The meaning of ‘state and national interests’, inseparable in Serbian political rhetoric for the past twenty years, is once again being tested on Serbia’s policy towards Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Republika Srpska government has in many different forms made it clear that it sees the Serb national interest as follows: division of Kosovo and union of Serbia with Republika Srpska.

What are the Serb state and national interests? They differ not only politically, but also in legitimacy and legality. In order to see how they differ, a few words about the theory of international relations are necessary.

Let us begin with the theory of realism – realpolitik – in international relations, however inadequate this theory may be today, especially when it comes to Europe. According to this theory, power is the key instrument for realising political goals. What is it based on? Built into the foundations of realpolitik is an assumption and an assertion. The assumption is that there is no legality in international relations, because individual states are the bearers of sovereign political power. The assertion is that there is a legitimate and stable system based on balance of power – global, regional and bilateral – that makes states behave responsibly, for reasons of state and under the threat of a negative outcome in the event of conflict. In other words, state interests are sovereign but within a system of external legitimacy that creates a balance of power: it is legitimate to use power in order to realise state interests, provided it does not disturb the established balance. Otherwise the stability is maintained or a new balance established through conflict – in the last instance through war.

The assertion about the existence and stability of a balance of power is indispensable in order to conclude that international anarchy, i.e. a system of states bounded by neither morality nor law, will not result in permanent warfare. The balance of power limits state sovereignty, makes it responsible in external relations and in politics. In other words, it secures the external legitimacy of sovereign states. As a corollary, irresponsible and illegitimate foreign policy de-legitimizes state interests – hence also the state – irrespective of its internal sovereignty, legitimacy, legality, the attractiveness or usefulness of state interests and aims. Why? Because the stability of the balance of power is maintained through use of force against those who utilise illegitimate means in order to realise their state interests.

The only difference between the realpolitical and, let us say, the liberal or legalist (idealist) understanding of international relations is that in the latter case the internal political and foreign political responsibility of states rest not only on legitimacy, but also on legality: i.e. on international law. In this approach, the assertion about the existence of a balance of power is treated as erroneous and empirically invalid. As a consequence, therefore, there should in principle be a collective system of punishment of those states that use illegitimate means to realise certain aims, i.e. to break international law. The difference between the system of legitimacy in international anarchy and in a system based on international law is not negligible, indeed is fundamental, but is of no significance for distinguishing between state and national interests: this difference exists as a corollary of states being the basic subjects of international relations, regardless of whether they are based on legitimacy rooted in the need to maintain a stable balance of power, or on legality where stability is secured through rule of international law. Given that many refer to realpolitik in this matter, it is necessary to understand that there exists a realpolitical difference in legitimacy between state and national interests: states are the legitimate bearers of political power, nations are not. Indeed, states that seek to realise national interests may pose a threat to stability, which makes their foreign policy illegitimate, because nations, not being sovereign, do not bear responsibility in international relations.

In realpolitik, therefore, the Serb foreign policy is irresponsible, i.e. illegitimate (a fortiori also illegal). Why? Because it is simultaneously pursuing two interests – national and state. This is very evident in relation to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Republika Srpska policy appeals to national interest: Serbia’s state interest, according to it, should serve the Serb national interest. In the international system in which states are the fundamental bearers of legitimate power and responsibility, even when not bound by law, i.e. in a pure international system of realpolitik, the priority of national over state interests presumes Serbia’s unreliability, because it assumes a responsibility that transcends its state boundaries. By doing so it becomes a threat to stability, i.e. to the balance of power. From the point of view also of realpolitik, therefore, state and national interests do not coincide. It follows from this that Serb national interests delegitimise the Serbian state.

There is nothing specifically Serb in this. The fact that nationalism delegitimises the state does not derive solely from the theory of international relations, but also from the experience especially of European history. This has not been properly grasped by some states in the Yugoslav area, and especially by other political actors. But some have grasped it. For example, Croatia, by electing Mesić as president, gave priority to state interests, because this meant that it had given up territorial claims against Bosnia-Herzegovina. It seems likely that this will become Croatia’s permanent position, for otherwise the policy of a member state of the European Union would be irresponsible – not only illegitimate, but also illegal. A similar decision was made by Macedonia, though determination and political responsibility is needed here for resolution of other problems on that basis. One can say that Albania too has behaved on the whole primarily in accordance with its state interest. These states, as a result, despite their remaining problems and inadequacies, have acquired international legitimacy, for they seek to behave responsibly, which means that they place their state interests before national ones. The same can be said of most European states. But this cannot be said of Serbia, however. Here both the public, and the majority of parties regardless of whether they are in government or in opposition, keep stressing that they are working in the national and in the state interest.

In order to illuminate the difference further, one need only consider the obligations which Serbia would assume if it were to annex Republika Srpska, or to unite with it in some other way. Realpolitik says that borders can be changed only if the balance of power changes. This is because when this happens border changes signal also a redistribution of responsibility in the context of a new balance of power. At the end of the 1980s, it was assumed in Serbia that the bipolar system of the international balance of power, which was expected to last, allowed a redistribution of power within Yugoslavia. This assessment was wrong, because the balance of forces was changing at precisely that time: the collapse of the socialist system, followed by that of the Soviet Union, demanded another, democratic redistribution of power within Yugoslavia. What came next was largely a consequence of the wrong estimate. It is, therefore, necessary also today to judge the balance of forces in the immediate neighbourhood, as well as the stability of the balance of power in the Balkans and Europe. If state interests are to be placed at the service of national ones, then there must be a clear understanding what kind of outcome is most likely. Most recently, the realisation of national interests was pursued, for example, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, by bombarding Sarajevo, which was continued aimlessly for several years. Today Sarajevo is once again being accused of having illegitimate and illegal state and national interests; but no political solution is being offered other than one that would involve Serbia acting in a way that would inevitably destabilise Bosnia-Herzegovina, with predictable consequences for the regional and wider balance of power. If Serbia were to undertake such a step, or be placed before such a choice, this would lead to delegitimisation of Serbia as a state.

Maybe one could put it also in this way: Republika Srpska is neither Northern Cyprus nor is it Abkhasia or South Ossetia, and Serbia is not Turkey or Russia. If not that of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the example of Kosovo should make this clear. This example, like all others over the past twenty years, speaks not only of a wrong use of realpolitik, of political power, but also of an inability to create space for the realisation of state interests. During the long process of negotiations on the status of Kosovo, which in fact had been going on for decades, all that Serbian policy could in the end do, once force had failed, was to resort to use of the power of veto on the series of solutions that were successively offered. It did not secure that power in relation to Kosovo. It behaved in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a similar fashion, and the same is true also of its current tactics. Solutions are not being offered; instead, proposals are being rejected as if the state of Serbia would at some point be able to impose a solution which in Republika Srpska is seen as the Serb national interest.

In order to understand this, all one has to do is to point to the difference between the policy of rejection and the alternative policy of cooperation. One can take as an example here the advocacy, on the part of the leaders of Republika Srpska, that the Bosnian Croats should get their own, third entity; or that they should pursue more vigorously the same strategy towards Croatia as Republika Srpska does towards Serbia: in other words, that the Croatian state too should dedicate itself to realising Croat national interests in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If, however, the Serb and Croat parties were instead to form a coalition, they would have a majority in the representative bodies and all other branches of government in a democratic state. There is, therefore, political space for a positive democratic engagement and a legitimate exercise of power, as opposed to simple rejection and the use of veto. This presumes, of course, acceptance of the legitimacy and legality of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and hence also abandonment of the secessionist strategy, in which the so-called mother states are treated as instruments for the realisation of national interests.

This then is what can be said within the framework of any theory of international relations, e.g. by relying, as has been done here, on what can be described as the minimal theory of international relations – realpolitik. The use of power to secure a responsible realisation of state interests is limited by either legitimacy or legality, and this implies, among other things, that using state power to realise national interests is illegitimate. As for the system of international law, such a use of power is both illegitimate and illegal. But however one comes to view international relations, the balance of power and its stability are of crucial importance for securing both legitimacy and legality.

Things are different in the European Union. Judging by Serbian foreign policy, this is not yet properly understood, though we are now being told that membership of the Union is Serbia’s key strategic goal. Let us take, for example, the recent statement by Vuk Jeremić, which he has repeated in several forms, that a privileged relationship with Russia makes Serbia stronger in relation to its neighbours, a fact that Serbia will know how to use. This is a pretty unambiguous appeal to realpolitik, the policy of power, to influence a change in the relation of forces in the Balkans, in order to realise state interests that are, at least in part, defined also as national.

But in the European Union the policy of power and relationship of forces does not hold. International relations do not exist between its member states, because all relations are regulated through domestic and not even just by international law. This is buttressed also by the way in which decisions are made within the Union, and in many other ways. The European Union is in this sense a federation – decisions are made by votes, not by power, not by balance of forces. The idea that Russia could influence the balance of power in the Balkan part of Europe, in the Balkans as part of the European Union, is akin to the one in which hopes were vested at the time of Yugoslavia’s break-up, with the difference that it was believed at that time that the bipolar balance of power supplied the context for the realisation of Serb state and national interests. Then as now it was believed that Russia would use its power in the global balance of power, in the global balances of forces, to support Serb power politics towards its neighbours in the realisation of Serb national interests. The test of this foreign policy will be the attitude to Bosnia-Herzegovina: what will be the nature of Serbia’s positive policy? If Serbia really wishes to join the European Union, which is in its state interest, then it will be obliged to support the kind of constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina that would allow the latter to become a member of the Union. The policy of power is of no use here; in fact it runs contrary to a responsible, legitimate foreign policy guided by state interests. If, however, state interests become subordinated to national ones, this will at some point demand an answer to the question of whether Serbia is ready to support Republika Srspka’s secessionism and annex a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The policy of power might seem viable if one were to assume that Russia’s rise to power, America’s loss of influence, and the ineffectiveness of European so-called soft power, were about to produce a major redistribution of political power in Europe. If for this reason the privileged relationship with Russia is appreciated because it ‘makes Serbia stronger’, and if it is intended really to ‘use’ it, then one thing is certain: this means abandoning membership of the European Union, and assuming responsibility for destabilising at least part of the Balkans. It would without doubt bring once again into question the legitimacy of the Serbian state in international relations, regardless of any reference to national interests or privileged strategic partners.

Thus, if state interests are subordinated to national ones, the state is delegitimised. More than that, seeking membership of the European Union entails giving up the policy of power. I assume that those who oppose Serbia’s integration into the European Union, and in particular the leaders of Republika Srpska, are very well aware of this, as are eurosceptics and those in Serbia who are against it. What I am not sure of is whether Serbia’s official foreign policy, or rather the Democratic Party that has assumed responsibility for it, understands what is at stake.

Translated by Bosnian Institute, 02.12.2009.

Pešč, 22.10.2009.