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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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The next Balkan wars

Europe is facing a new, potentially violent crisis as territorial and ethnic tensions reignite in the troubled south-east of the continent.

After some years of peace, the western Balkans are again descending into instability. Across the region, people are taking to the streets, demanding the resignation of governments. Thousands are fleeing abroad in search of jobs and opportunities. A violent strand of Wahhabism is taking hold among the region’s Muslim population. Perhaps most worryingly of all, the threat of disintegration is returning, as malcontent minorities try to divide their states.

Bosnia has long been the most dysfunctional state in the region, wasted by civil war in the 1990s and afflicted by ethnic divisions ever since. The Serbs and Croats have never abandoned their goal of separation. Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska (Bosnia’s Serbian “entity”), is being squeezed by political rivals at home and investigated by police in Sarajevo for alleged money laundering. To shore up his position, he has threatened a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska, scheduled for 2018.

Not far behind is Kosovo, an impoverished plateau in the Šar Mountains. It is unrecognised by half of the world, run by a corrupt elite and saddled with an embittered Serb minority. After years of resistance, Kosovo’s Serbs have recently extracted the right to territorial autonomy from the country’s notional EU supervisors. This has provoked a ferocious backlash from Albanian nationalists, who have attacked the parliament and held a series of violent street demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Macedonia is in chaos following the leaking of tapes that led to accusations that the former prime minister Nikola Gruevski had spied on the population and had been involved in corruption, electoral fraud and outright criminality. This has outraged the unhappy Albanian minority, which blames its leaders for upholding an illegitimate government instead of its community rights. In response, this group is demanding the federalisation of the state, auguring its potential disintegration. In the Balkans, it all eventually comes back to nationalism.

While local factors go some way to explaining the turmoil, however, they don’t tell us why the region as a whole is experiencing such instability, or why events are turning for the worse. The key to understanding the malaise is to recognise the Balkans’ position as a borderland between great powers. Throughout history, when one of these powers has wielded hegemony in the region, or a concert of powers has agreed a settled division, peace has generally prevailed. When no single power has been dominant or, worse, when powers have competed for control, chaos has invariably ensued. The Ottoman era marked the longest period of peace in modern times. But when the empire went into decline in the 19th century, nationalists across the Balkans seized the opportunity for independence – first the Greeks, then the Serbs and finally all the rest, helped by an opportunistic Russia, which sought to destabilise its Ottoman rival. 

Violence continued into the 20th century as the collapse of the European land empires untethered the region. The Balkan wars of the 1910s, in which emerging states such as Albania, Montenegro and Serbia fought to define their borders, were followed by two world wars, in which Austria, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union all invaded the territory.

The western Balkans were finally pacified in the postwar period. Bulgaria and Romania passed to Soviet control and the two superpowers agreed to maintain a unified Yugoslavia as a strategic buffer between their respective spheres of influence. Wedged between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, with no room for manoeuvre, and a strongman, Tito, to maintain order at home, the locals put their enmities to one side.

With the end of the Cold War, the superpowers largely lost interest in the Balkans and released their grip on Yugoslavia. Romania and Bulgaria, free of ethnic entanglements, managed to find their balance. But the western Balkans were set adrift and violence returned as Serbs and others took up arms to forge a new order on the wreckage of the old multinational communist state.

Stability was eventually restored when the United States, which emerged as the undisputed superpower in the 1990s, imposed a new imperial settlement on the region. In Croatia, Washington helped the local army to crush the breakaway Republic of Serbian Krajina. In Bosnia, the US bombed Serbian positions, decisively tipping the balance of power in favour of the central government that had endured three years of military losses. In doing so, Washington was interested in promoting not only peace but also justice. After the brutality of the Serbian military campaign, with its terrorising and expulsion of other ethnic groups, basic morality determined that the Serbs be denied their wartime goal of independence from the rest of Bosnia.  

The result was the Dayton Agreement of 1995, a delicate compromise in which Serbs (and Croats) agreed to remain part of a unified Bosnian state. In return, the Serbs were given a self-governing entity – Republika Srpska – on half of the territory of Bosnia, while Croats gained limited self-government within a new Muslim-Croat federation.

Having dictated the terms of Dayton, the US, in effect, became its guarantor, supported by its European allies. It established a huge civilian presence on the ground, intended to steer Bosnia towards a durable peace. The Office of the High Representative adjudicated in ethnic disputes, clamped down on nationalist rhetoric and focused the locals on questions of social and economic reform rather than borders and territory. If politicians refused to co-operate, they were removed from their positions or presented with criminal charges. Nato troops on the ground did the enforcing.

***

When conflict broke out in Kosovo between Albanian separatists and their rulers in Belgrade in 1999, the US similarly imposed itself on the territory, using overwhelming force to expel the Serbian army, before setting up a civilian mission, Unmik, to steer a unified country towards a sustainable peace, as it had done in Bosnia.

With stability in both of these countries still fragile, nationalist conflicts elsewhere in the western Balkans could not be allowed to jeopardise Washington’s unfinished efforts at multi-ethnic state-building. When Macedonia’s unhappy Albanian minority launched a short-lived insurgency in 2001, the US clamped down on it with a settlement that forced Albanians to abandon the goal of separation in return for limited self-government. Macedonia held.

A similar logic applied to other states in the region. Through the 2000s, the US extended its presence in Albania, slowed down the secession of Montenegro and, with the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, implanted itself in Serbia, where it demanded democratic reform and Western integration in place of a discredited nationalism.

In this respect, the late 1990s and early 2000s can be seen as marking a restoration of order in the western Balkans after the chaos of the immediate post-Yugoslav period. With Washington at the helm, buttressed by European manpower and money, nationalists and separatists were disempowered and multi-ethnicity became the watchword. Many locals were frustrated with the American-led settlement, whether they were minorities such as Bosnian Serbs and Macedonian Albanians, who had ended up living in someone else’s state, or Bosniaks and Macedonians, who opposed the territorial concessions granted to violent minorities.

Confronted with overwhelming American power and the absence of any other power to whom they could appeal, there was little that the peoples of the western Balkans could do to change things. Turkey was content, concerned above all with peace on its land route to the markets of Europe. And Russia, while sympathetic to the plight of the Serbs, had no wish to encourage separatism in places such as Chechnya by questioning the new order in the Balkans.

However, this attempt at order was not to last. Matters went into reverse in the second half of the 2000s when the US withdrew its forces from the region to concentrate on more pressing issues elsewhere in the world. Its parting shot was to engineer the independence of Kosovo in 2008. With the last piece in the Balkan jigsaw in place – at least as Washington saw it – the US left it to the EU to finish the job of transforming the region’s turbulent states into prosperous and stable polities.

In tactical terms, the EU adopted a different approach to the US, replacing the hard power of the American military with the soft power of inducement – not least because, without an army, the EU had no real stick to wield. What it offered instead was a compact known as “conditionality”. For its part, Brussels agreed to admit the western Balkans into the EU, with all the benefits that this entailed – money, trade, freedom to travel and the chance for the locals to be reunited with their ethnic kin in a borderless Europe. And, for their part, the locals were expected to meet the conditions for entry to the EU, as the central Europeans had done before them.

Almost from the start, however, things failed to go to plan because the locals wouldn’t knuckle down to reform. By definition, the states of the western Balkans were eastern Europe’s laggards, blighted by the legacies of war as well as nostalgia for Yugoslav-style socialism and the absence of any tradition of democracy, liberalism or free markets.

Sometimes, the EU pushed issues that were important in a Western context, such as prison reform or gender rights, but just not a priority for the locals, who were more concerned with establishing the territory of the state, or changing the state they lived in. At other times, the required reforms cut across the interests of the elites who were making fortunes running a rentier economy.

***

The most resistant state was Bosnia, where the conflict never truly ended and where each ethnic group used the integration process to advance its core political goal: centralisation in the case of Bosniaks, separation in the case of the Serbs. Brussels would push an area of policy – the environment, say – and recommend a new agency to oversee compliance. Bosniaks would insist on one agency (at the central level) and Serbs would insist on two (at entity level, including one for Republika Srpska). Invariably, this was where the process got stuck.

So while the policy of conditionality was intended as the mechanism for stabilising the region, its effect was the opposite. In the absence of reform, the region remained stuck in political limbo, beyond the EU’s outer frontier. The EU began to lose control with the onset of the eurozone crisis, which brought the teleological project of building a European superstate to a halt. As firefighting and crisis management became the norm, the EU ceased to enlarge. With so many problems to solve, the last thing Europe needed was to admit a collection of corrupt, impoverished and ethnically divided states, all with potential veto powers and a treaty obligation to adopt the euro.

Indeed, many of the EU’s problems seemed to emanate from the Balkans. Most obviously, there was Greece’s mismanagement of its economy, which posed a mortal threat to the survival of the euro­zone and, by extension, the EU. But as Europe descended into recession, the issue of migration from Bulgaria and Romania also became a crucial political topic – and remains so today, as migrants and refugees from the chaos in the Middle East use the Balkans as a conduit to Europe.

In this context, no one was surprised when, in 2009, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, publicly concluded that the EU needed to pause its policy of enlargement. All of this had an impact on the region, which interpreted it as Europe’s drawbridge closing. To all intents and purposes, the EU had reneged on its bargain with the western Balkans, which traded the prize of membership for good behaviour. All that remained was the prospect that one day, years in the future, after multiple reforms, the states of the region might join the EU, if it was in any position to enlarge and if it even still existed.

This changed the balance of risks and opportunities for those aspiring to join. Why continue with reform, especially when this implied serious economic pain? Was the EU even a desirable place to be? Greece’s example was hardly encouraging, nor that of Croatia, which squeezed its way into the EU in 2013 only to become the new sick man of Europe. Then the UK began to consider exit – hardly a vote of confidence.

Across the region, the reform process slowed even further. States such as Macedonia and Serbia shifted their focus towards the emerging economies of Turkey, Russia and China. Internal stability began to decline, aggravated by the recession that the EU exported to the region. Albania, Macedonia and others experienced mass demonstrations. Separatists began to renew their challenge to the American-imposed order, led by the Bosnian Serbs.

This is not to say there hasn’t been formal progress towards joining the EU. In the past couple of years, almost every country in the western Balkans has taken a step closer. Bosnia and Kosovo have been offered stabilisation and association agreements, the first step on the road to membership. Albania has been recognised as an official EU candidate. Serbia has opened membership negotiations. Montenegro, the most advanced country in the region, has closed several negotiating “chapters”. However, this bureaucratic progress does not necessarily reflect progress on the ground – in some cases, it signifies the opposite.

More precisely, the integration process has become a pretence that suits all sides. The EU can pretend the project of integration continues even as the eurozone and migration crises rage. And regional governments can pretend they are steering their countries towards a better future, for which they are richly rewarded by Brussels.

It is possible that a tiny country such as Montenegro will scrape into the EU on the back of this make-believe and Serbia will make some progress. But for other Balkan states, their journey towards Brussels will be more like that of Turkey, the eternal European aspirant. In reality, the western Balkans is once again losing its mooring.

***

 

The waning influence of the West has created an opening for new external powers, such as Russia, which has adopted a more active policy in the Balkans since the onset of the “new cold war”. Unquestionably, Russia is now a major influence on the region, especially in the Christian Orthodox countries of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece. But its most significant involvement is in Bosnia.

In the past couple of years, Russia has feted Republika Srpska’s President Dodik, shielded Bosnian Serbs from accusations of genocide, called for an end to international supervision and, if media reports are correct, encouraged Bosnian Serbs to press their demands for independence.

Russia is not overtly trying to overturn the regional order. Instead, its aim is to bolster its alliances, deter the expansion of Nato and defend its economic interests in the Balkans. But regional disorder could still be the outcome. If Russia is cornered by the West over Ukraine, Moscow could trigger a serious regional crisis that embroils the EU and Nato, simply by giving a green light to the Bosnian Serbs.

A domino effect would then take hold. The departure of the Republika Srpska would open up the question of Serbia’s borders and encourage Kosovo’s Serbs to separate themselves completely from their country’s Albanian population. This would provoke Serbia’s Albanian minority, who live in an enclave adjacent to Kosovo, to make a similar break from Belgrade. Macedonia’s Albanians would then try to separate from their Slavic compatriots, fuelling the creation of a “Greater Albania”. Bosnian Croats would seek to integrate their territory with Croatia. And many in Montenegro would seek close relations with an expanded Serbian state. The West would undoubtedly refuse to recognise any of this to prevent the onset of violence but the facts on the ground would speak for themselves.

Any new Balkan conflict would draw in a wider cast of players. Russia would not sit by and let others determine the outcome of events; too much is at stake. The plight of Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians would draw in foreign jihadists, as happened in the wars of the 1990s – only in much greater numbers, given the upsurge in Islamism in Europe and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, several EU states would struggle to avoid entanglement. Croatia, which has recently adopted a more nationalist posture, would inevitably intervene in Bosnia on behalf of the Croat population. Bulgaria and Greece would take a keen interest in the fate of rump Macedonia after the departure of the Albanians.

All this leads to a sobering conclusion. As the EU loses its dominance in the Balkans, so the region’s unresolved nationalisms are returning to the surface on a bed of popular discontent. The Balkans have the potential to blow their problems back into Europe, entangling the EU in a new, potentially violent regional crisis. This may not happen tomorrow but, as the EU’s influence wanes, the day of reckoning draws ever closer.

Ideally, the EU would avert this possibility by fixing its internal problems, reviving the goal of enlargement and stabilising the region by means of integration, as has long been the plan. Yet, as matters stand, that looks like wishful thinking.

Timothy Less is the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind