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Map depicting post-Dayton political alignment of the Balkans.

The Secret History of Dayton
U.S. Diplomacy and the Bosnia Peace Process 1995

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 171

By Derek Chollet and Bennett Freeman

Posted - November 21, 2005

The Road to the Dayton Accords: A Study of American Statecraft
by Derek Chollet


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by Derek Chollet
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by Roger Cohen
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November 20, 2005


Washington, D.C., November 21, 2005 - Every work of history is not just a statement about the past, but a reflection of the era -- if not the precise year -- during which it was written. This is certainly the case with the now-declassified 1997 U.S. State Department study of the American effort to end the Bosnian war, the original version of which is now available.

On November 21, 1995, the world witnessed an event that for years many believed impossible: on a secluded, wind-swept U.S. Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia agreed to end a war. The signing of the Dayton Peace Accords concluded one of the most challenging diplomatic undertakings the United States had pursued since the end of the Cold War -- eighteen weeks of whirlwind shuttle diplomacy, followed by twenty-one intensive days of negotiations in Dayton. The agreement brought peace to a troubled corner of Europe, and established an ambitious blueprint to build a new Bosnia -- an effort that the international community remains deeply engaged in today.

Dayton also capped a dramatic reversal not only of U.S. policy, but of the credibility of American leadership of the Atlantic Alliance in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. For three years, the American approach toward the Bosnia problem had been one of disengagement, hoping that the Europeans -- who had high hopes for their fledgling political union -- would take the lead to solve the problem. Yet Europe's response proved feckless, and the United States proved no better. More than any other foreign policy issue, the problem of Bosnia's defined -- and plagued -- the early years of Bill Clinton's presidency. Despite some significant successes during his first term -- such as the Middle East peace process, the 1994 Framework Agreement with North Korea, the passage of NAFTA -- Clinton's early years were in many ways defined by the inability to bring peace to Bosnia.

Dayton's core accomplishment is that it ended a war and gave hope to millions who have suffered immense hardship. But it did more than that. Dayton brought to an end one of the most difficult periods in the history of U.S.-European relations, helping to define a new role for NATO and restore confidence in American leadership after a period during which it been cast into doubt.

This achievement mattered for America's global standing; it mattered for President Bill Clinton's Administration and the President's leadership. John Harris, a leading historian of the Clinton presidency and author of the recent book The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, explains that Clinton "emerged from the fall of 1995 as a vastly more self-confident and commanding leader." In less than six months during 1995, he had taken charge of the Transatlantic Alliance, pushed NATO to use overwhelming military force, risked America's prestige on a bold diplomatic gamble, and placed 20,000 American military men and women on the ground in a dangerous environment. That the President and his Administration ran such risks successfully gave them confidence going forward. Richard Holbrooke, Dayton's architect, recalls that after Dayton, "American foreign policy seemed more assertive, more muscular… Washington was now praised for its firm leadership -- or even chided by some Europeans for too much leadership."

It was in this context that in early 1996 the U.S. State Department launched a unique historical effort to capture the record of this achievement. In conversations with Thomas Donilon (then Secretary of State Warren Christopher's Chief of Staff and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs) and William J. Burns (then the Executive Secretary of the Department), Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Bennett Freeman began to put together the initiative. In his capacity overseeing the State Department's Office of the Historian as well as serving as Chief Speechwriter for Secretary Christopher, Freeman worked with that office and the Bureau of European Affairs to assemble a team to begin collecting documents and conduct interviews with all the key American participants in the Dayton process. The interviews were no less important than the documents themselves, in order to capture the fresh recollections of those participants in an unusual almost "real-time" historical exercise. They worked with the full cooperation and authority of the Secretary of State. After the initial research effort was underway and an archive of these materials had been created, Freeman then asked Derek Chollet to draft the study based on this research, which he completed in the spring of 1997.

There were two core goals of the creation of this archive and the writing of the study: first, to collect the documents and create an oral history of this fast-moving negotiating process for the benefit of future historians and to supplement the State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States series; and second, to use the study to outline the bureaucratic and diplomatic mechanics of this complex negotiation, so that the lessons of the "Dayton model" could be studied and applied by future diplomats and policymakers as they worked to tackle similar problems (a fuller explanation can be found in the foreword to the original study). It has also proved invaluable to the many American diplomats who have been responsible for implementing the Dayton Accords or shaping U.S. policy toward Balkans generally.

Declassified in 2003, the original study is now available to scholars. And it is our hope that in the near future, as many of the documents on which much of this study is based -- which are contained and organized in the special archive -- are released as possible. Their release will prove valuable to other scholars of this period as well as those interested in the making of American foreign policy -- especially when it concerns the process behind difficult diplomatic negotiations.

It is important to point out that at the time this historical initiative began, no one knew whether the Dayton peace plan would succeed. Twenty-thousand American troops were on the ground in Bosnia as part of a 60,000-strong NATO force. At the time, American diplomats were hopeful -- and proud that they had achieved a diplomatic success -- but few dared imagine that their efforts would prove to be as successful as they have been ten years later. Despite the fears by many that implementing Dayton would be a quagmire, not a single American soldier has been killed by hostile fire. And while Bosnia still has a way to go to fulfill Dayton's vision of a single, multi-ethic, tolerant state with a functional government, the war is over.

The Road to Dayton
U.S. Diplomacy and the Bosnia Peace Process, May-December 1995
U.S. Department of State, Dayton History Project, May 1997

Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Cover page, Foreward, Table of Contents, Acknowledgements and Maps

Chapter 1 - The Summer Crisis: June-July 1995

Chapter 2 - Through the Window of Opportunity: The Endgame Strategy

Chapter 3 - Tragedy as Turning Point: The First Shuttle, Mt. Igman, and Operation Deliberate Force

Chapter 4 - The Road to Geneva: The Patriarch Letter and NATO Bombing

Chapter 5 - Force and Diplomacy: NATO Bombing Ends, The Western Offensive Heats Up

Chapter 6 - The New York Agreement, Negotiating a Cease-fire, and Approaching a Settlement

Chapter 7 - Preparing for Proximity Talks

Chapter 8 - Opening Talks and Clearing Away the Underbrush: Dayton, November 1-10

Chapter 9 - Endgame: Dayton, November 11-21

Epilogue - Implementation Begins

A Note on Sources


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