One weighty objection to Nato's recent war in former Yugoslavia, and the subsequent establishment of an imperial protectorate over Kosovo (as earlier over Bosnia), is that these events involve the concerned citizens of democratic countries in much intrinsically unrewarding study. The homework that the white man was supposed to do is an often-forgotten aspect of the white man's burden, the constant boning-up on obscure countries where tribal loyalties were entrenched, where frontiers were ill defined and constitutions (in the later years) were both complex and frequent. For more than a century the entire British elite of politicians, civil servants, lawyers, journalists, traders and clergymen was absorbed in the affairs of the countries they had never been to and had no plans to visit but about which they were expected to take an informed interest.
Imperial homework today is more problematic, since the current revival of colonial enthusiasm has come at a moment when British newspaper editors have given up bothering much about the outside world. So books now come into their own not just as the purveyors of historical fact but as an essential ingredient in the weighing-up of the state of the argument: what has it all really been about?
Tito's Yugoslavia was never a country about which we knew nothing. From Rebecca West on, the dissident republic that manoeuvred so adeptly between east and west was visited and written about more frequently in the cold war years than anywhere else in the old eastern bloc. Anyone over 60 probably knows as much about Yugoslavia as they thought they would ever need to.
Yet during the dramas of the past decade an entirely new library has been thrust on us. Academics with a perverse interest in a cobwebbed corner have suddenly become household names. Journalists capable of donning a flak jacket have rushed to put their despatches between hard covers. Soldiers, politicians and diplomats who have lost a battle on the ground make strenuous efforts to win the historical war. For anyone who wishes to make criticisms of this latest colonial folly, a huge amount of reading is still required. "No investigation, no right to speak," as Chairman Mao used to put it.
The most illuminating of the latest additions to the burgeoning Balkan library is the short memoir by Phillip Corwin, who spent much of 1995 in Sarajevo as an American UN official. He describes what it was like to be there with brutal honesty and attacks all the participants with a sharp pen. "The leaders of all the factions in Bosnia," he writes, "were merely gangsters wearing coats and ties. The world community knew it, but seldom admitted it publicly." As the corruption at the heart of the wretched Bosnian state is now revealed for all to see, it is refreshing to be reminded that some people read the writing on the wall at the time.
Corwin is also an unrelenting critic of the international press and the partial, oversimplified nature of most of the reporting. "By taking the side of the Bosnian government," he writes, "they actually undermined the peace process," interpreting events in the light of the impact on the government rather than on the chances for a durable peace.
Viktor Meier, the correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and a Balkan veteran of many decades, is not one of the journalists in Corwin's sights. His ponderous book plods through the minutiae of Yugoslav politics in the years since the death of Tito, and specialists will relish the detail. The general reader will appreciate a different perspective from that of Anglo-Saxon journalists and academics. Meier is particularly well informed about the bizarre diplomatic quadrille that preceded the recognition of Slovenia in December 1991, from which none of the participants emerge with credit. Meier describes how he had "never before encountered such a colossal jumble of political error, lazy thinking and superficiality" as he found among "the western circle of diplomats in Belgrade" in the last months of old Yugoslavia's existence. He concentrates on the feebleness of the internal opposition to Slobodan Milosevic. "The problem is not Milosevic at all," he concludes, but "the political dispositions among people in Serbia itself. For a long time, western policy-makers, both European and American, tried to close their eyes to this fact." As they still do.
Julie Mertus's study is a product of the new generation of "human rights scholarship" that blames the current disaster in the Balkans less on Milosevic than on the failure of the "international community" to respond to the "non-violent quest for freedom" by the Kosovar Albanians. The "research" for her book, which is designed as a primer for members of non-governmental organisations, consisted of asking people what they remembered of the school demonstrations in Pristina in 1981 and a strange event in the spring of 1990 when large numbers of Albanian schoolchildren in Kosovo fell mysteriously ill. Her interesting but essentially unproven argument is that recent controversies, rather than age-old hatreds, lie at the heart of today's troubles.
There are some useful nuggets in these volumes that are worth excavating, yet none of them will cause anyone to change their mind. War itself serves to solidify opinion and creates a barrier against understanding. Those who have been influenced by Schindler's List will continue to cry genocide whenever a village burns down. Those who have supported the radical 19th-century policy of "non-intervention", the legacy of Cobden and Bright, will continue to do so.
This year's war over Kosovo came at the end of a long, and almost unparalleled, history of diplomatic failure. Nearly everyone was aware in the late 1980s that the break-up of Yugoslavia would spell deep trouble, creating unpleasant xenophobic statelets that would be no improvement on the monolith that Tito had bequeathed to the world. Western diplomats, who had spent 40 years supporting the integrity of the Yugoslav state against a possible threat from the Soviet Union, continued seamlessly to advocate the same line when the threat appeared from within. And who could blame them? The interests of post-cold-war stability clearly demanded that the Balkans should remain under the control of a single state. Tory politicians in Britain strove mightily to achieve this aim and they were not wrong to try.
Two things happened to undermine the thrust of western diplomacy. The Germans, freshly united, broke ranks, making their first significant intervention on the global stage since the second world war. Defending what they perceived as their national interest, they promoted the recognition of the secessionist state of Slovenia, an event that led to the inevitable breakaway of the other statelets. Yet, as Meier points out, there is no point in blaming the Germans. They merely filled a policy vacuum. The break-up would have happened anyway.
At the same time, the separate peoples of Yugoslavia, brain-washed by decades of Titoist propaganda in favour of the United Nations, came to believe that if they declared their provinces independent, a notional entity called "the international community" would recognise their demands and come to their assistance, if necessary with soldiers. This was always a dangerous belief, and perhaps it would have been better if western politicians had curtly slapped down their requests for assistance, instead of paying lip-service to a rhetoric they did not believe in. Far better if the world had not been blackmailed into supporting the Bosnian cause or, later, the cause of the Kosovar Albanians.
As a direct result of western diplomatic failure, the wretched Balkan states have staggered from one catastrophe to another for most of the past eight years. The powerless foreign ministries of the west have been endlessly confounded, both by the deep divisions occurring in a notionally united Nato alliance and by the persisting presence of an ignorant public opinion, inflamed by irresponsible journalism, calling for the overblown rhetoric of internationalism to be taken at face value. Not a single politician in power had the courage to admit that the outside world had no capacity to intervene in the Balkans to improve matters.
Over time we shall come to see the 1990s as the first post-cold-war decade, a period in which the mentalities and machinery of the earlier era revealed their incapacity to adapt to a new situation. Eventually, we must hope, new figures will emerge to enunciate a fresh set of realities. In Britain such people are more likely to come from the Tory party than from Labour, since the present government has invested so much of its efforts to turn the defence secretary into Nato's chief panjandrum.
One new reality we will all need to recognise soon is that we no longer live in an undivided west; the alliance that once united to face "the Soviet threat" is no more. Each country will have to measure its own national interests and cut its coat according to its cloth. Another reality is that individual countries, particularly those that have arrived as newcomers on the world scene, can no longer expect outsiders to rush automatically to their rescue. They, too, will have to measure their aspirations against their capacity to defend what it is they want.
All these new books emphasise the disastrous nature of the diplomacy that failed to keep the peace in the Balkans. In the old colonial era, the British government used to print "blue books" that gave details of the diplomatic exchanges that led up to imperial triumphs and tragedies, helping in the process to keep public opinion informed and educated. The Conservatives, to their credit (since a blue book on the Balkans in the 1990s would include the diplomacy of Douglas Hurd as well as of Robin Cook), have been campaigning for just such openness in the conduct of foreign affairs. An accurate and documented account of governmental manoeuvres over the Balkans during the 1990s would be more rewarding than a shelf-full of personal memoirs.