this process are crucial to understanding the question of intervention. The first is the symmetry between the main national sides. Croatia's Franjo Tudjman was every bit as vitriolic against the Serbs as Milosevic was against the Croats. This was particularly important in the mixed and ethnically Serb areas of Croatia. There the support for Serbian nationalist claims that Serbs were under threat from all Croats struck a chord as Tudjman launched attacks on the local Serbs. Tudjman drove the point home by resurrecting the Croatian nationalist propaganda of the pro-Nazi Second World War Ustashe regime. He even backed Holocaust revisionism and extended its techniques to the extermination camps in Second World War Yugoslavia where up to a million people were slain. He claimed the numbers were exaggerated and the camps, in any case, were run by Jews.50

These elements don't just make Croatian government nationalism extremely nasty and dangerous--although it is so, enough to have attracted Nazis from around Europe to its defence--they are also crucial in understanding how the Croatian leadership played an integral part in the descent to war by playing on the worst memories of Serb-Croat conflict.

The second crucial feature is to understand that the nationalist card, and the very idea of significant national differences in modern Yugoslavia, was raised in order to stave off workers' revolt. The path was laid to war and reached its climax in early 1991. The Financial Times reported:

Intervention: the record so far

The calls for Western intervention in the Balkans leave out of account the fact that the West has been vigorously intervening there throughout the current crisis and before. Faced with the imminent break up of Yugoslavia Western leaders at first tried to hold the country together, with all five permanent members of the Security Council agreeing.52

And, just as the 'New Hitler' Saddam Hussein was an erstwhile ally of the West, the new demon, Slobodan Milosevic, had in fact long been the toast of Western leaders. His enthusiasm for market oriented economics and stout repression of dissent was hailed as a model to be followed by the rest of Eastern Europe. As ethnic Albanians in Kosova in the south of Serbia were put under military occupation, Western leaders supported his efforts.

This changed, however, as Yugoslavia broke up. Now Western leaders, led by the German government, saw their best interests in making an alliance with Croatia. The German government announced on 15 December 1991 that it would give Croatia unconditional backing. Simultaneously with endorsing a government that was bound to attack the rights of the Serbian minority within Croatia, Western leaders backed the deal done between Milosevic and Tudjman to carve up Bosnia.

These two policies--backing a form of Croatian separation which fuelled the war in that country, then supporting a deal which was bound to spell war in Bosnia--were followed by a third, recognising the independence of Bosnia-Hercegovina. The result of the latter was bound to be disastrous as, in the context of endorsing the snatching of various parts of the republic by Serbia and Croatia, 'independence' could only mean the creation of a progressively more ethnically exclusive Muslim state in the area that remained. Thus Western intervention has backed to the hilt the principle that all parts of former Yugoslavia should be divided on ethnic grounds. As the Financial Times said of the joint United Nations and European Union plan worked out by Cyrus Vance and David Owen:

The new underdogs?

Until recently, much of the left called for intervention on the side of Croatia. Branka Magas wrote in 1991:

Aside from the fact that this objectively put many on the left on the same side as Western European imperialism, this position became embarrassing as the Croatian regime carried out the same horrors of ethnic cleansing as the Serbians. The Muslim population, for example, have been pushed out of the main part of Mostar by the Croats. UN teams estimated that 45,000 to 55,000 were forced out of their homes between June and September 1993.55 Concentration camps have been set up by Croat forces, as well as by Serbs.56

As this argument collapsed, many of the former supporters of Croatia shifted their allegiances to the Bosnian government on the grounds that they alone stood against ethnic partition. The one thing which has given credence to this position is the fact that the Bosnian government has found itself, in Sarajevo and elsewhere, presiding over a mixed population which has fought hard to stay mixed. However, the Bosnian presidency has worked to undermine this unity.

By turns the Bosnian leadership has found itself having to ally with Croatia, accept Western demands for a solution based on separation, and then, in the latter months of 1993, combine both these policies with a Muslim ethnic chauvinism to carve out the greatest possible slice of territory with their offensives in central Bosnia. Bosnian President Alia Izetbegovic has done nothing to help preserve ethnic integration. Ed Vulliamy describes him as 'a man who had embraced the ethnicisation of politics as eagerly as any of his contemporaries'.57

Izetbegovic put himself at the head of the huge mixed demonstration against war which took place in Sarajevo in March 1992. Yet he had already been to Lisbon to endorse a plan, proposed by the Serb leaders and supported by the Croats, that would redraw the map of Bosnia-Hercegovina along ethnic lines.58 It was only popular outrage that made him, two days later, withdraw his support for the plan.59

The Croat leaders have played a double game right from the start: as 'allies' of the Bosnian government, at the same time as having designs on its nominal territory. Izetbegovic proved incapable of dealing with this. As Vulliamy says:

This uneasy alliance broke up with the first victories of the Bosnians and Croats against the Serbian forces. The Serbian siege of Mostar was broken in the summer of 1992. But, just as the Bosnians had formal agreements with the Croats, the Croats had simultaneously been doing deals with the Serbs. In May 1992 Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic had met in Graz to divide up territory.

Still Izetbegovic hung on to the alliance with Croatia, the price of which was now 'to say that he would consider an ethnic division of Bosnia'.61 There was a near complete consensus among all the leading groups in favour of ethnic division--even if reluctantly on the part of Izetbegovic. On top of this, the Western interveners stood full square behind the principle and laid the ground for further ethnic cleansing:

The subsequent Croatian cleansing of the mixed city of Mostar matched every horror that has been seen in Sarajevo.

In the spring and summer of 1993 the alliance between the Croats and Muslims was effectively dead, as Muslim forces in central Bosnia now deployed the same tactics as their enemies.63 Misha Glenny wrote of the:

Vulliamy writes:

In Travnik:

Thus all three of the main leaders in the former Yugoslavia have set their sights on a 'solution' based on the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina along ethnic lines which opened the door to ethnic cleansing. And the whole thrust of Western intervention since the collapse of the unified federation has consisted of drawing up and backing plans for ethnic partition.

What hope for UN intervention?

If the United Nations--or any other outside body--were to be involved in more assertive intervention, what form would it take? Several objectives have been called for. One of the most popular arguments presently is for arming the Muslims. This has been intermittently favoured by President Clinton and has been taken up enthusiastically by much of the left. But it is not clear which Muslims the left want the West to arm: the official government forces, carrying out attacks on Serbs, Croats and (sometimes) Muslims.67 Or those engaged in the confused revolts which have now broken out against it?

The only safe way of getting arms to the Muslims is overland. As Bosnia is completely surrounded by Croatia and Serbia, and as neither Serbia nor Croatia would allow arms through voluntarily, this means the US army establishing a corridor from the sea through to Bosnia. The forces needed for this would be huge. So, in reality, 'arming the Muslims' means a full scale American invasion. For this reason the question of arming the Muslims has split the American establishment, with Clinton and his State Department initially in favour, but vigorously opposed by the Defense Department which found it difficult enough to invade one city in Somalia. So on 7 July 1992 the US government said it was ready to open such a land corridor.68 But at the same time, 'The main east coast newspapers were being told by the Defense Department that the use of ground troops in Bosnia was out of the question, but by the State Department that it was an option'.69

The second alternative is for the West to broker a peace plan. This process, under various guises--Vance-Owen, Owen-Stoltenburg etc--has exposed the myth that the United Nations or the European Union, or whatever other outside body, represents a real alternative. Every one of the peace plans has been a blueprint for ethnic partition. Indeed, each such intervention has provided an incentive for new rounds of ethnic cleansing and new offensives. The front lines of the battles have moved around the country according to the latest plan, as each side either gains the maximum territory before a plan is imposed, or, more often, moves in to expel populations in order to fulfil the plan. This is precisely what has happened in Mostar and Travnik, as well as many other smaller towns and villages. In the autumn of 1993 the Financial Times reported, 'UN officials yesterday warned that more "ethnic cleansing" and brutality had started in central Bosnia, fuelled by the latest Bosnian partition proposals.'70

The third alternative which has been counselled in Britain by, among others, some in the Labour Party, is the bombing of Serbian targets. But this would most likely reinforce Milosevic's position as Serbs felt themselves alone against Western armies.

The effect of outside action which singles out Serbia can be seen from the effects of the sanctions imposed by the Security Council in May 1992 against Serbia alone. It is debatable how much effect sanctions have had on the Serbian economy. The greatest single factor in creating economic ruin has been the dislocation within the old Yugoslavia caused by the war itself. Nevertheless, the ruin that is seen to have been visited on the Serbian economy (and on nearby countries71) by sanctions has strengthened the hand of Milosevic. It has provided him with the argument that all Serbs should stand together against the world.

At the same time people in rural areas of Serbia have suffered least from sanctions. They have access to food, and the astronomic inflation rate means they have little incentive to put it on the market. Thus Milosevic, amidst economic desperation, has been able to retain support, as shown in his repeated election victories. Elections in December 1992 in Serbia resulted in gains for the ultra-nationalists.

New intrigues

Throughout, the leaders of all the major powers have tried to use the conflict to further their own interests. This came out most clearly in events around Sarajevo in early 1994. One particularly horrific attack on Sarajevo, which left 70 shoppers dead, forced Western leaders to act upon their confused and often contradictory rhetoric. They declared that Serbian positions around the city would be bombed unless the shelling stopped and the guns were removed. As the deadline neared, the Russian envoy pulled off a coup by sending Russian troops to oversee the withdrawal.72 The Western leaders were at once embarrassed and relieved--they had avoided a confrontation, but had been outsmarted by the Russians.

The Sarajevo events signalled the opening of a new period of intrigues over Bosnia. Within days US jets shot down allegedly Serbian planes violating the no fly zone which had been repeatedly violated by all sides in the year it had been in force. This was followed by the announcement of a new plan for the carve up of Bosnia. The Bosnian Muslims and Croats now claimed to be in alliance once more and would establish a joint state in their collective areas.

The February events seemed, on the surface, to give the greatest vindication to the claims that Western intervention could bring benefits. In fact, however, the ceasefire in Sarajevo did not stop the vicious fighting throughout central Bosnia, and the new plan was merely the harbinger of new conflict.

The February intrigues were an attempt by both leaders in Bosnia and by the major powers to shape the conflict and draw a new front between Russia and the Serbs on one hand, and the Muslims and Croats on the other, backed respectively by their allies in the US and Western Europe.

Hope from despair

What lies behind the change of attitude among so many former opponents of imperialism on the left in the West is despair at an alternative solution to the killing in former Yugoslavia. But there remains an alternative in the resurgence of class struggle. We have seen that the war was a consequence of the tactics the rulers of all the major republics in Yugoslavia used to stave off workers' revolt. But that revolt has never been snuffed out. In July 1992, 20,000 Belgrade students struck against the war. In Croatia a one hour general strike was supported by half the workforce in support of independent trade unions. Journalists on the Slobodan Dalmacija struck in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Tudjman taking over control of the paper as he has done with almost all the rest of the media. In September 1993 the Bosnian Serb army's elite corps revolted at Banja Luka in protest at wages equivalent to 80p a month.

Other forms of resistance are less visible but no less impressive: 85 percent of the reservists in Belgrade, for example, have become draft dodgers. A massive 200,000 young men have left the country to avoid having to fight. In the autumn of 1991 workers revolted against the war in the Serbian town of Kosieric and held the town for two days.

And there are instances of mixed communities being prepared to take up arms to defend their integration against the ethnic cleansers. Such actions have made these people the greatest enemies of all leaders, both the former Yugoslavian nationalists and the 'interveners' as they set a bad example. The joint Muslim/Croat community in Fojnica asked UN commander General Morillon to declare the town a peace zone as they had turned their back on the war. The Muslim militia bombed the town a week later and the UN did nothing.73

In addition to these actions against the war the economic privations have created great discontent, in which anti-war sentiments can suddenly flourish. Croatia's Gross National Product fell by an estimated 50 percent between 1990 and 1993, and that of Serbia by 45 percent between 1989 and 1992.74 As Andrea Zivkovic has written:

Those who call for more intervention in former Yugoslavia not only ignore these actions; objectively they undermine them. To say the West should 'help the Muslims' means: backing the Izetbegovic regime; telling the draft dodgers of Sarajevo to get into uniforms and get to the front; and encouraging the crushing of ethnically mixed areas.

The fact that the Western powers have held back from full scale invasion and occupation of Bosnia has tempted many to use the call for more intervention in order to expose the fact that the Western leaders don't care for ordinary people there. Of course this is true, but it is a dangerous game. The main thing that holds the West back is fear of getting bogged down with opposition both in the former Yugoslavia and at home. To call for imperialist action can only make the imperialists breathe slightly easier.

Back to the future

The areas examined above are the worst examples of a world in crisis. Imperialism--understood as the advanced stage of capitalism--guarantees that such situations will continue to arise. Where imperialist powers cannot intervene directly, they have backed and will continue to back the barbarous regimes which run the most deprived parts of the world in order to serve imperialism's interests. Talk of intervention must be put in this context for imperialism has its hands on all parts of the globe, even when no formal intervention is taking place.

Where direct military intervention has taken place, it has been carried out by those with the greatest possible stake in preserving the existing system and safeguarding their own interests. But what of the alternative? Few on the left who call for intervention leave out the caveat that the present form of intervention, or the presently existing international bodies under which this might take place, are of course deeply flawed. Nevertheless, the hope remains in the minds of many that there could be an alternative. So Fred Halliday writes:

But the whole history of international bodies such as the United Nations shows that the hope of reform, of making the UN more democratic by including other countries in decision making, is badly misplaced. Both the League of Nations and the United Nations were structured in accordance with the imperialist pecking order. Arguments today about restructuring the United Nations take place within the context of changes in this pecking order. Today the German government argues for the permanent French and British seats on the Security Council to be given up in favour of a joint European Union representative, bound to be under German influence. The Japanese government is lobbying for a seat of its own by 1995. These moves reflect the shift in economic and military power that has taken place since 1945. The German government in particular has used the Bosnian crisis to try and increase its military standing--using it as an excuse to lift the ban on troop deployments outside the NATO area and, more generally, to assert itself as a major international political force.77

However, there is nothing to suggest that a restructured United Nations would have acted any differently in the instances we have looked at. After all, Pakistani and Moroccan troops have excelled themselves in the butchery of Somalis, and it was Swedish and Irish troops who were most involved in the circumstances that led to the assassination of Lumumba. No ruling class does anything benevolent within their own borders--why should they be expected to do so elsewhere? Where local groups of ruling classes have taken initiatives, such as ASEAN in Cambodia, or Nigeria in West Africa, they have been every bit as self-seeking and murderous as the big powers.

Speculation about reform ignores the fact that an international body could not be formed against the wishes of major powers. The whole point of the United Nations is that it is a product of imperialism in every sense: in its structure, its aims, as well as its frequent inability to act.

The final and major point against the hope of reforming the United Nations flows from this fact: it is part and parcel of a world system which causes starvation, ethnic strife and war. That is why intervention should be opposed on principle, and instead we should look to the alternative of struggle from below.

The arguments for Western intervention are shot through with a pessimism about the prospects for working class struggle. This is not new. When the German socialist leader Karl Kautsky declared at the start of the First World War that the 'International is not an effective tool in wartime; in essence it is an instrument of peace', Rosa Luxemburg pointed out:

Rosa Luxemburg was vindicated in 1917 when the Russian Revolution brought the Eastern Front to a standstill and was proved beyond doubt when German workers halted the war at the end of 1918.

The horror of war can for a time paralyse the working class--for a period it seems as if all the old assumptions of class solidarity have been swept up by nationalism. But--for the very reason that war arises out of capitalist crisis--it also regenerates class conflict, this time on a higher level. This can be seen clearly today in the case of the former Yugoslavia where the social tensions which were the precursor of war have been replicated on a much higher scale. In Zagreb and Belgrade, and even Sarajevo, mass unemployment, hyper-inflation, and food shortages have made the lives of millions of people much worse than they could have imagined. Repression and censorship are reminiscent of the worst days of Stalinist rule. In every city young men hang their heads in cafes, hoping not to be spotted and press-ganged to the front.

The outcome in former Yugoslavia is being contested by ultra-nationalists who would spread new pogroms beyond Bosnia and deepen the barbarism on a massive scale if they had the chance, as well as by those who want to stop the war, fight nationalism and get rid of the rulers who have put them in this fix. But the outcome of this battle will be decided by the strength of anti-nationalist politics in former Yugoslavia.

In order eventually to stop the fighting, workers in former Yugoslavia will have to challenge the whole order which gave rise to it and sustains it. The job of socialists in the West is to do the same--to oppose all efforts by our rulers to prop up a stinking system, whether through diplomacy or bombs, and to tear away its very roots.


  1. Figures given in the Guardian, 10 February 1994.

  2. See, for examples of such, Alex Callinicos, 'Marxism and imperialism today', International Socialism 50, revised for publication as chapter 1 of Marxism and the New Imperialism (London, 1994).

  3. Observer, 2 January 1993.

  4. New Statesman and Society, 15 January 1993.

  5. New Statesman and Society, 30 April 1993.

  6. J Pilger, 'The West is Guilty in Bosnia', New Statesman and Society, 7 May 1993.

  7. M Glenny, 'What is to be Done?', New York Review of Books, 29 April 1993.

  8. See E H Carr, International Relations Between the Two World Wars, 1919-1939 (London, 1986), pp225-227.

  9. A J P Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London, 1964), pp 127-128.

  10. G Kolko, The Politics of War (New York, 1990), p482.

  11. Ibid, p477.

  12. Quoted in S E Ambrose, Rise to Globalism (Harmondsworth, 1988), p178.

  13. Quoted in G Fyson, A Malapanis and J Silberman, The Truth about Yugoslavia (New York, 1993), p61.

  14. V P Fortna, 'United Nations Transition Assistance Group in W J Durch (ed), The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping (London, 1994), p369.

  15. R Khalidi, Under Siege: PLO Decision making during the 1982 War (New York, 1986), p195.

  16. Between its establishment and 1992 the UN had set up 25 'peacekeeping' and/or 'observer' forces. Some of the more notable examples, in addition to those analysed in this article, include: UN Observer Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL) 1958. According to one extremely sympathetic historian: 'UNOGIL observed and reported that there was no significant infiltration from the United Arab Republic and to that extent it had fulfilled the terms of its mandate. However, on a wider view, its reports did not prevent military intervention [invasion] by the United States, although its continued presence along with the American marines, in addition to the establishment of a new government under General Chehab, probably had the effect of stabilising the situation'--N D White, Keeping the Peace: The United Nations and the maintenance of international peace and security (Manchester, 1993), p220; UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) 1964 to present. According to the same author, 'Between 1964 and 1974, UNFICYP did not act as a buffer force between the two communities, but rather as a police force, since there were not, as such, definable cease-fire lines... Following the Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern part of the Island in 1974... UNFICYP has helped to entrench the post 1974 position on the island, with the cease-fire line becoming "more and more an international frontier".' Ibid, pp241-243.

  17. Guardian, 11 November 1993.

  18. J Pilger, New Statesman and Society, 8 January 1993.

  19. Africa Confidential, vol 34, no 17, 27 August 1993.

  20. Financial Times, 1 October 1993.

  21. G Evans and K Rowley, Red Brotherhood at War, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Since 1975 (London, 1990), p91.

  22. C Hore, 'Vietnam and Cambodia: Winning the War, Losing the Peace', International Socialism 50, p79.

  23. Quoted by J Pilger, New Statesman and Society, 26 May 1993.

  24. Quoted in G Evans and K Rowley, op cit, p94.

  25. Quoted in S R Shalom, Imperial Alibis (Boston, 1993), p 133.

  26. Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 February 1992.

  27. Far Eastern Economic Review, 22 October, 1992.

  28. Financial Times, 8 October 1993.

  29. M A Abdillahi quoted in 'Somalia, a Government at War with its Own People', Africa Watch (London, 1990), p4.

  30. D D Laitin and S S Samater, Somalia: Nation in Search of a State (Westview Press, 1987); New York Review of Books, 14 January 1993.

  31. M A Abdillahi, op cit, p213.

  32. International Viewpoint, No 250, November 1993.

  33. J Pilger, 'The US fraud in Africa', New Statesman and Society, 8 January 1993.

  34. Ibid.

  35. New York Review of Books, January 1993.

  36. Socialist Worker, 16 October 1993.

  37. Financial Times, 29 September 1993.

  38. Report in New York Times, 7 December 1993; quoted in Socialist Worker, Chicago, January 1994.

  39. Ibid.

  40. Financial Times, 11 September 1993.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Financial Times, 14 July 1993.

  43. Ibid.

  44. Report in New York Times, 7 December 1993, op cit.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Financial Times, 9 October 1993.

  47. Financial Times, 13 October 1993,

  48. See D Blackie, 'The Road to Hell', International Socialism 53

  49. The exceptions were the Albanians. See Ibid, pp45-46.

  50. E Vulliamy, Seasons In Hell, p23.

  51. Financial Times, 27 June 1991.

  52. See S P Ramet, Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia, 1962-1991 (Indiana, 1992), p266.

  53. Financial Times, 4 January 1993.

  54. B Magas, 'Balkanization or Lebanonization?' in The Destruction of Yugoslavia. Tracking the breakup 1980-92 (London, 1993), this article was written November 1991, p347.

  55. E Vulliamy, op cit, p324.

  56. See for example, ibid, p217.

  57. Ibid, p41.

  58. M Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia, pp 162-163.

  59. E Vulliamy, Seasons in Hell, op cit, pp67-68.

  60. Ibid, pp210-211.

  61. Ibid,p232.

  62. Ibid, p250.

  63. L Cohen, Broken Bonds: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia (Oxford, 1993), p239.

  64. M Glenny, 'Bosnia: The Tragic Prospect', New York Review of Books, 4 November 1993.

  65. E Vulliamy, op cit, pp254-255.

  66. Ibid, pp292-293; see also, for the events at Travnik, M Glenny, 'What is to be Done?', New York Review of Books, 27 May 1993.

  67. For example: the attack on the Autonomous Zone of Western Bosnia in the autumn of 1993. This zone had been declared by an extremely corrupt establishment politician, Fikret Abdic. Nevertheless, the fact that it opposed the official government policy drew enormous popular backing. The Bosnian army moved in and attacked demonstrators, leading to at least 12 deaths. Guardian, 30 September, 1993.

  68. Herald Tribune, 8 July 1992.

  69. E Vulliamy, op cit, p121.

  70. Financial Times, 8 September 1993

  71. The Bulgarian President, for example, claimed that $2 billion of revenue had been lost in the first year of sanctions. The Macedonian government claims to have lost $1.2 billion. Financial Times, 31 August 1993.

  72. Guardian, 18 February 1994

  73. A Zivkovic, 'Bosnia: the War within a War', Socialist Review, September 1993.

  74. L Cohen, op cit, p277.

  75. Ibid.

  76. F Halliday, 'The Break-up of Yugoslavia and the Fate of Bosnia', New Left Review, No 199, pp116-117.

  77. Economist, 12 June 1993

  78. R Luxemburg, 'Der Wiederraufbau der Internationale,' Die Internationale, no 1; quoted in ed J Riddell, Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p184.

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