Bosnia to war, to Dayton, and to its slow peace

  • The international community was unprepared for the conflicts that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In particular, it neglected Bosnia.  
  • Europe was not enough to bring peace, the US was slow but eventually decisive, and Russia was a constructive actor.  
  • The war in Bosnia lasted years longer than it should have more because of the divisions between outside powers than those within the country and the region itself. 
  • The fundamentals of the Dayton Agreement in 1995 were similar to what had been discussed, but not pursued, prior to the outbreak of the war. 
  • After the war, many political leaders in Bosnia saw peace as the continuation of the war by other means, which has seriously hampered economic and social progress. 
  • Ultimately, it will be difficult to sustain progress for Bosnia or the region without a credible and clear EU accession process. 

Peace agreements are rare. Most conflicts end either with the victory of one of the sides or some sort of ceasefire that is rarely followed by a true peace agreement. But, 25 years ago, the most painful conflict on European soil since the second world war came to an end via a peace agreement.  

The Dayton Peace Accords are fairly unique in recent European history. Today, we see how easily frozen conflicts such as the one in Nagorno-Karabakh can ‘thaw’ but, even in their frozen stage, they continue to create major problems. 

So, what can we learn from the Dayton agreement 25 years on? In this latest report, Bosnia to war, to Dayton, and to its slow peace, Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden, looks back on the painful road from the outbreak of the war in Bosnia (Yugoslavia), through the years of conflict, to the agreement, the different phases of international efforts at peace implementation, and the future of Bosnia’s integration in the European Union.  

Carl Bildt, co-chair of ECFR, states: 

“A quarter of a century after Dayton, the peace is secure, but Bosnia’s reforms have been far too slow, and its politics remains too divided. The country hasn’t yet come out of the shadows of either the war or the system that preceded it.” 

Looking ahead, it is difficult to sustain progress for Bosnia or the region without a credible and clear EU accession process. It is only within the context of such a process that the still-existing issues between the different states can be sorted out, and it is only within the framework of this process that the reforms necessary to promote economic growth, the rule of law, and stability can be taken forward.  

Carl Bildt adds:  

“There is an obvious risk that the pull of Brussels that is so important to the region, and to Bosnia in particular, will weaken as the accession process is prolonged. The new approach to these negotiations, begun in 2020 after primarily French objections that the process was too speedy, risks making this problem even more acute.” 

A more forward-looking EU approach to reintegration and enlargement could also have helped Bosnia make progress. But, for a long time, EU enlargement procedures manifested in a country-specific rather than region-focused effort. And this undoubtedly delayed the economic reintegration and political reconciliation that could have helped Bosnia. 

Carl Bildt contests: 

“For too many Bosnians, peace was a continuation of the war. No significant political leader stepped forward and tried to bridge the divides – all played primarily on their own nationalities. The phase of imposed international decisions brought some progress but, at the same time, reinforced this destructive trend in the politics of the country. Essentially, only the various Bosnian actors can make the compromises necessary to take the country forward. And, far too often, they failed to do so.” 

But the region – and not least Bosnia – is and will remain an important part of our Europe. When the wounds of war and dissolution finally heal, and integration is seen as natural by all, there is no doubt that the country has substantial potential to make its contribution to our common future. 

About the author:

Carl Bildt is the co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He served as both prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden. Under his leadership, the government initiated major liberal economic reforms and negotiated Sweden’s accession to the EU. A renowned international diplomat, he also served as EU special envoy to the Former Yugoslavia, high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, UN special envoy to the Balkans, and co-Chair of the Dayton Peace Conference. Bildt also has a well-established profile in technology circles. He is chair of the Global Commission on Internet Governance, a former adviser to ICANN, and a high-profile proponent of a global digital marketplace. Bildt graduated from Stockholm University. 

Media enquiries:

The author is available for comment and interview. For all requests, please contact ECFR’s communications director, Ana Ramic (; or ECFR’s communications team (   

Über European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is a pan-European think-tank that aims to conduct cutting-edge independent research in pursuit of a coherent, effective, and values-based European foreign policy. With a network of offices in seven European capitals, over 60 staff from more than 25 different countries and a team of associated researchers in the EU 27 member states, ECFR is uniquely placed to provide pan-European perspectives on the biggest strategic challenges and choices confronting Europeans today. ECFR is an independent charity and funded from a variety of sources. For more details, please visit:   

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This report, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its author.

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