James Pardew helped negotiate peace agreements in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia and served from 2002-05 as the American ambassador to Bulgaria. Before beginning his career in diplomacy, Pardew spent 28 years in the military, carrying out tours of duty in Vietnam, Turkey, Japan, Germany and Somalia. Pardew spoke to the Collegian before his address Tuesday night in the Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater on “War and Diplomacy in the Balkans, 1995-2008.”
In 2000, five years after the signing of the Dayton Accords — which ended the Bosnian conflict — you called the agreement “only a partial success,” due partly to the country’s legacies of nationalism and communism. How would you assess the situation now, 15 years later? Do you think Bosnia still faces significant obstacles to democratization?
The Dayton Agreement at its heart was a peace agreement. It stopped the killing and it stopped the creation of new refugees and displaced people. It was not perfect in the institutions of government and the ethnic relationships — that is, it created a weak central government and gave a lot of authority to the two authorities, similar to our states. One was the Republika Srpska, in the hands of Serbs, and the other was a federation of Muslims and Croats, and those two entities have somewhat perpetuated the ethnic tension that exists there. But the biggest problem in Bosnia, and I think in the Balkans in general, is the lack of economic development. I think they’re struggling with the transition from communism. That transition was stopped by these wars and conflicts for a decade, and they’re still trying to recover from that and at the same time create high standards of justice and democracy and freedom of the press and rule of law, and they’ve got a long way to go. With poverty or with low economic development comes corruption; with corruption comes organized crime. So they still have many, many problems, but they are at peace.
Are there any moments that stick in your mind from your tenure as ambassador to Bulgaria?
Well, when I was there, they became members of NATO, so I was very proud to help them meet all the standards for NATO membership. They also got in the European Union and that was another major milestone for them. But I really enjoyed the culture of the region. If you look at history, there’s no region anywhere that had more experience with ebb and flow of great powers important to Western civilization than the Balkans. Ancient Greece, Macedonia — Philip and Alexander — ancient Rome, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire — all of them had come and gone over this region over the centuries, and they’ve all left bits and pieces of their culture there. And for someone who likes history and culture it’s very fascinating to live there and experience all that, and I like the people. I like the Bulgarians.
How did you communicate with them? Did most people speak English, or did you have a translator by your side at all times?
First of all the State Department graciously sent my wife and I to Bulgarian language school for six weeks. One thing I learned is Bulgarian’s a hard language, and two, you don’t learn that much in six weeks. A large number of them spoke English, but they came out of close association with Russia, so almost all of them spoke Russian as well as Bulgarian. Then — because Europeans generally are more language-oriented than Americans — they rushed to start to learn English, and English courses are everywhere in Bulgaria today. But yes, I had a very, very capable translator and I would never think of having a serious policy discussion without a translator you can trust.
What’s one thing you hope tonight’s audience will take away from your talk?
I think we did a lot of things right in the Balkans. I think the people in the United States, hopefully they’re pleased with the way their representatives represented them in ending the pain and suffering of these terrible wars. It was a humanitarian mission. It was done in close coordination with our strongest allies. It was creative in that it changed decades of Cold War practices into new procedures and ways of looking at the world and it brought Russia into close cooperation with the United States. It was multilateral. It used force but it used force judiciously, and so I’m a believer in careful use of American military power, aggressive diplomacy, and I think we have a humanitarian responsibility that we carried out very well in the Balkans in this period. It wasn’t perfect, but it was successful.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.