Worlds Apart Review

Former US Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt writes hauntingly of the “grand intentions and missed opportunities” that prevented us from protecting Bosnians.

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman / March 13, 2012

(This review originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.)

The city is surrounded. Shelling rains down on the population. Sniper fire, bombs, mortars erupt from all directions. There are no safe havens for civilians; dozens are killed each day. The international community meets, protests, debates what should be done. Powerful players like Russia obstruct action. Sanctions are tightened, but it is citizens who suffer most. Outside nations are willing to offer humanitarian aid, but are conflicted about arming the opposition. The UN organizes peacekeeping forces, but the mandate and rules of engagement are unclear. The siege and the deaths continue … for years.

This description could be from today’s headlines in Syria, but instead it is the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia 20 years ago. The paralysis of the international community to intervene and prevent the killings of citizens is still haunting.

In Worlds Apart, former Austrian Ambassador Swanee Hunt chronicles her years (1993-1997) on the inside and the outside of the corridors of war in Bosnia. As the US Ambassador located in Vienna, she sat at embassy dinners, met with European and US government officials, engaged in countless discussions of what should be done. She also used her position, both geographic and political, to visit with the citizens of Bosnia dozens of times in the country and to bring citizens outside the country to meet with each other.

“Worlds Apart” – part memoir, part foreign policy text – is narrated in an informal, first person voice, with 80 vignettes that present the story from the inside point of view of citizens, humanitarian aid workers, human rights workers, and journalists and from the outside view of policymakers, diplomats, military leaders, and international politicians, most of whom had limited interaction with the citizens living through the ordeal.

“This is a book about Bosnia – and beyond. Its lessons reach to Egypt, Iraq, Korea, Congo … any place we as an ‘international community’ try to stabilize a chaotic world,” Ambassador Hunt writes in the Prologue. “It is a story of grand intentions and missed opportunities, heroes and clowns, and a well-meaning foreign policy establishment deaf to the voices of everyday people.”

Hunt draws multiple lessons throughout the book, but the overall lesson is that solutions must include both inside and outside actors. Central to the inside group are women who often are willing to set aside the most wrenching experiences in order to restore life for their families and communities. Yet few women are invited to the peace tables, and few are consulted in the processes of peace.

In April 1996, Hunt offered President Bill Clinton two pieces of advice: “We must come up with a more solid approach to the war criminals living within a few miles of the troops…. We need a strongly targeted effort now to strengthen the role of women in Bosnia.”

Among the compelling stories in the book is the author’s harrowing journey from Sarajevo to Lyons, France, where she briefed President Clinton before he addressed the international press at the G-7 meeting. In that rushed encounter, she focused on the Bosnian Women’s Initiative. “These women are working together – across political fault lines,” she told him. “They’re the best story you’ve got.”

“Worlds Apart” is a moving political and personal story, unique in its telling and in its voice. It is rich with narrative details and also with analysis that makes it a valuable text in the literature of the Balkan War. There are many perspectives on that war, and there are those who may take issue with some of Hunt’s criticisms, but she also criticizes herself.

At one point, she visits with theorist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a mentor and a Nazi Holocaust survivor. She asks if she should resign in protest over the inaction. He answers, “Madame Ambassador, sometimes the right thing to do is only 55 percent right and is 45 percent wrong. It’s hard enough for an individual to act in those situations. For a giant like the US government, it’s paralyzing.”

“Worlds Apart” reminds the reader how difficult and yet imperative is individual and collective action in the face of moral collapse. The most effective action links head and heart – “policies determined in logic-driven consultations and the pathos bred in brutalizing situations…. Only then will we have the intellectual and emotional wherewithal to bring together the two worlds apart, making them one, more just and secure.”

It took over a decade for Swanee Hunt to distill and to write the experiences from Bosnia. That history and its lessons remain eerily relevant today.