Interview with Swanee Hunt, Former Ambassador and Author of New Book on Bosnia

Swanee Hunt distills six main lessons from her experience as US Ambassador to Austria during the Bosnian war, and those became the basis of her book Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security, which she discusses in this interview.

One main lesson was: we have to find fault. “There was all of this business about, ‘Well, we have to be even-handed here, we have to be neutral,’ forgetting that neutrality in the face of evil is complicity," Ambassador Hunt said. "We had some evil, some serious evil going on.”

The ambassador, who founded the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University, also relates stories of the power in trusting women's perspectives and leadership, and her view of foreign policymaker's lack of humility and "wrong-headed policies" based on ideas like Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations, which she calls "probably the most misguided idea in the last half-century."

Calling the Dayton Agreement "terribly shortsighted," Ambassador Hunt nevertheless insisted on ended the conversation with hope for Bosnia. "The hope is, that inside of every person is an ability to learn, and to be transformed.  And we need to have solid, progressive, excited leadership.  And it needs to be leadership with great moral authority from the community, which means a lot of maternal kind of influence.  If we get the right leadership with support from the international community to do that —this country has just what it needs to move forward."

Ambassador Hunt also chairs the Washington-based Institute for Inclusive Security, including the Women Waging Peace Network, which advocates for the full participation of all stakeholders, particularly women, in peace processes.

The interview was conducted by Pim Valdre, IPI Director for External Relations.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript


Pim Valdre (PV):  Ambassador Swanee Hunt, thank you for being with us and for speaking to the Global Observatory.  You served as the US Ambassador to Austria during the time of the Bosnian war. And in your recent book, Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security, you distill six main lessons from your Bosnian experience on conflict and international intervention.  Could you tell us a little bit more about these lessons and how they’re relevant today?

Swanne Hunt (SH):  Sure.  I took my experiences in the war—and actually was writing articles for myself, little bits from my own journal—and when I came back and laid them all out, I was thinking, well, this will be great, I’ll string them together and they’ll make a cohesive story.  And only when I strung them out did I see that they didn’t fit; the half of them were about what I was doing at the policy table were  almost completely inconsistent with what I was hearing from people on the ground, what was going on.

And so, out of that came this questioning that I had:  How did this happen? And what do we do about it?  Because I think that we had some very wrong-headed policies because of that gulf.  And so as I thought about these over, literally, several years, what I realized is that we have a very basic problem when we accept a great idea like the “clash of civilizations” – which is probably the most misguided idea in the last half-century. 

Because if, in fact, you start out by viewing the world as a clash of civilizations, it becomes self-fulfilling.  And one of the things Dr. Huntington urges us to do is to figure out which side of the fault line we were on and then defend ourselves against the other side.  That’s a disaster for the world, and we will be paying for that for a very long time. 

So the first lesson is to test the truisms.  There are a lot of truisms that are actually right, like the idea of intervening with hard power and sometimes soft power – that, I think, is very accurate.  But we really do need to test those out and find out what they’re based on, and if they’re based on any biases that we have.  In the same way, but in a finer tooth, if you will – we need to question the stereotypes we walk around with. 

For example, in Bosnia, there were distinct stereotypes about what it was like to be a Bosnian Muslim, what it was like to be a Bosnian. Those people are always fighting, for example.  Well, the last time they’d been fighting, the French and the Germans had been fighting.  And no one assumed that the French and Germans would always be fighting.  And so, what is that about?  What all is inside of that stereotype?  It’s important to unpack those. 

Another lesson that I drew is that you have to appreciate the domestic politics—you have to really get into it—and if we had, we would have understood. In fact, people had been living together, they had 35% mixed marriages in the cities.  How can that be, if the stereotype is that they’ve always been fighting?  The domestic politics—understanding that domestic situation, domestic dynamics would have informed us in terms of the stereotypes, in terms of the truisms, going up the chain. 

And similarly, define the unlikely allies—if we had understood the domestic dynamics, we could have gone in and said, “Who are we missing here?”  And who we were missing was the group of a combination of 40 different women’s associations that had formed across this tiny country of 4 million people.  That’s a lot of organizations, and they were all women committed to stopping the war. They were working as hard as they could.  And we didn’t have them reporting in any way in what we were doing—the US Embassy didn’t know about them, they weren’t invited into the negotiations I hosted, I didn’t make sure they were there.  They weren’t at Dayton, and they had a very different view that they would have brought.

The last couple of lessons that I draw are, really, truly, we have to find fault.  There was all of this business about, “well, we have to be even-handed here, we have to be neutral,” forgetting that neutrality in the face of evil is complicity.  We had some evil, some serious evil going on.  We had 90% of the human rights atrocities being committed by the Serbs – these are Serb troops, I’m not talking about the Serb people as a whole.  It was terribly one-sided, and to say that we were being even-handed by treating different groups equally is really wrong-headed.  To be truly even-handed, we would have said, “Alright, anyone who is committing these egregious acts – anyone – we’re going to treat them evenly,” and we would have had 90% of our effort going into apprehending Serb alleged war criminals.  That would have been even – to spend 90% of our effort toward that 90% who were committing the crimes.

And the last, is to really embrace responsibility.  That was the point of intervening earlier.  Wes Clark and I just did an op-ed, and he talks about the failure of NATO—as you know, he became, afterwards, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO—the failure of NATO to intervene. I was really close to that.  I was meeting with two different Supreme Allied Commanders before Wes, and they were saying things like, “well, you know it’s a political decision, I’m waiting for the green-light from the Oval Office,” etc.  But they were not doing anything, as far as I could tell, to make sure that the information that was going to the National Security Advisor—who was then bringing that information to the president—that it was accurate. And I saw what was being sent over from the CIA, from the Department of Defense, and it was so off, compared to what I was hearing from people on the ground.

PV: When you arrived in Vienna in 1993, the siege of Sarajevo had begun in 1992, in April.  Could you tell us a little bit more about the political debate at that stage when you arrived?  What was the political debate in terms of responses to the siege, and to the violence that was erupting?

SH: I heard very, very little about intervention.  I heard almost nothing, frankly.  There was much ado about whether or not… I arrived in October, and the big question was whether or not the people of Sarajevo would have to go through a second winter.  In fact, they went through a third winter and a fourth winter.  Nobody had any sense that this would go on so long.  The people in Sarajevo, who were completely unprepared for the blockades that went up, and then the shelling that started, and then the snipers – they did not see this coming at all – at all, it was just sudden – it was like the World Trade Tower, it was just sudden, like that. 

They ran down to their cellars, they described to me – I mean, hundreds of interviews that I’ve done, they were virtually unanimous in saying “We had no idea who is doing this, we knew these boys, we knew these men.”  We didn’t know if it was a day, or if it would be a week. That’s the kind of thinking they were doing – could this go on for a whole week?  And that’s part of the torture of it, by the way.  I’ve had friends who’ve been in solitary confinement tell me, that it’s one thing to know you’ve been sentenced to two weeks in solitary confinement – it’s something else to be put in solitary confinement with no sentence of time – and you don’t know if it’s going to be years or hours – there was that quality to this.

PV:  In your book, you alternate between the outside views – those of the foreign policy-makers deciding on whether or not to intervene – and the inside views that you were just describing of those living the daily lives of war. And you focus on the disconnect between these two constituencies.  How can we bridge that divide in our foreign policy?

SH:  I think the most important thing we could do in our foreign policy is to create more of a sense of humility.  Because with humility comes openness to learn.  And we walk around as if we have answers that we do not have.  And I think it’s partly because foreign policy is so horribly imprecise.  We make decisions all the time that maybe, 52% right, 48% wrong, and nobody knows which is the 52(%) and which is the 48(%).  All we know is that there is going to be hell to pay. 

I think that we often take on this stance, that we know what the answer is—maybe it’s to keep moral up. I could understand that, in leadership, we’re kind of caught there.  But part of what happens then is we don’t question ourselves deeply enough.  If we did, we would be looking for new voices much more.  We would be saying, how do we bring in not just three or four new people around the table—how do we get 300 and 400 voices from civil society?  And put the energy into hearing from them and distilling their wisdom?

PV: Coming back to those voices: you spent a large part of your career working to advance the role of women in the peace process, and in peacebuilding and mediation and conflict prevention .  Could you share some of your insights on working with women in Bosnia, and how they contributed—or not—to the peace?

SH: When we talk about women, we’re never talking about every woman, we’re not talking about every man, when we’re talking about men.  But it was my experience in Bosnia that really launched me in looking at the role of women in conflict around the world, and I don’t work on women as victims, I don’t work on the sexual atrocities that happen to women, I don’t work on how they get displaced, etc .

But what I work on is how you take their perspectives and their experience – as survivors, yes – but also as attorneys, human rights experts, as physicians, as politicians, as very trusted leaders in their communities.  They may be illiterate, in fact, in a country like Afghanistan or Liberia, or Sudan – I just came back from South Sudan, where I’m working.  It’s not about how polished they are, as much as the leadership skills and abilities they have.  When you put a significant number of those women around the table with the men, I’ll tell you, you get a different conversation.  I was talking to some women from Afghanistan – actually a senator Barbara Boxer was talking, saying, “So, what should we do about the Taliban?” And they said, “Well, the Taliban must be included in the talks about reintegration and about the future of Afghanistan.”  And Barbara Boxer said, “But you know that if they have power, you will be oppressed, suppressed.”  And this woman said, “With all due respect, Senator, you put us next to those boys for three days and they are going to be talking differently.” And I actually believe her.

I was talking to another friend of mine, who organized the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers in Russia and I said, “Eda” —and she’s about five feet tall—“How do you get these mothers to go into the barracks and pull their eighteen year-olds out, so they won’t be fodder for the fights in Chechnya?  How do you go up against these Russian generals?”  And she said, “Every general has a mother.”  There really is that different perspective that the women bring.

PV: Speaking of that different perspective, in one of your earlier books from 2004, This Was Not Our War, you interviewed Bosnian women and you shared their accounts, and most of these women rejected the idea that it was an age-old ethnic hatred that made the war inevitable.  Do you suggest that the Western democracies misread the root causes of the Bosnian conflict?

SH: Well, I would never talk about the Western democracies as if they are monolithic. But the ones who did think that this was inevitable, they were misreading it. And the women gave the most interesting clues —first of all, they said it, very blatantly, but then they gave these clues, without even realizing it sometimes.  One obvious is a woman who said, “When we had our Easter, I made a point of never fixing any pork.”  And I said, “Why?  We always have ham at our Easter.”  And she said, “Well, I would want to have something my Muslim friends could eat.”  I thought, what are your Muslim friends are doing at your Easter? “They would come, we always celebrate each other’s holidays.”  My first thought was, boy, you like to celebrate holidays, because that’s a lot of holidays – times four, when you add the Jewish community.  That’s the kind of thing you can’t manufacture. 

But the other one, which I found the most amusing – it took me a while to figure this one out.  I was trying to get a really balanced group and I was falling into this whole thing “Ok, I’ve got to have these different women from different ethnicities, I’ve got to have atheists, I’ve got to have mixed-marriages,” etc. And even choosing that method, which I thought was necessary for the book, I realized I was, if you will, succumbing to some of the outsiders’ views about how there are these different ethnicities. 

One of the women, as I was talking with her —her name was Bilyana, which is a very Serb name and so therefore I knew she was Serb —as she was talking, I kept getting confused, because she would describe her grandfather’s home and how people would sit along the wall, etc.  And I thought, what are people sitting along a wall for in Serb home? And finally I said to her, “Bilyana, aren’t you Serb?” And she said, “Oh no, we’re Muslim.”  “Well, what are you doing with a Serb name?” And she said, “Well my name is actually Amina, but my sister loved the name ‘Bilyana’ and so she called me ‘Bilyana,’ so my mother changed my name.” 

Now, I come from Dallas, Texas, and I don’t know if I can explain to you the meaning of the name, Jemimah.  Jemimah is a black name, and Jemimah is the name that in the 40’s would be a colored maid.  Now, the possibility of a white family, where I come from, naming a daughter ‘Jemimah,’ is less than zero.  It’s just not going to happen. 

I would think about that a lot, in the mixed marriages—the 35% mixed marriages. In Dallas, Texas, it was probably 22% black when I was growing up, and I never met a black person who didn’t work in someone’s home.  I have to say that again:  the city was 22% black and I never met a black person, except for a servant, in one of our homes. And I’m talking about the first twenty years of my life.  So that’s how different it was in Dallas from Sarajevo.  So if we want to talk about which place is ripe for war, because of divisions, it would be Dallas, Texas, not Sarajevo.

PV: Finally, you just returned from a visit to Bosnia and to the region:  Could you share with us your views on how peace is progressing and how Bosnian society has moved forward as a whole with reconciliation and justice?

SH: Sure. You know, there’s been a whole new generation born and so the “café life” is thriving.  The arts are as avant-garde and fun as they have been in the past, before the war.  This is a very wonderful and progressive city.  Sarajevo, in particular, hosted the Olympics, because of the multiculturalism – that was 10 years before the war started.  So you do have this generation coming up with a lot of bright lights.

But the place is politically stymied because of the Dayton Agreement, which was terribly shortsighted.  Terribly.  It froze the country – in fact it put them way back – it froze them politically by saying, “There will now be, instead of one president, there will be three presidents. There will be three prime ministers.  There will be three foreign ministers.  We’re going to divide the country in two, but we’re not going to say it’s divided in two.  There are these two—we’ll call them political entities—and each one of them will have a Parliament, and there will be a national Parliament.”  This is a tiny country! This is a country of four million people! And we’re going to name one-half of the country, the “Republic of the Serbs,” even though we actually want people who are Muslim, or Croat, who were driven out by the Serbs –we want them to go back, but we’re going to call it the “Republic of the Serbs.”  But we want you to go back, to the place that you were driven out of by the Serbs, and move your family back.  Oh, and yes, it’s true that the mayor is an alleged war criminal, but we’ll get to that later.  So there’s this ridiculousness, in terms of what is left there, politically.  And it’s going to be like that until there is a very significant change in the constitution.

PV: Ambassador Hunt, thank you so much –

SH:  – But we can never end like that!  No, no – you have to end with hope.  So here’s the hope, let me find the hope.  I’m a woman, I have to end with hope, right? The hope is, that inside of every person is an ability to learn, and to be transformed.  And we need to have solid, progressive, excited leadership.  And it needs to be leadership with great moral authority from the community, which means a lot of maternal kind of influence.  If we get the right leadership with support from the international community to do that—to bring up the moderating voices—this country has just what it needs to move forward.  I mean, it has all of the smarts, it has people with energy and it has good natural resources and inventive people. There is great hope for Bosnia.

PV:  Thank you, Ambassador Hunt.



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