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ALMOST 13 years after the United States forced peace upon the war-torn Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, this once-failed state has taken its first official step towards becoming a modern European nation.
The Bosnian story restores integrity to the West's global democratic mission that now faces a dual challenge, first because of the violence it unleashed in Iraq and second from the argument promoted by Russia and China that autocratic systems deliver more to the developing world than democracy does.
Bosnia's signing what's known as a Stability and Association Agreement with the European Union on June 16 may sound opaque, but it marks a watershed in the search for an elusive philosopher's stone that could show how to make a failed state become stable, peaceful and viable.
After the breakup of Yugoslavia, from 1992 to 1995, rival Serb, Croat and Muslim communities in Bosnia, one of the successor states, fought a civil war in which Iraq-style ethnic cleansing was routine.
While thousands died, Europe and the United Nations dithered in political paralysis until, in July 1995, Serb militia murdered some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the small east Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
It was the most brutal crime in Europe since the Second World War. The horror of the massacre, coupled with Europe's shameful lack of response, jolted America's moral compass into force. It had rescued Europe before. It was called upon to do so again.
The December 1995 Bosnia peace agreement was hammered out not in Europe, but in Dayton, Ohio, and the US initially oversaw the military and political structure that ensured peace. The US then left the dogged and detailed work of creating a viable country to Europe.
More than a decade later Bosnia's ethnic divisions remain reflected in its politics because the agreement was designed to stop war by taking into account each faction's interests.
The country is divided into two entities -- the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Within those are different districts or cantons, creating five presidents, four vice presidents, hundreds of politicians, with 14 governments and parliaments, each raising different levels of tax, running police forces and drafting conflicting sets of rules.
All of this, for a population of just over 4 million, might be a structure to keep peace, but is not one that creates a viable state.
Bosnia's next phase is to restructure governance so as to meet the stringent democratic and economic benchmarks needed to join the European Union, ranging from road-sign markings to policies on anti-corruption, tax collection and racial tolerance.
It's a process that needs gritty single-mindedness and a patient eye for detail. It is expected to take at least another 10 years, meaning that almost a quarter of a century could pass between the end of war and finding a permanent path to future prosperity.
To ensure it happens, the ultimate control in Bosnia remains with an internationally-appointed authority known as the Office of the High Representative, which holds enormous powers to fire ministers and order in troops.
And here lies an irony. During the civil war, Serbs, Croats and Muslims fought one another in order to protect what they had defined as their national and ethnic sovereignty.
Yet, all have now agreed to forfeit this sovereignty to an international power because they know that, without it, there would be serious risk of falling back into conflict. They also expect that, rather than ever becoming a fully independent sovereign state, Bosnia will move seamlessly from being under the control of the appointed High Representative to being accountable to the European Commission.
This balance between sovereign and international power is fundamental to base human instincts about security and the future and about creating a high-trust society instead of one that pits neighbour against neighbour, whatever the cost. In different forms and clearly defined, the framework could be used in Iraq, Zimbabwe and beyond.
Bosnia's present high representative, Slovakian diplomat Miroslav Lajčák, suggests that one key element to success is setting a beacon towards which the whole society can see its progression.
"You either progress forwards or you go backwards," he says. "In order for a country to develop and deal with the challenges, there must be a vision, and the only possible vision for Bosnia-Herzegovina is of European Union integration. If we didn't have this one, it would be very difficult, and the negative tendencies would be much more visible."
The idea of a beacon has proved itself time and time again in Europe. Most recently, Kosovo, that other Balkan flashpoint, has begun its European journey. And Serbia, the antagonist of Yugoslavia's violent fragmentation, held a knife-edge election in May in which it finally rejected a closer alliance with Russia in favour of EU membership.
Even nation states outside of Europe are queuing up to join: Morocco in North Africa, Georgia in Central Asia and Turkey, once the heart of the great Ottoman Empire, all want in, even though it means forfeiting ultimate sovereignty.
The EU might be the most advanced, but it's by no means the only regional grouping that acts as a beacon. From Mercosur in Latin America, to Asean in South East Asia, from Apec across the Pacific, there's an instinctive sense among nations that sovereign power is not an absolute and that more can be achieved within a community of states than as an individual.
In recent years substantive reform has taken hold in India, China, Vietnam, Armenia, Tonga and others, as they changed policies to meet criteria laid down by the World Trade Organization -- accepting a reality that good politics is based on good economics.
In west and central Africa, more than a dozen impoverished countries share a currency pegged to the Euro to ease trade. And the Association of South East Asian Nations, although not strong enough now to force change, will probably be the beacon that eventually guides Myanmar in from despair.
Diminished sovereign power and club membership are now the fashion rather than the exception. This helps deliver good governance and allows people to believe they have a genuine stake in their future.
It gives them a higher body in which to put their trust should suspicions of their own politicians emerge. It creates a goal to put people's livelihoods at the heart of the global economic supply chain so that tribalism and violence become too costly to contemplate.
It's no coincidence that the long, hard work that forged the Bosnian blueprint has been carried out by the same Western democracies who molded the international organisations that countries line up to join.
The Russian and Chinese autocracies might enjoy a brief flirtation with popularity, but those living in their protégé states such as Zimbabwe, Myanmar and North Korea lack inspiring beacons and are on the cusp of being failed states.
As the US moves towards a new administration, it could well hold up Bosnia as evidence of what US leadership can achieve, that over time the West's intervention has been marked not by failure but success.
In short, the Bosnian story serves to balance the damage done by Iraq to the integrity of the democratic vision.
Humphrey Hawksley, author of The History Book, is a BBC correspondent.
© Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement.