VOICES: Dayton and the Balkans

Christian Raffensperger
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Christian Raffensperger

There are few places I have visited in Europe where the locals know much about Ohio; Wittenberg is another matter, though I inevitably have to tell them “not that one.” Visiting Sarajevo, though, Dayton is a well-known name.

Twenty-six years on from the Dayton Accords which ended one phase of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, it is interesting to see how Dayton resonates in the Balkans today. This was a war that impacted few in the Dayton region, outside of those involved in the peace process or those at Wright-Patterson AFB who may have participated in the bombing campaigns. The Clinton administration’s goal was to avoid having too many “boots on the ground” and to largely conduct an aerial campaign to bring about a resolution of the conflict. Locally, the Dayton Peace Prize, and later Dayton Literary Peace Prize, has continued to work to expand knowledge of Dayton’s role in the peace process, but a whole generation later, most of the students I teach do not know much, if anything, about Dayton’s resonance in the world.

Locals in Sarajevo have plenty to say to any American, but the connection to Dayton seemed to spark a desire to share their experiences, thoughts, and feelings about the peace process, and especially the aftermath. Despite the fact that this settlement is known here in Ohio as making “Dayton synonymous with peace,” the predominant opinion from those whom I know in Sarajevo is frustration and impotence. The settlement created a divided Bosnia-Herzegovina; cutting the burgeoning country into segments based upon ethnic and religious affiliation. There were Orthodox Serbs, Bosniak Muslims, and Latin Christian Croats, who were each given their own elected positions, and, especially in the case of the Serbs, recognition of their own region (Republica Srpska) within Bosnia and Herzegovina. This fragmentation which was set into law in 1995 has only increased over time. As each of the groups has to only appeal to their own ethnic base for votes, there is little need to discuss compromise or conciliation, and thus the default has been to appeal to division to mobilize voters.

The question that people asked me as an American, and as a historian, is why? Why, when the United States government is run on the idea that everyone was created equal and that race, color, and creed should not matter in one’s rights; did the United States help to divide Bosnia based on ethnicity and religion?

Though I have since read multiple books on the subject and talked with experts, I still do not have an answer, although this is not the only time the U.S. has followed this policy, repeating it a decade later with the division of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurd segments. Despite not having an answer to this question, it is worth continuing to ask why, if we would like to foster democracy and civility in our own society in an electorate that is becoming larger and more diverse, do we encourage division and separation by race and creed in other countries? This month, as we look back on the Dayton Accord, it is worth revisiting the process and asking the question of how we shape the world in light of what we want for ourselves at home.

Christian Raffensperger is a professor and chair of history at Wittenberg University.

Peace Accord archive page
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Peace Accord archive page

DDN Peace Accord front page
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DDN Peace Accord front page

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