Warren Zimmermann was the last American Ambassador to Yugoslavia (from 1989 to 1992), and his memoir is of historical interest, but not for reasons the author intended. When Warren Zimmermann arrived in Belgrade in 1989, Yugoslavia was still a federation of six republics with a federal cabinet and government. Because of the changes brought about by the new constitution of 1974, the centers of power had shifted from the federal to the republican administrations. Thus the new ambassador presented his credentials not only to the federal president, but called upon the presidents of all the republics, the sole exception being Serbia. It took nearly a year—halfway through a normal diplomatic tour—before he could get an appointment to meet Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president.

This extraordinary delay could only be construed as a calculated insult. But why would the Serbian president want to antagonize the ambassador of the most powerful country on earth, a country that had through the years extended economic aid and worked continuously to maintain good relations with Yugoslavia? It is clear from his account that well before his arrival in Yugoslavia, Ambassador Zimmermann was deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians were in the majority and felt abused by the ruling Serbian government. After his arrival he expressed his concerns about the Albanians to a number of highly placed Yugoslavs who, of course, reported them to Milosevic. He in turn would certainly have resented what he considered American meddling in internal Yugoslav affairs. When the ambassador was invited to the commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, the battle in which medieval Serbia lost its independence and which had been a national day of mourning since, he had not yet been allowed to call on Milosevic. He therefore declined the invitation. He “made no effort to influence” the decisions of others, but actions speak louder than words, and, as a result, all the European ambassadors also declined. This rather puerile game of tit for tat, snub for snub, benefited no one. It was not the way a diplomat would like to begin a tour abroad.

Zimmermann tries to discredit the notion that ancient ethnic hatreds caused the civil war, arguing that Yugoslavia was formed originally as a voluntary association of south Slavs, with certain religious and linguistic differences that caused no particular strife. He is, of course, correct. He fails to mention, however, the massacres of Serbs and Croats and Muslims during World War II. The hatreds they aroused, though not ancient, were easily rekindled.

He identifies the decentralizing constitution of 1974 as a contributing factor in the country’s dissolution; it made the federal government virtually impotent and unable to govern. Unfortunately, he reflects on the point almost as an aside, as if to show he has read and agrees with Susan Woodward’s Balkan Tragedy. What he does state categorically, however, is that “the prime agent of Yugoslavia’s destruction was Slobodan Milosevic” with assistance from Franjo Tudjman. History is filled with imperfect players, and to put the blame for Yugoslavia’s demise on two individuals, though as a device it might work in a Shakespearean play, is naive. And while the collapse of a country can be laid to the faults of its inhabitants, we read (one would hope) the ambassador’s book not to marvel at the failings of the south Slavs but to learn something about American foreign policy: how the United States behaves under certain circumstances, and how it should behave.

Our policy in those days assumed that, for the benefit of its inhabitants, and for the peace and security of Europe, Yugoslavia should remain one country. Most Yugoslavs agreed. The author, for one, was convinced that unity and democracy had to go together, but he feared that unity meant coercive Serbian hegemony, with a loss of democracy in other republics. Encouraging democracy in Slovenia and Croatia, he felt, would mean the breakup of the country, and possible war. Our policy, then, became one of hoping for the best while watching from the sidelines. Most disturbing was America’s lack of vision during these critical years: our inability to see beyond the present, and our passivity in the face of dangerous developments.

One could say that, given the rising tensions within Yugoslavia, dissolution was inevitable. One could also say that, given the economic limitations of such small entities as the six republics, which are bound to provoke popular discontent, some sort of union is inevitable. As Zimmermann predicted, civil war followed the declarations of independence.

With the commencement of hostilities the ambassador’s position was completely reversed. When the Yugoslav National Army began shelling Croatian cities, he called for armed intervention. This was in sharp contrast to his belief while still in Washington that with the ending of the Cold War Yugoslavia’s importance had diminished, that the United States would not fight to preserve Yugoslav unity. He was also, of course, among the first to call for armed intervention in Bosnia.

These paradoxes of policy (the unity of Yugoslavia is not worth fighting for, the unity of Croatia is; it is legitimate for Bosnia to secede from Yugoslavia, but not for Serbian areas to secede from Bosnia) go unexplained, even unnoticed, and in the book much goes unexplained. Actions proceed from unarticulated assumptions. There is an underlying naiveté about the account that is highly unsettling.

The demise of Yugoslavia was a low point in international diplomacy, both European and American. It is difficult, and possibly unfair, to say that we could have done better; but it is even more difficult to say we could have done worse,


[Origins of a Catastrophe, by Warren Zimmermann (New York: Times Books) 257 pp., $25.00]