A Royal Marine, a diplomat, a politician: Paddy Ashdown knew how to be tough to get things done. But he never forgot the importance of legitimacy in every measure he pushed through.
Two days after U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis submitted his resignation letter to Donald Trump stressing disagreements on the question of the value of multilateralism and alliances, another champion of multilateralism passed away. Paddy Ashdown, a member of the House of Lords and former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, was buried on January 10 in his village in Somerset.
His life’s work was the product of a unique combination of virtues. He was a Royal Marine who turned himself into a political leader, a skillful strategist who oversaw the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the violent conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996, an avid reader appreciative of the importance of lessons from history, and a charismatic politician eager to connect to ordinary people. Despite his qualities, he never became a member of the cabinet, let alone Prime Minister. Had he done so, one assumes, he would not have been afraid to take hard decisions. It is for this trait above all that Lord Ashdown is still cherished by many Bosnians.
Yet Ashdown’s approach to state-building in Bosnia has also been heavily criticized. One of the most common criticisms was that he acted like a colonial viceroy—ruling with an iron fist, imposing laws, and sacking officials without accountability. The criticisms often invoked Ashdown’s own background: that he was born in Delhi, India, into an Irish family with a history of service in British colonial administration.
It’s true that Ashdown took advantage of the tools at hand to fulfill his mandate. His critics asserted he abused the so-called Bonn Powers, which did indeed give him wide latitude over imposing legislation and firing officials. But one of the least appreciated aspects of Ashdown’s time in Bosnia is that he achieved progress on building the Bosnian state structures not by imposition, but by the skillful exercise of power. Exploring this misunderstood facet of his role yield important insights for international strategy—in the Western Balkans and beyond.
When Ashdown arrived in Bosnia in 2002 as High Representative, the country’s central government had no source of direct income, and had three de facto armies, intelligence, and customs services. The extreme fragmentation of government in a country with a population the size of Berlin was the result of an imperfect agreement devised to end a violent conflict above all else. The wartime politicians exploited the mistrust inherited from the conflict to deepen the cleavages between three main religious communities—Bosnian Croat (Catholic), Bosnian Serb (Orthodox) and Bosniaks (Muslim)—to justify a heavy devolution of competences. In practice, the devolution produced three sub-states within a state, with multiple layers of government, and muddled division of responsibilities among them. The political leadership of predominantly Bosnian-Serb entity “Republika Srpska” (RS), carved out through ethnic cleansing during the war, was constantly threatening secession and seeking to preserve maximum autonomy without oversight. To a much lesser extent, similar dynamics played out in the so-called “Herzeg-Bosna” territory, dominated by Bosnian Croats. This fragmentation facilitated a lucrative smuggling trade, pursued by networks of war profiteers who were linked to wartime political leaders.
It was precisely this aspect of the Dayton Peace Agreement that Ashdown sought to mend. By the time Ashdown arrived in Bosnia, his predecessors had done much to re-establish government’s control over secessionist territories. Bosnia had a single flag, a national anthem, a common passport, a single market, country-wide currency, and uniform license plates. Previous High Representatives did this mostly by using the aforementioned Bonn Powers to unilaterally impose laws and institutions, and in case of local obstruction, remove predominantly low-ranking officials. His predecessor’s efforts, however, didn’t significantly disturb the networks of organized crime, and their affiliated high-level politicians. And, ironically, it was these very politicians who were in a position to challenge the legitimacy of these imposed measures—through attacks in the media, through legal challenges, and through obstruction.
Ashdown was a skilful politician and a military strategist; he was aware that key Bosnian structures had to have domestic legitimacy if they were to persist. He also knew that political power was, as Hans Morgenthau described it, a “psychological relation” between those exercising control and those over whom it is exercised, and that legitimacy is an important aspect of this relation. He arrived in Bosnia with a real strategy for how to use available leverage to move secessionist politicians to actively embrace reforms strengthening Bosnia’s central state structures. Short-cuts through mere imposition were self-defeating in the long run. He also knew how to set the tone when talking in public about politics, subtly defining legitimacy in such a way that local political leaders had to conform to in order to remain in power.
A key initiative of Ashdown’s was to always insist on domestic participation in the adoption of measures building the new state institutions. His agenda focused on centralizing government functions in strategic sectors—customs, military, intelligence—and in parallel, breaking up the networks linking ethno-political oligarchs to war criminals and smuggling networks. Using his personal connections with Chris Patten, EU Commissioner for External Relations and Lord Robertson, NATO Secretary General, Ashdown purposefully created an overlap between “his” agenda and Bosnia’s EU/NATO accession process. He announced that he would not impose any measures that were required for the EU or NATO integration. While he did impose decisions and laws in other areas, he insisted that key reforms had to be adopted by the several levels of government foreseen by the Dayton agreement. Given the previous resistance of nationalist parties to less demanding reforms, it was almost certain that local politicians would use numerous parliamentary and governmental vetoes and procedural roadblocks to block Ashdown’s agenda. A few factors contributed to his ability to overcome resistance.
The first was the aforementioned overlap between the Office of the High Representative (OHR) agenda and EU conditionality: his state-building objectives became conditions for EU membership. Ashdown’s approach differed from that of his predecessors insofar as it cleverly avoided the top-down approach. Instead of imposing measures, he used the Bonn Powers to establish reform commissions in which the reforms would be negotiated. He laid down the principles for the reforms, provided clear benchmarks for compliance, and set specific deadlines for domestic actors. His team closely monitored political negotiations, identifying obstructive parties, and alerting the European Commission and Member States when things were not progressing.
Importantly, Ashdown was the first High Representative to be “double-hatted”, serving not just as the High Representative, but also as the EU Special Representative. This “double identity” allowed him to influence and promote EU policy while relying on non-EU channels for political support. His ability to use the available leverage by pulling all the available multilateral resources in one direction helped him overcome domestic political roadblocks. The reforms promoted under the EU agenda were indirectly supported through the threat of sanctions targeting political leaders enmeshed in a corrupt system of patronage existing between government officials and criminal networks. In the course of security sector reforms, a high number of politicians implicated in criminal activities were sanctioned and removed from their positions. During 2003 and 2004, Ashdown imposed numerous decisions blocking individual or party accounts, and ordered special audits of fraudulent public enterprises and banks suspected of financing war criminals. Jointly with the United States and the EU, he imposed visa bans for and froze the assets of large number of government officials implicated in crime and corruption.
This is precisely the aspect of Ashdown’s strategy for which he has been most heavily criticized. His detractors have nevertheless often failed to effectively recognize how difficult it was—and still remains—to mobilize the necessary political support to impact the behavior of local politician deeply tied to informal criminal networks. Getting the United States and the European Council to support reforms required skillful political lobbying, persuasion, focus and persistence. Many have tried to do this, but few have succeeded. Supporting local actors in adopting reforms while ensuring that the reforms do not produce violent reactions by politicians and their criminal networks is no easy task.
Furthermore, Ashdown well was aware of regional linkages, and that dealing with obstruction in Bosnia required exercising leverage over the leadership in Belgrade and Zagreb. Convincing the leadership in Belgarde, Zagreb, Banja Luka, Mostar and Sarajevo that he would be able to secure political and military backing to implement his measures in case of defiance required a tactician’s sense and skills of persuasion that not many officials possess.
And while Ashdown’s approach had its shortcomings on balance, the outcomes were more positive than negative. For the first time since the end of the war, politicians voted to adopt significant reform legislation, making a 180-degree turn away from their previous commitment to obstruction. The tone of politics changed as well, with fewer and fewer politicians deigning to outright deny the legitimacy of the Bosnian central state. Public appeals to secessionism were no longer accepted in the mainstream. Several leaders also acknowledged the occurrence of war crimes associated with their political and military networks, such as the Srebrenica genocide.