WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fourteen years ago, at the height of the Balkan wars, many feared that all of Southeastern Europe could be engulfed in sectarian violence. Thankfully, bold diplomacy in Dayton, Ohio, and NATO airstrikes over Sarajevo brought an end to genocide.

The worst predictions of the 1990s didn’t come true. Unfortunately, neither did the vision of a prosperous Bosnia at peace with itself.

That job remains unfinished. As American, European and Bosnian officials discuss Bosnia’s present political problems and future integration into Europe, the transatlantic community must once again act boldly to help the country overcome its grisly past.

Since the Dayton Accords ended the war, the international community has spent more than $17 billion in aid. And yet the country’s ethnic Croat, Serb and Bosniak politicians squabble in stalemate as their people suffer endemic corruption. Unemployment hovers around 40 percent. The acrimony and lack of progress carry with them a haunting sense that, for all its progress, Bosnia is not quite out of the woods.

The way forward is clear. Bosnia must be better integrated with its European neighbors. Bosnia’s integration into the European Union and NATO promises to enhance security, reduce unemployment, eliminate travel barriers and deepen cooperation in the Western Balkans.

I support Bosnia’s accession to the European Union, but unfortunately that process has made little headway. NATO membership has a proven record of promoting political progress across Eastern and Central Europe, and it could do the same for Bosnia-Herzegovina, too.

Several months ago I introduced the “Western Balkans Support Act of 2009” in the Senate. It called on the allies to leverage the prospect of eventual NATO membership for Bosnia. Along with EU membership, this can help bring about much-needed political and institutional reforms required to meet conditions for membership.

American, EU and Bosnian officials recently met at Camp Butmir to seek just such an agreement. While details of the proposal remain unclear, the statements of Western diplomats suggest that a grand bargain may be in the works to remove existing international oversight mechanisms to offer Bosnia greater sovereignty in exchange for an agreement between its factions to end Bosnia’s political deadlock and agree on vitally-needed reforms.

In some ways, Bosnia’s political present is a prisoner of a past agreement that must be modified. The Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war organized Bosnia as a loose federation accountable to two predominately Bosniak and Serb entities, each of which can effectively veto federal legislation. An international representative acts as a referee.

This system has kept the peace, but it depends on outside intervention for stability, and its entity-based voting system can discourage cross-ethnic compromise and drive the country’s politics to the extreme. Today, some ethnically Bosniak leaders call for abolishing the Bosnian Serb entity, and Serb leaders threaten to secede.

The international community’s final presence in Bosnia’s government, the Office of the High Representative, is scheduled to be abolished in November, pending completion of a series of agreed reforms. At this inflection point for Bosnia, steps toward NATO and EU membership are not only excellent opportunities for Europe and America to continue to provide badly needed international guidance—they are sweeteners to encourage domestic cooperation and help keep the peace.

Already, NATO-led defense reforms have shown results, helping Bosnia to create an integrated military that is a model for building effective state institutions and a credible partner for the alliance.

We made the military investment in Bosnia’s success, we have made the financial investment in her reconstruction, now is the time for a final investment of diplomacy to prevent a potentially destabilizing crisis in the future.

America and Europe can work together to restore our historic role as credible, impartial and committed mediators. We can encourage constitutional discussions among Bosnia’s leaders on the future of the state and hold them accountable for any irresponsible or illegal acts. But ultimately, the buck will stop with Bosnia’s leaders. They are the ones who must commit to a compromise that can propel Bosnia into a peaceful European future.

The entire Western Balkans will be made more stable by helping Bosnia reach its goal of NATO membership. Serbia is an important part of that process despite its tumultuous history with the alliance. As Vice President Joe Biden correctly stated during his visit to Belgrade, the inclusion of ethnic Serbs from Bosnia in NATO will help assuage Serbia’s leftover suspicion of NATO, promoting Serbia’s own Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

In the 1990s NATO demonstrated through its military commitments that the security of the Western Balkans is essential to the security of Europe. Now it can build a lasting peace through diplomacy. Just as it did with France and Germany decades ago, the NATO alliance can once again cement peaceful relations by turning onetime adversaries into NATO allies.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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